Co-op coins are not a new concept but the days of trading locally minted coins for a pint of milk or a loaf of bread are long gone. Instead, the rising interest in digital currencies and rapid increase in the number of Initial Coin Offerings looks set to make 2018 “the year of the crypto currency”.

But what does this mean for fans of cooperation and a more sustainable, steady state, or circular economy? Is this is an opportunity to rebuild the resilience and community bonds that the original co-op coins offered our societies, by utilising new digital technology?

These days, the term “crypto currency” seems to have become synonymous with blockchain based currencies and the idea of an Initial Coin Offering (ICO) seems to be seen as a way to raise millions in “investment” from nothing more than a website and a white paper. At the Open Co-op we’ve been talking about alternative economic models, and digital currencies, for decades because we believe an alternative economy, which places people and the planet before profit is an essential part of the future. If the neoliberalist capitalist system remains the only option the future looks very bleak indeed. So we’re excited about all the experimentation that’s going on – and the range of alternative currencies being created. But we’re equally worried about the “crypto bubble”, sordid speculation and the insane energy consumption of Bitcoin, which has been (possibly dubiously) estimated to consume more power in 2020 than the entire world does today.

To be clear, a crypto currency does not have to based on the blockchain. A crypto currency is simply a currency that is cryptographically encrypted (meaning: encoded) to make it secure. So when we talk about crypto currencies here we do not just mean systems that use the blockchain, we mean any alternative, digital currency.

Equally, an ICO does not have to aim for wild increases in valuation, it’s simply a term that is used to describe the initial launch and distribution of a new, alternative currency. So when we talk about ICOs here we do not mean “ponzi schemes” or a means of raising huge amounts of money through crowd funding via speculative tokens, we mean launching and distributing a new, alternative currency.

These distinctions are important because if alternative currencies are to be taken seriously and facilitate a path to a more sustainable, steady state and circular economy then it is essential that these terms don’t get totally tarred by the Bitcoin bubble and blockchain brush.

A well designed Co-op Coin could catalyse the co-operative economy

The idea is simple; to run an ICO and create a co-op coin, with the specific purpose of facilitating the growth of the commons and the co-op economy.

There are so many alternative currencies out there already it seems important to do a quick review of the existing options:

