How to design a collaborative barter economy?

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Oh but what’s Makerfox for a start? For the purpose of this article, think of it as a barter economy web platform: people can offer and wish for products and services, and an algorithm will calculate the barter exchanges that are going to happen. What’s new with this? The use of algorithmic multi-party barter, which in contrast to direct 1:1 barter enables a fluid and high-turnover barter economy. If you want all the details, see the Economy App Detailed Description.

What’s wrong with competition? The basic paradigm in Economy App is the market: enabling transactions between trading individuals, incl. negotiations about prices, but paying with products and services instead of money. Price fixing is governed by offer and demand, so it’s basically competitive. This is a flexible paradigm and (more importantly) people are used to it so that it does not hinder voluntary adoption of a barter economy.

However, a market-only approach is also inherently unsocial and thus unfair: competition benefits the able and capable, and fails to acknowledge work outside of the market (such as caregiving in families, giving away for free etc.). So to avoid the perils of unregulated competition, we want to create a collaborative economy instead. This is meant in the widest sense, including non-transactional economy, commons-based economy, gift economy, and sharing economy.

How to design the “right” collaborative features? That is exactly the open question. The desired non-competitive features should fit these requirements:

  • Make the barter economy inherently pro-social and sustainable.
  • At the same time, not require much centralization or central oversight (as power can always be abused).
  • Must be intuitively understandable and easily usable by "consumers": users who just got dropped by the mainstream economy when it stopped working for them, and who have little or no experience with complex trade agreements, strange P2P procedures or the Internet in general.

Idea list: Features for a collaborative barter economy

These are just the main ideas for pro-social and commons-oriented features we could add to the barter economy platform. Nothing is decided yet, we are still looking for more proposals. And for help in deciding which proposals to integrate, and how to integrate them to provide a well-working, sustainable and solidary barter economy for the 99%. – Wait, 99% … that’s political, no? Yes, it is :slight_smile:

