Category — Means of Exchange
Few companies succeed if they don’t take the time to understand their users. Fewer non-profit ventures succeed if they don’t either. After recently ‘moving on’ from FrontlineSMS and a ten year spell focusing exclusively on ICT4D, I’m beginning to realise that much of the wider technology-based social sector suffers from not-too-dissimilar problems. Few people, it seems, working on software-based solutions have much of an appreciation of the motives to engage, and the technical literacy, of their target audience. Whenever that’s the case, things tend not to turn out too well.
For the past few years I’ve been taking an increasing interest in economic resilience, particularly how technology could be applied to buffer local communities from global economic downturns. Ironically, since I started that research the world has entered a period of growing economic uncertainty. The causes – although fascinating – don’t so much interest me, more the response at local, grassroots level and the response from the social sector, particularly those turning to technology to provide some of the answers.
My Means of Exchange project particularly motivates me because it’s tasked with understanding what drives some local people (and not others) to resort to alternative methods of exchange, particularly during times of hardship, and explores how we might motivate the wider global community to adopt a healthier mix of exchange as a part of its daily lives – before things get bad. Money has become the dominate means of exchange in almost all of our lives, to the detriment of all the more creative, flexible methods that came before it.
In parallel with all of this is a growing interest in the sharing economy, and local and digital currencies which – if adopted widely enough – might just loosen the stranglehold of legal tender. And therein lies the problem. No matter how good the technology, solution or service, in almost all cases if it’s not adopted widely enough it’s unlikely to succeed. And one of the biggest problems many alternative exchange tools have is that they’re just not marketed or promoted well enough to reach anywhere near the tipping point they need. I talked a lot about the difficulties the local sustainability and alternative economy movements have in effectively communicating its message, and engaging their audience, in a recent ten minute talk at Pop!Tech.
Sadly, it’s an area that continues to be overlooked.
In case you’ve not been following the discussion, Bitcoins are an independently machine-generated digital currency (i.e. not owned or managed by any country or entity) which some people believe will revolutionise global trade. Right now, the majority of people active in the Bitcoin world are programmers, developers and geeks, which is where many of these kinds of things start. The problem right now is the language of the movement is far too technical, and this is a problem. Even going to Wikipedia to get an explanation of Bitcoins would leave most of the general public scratching their heads:
Bitcoin (code: BTC) is a cryptocurrency where the creation and transfer of bitcoins is based on an open source cryptographic protocol that is independent of any central authority. Bitcoins can be transferred through a computer or smartphone without an intermediate financial institution.The concept was introduced in a 2008 paper by pseudonymous developer Satoshi Nakamoto, who called it a peer-to-peer, electronic cash system
There is already widespread misunderstanding of how new money is created, and clearly with Bitcoins – however good-an-alternative they may be – we’re not much better off. If shop keepers and the general public are to embrace such an idea and, let’s face it, they’ll have to for it to succeed, clearly some serious PR work needs to be done. (For a simple run-down of what the fuss is all about with Bitcoins, Bloomberg have a helpful feature here).
There is definitely a need for alternative means of exchange (note: plural), as I mentioned in an interview with Quartz recently. My belief is that a growing number of people worldwide have grown tired of being burned by globalisation and just want to get back to functioning within sustainable local systems. They need alternatives to cash, but just don’t realise it yet.
Because of the way our globalised world works (great when it does, rubbish when it doesn’t), hard-working people, and communities, are being destroyed by financial meltdown in distant places. Globalisation has eroded our incentives, and ability, to play well together as local communities, meaning we’re now less resilient to shocks of all kinds than we used to be
Everyone engaged in the alternative economy and local sustainability movement have already passed the ‘recognition threshold’ – recognition that the current system is broken to the detriment of people and planet everywhere, and that we need alternatives. But these people – me included – are in the minority. We might see how broken the system is, but we should never assume that it’s so obvious that everyone else ought to, too.
While we build the tools and, yes – the Bitcoins of the future – we need to seriously work on how we communicate. Conference gatherings have already become echo chambers for much of the ICT4D community. Whatever it is that makes people nod enthusiastically within the walls of alternative economy and sustainability events needs to first be simplified, and then communicated outside in an exciting, engaging way.
As my work over the years has taught me, technology is almost always the easy part. Behaviour change – that’s a totally different beast altogether.