  • RChain co-operative is is building a platform for ‘scalable blockchain applications’. The Co-op is the organisation that develops the open-source RChain platform software, whilst RChain Holdings is a for-profit entity whose mission is to grow the ecosystem around the RChain platform.
  • Colu Local Network is a blockchain based payment network that allows communities to issue their own currency and use it to incentivise merchants and consumers for buying and selling with fiat currency.
  • Steem is an incentivised, blockchain based, public content platform. Their first app, Steemit, is a blogging platform featuring tokens which are distributed to content creators and curators daily as rewards, based on community voting.
  • Slightly more on topic, Boyd Cohen is working on an ICO for the Collabor8 token with the goal of raising funding to create major platform coop infrastructure that can be used by platform cooperatives to shorten the runway to viability. The collabor8 ‘social currency’ seem particularly  interesting because it includes an element of social reputation…
  • Bill Olivier also seems to cover a lot of the right ground in his doc on Co-operative Exchange Token, although he seems hampered by the belief that ICOs (as they commonly work) are not a plausible option for co-ops, whereas we believe an ICO can be designed to work ethically.
  • FairCoin is one of the more ethically minded alternative currencies, which aims to “implement fair value exchange on a global level” using a unique “proof-of-cooperation mechanism”. Again, this is a blockchain based system but one which uses “collaboratively validated nodes” (CVNs) to secure the network. It’s a clever system but one which is still prone to speculation which undoubtedly undermines their proud claim that “FairCoin now is the the most ecological and resilient cryptocurrency”! Since their “air drop” (basically, dumping a load of coins around the internet to be picked up by whoever gets there first, with some limitations on claims per person) the “value” of a Faircoin has increased hugely and the community “claims” one Faircon is now worth €1.2. These claims about Faircoins’ value must be decided at  a General Assembly via “consensus reached through an open, participatory process of discussion. Not the invisible hands of the market…” and the other Fair ventures like the marketplace and their growing community of local nodes do make this a valid and vibrant economy. But since everyone involved in Faircoin obviously has a vested interest in its increasing valuation and since Faircoin can be traded on at least two exchanges it is just as prone to speculation as gold, or Bitcoin. In fact, their page on “value” includes a slightly humorous request for speculators to leave Faricoin alone: “If you just want to get rich soon and intend to “pump and bump” – please consider other AltCoins to speculate on.” Not the most robust means of securing a stable, inflation and speculation proof system!
  • Coinsence is a platform for social collaboration that aims to “empower social and ecological engagement and support [by] building a collaborative, fair and sustainable economy”. Coinsence is new and only has a small community at the moment, but they seem to have a identified a clever model via which they issue different tokens to represent community currencies, voting rights and asset shares. Tokens can then be allocated by communities to provide incentives for ‘projects’, as well as being used as a means of exchange. These ‘social currencies’ have a limited store of value (making them less prone to hoarding and speculation) since they include high demurrage and transaction fees. The fees can be democratically re-invested into selected community projects. It’s not entirely clear how Coinsence secures the transactions, or if their technology is at all scalable but their model includes a lot of the right ingredients for a vibrant co-operative economy.
  • Duniter is a crypto currency software system, which means it provides the ability to create currencies. Again, it’s blockchain based but its’ currency code includes a Universal Dividend (for currency creation and distribution) and is based on a clever concept; a Web of Trust via which each member is recognised (its identity is trusted – not its actions) if they satisfy the WoT rules which require the members to have enough signatures (links) from other members. These signatures (links) expire over time so the WoT is a clever way to ensure that people are who they say they are via social validation.

Then there’s a range of other middy interesting (again, all blockchain based) crypto currencies which are ‘backed’, or at least vaguely related, to other assets like solar panels and mangrove trees:

  • Solarcoin is issued to owners of solar PV systems, for free, for every 1MWH (Megawatt hour) of electricity their PV system generates. Anyone can register their solar PV system with the SolarCoin Foundation and a typical 4kW domestic PV system could expect to earn just over 5 SolarCoins a year, every year over the 40 years the project will run. As government support for feed-in tariffs are withdrawn SolarCoin could become an important incentive to help encourage people to adopt greener energy – and/or another means to engage in wild speculation.
  • The HCP coin for mangrove trees was helped into life by an ex JP Morgan banker and a guy who runs a “net positive” surf board company that is buying HCP coins to help his company become carbon positive. It’s another novel idea with clear, carbon reduction objectives but with worrying possibilities given a companies ability to ‘cash out’ from their carbon reducing investments.
  • There’s not really anything co-operative, or particularly sustainable, about the TIME token but a list of this nature would not be complete without making reference to ChronoBank, who raised $5.4 Billion via their ICO. Aiming to “disrupt the HR / Recruitment industries” with a crypto currency based on the blockchain, they claim that “labour is abundant enough for everyone to have access to it, yet scarce enough to be valuable. It is the most tradeable resource in the real economy. Labour Hour tokens will tokenise this resource. Because they are backed by real labour, they are absolutely inflation-proof and have next to zero volatility” At the time of writing an hour of TIME was worth about $36 but the day before it was worth $32… Looking at the fluctuating value of the token over time seems to slightly undermine their “zero volatility” claim.

If you’re aware of other crypto currencies which are of interest to the co-op economy please let us know in the comments below.

What is clear from this list is that creating crypto currencies does not seem too hard. We can dream up a million ways to ‘back’ or link a currency to something, and there are just as many ways to distribute.

The hard part of currency design seems to be incentivising the type of economic activity which leads to the kind of world we want to live in and avoiding hoarding and speculation. The list above does not seem to include a single currency that is “speculation proof” or many ideas to addresses the speculation issue, other than Coinsence’s mention of high demurrage, which can cause other issues.

