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 – Calvin Coolidge
In times of extreme hardship people often become increasingly innovative. I’ve witnessed this first hand during my twenty year career in international development, spent mostly in Africa.
But this particular problem is much closer to home. The global economic crisis has hit hard, leading to austerity measures in many countries – particularly Europe – which have only hit harder. People are finding themselves with less and less cash in their pockets, and in countries such as Greece many have turned to an age-old method of exchange – bartering. Small scale local currencies and time banks have also sprung up. And it’s this – how communities react to economic shocks – that interests me.
Money, as a concept, is hard to pin down. Even economists and bankers – the people you’d expect to know – struggle to agree on it. It’s no surprise we’re in a mess. Of course, it wouldn’t matter if money – or the world economic system – was something we could choose to opt out of. But neither is an option for the vast majority of us, at least not for now. So, in the meantime the solution lies in us developing a better relationship with money, rethinking our role and personal value in a globalised society, developing a richer ecosystem of exchange (not simply defaulting to cash, as we do now), and remaking connections many of us have lost – with local businesses, local resources, and each other.
In short, it’s about how we work and play better together, how we adapt to future shocks (given many appear increasingly unavoidable), and how we build more resilient communities. As Andrew Zolli reminds us:
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
There’s little doubt that the world is unbalanced, with a broken economic system at the heart of it. Those who work within this system, or champion it, find it increasingly difficult to defend. One thing that helps them is that many of us have very short memories. Within a few years we’ll likely be back in a boom cycle, and most people will have forgotten how bad it felt, and how destructive it was, being at the bottom.
But not everyone.
Some want to change the system, and work at it in good times and bad, and these are the people I’m focused on with my latest project, Means of Exchange. Means of Exchange aims to tie together efforts by local activists and individuals around the world and share stories of how their communities are fighting back. At its core it looks at how a combination of everyday technologies and human ingenuity can democratise opportunities for economic self-sufficiency and promote a return to local resource use. Its online community seeks to bring people together, help encourage new thinking, build and scale the use of new tools, and take a fresh look at the public messaging behind local economic empowerment schemes to make them more inclusive, simple, relevant, fun and engaging.
And these are the kinds of things we’re talking about.
During the Summer Olympics in London last year, Means of Exchange launched its first ‘tool’ – CashMobbers – promoting a new and innovative way for people to support local business. Cash mobs devise their name from ‘flash mobs’, and are typically organised 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 our Cash Mobbers 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 high 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.
It’s still early days, but 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 neighbour 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 our wider communities to action.
Ken Banks is an innovator, mentor, anthropologist, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Founder of kiwanja.net, FrontlineSMS and Means of Exchange. He writes about how mobile phones and appropriate technologies can be used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. You can read all his posts, visit his website, or follow him on Twitter.