July 16, 2013 1 Comment
“Citizen movements are compelling reforms that were unimaginable only a short time ago. Solutions to today’s challenges involve a complex mix of actors that include governments, nonprofits, foundations, civil society and the business sector in major new ways” – Rockefeller Foundation
This year, the Rockefeller Foundation will be one hundred years old. As part of the celebrations, the Foundation recently launched the Next Century Innovators Awards which seeks to identify the top 100 innovations likely to solve some of the more pressing challenges of the next century. We’re excited to announce that Means of Exchange has made the list. You can read the project profile on the Rockefeller website here, or below.
What is the innovation and how does it address a pressing problem?
We live in a time of great economic uncertainty. Millions of people around the world have lost jobs, homes, businesses, independence and purpose as a result of the current financial crisis, not to mention the many crises that came before it. Millions more face growing uncertainty. The defining feature of a century of globalization is an economic system few of us understand, and even fewer of us have any control over. Over the years the incentives and ability of communities to build resilient local economies has been gradually eroded, leaving us more vulnerable to global shocks.
At the same time, communities, often in the hardest-hit places, have begun independently developing initiatives to strengthen the capacity of local systems to meet local needs. Bartering exchanges, time-banking and buy-local movements exist in increasing numbers, yet they are by-and-large failing to result in systemic change.
Means of Exchange ties together these disparate initiatives, and shares stories of how local communities are fighting back. It looks at how a combination of everyday technologies and human ingenuity can democratize opportunities for economic self-sufficiency and promote a return to local resource use. Its online community brings people together, helps encourage new thinking, builds and scales the use of new tools, and takes a fresh look at the public messaging behind local economic empowerment schemes to make them more inclusive, simple, relevant, fun and engaging.
What existing practices inspired the innovation and how does it represent something new?
Local barter exchanges, time banks and local currencies are nothing new. Most have been around for years, and there are countless success stories out there if you look hard enough. The majority of these pockets of success have remained small in scale, and many only work because a small number of dedicated local activists work hard to keep them going. What’s more, the people that take part are often the ones who are already converted to the cause, or older members of a community already sympathetic to the local agenda.
Means of Exchange sets out to understand why so many existing initiatives fail to replicate and scale, building the community needed to bring in “new blood,” and bringing in the skills required to leverage digital tools that allow for meaningful scale. The online community will highlight approaches it sees working, and tease out the factors that make them succeed. It will look at how social media and mobile technologies might strengthen these activities, explore gamification techniques, and consult experts to understand how activities should be branded and marketed for mass appeal. And at the end, all of the tools, websites and resources developed by Means of Exchange will be openly shared on the website, encouraging further adoption and sharing.
Bringing this community together addresses a critical gap in the majority of current initiatives, giving Means of Exchange the potential to transform a set of isolated activities into an effective and organized movement.
Please describe the social impact to date, as well as potential impact in the future.
During the Summer Olympics in London, Means of Exchange launched its first ‘tool’ – CashMobbers.net – promoting a new and innovative way for people to support local business. Cash mobs are typically organized over social media, encouraging people to meet others at a predetermined local business at a predetermined time, where they all agree to spend a small amount of money.
In just a couple of hours during the launch event at a bookshop in Hackney, London, several dozen people showed up and helped the store hit its highest day of sales for a year. The buzz created by social media drove people to attend, partly out of excitement, partly out of curiosity, partly out of a desire to see something positive happen on their main shopping street. The event was picked up by the Financial Times, Daily Telegraph, Huffington Post and other international media. Since then, regular cash mobs have started taking place across London and other parts of the UK as the idea spreads.
These are the kinds of ideas Means of Exchange seeks to help develop, promote and spread. Whether it’s supporting a local business, buying local goods, helping a neighbor or swapping unwanted goods, it’s crucial that the activities which drive and promote better sharing, support and co-operation are fun, bring in new people, make good use of new technology and serve to educate and inspire the wider community to action.
April 30, 2013 No Comments
Today, precisely because the world is so increasingly out of balance, the sustainability regime is being quietly challenged, not from without, but from within. Among a growing number of scientists, social innovators, community leaders, nongovernmental organisations, philanthropies, governments and corporations, a new dialogue is emerging around a new idea, resilience: How to help vulnerable people, organisations and systems persist, perhaps even thrive, amid unforeseeable disruptions. Where sustainability aims to put the world back into balance, resilience looks for ways to manage in an imbalanced world.
Having spent a large part of my career working in and around environmentalism and conservation (see an earlier post on lessons learnt in primate conservation), a reality-check of ‘sustainability’ is something I’ve had on my mind for a while. With its arch enemy – population growth – driving ever-upward, I’ve often wondered whether we’re just stalling for time or delaying the inevitable. The problem with this school of thought, of course, is that it’s considered by many to be defeatist, particularly by those in the actual business of conservation and environmental protection.
