In order for sharing to be a successful alternative to the status quo, we need one important ingredient: people. Sharing requires a motivated, passionate community, whether physical or digital.
That’s why we’ve often said that coworking spaces are uniquely positioned to become hubs for other types of sharing. These professional communities already serve as havens for people who believe in wacky ideas like career independence, collaboration, and the local economy. Coworkers are already in the habit of coming together to discuss ideas, share feedback, and leverage their people power into savings and innovation. The nature of coworking spaces and the people who choose to work in them makes these communities a fertile breeding ground for new types of collaborative consumption.
Recently, coworking spaces around the world have begun spilling over into another economic alternative–local, alternative and complementary currencies. These are actual units of value that can be traded for goods and services, only they’re not created by the Federal Reserve or any other government body–they’re created by people for people.
As Shareable’s Mira Luna wrote in 2011, "Local currencies generally develop for one of two reasons — the desire for local economic control (for a variety of reasons, from democracy to sustainability to social justice,) and a scarcity of national currency." In this most recent trend, we’re seeing coworking spaces utilize, and in some cases create, new currencies because of a third desire — to build strong community ties and encourage cooperation among members.
While some alternative currencies operate more like time-banks, in which service hours earn you a certain dollar amount, others operate parallel to traditional currencies, with actual value that can be redeemed at local banks.
In both cases, these alternatives to government currency focus spending power in the local community, among local businesses and entrepreneurs who need it most. Instead of being siphoned out into the bank accounts of international conglomerates, they circulate endlessly in one’s neighborhood without losing value.
It’s this emphasis on the local economy, as well as intentional spending and investment, that makes alternative currencies so attractive to the global coworking community–which places particular emphasis on transparency, sustainability, and collaboration. A growing number of spaces are looking to these currencies as a way to continue the community building process that began when they opened their doors. Through the use of something other than dollars, they’re encouraging members to hire, share with, and generally bless each other.
Coworking Spaces Getting Creative with Currencies
At Locus Workspace in Prague, not one but two alternative currencies have recently become part of the community. The first one is Bitcoin, an open source peer-to-peer electronic money and payment network introduced in 2009 by pseudonymous developer "Satoshi Nakamoto." Bitcoins are bought and sold at a variable price against the value of other currencies, and can be redeemed for goods and services through any merchant that chooses to accept them. A former member of Locus was very active in the Bitcoin world, and shared his passion for alternative currency with the other members, who suggested that the space give it a try for small purchases like drinks and snacks. Eventually this resulted in about 1.919 Bitcoins in the Locus coffer. When Bitcoin’s value skyrocketed, this grew into over 4.000 CZK for the coworking space (something that could have never occured with traditional currency)!
The second currency was created by the members of Locus itself, and is appropriately called ‘Locus Laughs‘ or LOL. "From the start we’ve wanted to facilitate collaboration and teamwork, but since we all work for different organizations, figuring out how to reward these contributions has been a challenge," explained Will Bennis, owner of Locus Workspace. "One challenge has been how to keep good deeds out of the financial domain, to encourage giving to the community for good will, while still being able to say more than just thanks to those who go above and beyond what would be expected of a member of the community. A local currency seemed like a fun way to experiment with this."
Fun being the operative word: Locus isn’t trying to replace money (yet) rather to bring some levity into the coworking space while also challenging traditional concepts of value and reward. LOL currency does have actual monetary value, at least in the world of Locus Workspace, where they are priced in units tied to the Czech Crown; (10 LOL = 1 CZK). "That only explains how members can use LOL to buy Locus goods and services, not how Locus determines how to award them to members," explains Bennis. "For the most, that’s a judgement call. New members get 500 LOL just to get them started as a thanks for joining the workspace." After that, the currency is awarded subjectively based on deeds performed in the community."
About 18 months ago, Polish coworking space Wspolpracownia launched a similar system meant to encourage interactions between members and the wider community. Barters and gifts within the program earn points that can then be exchanged to claim goods and services from participants. At first, the program was managed through a simple spreadsheet, but recently Wspolpracownia implemented an automatic system designed with help from Community Forge. This is integrated with CiviCRM software to facilitate group shopping from an organic food cooperative that’s based in the space.
Locus’ choice to accept Bitcoin seems common now, but it was only eight months ago that LaunchCo became the first European coworking space to accept the currency. According to Deskmag, La Matrice in France, HUB Brussels, LAUNCH/CO in Berlin have also experimented with both digital currencies as well as in-house exchange systems that encourage reciprocity between members. Thinkfarm and Agora Collective in Berlin, Combobox and Discovery Station in Italy, and Mutinerie in Paris, are involved in development of Evergreen, a sustainable asset-backed currency digital currency that offers free instant payments and in-network marketing.
