Annual Reporting: (2012-2013) Madison, Wisconsin
I visited Madison, Wisconsin three times over the past year, with two different purposes: to train as a “cooperative developer,” and to study the practice of “coproduction.” i
The first purpose for my visit to Madison was the CooperationWorks! Cooperative Business Development training. This program consisted of three intensive week-long training sessions that explored the history, principles and practices of cooperative development. ii
A cooperative is an organization that is owned and governed by a membership that consists of those who are served by the organization — whether they be consumers, workers, residents, etc. Co-ops come in all different kinds of forms, but they all share the same principles. Organizing a co-op is about as hard as starting a business, plus democracy. Given the diversity of contexts in which a cooperative solution might be employed, the craft of cooperative development seems to really just be about knowing one thing: how to facilitate an iterative process in which a group of people identify shared needs, exploring the possible ways to meet those needs, reach agreement on a course of action, do it, and evaluate the outcome. iii
From this training, I produced this reflection on the history of coops and their place in our economy (part 1 and part 2 and part 3). I also applied the cooperative framework to my work on the Broadband Bridge (see above, 2012), by drafting a memo about the possibilities for cooperative enterprise across the spectrum of community technology opportunities. Eventually, this training would also inform my proposal for a ‘community data coop,’ as articulated in Towards a Community Data Commons.
The second focus of my time in Madison was on ‘co-production’ — which I refer to as ‘work that is facilitated through the circulation of social capital.’
I began my research on co-production in DC, through extended interviews with Edgar Cahn and Chris Gray of Timebanks USA. A timebank is a system of mutual credit in which people can earn for time spent helping each other; everyone’s time is considered equally valuable, which creates (in theory) an egalitarian marketplace for co-production. Madison has one of the largest timebanks in the U.S. — the Dane County Time Bank. During much of my time in Madison, I was hosted by DCTB’s founder and director, Stephanie Rearick. iv
Stephanie has been piloting Time for the World, a praxis project that conducts research on existing forms of coproduction and mutual credit, while fostering visions of new models. My residency with Time for the World included two branches of work.
First, locally: I researched the history of the Dane County Time Bank and provided some creative facilitation to the DCTB’s leadership as they look ahead to an exciting new phase of evolution (including some forays into cooperative development). One exciting outcome of this process is the seed of a vision for a “Mutual Aid Network,” which would basically hybridize timebanking with other instruments of community finance.
Second, globally: under Steph’s advisement, I undertook a crash-course of research on many forms of mutual credit systems, local currencies, and other tools of community finance. At the same time, I helped facilitate a few threads of a conversation that Steph had convened to explore opportunities for collaboration and alignment of various practices. As the conversation grew to include more than a dozen leaders from mutual credit systems around the world, I took the lead on a working group to develop a framework for technical interoperability among heterogeneous mutual credit systems.
Okay so that’s pretty abstract. Bear with me.
In other words: there are different technologies that currently enable people to trade with each other using various kinds of currency (which may or may not be convertible to cash) and we conceived of means to enable transactions between such systems. If these means are implemented, then what’s currently a fragmented landscape with a number of competing timebanking platforms (mostly disconnected from the broader alternative currency movement) could become a distributed network of compatible systems with low barriers of entry to newcomers. v
Timebanking has struggled over the past few decades to evolve beyond the state of a noble idea with a small number of dedicated adherents building local communities which rarely attain a self-sustaining energy that lives beyond their founders’ own commitment. Frustrations with the available technology are common; while I wouldn’t necessarily say that technology is the most important factor in timebanking’s success (or lack thereof), I do think that as computing becomes increasingly mobile, there will be many more opportunities to experiment with new approaches to the concept. By establishing common standards for such technologies, we would make it possible for the outcomes of such experiments to be shared, copied, recombined, etc. I think this is exciting because it will enable timebanking to become more like a feature of community-building of all kinds, rather than a platform or organization unto itself.
Consider the potential right there in Madison. Madison is a relatively small town, with a large active timebank and the most cooperatives per capita in the U.S. Many members of the timebank are also members of local co-ops. Well, co-ops often struggle not just to sustain financial viability in the face of a tough market, but also to meet the various needs of community-building — such as education, for example, or even just the manual labor of producing democracy, like child-care for parents at meetings, etc. Timebanking could be a method to leverage such participation where otherwise it would have to be either volunteer or paid (both problematic, from the co-op’s perspective). Yet when I asked my fellow developers in Madison about examples of timebanking used in cooperative development, I didn’t find any. People shrugged and said, “sounds like a good idea.” But it seemed to me that it seemed to them that timebanking is something that happens over there with those people on that website, rather than right here in their co-op, where stuff has to get done whether or not there’s money to pay for it.
As long as timebanking is associated with building a community of timebankers, rather than building a community of [whatever your community’s identity may be], then I fear timebanking will remain isolated from the very kinds of communities that need coproduction in order to really flourish. But when the means of valuing participation can be readily placed in the palm of everyone’s hand, I think we’re in store for some rapid evolution of the cooperative economy. It’s not so far away at all.vi