Technology allows us to stretch the limits of what’s possible – grow significantly more food per acre, or live in climates we were never meant to live in – all activities which make us feel comfortable about the world and the places we live within it. Much of this technology has become invisible. We no longer think about the innovations that allow us to grow more, or healthier, food. Or those that get electricity to our homes, or the satellites that help get cars and planes from A to B. It’s only when we don’t have access to these things that we suddenly realise how exposed and dependent we are on them. Surviving technological meltdown is the subject of a wide number of books, including the aptly-titled “When Technology Fails” by Matthew Stein.
The environmental movement (which is to all intents and purposes linked to sustainability) is around forty years old. Its birth is widely linked to the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring“, her seminal book which argued against the increasing use of pesticides in farming. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t hugely popular within the ranks of the chemical industry, but it did spur the birth of grassroots environmentalism which in turn lead to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). If pesticide use continued, Carson argued, Springs of the future would be void of bird life, amongst others (hence the title).
In another of my favourite books, “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed“, Jared Diamond graphically illustrates what happens to communities and civilisations which live beyond their means. We can learn a lot from history, but today not enough of us are listening. Our world population of over seven billion is already two to three times higher than what’s sustainable and, according to the World Population Balance website, recent studies have shown that the Earth’s resources are enough to sustain only about two billion people at most European’s current standard of living. In short, we’re in trouble.
During a recent talk at Pop!Tech I highlighted two things that I thought needed to change. First, we need to get people to listen and take interest, but not in the way the wider non-profit movement has historically tried to get us to (i.e. guilt-based education). Second, we need to rethink our relationships with local business, local resources, and each other. You can watch that ten minute talk below, and find out more of what we’ll be up to on the soon-to-launch Means of Exchange website.
As I admit at the start of my talk, I have more questions than answers right now. But I do know that, with the current economic climate, conditions are better than they’ve ever been to get people to rethink their relationship with money, resources and each other. These may not directly impact the environmental or sustainability agenda, but the secondary benefit of people making better use of the human, social, financial and environmental capital around them almost certainly will.
January 7, 2013 18 Comments
Last month I returned to the US for one of my favourite annual events – Pop!Tech. It’s generally an opportunity to be re-inspired, meet old friends and help out as a Faculty member on the Social Innovation Fellows Program. This year I had the added opportunity of giving the first public talk on my latest project, Means of Exchange.
You can watch the eleven-minute talk here, or on the Pop!Tech website.
You can watch more talks and listen to a selection of radio interviews on the kiwanja.net website.
November 5, 2012 20 Comments
A couple of months ago I wrote about my new initiative – Means of Exchange – which focuses on how emerging, everyday technologies can be used to democratise opportunities for economic self-sufficiency, rebuild local communities and promote a return to local resource use. It’s been a busy few months, culminating in the launch of our first project this week. And here it is.
You’ve probably heard of smart mobs, or at least flash mobs. Welcome to the brave new world of cash mobs.
Cash mobbing takes its name from “flash mobbing”, a craze which started way back in 2003 in Manhattan, New York. In a flash mob, a group of people mobilise over social media and arrange to meet in a predetermined place. According to Wikipedia, when they get there they “perform an unusual and seemingly pointless act for a brief time, then disperse, often for the purposes of entertainment, satire, and artistic expression”. Flash mobs were themselves inspired by “smart mobs”, a term coined by Howard Rheingold to describe a group that, contrary to the usual connotations of a mob, “behaves intelligently or efficiently because of its exponentially increasing network links”.
Continuing the theme, a “cash mob” takes place when a group of people arrange to meet at a local shop or store. When they get there, instead of dancing, singing or carrying out other “pointless acts”, they spend a predetermined amount of money. Cash mobs are generally organised by people who enjoy the fun, excitement and novelty of a cash mob, or others who are concerned about the plight of local businesses and want to do something to help.
A number of websites have sprung up over recent months encouraging people to cash mob their local stores, and a number of Facebook groups and Twitter feeds have been created to support their efforts. So far, people have either been given a few pointers and then told to go and figure out the social media bit for themselves, or they’ve been asked to propose local venues to local group ‘owners’ to choose from. We think people want to create their own cash mob, not settle for someone else’s, and they want to be able to seamlessly push it out through their existing social media, not fiddle around creating new accounts. So we built Cash Mobbers.
To coincide with the launch of the Cash Mobbers website we’ve organised what we believe to be London’s first cash mob at an independent bookshop in Hackney this Thursday (9th August).
