Time is Money, So Take It to the Bank (and Other Community Building Ideas)

June 25, 2012

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How do you prefer to spend a day? Perhaps you would enjoy hiking with someone through the local county park, seeing the natural beauty, listening to the sounds of nature, and noticing some wildlife while getting healthy exercise and strengthening a friendship. Alternatively you might enjoy a day at Disney World, mingling with the crowds, enjoying amusement rides, and meeting the Disney characters. While these two options may have similar value to you, the first costs little or nothing, and the second costs plenty.

This paradox highlights the distinction between economies—the exchange of goods and services—and economics—a money-based model of an economy. The two can diverge and financial manipulations can cause economic accounting systems to give false signals. The recent Creative Monmouth Call to Collaboration (held as part of Creative NJ’s yearlong series of community based convenings) explored several approaches that can allow economies to thrive even as economics languish. Perhaps we can enjoy our walk in the woods regardless of what might be happening on Wall Street and at the Federal Reserve.  When we learn to think of prosperity in terms of flourishing –enjoying what we are doing– rather than as opulence—accumulating more and more things— we can help each other prosper even as economic indicators stagnate.

One of many creative ideas that were explored at the Call to Collaboration is Time Banking. Time Banking uses time rather than cash as the exchange currency. Time dollars are earned for providing services and spent receiving services. As an example, imagine you have spent a few hours tutoring students in math or computer skills. You earn time dollar credits for providing that service. Now you need a ride to the train station. You can use some of the time dollars you earned in exchange for the time someone spends driving you to the train station. Solvers—people who can provide a service—are matched with seekers—people who need some service. Both benefit from the exchange, and the roles change quickly. Today you are seeking help; tomorrow you are solving another member’s problem.  One hour of one person’s time is equal to one hour of another’s.

The concept is based on these core values:

  • We are all assets, we all have something to contribute,
  • Some work is beyond a monetary price. It is still OK to believe that some of the best things in life are free.
  • Interchange. We help each other build a stronger community as everyone takes on the roles of seeker and solver in turn.
  • Social networks are necessary; we need each other, and
  • A respect for people.

As you help one neighbor and then receive help from another, we meet more people in new and important ways. We begin to feel more at ease around our neighbors as we have more significant and positive social interactions and learn how each person fits into the community. Each of us becomes connected to others and has significant interactions and relationships with them. Isolation and fragmentation are reduced by our constructive interactions. As citizens engage each other, we increase our trust in each other and care more about each other.  Friendships are built, and we become more accepted. The community gets stronger as more people connect to one another.

In his book Bowling Alone, Harvard Professor Robert Putnam uses the term social capital to describe the quality of the relationships and the cohesion that exists among its citizens. He found that community health, educational achievement, local economic strength, and other measures of community well-being depended on the level of social capital existing in a community. Effectively using a Time Bank system can help increase our social capital.

Creative NJ Member Alison Hayes has been thinking for some time about such a system she calls the “Barter Services Network”. It augments the basic Time Bank system with a transaction feedback mechanism designed to increase the sense of security and reliability of members, which should lead to stronger inclusion of those most at risk. It also includes Geographic Information System features that help match seekers with local solvers. As a result of attending the Creative Monmouth: Call to Collaboration she is now working with this author, an experienced software developer and system engineer, to write system specifications that can be used to communicate her ideas precisely to software developers, system providers, community leaders, and others who can help bring the system into service for our community.

Jerome Scriptunas, another Creative NJ/Monmouth member, lead several sessions during the Monmouth Call to Collaboration that worked to define another vision for a system that can connect seekers with solvers. He learned the word “gamification” from a participant at one session and began to explore how the mechanics that draw people to games can be used to increase participation in social systems. Can mobile phone applications, award badges, achievement levels, leader boards, progress bars, and other challenges and rewards encourage people to participate more fully in a time bank or serve as a catalyst for stimulating our investment in local economies?

Time Bank systems are already up and running in many communities. One system, hOurworld.org, has already exchanged nearly a half million hours.  Another, Community Weaving, has exchanges operating in many communities across the country. One possibility being considered is to create a Monmouth County service exchange of these systems, organize interested Monmouth County residents, and encourage them to join and participate.

Creative NJ is not alone in thinking about how we can take charge of our future. The Documentary film “Fixing the Future” takes us to places in America where people have already found new ways to work, to create jobs, and to be creative and sensible about using earth’s limited resources. A nationwide screening will take place July 18. Recognizing the relevance of this film to the ideas developed at the Creative Monmouth: Call to Collaboration, arrangements are underway to join this event and screen “Fixing the Future” at the Red Bank Clearview Theatre beginning at 7:30 pm Wednesday July 18. This trailer provides a preview of this important PBS documentary. Tickets will be sold for the screening at standard movie prices. You can purchase tickets in advance or buy them at the door.  I hope to see some of you there; and I hope you bring a friend who might be interested in learning more about all the projects of Creative Monmouth, or who are interested in bringing a Creative NJ call to collaboration to their town.  This will be a great opportunity to bring more creative solutions to your community.

The Call to Collaboration makes clear the enduring wealth of Monmouth County is the talent and good will of its people, rolling ocean waves and sandy beaches, fertile fields, flowing streams, lush verdant forests, vibrant and creative cultures energized by constant interchange with New York City and other neighboring communities, and the imagination and aspiration of our people.  We can ensure this robust economy continues to flourish even as economic measures readjust.

Leland R. Beaumont is an electrical engineer retired from Bell Labs / Lucent technologies. He lives in Middletown NJ, and when he is not spending time with his family, or out hiking, he works on a variety of prosocial projects.  Most recently he has been developing the Wikiversity course on What Matters.

Creative New Jersey is dedicated to fostering creativity, innovation, and sustainability by empowering cross-sector partnerships in commerce, education, philanthropy, government, and culture in order to ensure dynamic communities and a thriving economy.

Creative New Jersey’s leaders and partners are regular contributors to the Dodge blog.