  1. Reciprocity of barter. This is the most prominent property of a barter economy, and inherently pro-social. It means that, whenever you give ("sell") something, you have to accept ("buy") something of the same value. So highly efficient producers, which would outcompete small ones in a monetary market economy, here have to actually keep them in the market by buying from the small producers if they want to sell their own products to these small producers.
  2. Noone is "too poor to buy". Since there is no money that can be saved up, everyone is at the same starting position before the next barter deal happens: they can all take part by offering own products and services and wishing for those of others. Lack of monetary savings or regular income (like a regular job) does no longer exclude from economic participation, and that's inherently pro-social.
  3. Barter-based crowdfunding. In a monetary economy, crowdfunding is a great tool for citizen self-organization: with collective contributions, inventions and infrastructure and cultural proejcts with collective benefits become possible that could not be provided by any single person or small group without compensation. However, money scarcity of large parts of society in austere economic conditions limits how much can be done with crowdfunding. Barter-based crowdfunding would solve that liquidity problem, since all unused resources of a society (inclusing the time of unemployed people) can be invested in crowdfunding now by offering it for barter. The network barter algorithm would take care of converting the products and services people donate to a campaign to thoe the campaign needs, via multi-party "barter chains".
  4. New :) Crowdfunding via offers and tasks. This is a specific way of how barter-based crowdfunding can be implemented. Namely, not in the campaign format, but as usual service offers and tasks. (The difference between these in Economy App is that an offer has a known provider / seller, while this is left open for tasks to which people can apply). In the user interface, they would appear very similarly to normal for-sale offers and tasks with a single client, which makes crowdfunding a much more everyday and frequent experience of economic transaction. The difference is that wishes accumulate, and the barter deal can only happen when the crowdfunding threshold is reached. Like with normal offers, people can add crowdfunding offers to their wishlists of alternatives, meaning they take automatically part in the first one that gets funded, and automatically draw back their funding promises from the other ones (which is something not possible in usual crowdfunding campaigns).
  5. Ordering before product development. This is a special variant of crowdfunding and was popular on Kickstarter until they limited it. Here, it would be done with barter instead of money, of course. And, to not encourage proprietary processes, all such crowdfunding campaigns should be required to release their blueprints as open content.
  6. Bounties for maintaining the commons. In a first approximation, the commons are "all public infrastructure not maintained by the state", so for example free software projects, open data maps like OpenStreetMap etc., public knowledge on the web etc.. Here, the case is often that an improvement or fix is needed that would not pay off for any one person to implement, so no single person takes on that task and everyone instead lives with the consequences. Now the barter platform could have a "bounty" mechanism, which works like a small crowdfunding campaign for whoever takes on to solve the issue. Its like BountySource but not just for software and with barter instead of scarce money, so allowing more people to donate and in higher amounts.
  7. Build-to-order for open design products. Might be too far off for the near term, but anyway: Have an open design product repository integrated into the platform, like Thingiverse but for products more in general, using a yet to develop open design packaging format. People can wish for a product from this repo, configure its parameters (like size for clothing), and multiple possible suppliers would apply to build it. After a barter deal is found, the selected supplier fulfills the order and builds the requested product. Having a shared and open design repo is needed because to make barter happen with a high enough probability, either the wish or the supplier (as here) has to have alternatives. But it's also beneficial because it allows co-developing improved designs, and faster entry of new suppliers. All in contrast to platforms like Etsy or DaWanda where designs can also be configured, but every supplier has their own proprietary ones.
  8. Microcredit in barter instead of charitable giving. Maybe, charity will not be the same in a barter economy. Because there, people without money can still give back, either immediately or later. So charitable giving is transformed to investing in people for self-help. It's still charitable because the "investment" may fail and has low ROI. One specific variant would be P2P microcredit, but in barter instead of money (meaning that now everyone with excess time or resources can extend microcredit). Microcredits are in general a good idea because they help people towards more self-sustainability rather than into dependency.
  9. Supporting web content with micro donations in barter. This would be the barter variant to Flattr, an embeddable button to support web content with a recurring monthly micro-donation, calculated from a total personal donation amount and the total number of Flattr buttons one has clicked. Again, while money is scarce (and limits the spread of Flattr), barter is abundant. It might lead to a new major way of running a website without a paywall, namely the alternative to pesky advertisements.
  10. Buycotts and boycotts. In monetary economy, people are often told that they "vote with their money" when spending it, and promising ideas around this like the Buycott smartphone app have evolved. However, because money is scarce for much of the population, people are often forced to buy the cheap stuff again, against their ethical standards. That's why buycotts and boycotts might work better in a barter economy, and a feature for user-contributed buycott / boycott campaigns and badges for proven business certification should be added to implement it.
  11. Selection rules for barter deal alternatives. This feature is tied to the network barter algorithm and not possible in monetary economy. Basically it means that, whenever the algorithm found different alternatives for barter deals that could happen at a given moment, the software has the power to decide which one it lets happen. Each one profits different producers and products, so the software can have pro-social and pro-commons rules for its decisions: supporting small business in competition with big one, supporting open enterprises over proprietary ones etc.. It would just be critically important to make these rules public and transparent, and to justify them. Else, trust of users in this barter economy would be harmed.
  12. Democratic self-regulation of the market. There would be an integrated decision-making feature like Loomio where platform users can propose and vote on regulations for their barter economy market, such as if they want to ban the bartering of weapons or other types of products, how they want data privacy to be handled etc.. Giving this power to users and not to platform operators (as usual, see eBay and Amazon) prevents the abuse of power because it's in the hand of those affected by the decisions. It also means that, in the case of large-scale economies, regulations won't favor the 1% as they did for years, and do, in the case of bank regulation in the monetary economy.
  13. Community tax for commons support. The platform operators charge a commission on all barter deals in order to fund the efforts of providing the platform (the fee will be about 4% of the price, but in barter, as users do not have money). This mechanism could be extended to include an added mandatory "community tax", meant for the support of projects that benefit all of the community. Decision about how to spend this tax "money" (which is actually barter, so rights to products and services) would be in the hands of the platform users, using teh voting feature.
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Concrete examples

