OnPoint Member Invents ‘Complimentary Currency,’ Wins CO-OP THINK Prize

San Francisco-based entrepreneur Justin Bean wants you to rethink money. “What is money?” he asks. “How do we use it to create value in the world?” How does money influence what a community is able to accomplish, or how well it can care for its people? What about when that community is poor and money is scarce?

Bean, a long-time OnPoint Community Credit Union member, has thought a lot about these questions and the challenges implicit in answering them. Earlier this year he came up with Community Coin, a potential solution to many of these challenges. He entered it in the 2015 CO-OP THINK Prize competition, a collaboration with global solutions platform OpenIDEO that asked the question, “How might we use the power of communities to financially empower those who need it most?”

Community Coin was selected as one of the five top ideas for its potential to shift the conversation we have on community transactions.

Bean has long been interested in the wellbeing of people and communities. When he opened his first OnPoint account as a young teenager, his parents taught him that credit unions serve their communities rather than profits alone. During his years serving in AmeriCorps and traveling in Africa and Asia, Bean encountered not only tremendous need, but many people eager to serve others and solve the world’s problems.

“Whenever I asked ‘what would you do with your time and energy if money wasn’t a concern?’ people overwhelmingly talked about making the world a better place, and about spending more time with their families and communities,” wrote Bean, introducing his entry. “However, they lacked the proximity to wealth and access to economic power that would free them to do what they thought would make a positive impact in the world.”

Community Coin is Bean’s solution. “What if we could reward people for the work they do serving their community right on the spot, without having to wait for a business or a bank to put a value on it or make currency available for it?” he asks.

Money, says Bean, is a “social construct,” an agreement within a society to create, recognize, and trade value a certain way. “The way we think about money has an impact,” he said, “and it’s important that we understand it.”

Bean considered people who were less empowered within the traditional money system — people from poor families and communities, who live in places of high unemployment or low education. “There’s plenty of good work to do in these communities and there are plenty of people willing to do it,” he said. “The only thing missing is the money that unleashes their work.”

Community Coin is what Bean calls a “complimentary” currency. Rather than trying to replace money, the digital currency is meant to fill the gaps that our money-based system is missing. Community Coin is based directly on a community’s response to the work done by one of its members, rather than on what businesses, banks, or governments are willing to pay at any given time. It puts the emphasis on creating value in our communities first, instead of simply considering rates of return.

“Let’s say Joe is great at math,” said Bean, “and he wants to tutor some underprivileged kids who are struggling and whose families can’t afford tutoring. With Community Coin, Joe could post the work that he’s doing, and then the community — including the kids’ families — can award him points.”

These points are then traded for goods and services, said Bean. This might happen in a variety of ways, depending on how Community Coin integrates into a community and into the monetary system — from digital goods that have zero marginal cost to things like airline miles and cryptocurrencies that integrate with the existing monetary economy.

“During the Great Depression, when the monetary system failed a large number of people, local currencies popped up all over the place,” said Bean. Community Coin is like a local currency that can be deployed in any community where the traditional monetary system is not meeting needs.

“Capitalism has done great things for the world,” said Bean, “but market and institutional failures lead to a lot of pain in the world. Community Coin is meant to be complementary to our financial system, to find the places where it’s not working at full efficiency and fill in those gaps.”

Community Coin is just a concept right now. But through CO-OP’s partnership with OpenIDEO, an open-innovation platform for solving global challenges created by global design firm IDEO, potential partners are encouraged to help Bean develop and test an initial pilot.

“It’s great to see an organization like CO-OP finding ways of innovating and empowering communities,” Bean said. “The current tech renaissance is amazing, but there are a lot of consequences in the medium term as industries are disrupted and people have to find new ways to meet their needs. Competitions like this could be part of the solution.”

To learn more about Community Coin, click here. To learn more about the Financial Empowerment Challenge on OpenIDEO, click here.

Questions about this story? Contact James Pearson: 206.340.4790, jpearson@nwcua.org.


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