The County of Uppland, Sweden  trial shows a role for complementary currency in increasing preparedness.

Realizing that Sweden’s cashless society is utterly dependent on the electricity supply, one organization working with disaster preparedness is experimenting with making currency with scissors, paper and rubber stamps. The experiment hopes to increase disaster preparedness, but also to get the community looking at the assets it already has, to stimulate the development of the local economy. Should other disasters strike, they will be better prepared.

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Journalist BirGitta Tornerhielm shows off her vouchers for ITK

A recently completed trial led by the Institute of Swedish Safety and Security(ISSS) showed how local currencies could be used in projects to increase the resilience of the local economy and thereby increase disaster preparedness.

The trial, a cooperation between ISSS and Open World Villages and Transition Sweden, introduced  a  simple type of currency  to explore ways to stimulate the community to focus more on developing the local economy.

In their initial analysis, ISSS observed that rural communities in Sweden are under pressure from urbanisation: resources and people are moving to the larger cities, along with jobs. These pressures are undermining rural communities’ abilities to withstand the effects of disasters from, for example,  extreme weather conditions, a longer power outage, rapid economic decline as well as prolonged fuel shortage.

Says ISSS chairman Philip Wyer: “In our disaster preparedness work we noted too a lack of resilience in modern currency systems and realized that, should the electricity go down for a longer period, the cashless society that Swedes are building up would be a money-less society as well. Sweden’s monetary system is totally reliant on functioning electricity and Internet”.

Philip sees that Transition groups can help increase disaster preparedness, and he sees many parallels with the work of his organization and Transition: “being able to create and roll out your own currency, should disaster strike, is essential to be able to keep the wheels of society turning. But it also has a lot to do with trust, and everyone finding a role for themselves instead of feeling left out. Local food production, the ability to self-organize, keeping a roof over your head, having everyone involved – these are all essentials of survival after a major disaster and central to Transition as well.”

Should the transport system fail, or the economy crash unexpectedly, or should the community be hit by extreme weather, the local municipalities’ disaster preparedness will probably not be sufficient. If the economy fails, the network of businesses that provide for our daily needs may well break down too, given the widespread reliance on just in time and the transport system.  It will be the local community that must respond.

The currency being trialed is an unusual sort of money: a volunteer time currency.  Philip explains: “This currency is actually close to a gift currency as it just represents people’s volunteer hours that they offer to help their community towards transition”.

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ITK coin design 

The experimental currency, called ITK, which translated stands for Voluntary Time Coupons, is based on the German currency Minutos and is self-produced using a printer and rubber stamps. The coupons represent voluntary time in minutes. Although people produce their own notes based on a template downloaded from the project site, they are not valid unless two people endorse them by stamping them with their personal stamp.

This trial aimed to test several things: Firstly, can we use a variant of Minutos to teach people about local currency and how money works in general? Secondly, can just bringing people together to try cooperating locally strengthen the community- and its resilience- even further? Thirdly, it was to try things out to gain experience to pass on what we have learnt to other groups in Sweden so they could be better prepared if, during a long, cold dark winter, disaster strikes!

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A 1 ITK voucher 

Most people have a hard time understanding money in general

One main learning from the trial was how people in general accept money but have a hard time understanding how it actually works and where it comes from. Initally, we spent some time explaining the conventional monetary system, and how the complementary currency was thought to work. It seemed just this part of the trial was an eye–opener for many, seeing that money in the current system is both created as credit AND that it required interest payments. We clearly saw the predicament we would face if economic growth stopped:  we would have debts but not enough money to pay them.

Just making an inventory of what people can do creates positive energy

The first step is to create ITK coupons that you stamp yourself before you go to get two people to endorse them. The project found that the next step, getting people to think about and advertise what skills and talents they could offer to the community created a wave of positive energy and sparked off ideas for projects.

Unemployment and alienation are not just devastating for the individuals: they undermine community resilience

By making an inventory of what local people could offer just in the trial it became clear that a lot of talent and capacity is just not being used. The current high levels of unemployment, especially among the young, point to a disastrous under-use of available resources. By being involved in, for example, construction work, food production, energy production, even bookkeeping, people are keeping up and developing their skills.