What’s wrong with speculation anyway?

Fans of crypto seems to be missing the fundamental point that any increase in value (of any cyrpto currency) is not really “money for free”. It is money we are borrowing (yet again) off the planet and future generations.

OK, so this “money” is not created as interest bearing debt (like most “normal” money) by banks. It is created by human perceptions instead. The global mindset imbues these newly created digital assets with virtual value via our subconscious belief in scarcity and our grotesque affinity for greed.

But when we “cash in” those perceptions by converting our digital coins to GBP or USD and spend them on (often finite) resources like land, or building materials, or solar PV – all of which have an environmental impact – we are using up those resources, quicker than we would have been able to do without crypto currencies.

You could argue that Solarcoins are incentivising the installation of PV, and that is a good thing but, when their value increases, they are still extorting real tangible, natural, value (things like birds and forests and trees) into a mythical pool of financial value – and ultimately that will only ever speed up the destruction of the natural environment.

So let’s not get too hasty about imagining a scenario where PV is “more than free”. All our actions in the real world have environmental impacts and just because crypto currencies have found a new way to externalise those costs it does not mean we should be slapping ourselves on the back about it! It is our children and grandchildren that we are forcing to pay for this new, naked emperor.

It is essential to keep the true “costs” (including the power consumption issues) in mind when thinking about ethical alternative currencies.

Beyond blockchain – thinking outside the blocks

Of all the current crypto currency options Holo stands out because it based on the Holochain (a more efficient way of encoding transitions)  and it’s currency is not only going to be based on “mutual credit” but its also going to backed by computer processing power. It’s well worth watching this great video from Philip Beadle to get an idea of how blockchain works and the differences between Bitcoin, Etherium and Holochain – especially from an app building point of view.

Holo are just concluding a very successful crowdfunder which aims to provide the ‘bridging technology’ to bring holo into the mainstream. The ‘hosting boxes’ (holo ports) people have bought through the crowdfunder will allow non-technically minded people to simply plug a spare hard drive in to their router to provide storage capacity and processing power on the Holo network.

The Holo network is nothing short of true peer-to-peer. Meaning that users can access each others computers directly, without the need to go via Google’s or Amazon’s servers. In fact, they can host and runs applications on the Holo network, in much the same way as BitTorrent works. This provides incredible opportunities for scaling (as more peers join the network, everyone benefits from ‘the network effect’) and, equally as importantly, the opportunity to re-define how the applications that run on the network are designed to work; it solves the entire “net neutrality” issue completely. Holo, and the people behind it, have designed the Holo network to work in a more “user centric” way than the way the web works today.

The Holo ICO is a very HOT topic. Art Brock, one of the founders of the project, has written about building responsible crypto currencies and agrees that

“Cryptocurrencies do not have to be gambling tokens created from nothing. They can be responsibly connected to assets, promises, or real-world value. They don’t have to re-create all the speculative money problems that they were supposed to be solving”.

Currencies can be optimised to be a useful means of exchange, or a useful store of value, but rarely work well when trying to be both at the same time. “Holo fuel” (also known as HOT, or Holo Tokens) are designed to provide a medium of exchange on the Holo network. Their ICO requires users to buy HOT with ETH (another crypto currency).

Given that buying in to the Holo ICO with ETH will be at a specific price, we were keen to understand how the value of HOT has been calculated, how it hopes to avoid being linked in value to ETH and other crypto currency prices in the future, and how HOT will avoid suffering from speculation? We put the question to Jean Russell, project lead for the Holo ICO, who answered as follows:

HOT is set as 10k x ETH for the launch. But that is just the initial set. Once the network starts, then 1 HOT = 1 Holo fuel. And Holo fuel is about the value of hosting in Holo.