Further details are available, naturally, on the Cash Mobbers website.
If the idea of driving business back to smaller, locally owned shops and stores is something that appeals to you, there’s a few things you can do:
1. Tweet about this post or the Cash Mobbers site to help spread the word
2. Follow @CashMobbers on Twitter
3. Tweet about the London cash mob, and “Like” the event
4. Let any friends in or around London know about it
5. Organise your own cash mob. Find full details and pointers here
My ethos with Means of Exchange remains the same as it has with much of my work over the years. The main objective is to build and gather a suite of engaging tools to help people help themselves, whenever they’re ready. Sometimes that can take a while, but I’m in no hurry. After all, build it, and they will come…
August 6, 2012 28 Comments
The vast majority of my work over the past ten years has been focused specifically in the developing world. Various countries across Africa, in particular, were destinations for most of my travel and research. I’ve had an incredible time quenching a thirst for knowledge going all the way back to the early 1990′s when I first took an interest in international development.
Of course, if the target of your sole interest is overseas, and several thousand miles away at that, then it’s an obvious struggle to continually spend time in the field. Since the birth of Henry Banks last summer I’ve been spending less and less time away from home. This, fortunately for me, has coincided with a recent transition from day-to-day involvement in FrontlineSMS, and a move to a new project which I’ve been slowly working on for a couple of years – Means of Exchange – which has roots much closer to home.
This has a few advantages, the main one being that the fundamental problem I’m hoping to address – how we build tools to promote economic resilience among local communities – is (sadly) everywhere around me.
Even when I’m on holiday.
The small Finnish town close to where we’re staying is not alone in experiencing something similar to many other towns around the world – the death of the High Street. This has nothing to do with the current economic crisis and more to do with town planning, but the effects are devastating on local shops and the sense of community. Only on market days do the streets now come alive. The ‘action’ is now a mile down the road in not one, but two mega-shopping centres.
There’s something quite strange about walking through a town centre on a fine, early afternoon and being one of only a handful of people around. Locals do see what’s happening, but for many it’s too late. For the town centre to come alive again, and for people to begin supporting local shops again, and meeting up in the square again, people are going to have to mobilise and, more importantly, want it to happen. A community-lead revival – and this is what that needs – must be lead by the community.
It remains to be seen what will happen here, but many people back home in the UK do have the drive, passion, desire and commitment to rebuild their local communities, and my belief is that appropriate technologies can play a major part in promoting that revival.
I’m in if you are.
June 29, 2012 14 Comments
Three weeks ago we announced that I was stepping down from day-to-day operations at FrontlineSMS to hand over to a new senior management team. It’s clear from the success of the global launch of version 2 of the software over the past week that FrontlineSMS is in safe hands, and the reworked software, outreach and launch were all handled by the team with little involvement from me. It was great to see all their hard work come together, and I congratulate everyone on a job extremely well done. \o/
As I mentioned in my recent post, I’ll remain involved with the project and will continue to support innovation and entrepreneurship in the developing (and developed) world, will continue to write about technology and Africa, and will continue with mentoring and speaking. The ICT4D and social innovation fields continue to fascinate and inspire me as much as they did all those years ago when I started out, and I’ll remain involved as long as I continue to add value.
Introducing “Means of Exchange”
So, what else will I be working on? Well, for the past two years I’ve been taking an increasing interest in economic resilience, particularly how technology might help buffer local communities from global economic downturns. Ironically, since I started my research the world has entered a period of growing economic uncertainty. The causes – although fascinating – don’t so much interest me, more the response at local, grassroots level.
As we all know, in times of hardship people tend to become increasingly innovative. As Greeks have found themselves with less and less cash in their pockets, many have turned to bartering. It’s how communities react to economic shocks that I’ll be focussing on, and how tools like bartering, swapping, LETS schemes and local currencies are applied and deployed in response.
We pay too little attention to the reserve power of the people to take care of themselves. We are too solicitous for government intervention, on the theory, first, that the people themselves are helpless, and second, that the government has superior capacity for action. Often times both of these conclusions are wrong
It’s only when things go wrong that we question the systems which regulate, control and dominate our lives. We enter 2012 at a time of great economic uncertainty. Millions of people around the world have lost jobs, homes, businesses, independence and purpose. Millions more face growing uncertainty and insecurity. Many hard working people have been hard hit. In the greater scheme of things they’re simply collateral damage in the rebalancing of a larger, broken world economic system.
While it’s impossible for most of us to remove ourselves entirely from the world economic system, there is a lot we can do to lessen our dependence on it. Funnily enough it’s something our ancestors managed to do pretty well. It’s called self-sufficiency.