Matt, before going into the proposal list, I wanted to go back to the core principle of the Economy App foreseeing the Beta test in Matera. I (think) I get the principle, but what I don’t get is the process. As I told you, I think that there is space for seeding and growing user communities in the South of Italy  although initial scepticism will of course have to be overcome: there is some knowledge of alternative currency experiences, but we are still speaking of credit issues, so it is not the same challenges we are facing here (Sardex or Prestiamoci).

Straight to the point, there is something I am missing (probably more than one thing): the process. How do we seed and grow the user-community? Very concretely, you arrive in Matera and hand out 30-35 cell phones with the Economy App on. And then?

In the work with the Matera2019 Committee a proposal has been made to think about having a local currency for the European Capital of Culture Manifestation. Some people of the Committe spoke about Sardex I suppose because it is the only thing they new, and makes most sense to them as it is a circuit of commercial credit. I spoke about the Economy App and wanted to understand if  this could fit in the Ecoc manifestation as we are also speaking of “immaterial” goods to be exchanged: can the Economy App be the bone of the exchanges linked to culture, tourism, creativity?

Quick first answer for now …

Thanks for your insightful comments, Ilaria – much appreciated! You’re obviously right that there has to be a process. The idea of handing out phones got abandoned long ago when it became clear that, at first, this will not be a mobile app but a website. (The name is still from these old days …). We’re still sorting out what kind of community deployment process would fit (and obviously it can’t be decided without knowing Matera first-hand). However, I’ll publish a similar list of the ideas we had so far, and you can then relate it to Southern Italy. For a teaser, here are the titles from a rather unordered internal list that I already have for this purpose:

  • Support existing communities by giving them services.
  • Find existing barter sites in every country and collaborate as network barter network.
  • Build productive living environments.
  • Offer services for barter at an info stand in the city.
  • Barter shop / wish shop.
  • Start with a community survey.
  • Go for offer and demand mapping, house to house.
  • Start local and saturate before expanding.
  • Ignite trade with some committed users who make post-paid offers.
  • Personally offer favors to acquaintances for barter.
  • Use regular local exchange meetings as a community magnet.
  • Use a "barter warehouse" as a community magnet.
  • Tell existing barter platforms to migrate to network barter.
  • Donation campaigns for unregistered users.
  • Start a local community, hand it over to the locals, repeat.
  • Utilize group bonding via parties etc. to create local communities.
  • Advertise as service barter platform that generates work, but allows products as well.
  • Position it as a para-legal site, with the first goal to provide jobs, not to be legal.
  • Provide a tool for economic exchange to existing communities.
  • Let social activism movements spread the idea.
  • Rely on voluntary word of mouth.
  • Use vouchers as viral marketing boosters.
  • Use billboards and posters to make Economy App known in a local community.
  • Encourage people who have money and want something that is also available for barter to buy and offer something in return that is not yet available for barter.
  • Adding others' potential offers from community mapping.

The idea of putting Economy App into the Ecoc alternative currency discussion for Ecoc is great. However, I need to know a bit more about what you mean by “immaterial” exchange for culture, creativity, tourism? Of course, you can trade not just products in Economy App but anything of value: small atomic tasks like translation (big thing in the software, like for “working a bit on interesting tasks to relax”); or offering services, like brainstorming, touristic services etc… Or do you rather mean if one can reward people for intangible properties like “being a local business” where it’s hard to put a price tag on?

Longer answer …

FYI, I just published this idea collection as a somewhat more elaborate (but still early-stage) answer: local community development for Economy App. If you have some insights if and how this maps to Southern Italy, I’d appreciate :slight_smile: