In a recently published chapter I have argued that complementary currencies can be conceptualised as forms of grassroots technology. One advantage of this particular, and hitherto rare, framing, is that it opens up the possibility of exploring their evolution using theoretical tools from the innovation literature. Thus the chapter applies insights from Strategic Niche Management – a theory that seeks to explain the trajectory of technological experiments – to the early stages of the Totnes Pound. It concludes that theory does have some purchase in explaining some of the problems that such radical grassroots experiments can encounter.
Monday, 12 March 2012
Framing complementary currencies as forms of grassroots technology
Complementary currencies are forms of exchange that are intended to function in parallel with the mainstream monetary system. In many cases they are associated with the ideas of ‘new economics’, in particular with critiques of the prevailing capitalist debt-based monetary system. The most recent wave of complementary currency activism began in the 1970s with isolated experiments. The 1980s saw the emergence of LETS and Time Banks as two ‘models’ which have diffused and mutated. The field has become more complex in recent years, with a range of further experiments emerging.
Academic interest in complementary currencies has generally been marginal (although some would argue the margins are where the interesting things happen…). However, there is loose cross-disciplinary community that gets together periodically, most recently in Lyon last year. Within the UK context it is geographers who have generally shown the most interest in currencies, interested in their potential to create ‘alternative economic spaces’. Currencies have also been researched as potential policy instruments and as social movements. However, they have rarely been conceptualised as forms of innovation. Of course, whilst innovation is not necessarily synonymous with technology, the two are often closely entwined. In the case this particular chapter, the framing of complementary currencies as technologies owes a debt to Brian Arthur’s recent work on the evolution of technology and his definition of technology as a purposed system. Indeed, he uses the monetary system as an example of a technology.
If the global diffusion of currencies is one observable trend within the field, another is the high failure rate of individual systems. Our Leverhulme funded Grassroots Innovation: Complementary Currencies project seeks to explore some of the factors that underpin both of these trends. More specifically we have been looking at patterns of replication, scaling up and translation. To do this we have been drawing on innovation theory, more specifically, the work on innovative niches that have come out of the ‘sustainability transitions’ literature. This literature highlights the difficulties that new technologies face when trying to compete with existing, incumbent socio-technical systems. However, the case studies have generally focused on how technologies emerge in a market context. To date, little attention has been paid to those innovations that emerge from civil society. This is despite the fact that it is arguable that civil society can play a significant role in the emergence of environmental innovation, such as its role in the development of organic agriculture.
In the case of the Totnes Pound, it was an initiative that emerged from the Transition Town Totnes project, the original site of the Transition Town movement. It therefore provides an example of how a social movement organisation can instigate a form of grassroots experiment. Conceptualising the embryonicTotnes Pound as a technological niche provides a number of important insights into currency development. The first is the way in which the currency fulfils different functions for different ‘relevant groups’. Understood as technologies currencies exhibit a certain degree of interpretive flexibility. Reconciling these different functionalities becomes a key task for currency organisers, as does the task of balancing the need to make promises about the currency in order to build the niche with the need to dampen expectations about the performance of an under-resourced experiment. Niche building itself becomes an exercise in either the successful delivery of multiple functions or drawing people into the problem frame that underpins the experiment. The literature suggests that learning processes are an important aspect of niche development. In this particular case the learning processes that unfold are generally first order, tacit and curtailed by the limited resources of grassroots organisations. Other insights from niche theory are also of relevance to the case, such as the emergence of a putative ‘global’ niche of Transition currencies and the insight that crises of the current socio-technical system may be a necessary precursor for niche ‘breakthrough’.
The chapter is a tentative step in exploring the currency field through a technological framing. The growing diversity of currency systems allied to the wider canon of innovation theory points to the potential for much more work in this area. More generally, the collection itself illustrates that civil society remains a fertile site for various kinds of environmental innovation.