For the majority of people, self-sufficiency conjures up images of grow-your-own vegetables on village allotments, but more meaningful economic self-sufficiency is possible if people are creative in how they earn, trade and share with one another. As money has taken over as our primary means of exchange, other more traditional methods have been lost.
What we’ve been left with is an economic system we have little control over, a loss of community and a drift away from the consumption of locally produced goods and services.
But all is not lost. This can be halted, and by using the very technologies which enable us to take part in a globalised society, it can be reversed. If you’re interested in learning more about methods of economic self-sufficiency, or you’re interested in tools and resources to make it happen, then Means of Exchange is for you.
Firstly, the website will focus on how emerging, everyday technologies can be used to democratise opportunities for economic self-sufficiency, rebuild local communities and promote a return to local resource use.
Secondly, if they don’t already exist, we’ll build you the tools so you can make it happen wherever you are. Our first flagship “app” will be released within the next few weeks.
To keep up-to-date with new releases and latest news, check us out via:
- Our website: http://www.meansofexchange.com
- Twitter: @MeansofExchange
- Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/meansofexchange
See you on the other side.
June 18, 2012 41 Comments
Last week we made one of the most important announcements in the near-seven year history of FrontlineSMS. As I hinted in my “Rolling Stones School of Management Innovation” post last December, I only felt able to take the project to a certain level and that it required different people with a different set of skills to move it to the next. Last week, with that internal transition complete, we announced that I’d be stepping aside to concentrate on other things, and FrontlineSMS would move forward in fresh hands.
Laura Walker Hudson and Sean Martin McDonald will now drive the project forward as CEO’s of our US Foundation and UK Community Interest Company respectively. You can read their thoughts on the transition, and what they have planned, in their follow-up post here.
Many wonderful messages of support flooded in in the form of Tweets, direct messages, blog comments, emails and – of course – text message. The transition announcement was amazingly well received and the response overwhelmingly positive. Many people commented that the move was “incredibly brave” and “must have been difficult” but as I mentioned in the announcement, I felt it was neither. As I said then, I’ve always maintained that it’s just as important to be aware of your limitations as your strengths, and stepping aside in these circumstances is the clearest indication I can give that I do.
There haven’t been many transitions like this in the m4d or ICT4D worlds that I know of, and if that’s the case it reinforces our commitment to not only be innovative with technology but innovative organisationally, and to also always act in the best interests of the project rather than ourselves. FrontlineSMS, as with many other ICT4D projects, is bigger than one person. I’m excited to see where FrontlineSMS goes from here, and I’ll follow and support it in my new capacity as Chairman of the Board with the same commitment and enthusiasm as I did from my one bedroom flat in Cambridge, or VW Camper at Stanford.
Alongside the congratulatory messages a few people wished me luck and said they hoped to still see me on the innovation, technology, mobile or African scene. Well, they will. I’m not retiring, just handing over the reins at FrontlineSMS. I’ll continue to write, blog and speak about technology, innovation and social change, and maintain a focus on Africa as I’ve done for the past twenty years.
As for what’s next, I’m excited that over the past few months I’ve been increasingly drawn into the wider world of innovation and entrepreneurship beyond my technology roots – speaking the other week at the Ashoka/Ben & Jerry’s ”Join Our Core” event, for example, and next month spending time with BMW executives in Munich.
My writing has also started to gain traction beyond the news sites and journals which dominate our discipline, with a short guest piece in Wired Magazine last month. I’m also planning my first book which will focus on “reluctant innovation“, due out later this year. And I’m doing an increasing amount of mentoring with organisations such as Pop!Tech, National Geographic and the Unreasonable Institute, something that aligns perfectly with my long-standing commitment to “give back”.
Project-wise I have a long list of new ideas I’ll be working on. One is just a few weeks away from being ready, so I’ll save the official announcement for then. But in the spirit of my efforts with FrontlineSMS, the overarching focus of my work will continue to centre around how we best apply modern technology for social benefit, both in the developed and developing world. If anything, it’s the additional focus on the developed world which represents the biggest shift in my thinking.
In an effort to stay innovative and relevant, large companies are often encouraged to reinvent themselves. There’s no reason why this shouldn’t apply to individuals, too. The ICT4D sector has shifted focus considerably since I started out all those years ago. When the time is right, there’s no reason why some of the people in it shouldn’t do the same, either.
ClearlySo featured our transition on their blog. You can read their excellent commentary here.
June 5, 2012 52 Comments