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Stephen Hinton on the streets of the Swedish town of Sigtuna, handing out ITK information pamphlets with picture of a Swedish note with “I trust you” on it.

It is not the money in itself, it is providing an opportunity to participate that creates the energy

As the trial continued it became clear that it is not the currency in itself that creates enthusiasm, but the situation around its use. People generally want to be a part of the community, use their talents and get recognition. A volunteer currency, within a framework that offers an opportunity to offer one’s skills and talents, comes with less inbuilt tension than, for example, the stress of looking for work and competing with your neighbors.

If there is money in the community why are there not jobs?

The team met a lot of debate about the need to introduce another currency and if the old currency wasn’t good enough.

The main problem with the present money system is leakage: when you pay to the gas station, put your money in the bank or just pay at the supermarket, the money quite simply becomes unavailable to the local economy. And as money leaves the local economy jobs follow with it. A local currency at least ensures the money remains in the community.

If there are people who want to make a change, why is it going so slowly?

Another issue was with voluntary time. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to change the world on, say, the couple of hundred voluntary hours you can put in over a year compared to up to a couple of thousand of working hours. However, as companies and municipalities are hardly directing their energies to creating the resilient society, we have to start from a volunteer mode. The idea would be to progress to creating local social enterprises geared to resilience as soon as viable.

Complementary currency can be the grease that lubricates the wheel but it is activities and projects that move the cart

Despite the good start, the ITK trial did not manage to get incorporated into any local projects. Thinking about it, the team realized that the ideal way to launch a currency like ITK is to combine the launch with the launch of a large project or several large projects. Once ITK’s start to be used, they can continue to circulate in the community.

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  1. Freddie likes a Future fair project put together by four guys sitting in a coffee shop. They accept his offer of 4 hours of ITK’s.
  2. The four guys invite people to a meeting to launch their idea and ask a group of volunteers to provide refreshments, and get ITK’s in return
  3. The refreshment team gets a lettuce from Annica and give her ITKs for it.
  4. Annica wants to go to a concert and uses the ITK to give to her baby sitter.
  5. At the concert, Enrico the guitarist gets ITKs for his gig, which is part of the Future Fair, where Freddie is volunteering.
  6. Enrico goes to the second hand market and gets some cool stage clothes, exchanging ITKs for them.
  7. Freddie gets ITKs back as he volunteered to help out at the fair.
  8. People selling at the second hand market get ITKs for their stuff, minus a commission.
  9. Freddie exchanges ITKs for a second-hand bike.

In the example above, the combination of a fair and an ITK scheme have:

  • Got people involved
  • Encouraged  local food
  • Got young people involved in helping the community
  • Stimulated local culture
  • Stimulated a sense of belonging

A Dragon’s Den of projects

There is a popular TV series where an entrepreneur pitches their project to rich investors who sit with wads of cash only ready to invest if the entrepreneur can convince them they will make money. With ITK it would be possible for people with project ideas to present them and for the audience to give them ITK’s, in effect promising to help their project with that specific number of volunteer hours.

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ITK vouchers, freshly made!

A Future Focus Week

Getting popular in Sweden is the “Future Week” series of fairs and conferences that towns are adopting as part of their Transition initiative. The fairs invite local organizations to exhibit and debate their contributions to a sustainable future. These all need volunteers, and another idea would be to, after collecting ITKs for the Future Week initiative, exchange ITKs for volunteer hours in the Future week.

CSR possibilities

One interesting possibility that came up was the idea of businesses giving back to the community as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs. If businesses were, for example, to consider accepting the currency from volunteers in a local Transition project, it could be a way for the business to support that project.

Local business owners could back the project by accepting the currency for, say, coffees to local volunteers who were unemployed, or pensioners, or offering free meeting rooms for working groups.

Their CSR involvement brings local businesses more in contact with people active locally in community development and creates publicity for the business as a responsible member of the community.

Next steps

ISSS plans to make the ITK currency available to projects world-wide and to adapt it further as a tool for post-disaster community building.



Transition Sweden

The ITK site (in Swedish)


Stephen Hinton