Surely there will arise an exchange that will convert ETH to Holo fuel, so they will be relational in some way. However, even if the Ethereum system collapses, Holo can continue and the value should not be negatively impacted. We believe that we will be much more than 10,000x faster/cheaper than Ethereum (mostly because that system in some ways was designed to be difficult and slow as part of the security). Our system is designed for scalability and resilience (DHT) so it should get better as it scales. Anti-fragile in fact.

The initial price (and the practical network value the community gives it) will be a gap that speculators can guess at. Thereafter though, it should remain fairly stable as it is really about the asset and the value of that asset in the marketplace.

I can’t give the deep philosophical explanation that Art can, but what I hear from him is that mutual credit along with asset-backing pretty much assures that it can’t be a gambling game of high stakes. Those who invest early when there is high risk of the platform getting off the ground will gain some benefit, yes. But then it should achieve a meta-stable state.

We have high hopes for Holo. With Holochain offering a viable alternative to blockchain it should, naturally, benefit from “second mover advantage” by learning a lot of lessons from its predecessor. The way it has been designed from a holographic, and sociocratic perspective seems to fit the requirements of a co-operative economy which distributes ownership and governance to the lowest possible levels.

If their ICO, which they are calling an “Initial Community Offering“, goes well it will be very interesting to see how this first major alternative to the blockchain based systems develops.

Launching a Co-op Coin?

If Holo is successful and a vibrant peer to peer community emerges, perhaps the Holo Network would be the place to launch a dedicated co-op coin? Much of the hard work, in terms of underlying infrastructure, will have been done so a launching a co-op coin on holo should not be as hard as starting from scratch. The main issues would be achieving agreement between a sufficient number of stakeholders about a co-op coins parameters, mainly it’s issuance and the management of supply and demand.

It seems to make sense that a co-op coin could only ever be spent at co-ops, thereby facilitating Principle 6 (co-operation between co-ops) by giving co-ops a specific currency in which to trade. Mutual credit also seems to provide a sensible means of managing supply and demand.

One idea for co-op currency creation could be to issue a set amount of Co-op Coins each month or year, to every member of every co-op that registers with the coin issuer. This would mean the coins are created and distributed as far and wide as possible, and provide a basic “co-op citizen’s income” whilst, at the same time, it would create a global directory of co-op members – something which would massively benefit the co-op economy.

Another, additional, idea to create co-op coins would be to issue an amount of co-op coins (again, to every member of every co-op that registers with the coin issuer) which have to be ‘spent’ into existence. If these coins could only be allocated to commons-building and co-op projects the Co-op Coin would incentivise the growth of co-ops and the commons. And once Co-op Coins have been “earned” in this way, the workers who completed the projects’ tasks would be able to spend the coins in any co-op, breathing further life into the co-op economy.

There are probably other, better ways to issue Co-op Coins and we’d be interested in your thoughts.

How should we enable the creation and distribution of new currency within the co-op economy?

If the co-operative economy is going to flourish cooperators everywhere need to start debating the possibilities and defining how a Co-op Coin could work.

Avoiding the speculation issue seems the hardest nut to crack. Even if there is no way to “cash out” a Co-op Coin via a currency exchange hungry co-operators might still look to exploit discounts on goods they could buy with co-op coins and sell elsewhere in traditional currencies. The only sure-fire way to avoid speculation seems to be for an economy to be ubiquitous and all encompassing, by providing everything a person needs and a method of transacting that is more efficient than all other options. Designing complimentary currencies, which satisfy the different needs to provide a “store of value” and a “medium of exchange” which work together in efficient symbiosis also seems essential for a sustainable economy.

With the right design it seems clear that a well managed ICO for a Co-op Coin could provide incredible funding opportunities for the co-operative economy. Imagine if the surplus of every co-op was converted into Co-op Coins and allocated to co-op building and commons-creation projects… Together we could create an alternative economic model to the extractive version that exists today; a clear path to a more co-operative world. Ignoring the possibilities of crypto currencies is no longer an option for anyone with an interest in a better future.