Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Of alternative currencies, placeblogs, and mobile finance

Xigi and WorldChanging have been writing about alternative currencies, an important topic as we think about new forms of social capital. Many of the discussions around new currencies look at the macro level. For example, the global value of frequent flier miles (US$700 billion) is often cited, as is the successful transition to the euro.

But I think we should be looking local. The New York Times ran a story on February 25 about the town of Great Barrington, Massachussetts which has issued its own currency in denominations named for favorite local sons such as Normans (Rockwell) and Hermans (Melville). Local shoppers receive discounts from local merchants when they use the BerkShares. In Minneapolis, Minnesota an experiment in dollars with frequent flier miles/reward points has led to the Dual Currency Systems experiment. Local currencies have been promoted for a long time and can be found across the U.S. (BloomingHOURS in Bloomington, Indiana to Humboldt Community Currency in Arcata, California), in Canada (Calgary, Toronto, Salt Spring Island) and Mexico. And then, of course, there is interra.

These local currencies, and their ties to volunteer hours, local discounts, and circulating money and resources within a community, may have increasing vitality - even in the age of global - as the local grows more important. I attended a spring training game, Mets v Tigers, this afternoon. Between every inning, practically between every batter, the stadium announcer offered a prize, a coupon, a bonus meal, or something from the local insurance agents, restaurants, tire stores, and merchants whose ads filled the program, blanketed the walls, and dominated the jumbo score board.

I thought about this when I checked my rss feeds and saw that Steven Johnson was blogging again. He's been busy (and not blogging often enough, IMHO) as his post was all about the new investors in - his placeblogging system that led me to declare hyperlocal this year's second buzz word. Johnson has attracted some big VCs and an impressive list of angel investors - they, at least, are convinced there is money to be made in helping people connect to their neighbors. What currency will these placeblogs use? Can they be a force to expand the reach of these currencies? Will they connect to virtual currencies (e.g. Linden Dollars in SecondLife).

What about placeblogging, local currencies, and mobile phone banking? Can neighbors come together around certain "barn raising," "block party," "food for the sick," or "worker co-op" projects, organize them through place blogs/text messages, and manage the contributions in a local currency that is debited/credited through mobile networks? And if they do so, how will measurers of mutual aid, local commerce, volunteer rates or philanthropy track them.

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