Although existing digital currencies like Bitcoin, and homemade alternatives like the LOL make it easy to wrap one’s head around an economy devoid of traditional money, some coworking spaces have gone a step further by not bothering with any kind of currency at all.
Gangplank (which operates five coworking spaces throughout North America) has long stood out in the global coworking community for its refusal to charge even a modest membership fee. "When money is involved agendas are close behind," explains Derek Neighbors, a founder of the space. "By moving to a ‘pay it forward’ model instead of a ‘pay it’ model, it forces relationships which turn into community."
This theory actually makes a lot of sense when you consider how we justify things in our own minds. If I pay my membership fee on time, there’s nothing to keep me from using the space in a completely self-serving manner–after all I met the parameters of the contract, right?. However, if instead of a monetary fee, there’s an expectation that I interact with and invest in the community to "pay" for my use of the facilities, it quickly becomes uncomfortable not to do so.
The simple brilliance of this "honor system" is confirmed daily at Gangplank. "There is no tracking," explains Neighbors. "There are things that need to be done and people do them. If they aren’t getting done people will step up or inquire appropriately. In some things, people self-organize to solve problems. It’s possible to be a member and not contribute, but we find that if you’re contributing nothing, more often than not you stop showing up. A certain self-selection exists."
Another organization that’s augmenting paid memberships with a social currency is Seats2Meet (S2M). Founded in the Netherlands in 2005 with just ten people, S2M swelled to 250 users within the first month, and it’s been growing exponentially ever since. Here’s why: many of those who use the service, called "knowmads," pay for access by sharing their talents and knowledge. The founders call this type of currency "social capital."
“…you can create value in any physical place, as long as you are connected," S2M cofounder Ronald van den Hoff told Shareable earlier this year. "A lot of people underestimate [social capital] but we see that a lot of the traditional corporations, they are booking the meeting rooms and the office spaces just to get in touch with those people," he continued. He’s launching a related service called The Serendipity Machine in January to facilitate more beneficial social interactions in workspaces of all sorts, including private corporate offices.
Collective Self, a home-based coworking space in Seattle, operates under a similar system of social equity and gifting. "The idea that people would need to pay for [access to the space] sounds weird to my ear," admits Lori Kane, an author and operator of the space. Unlike LOL or Bitcoin, there’s no accounting system for this miniature gift economy, "The space is a gift and people showing up within it is a gift too…It’s impossible for a member to use the space without contributing," explains Kane. "People are a wealth of information, skill, knowledge, tips, tricks, food, drinks, laughter, stories, and ideas. Every person who has walked through that door since February 2012 has generously shared whatever they can, and far more than I expected. Often people also bring physical gifts, including tea, coffee, snacks, desserts, books, as well as direct trades of their own professional skills."
These examples of alternative currencies might sound a bit utopic, but there’s absolutely no reason why they couldn’t work across the global coworking community, including your hometown space. As I wrote in my book, Sharing is Good, currency doesn’t determine a thing’s value, we determine the value of currency. Dollars (or yen or euros) are just representations of an idea of value, yet we spend our lives slaving and scrimping to collect as many as possible. Once we realize that trade can continue no matter what unit of value we choose, a new economy is possible.
Alternative Currency Tips for Coworking Spaces
That’s not to suggest that you could pay your utilities bills with LOL (yet!) or that implementing an alternative currency isn’t without its challenges. The good news is that open, democratic nature of most coworking spaces allows the people themselves to innovate solutions.
"Start small, grow gradually," advises Joel Dietz, founder of Evergreen. "Build on the basis of human relationships. Think of it as a community that you’re trying to grow rather than a currency. You will naturally enlarge your business as you project positive energy and prioritize your customer’s needs."
Encourage members to be open about needs as well as assets. "The challenge is the concept is so foreign to many people, so often times it makes it difficult for them to engage at first," says Neighbors. "…signal what you want and need often. The corollary is, if you can respond to someone’s want or need you should to the best of your ability."
Watch your attitude. "By rewarding deeds with currency, even local or digital currency, it still brings a kind of ‘market economics’ value to behavior that we’d prefer to keep more in the moral domain," reflects Bennis. "Lots of good deeds go unnoticed and lots of good deeds are not something that ought to necessarily be rewarded at all. It would be a shame if members felt unappreciated because they didn’t receive Laughs they thought they should, or otherwise felt that they’d prefer not to do anything for the community because they didn’t want to participate in this currency game (a potential result of this currency experiment that is the opposite of our hoped for consequences)."
Do you use an alternative currency in your community, coworking or otherwise? Please tell us about it in comments! And if you’re interested in launching an alternative currency, check out the helpful articles below: