Over the next couple of decades, artificial intelligence (AI) systems are expected to change the world as we know it, and particularly the world of work. With up to 50% of jobs set to either change or disappear, things will certainly look different. One way in which things may change is the economic model. Come the AI Armageddon, will we still use money to exchange for services, or will a different model come to the fore? One alternative economic model is time-banking. Here’s what you need to know.

Time-banking is, in its simplest form, an alternative currency involving time, not money. Time-banking is a community-based currency, where every hour of time you put into the community is worth one hour back again. So, for example, you might spend two hours helping a neighbour to put up a shed. You could then trade that two hours for some babysitting from someone else at a later date, or perhaps some dog-walking. Time-banking is rooted in the idea that people may not have much money, but do have time and skills. 

Time-banking is not new. Back in the 1830s, the very first ‘Labour Exchange’ exchanged ‘labour notes’—in denominations of 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 40 and 80 hours—for work done. These labour notes could then be exchanged for work by other people, an hour for an hour. This system, rooted in socialist theory, did not last long, just two years, but the idea of a time-based currency has continued to appeal, and many cities around the world now have time banks in one form or another.

The most recent incarnation is rooted in the withdrawal of the state from service provision. Time banking has risen to prominence recently as a way to address the withdrawal of the state from provision of basic services, something which has happened around the world in response to the austerity movement. This has led to a recognition that if there was no other ‘safety net’, the community would have to provide its own, by sharing expertise and skills to help each other. 

The egalitarian nature of time-banking means that people can afford services that they otherwise could not. The system deviates from traditional financial systems in that it tends to value everyone’s time and skill as equal: an hour’s work equals an hour’s work, whether skilled or unskilled. This means that people without much money, or much to offer by way of skills, can still be part of the system and the community. They will also be able to access the services that they need, even if they are highly skilled, such as legal or financial advice, simply by providing their own time for other work.

The digital revolution has made the idea more appealing on a wider scale. The fundamental problem with time banks is that they are community- if not neighbourhood-based, and therefore extremely local. Plenty of services do fit a local model, but it is hard if you do not know any neighbours who could provide the service you need. Technology offers the answer: apps that can match needs to skills, and also formalise the contract and time required. By allowing users to rate services received, they also allow reputations to be developed, building trust between users.

Apps can  help to build up communities and develop social capital. Apps like this do not just connect users with needs and those with skills. They can also actually help to build communities, by connecting people and building social capital and trust between them. Ying, for example, is one such app, and can be used by particular groups, such as housing associating tenants, or a church congregation, as well as more widely.

Individual time-banking movements have often been short-lived—but the idea keeps coming back. Right from the beginning, and the original ‘Labour Exchange’ in 1832, individual time-banking movements have often faded out fairly rapidly. They tend to start as a response to a social crisis, such as government austerity in the late 2000s, and then become less necessary as economic conditions change. When you can command market rates for providing skilled services, you are less interested in providing them in return for an alternative currency. Time-banking as a system, however, has survived. Apps like Ying make it more likely that it will do so over a longer period, even if its popularity waxes and wanes. Come the AI Armageddon, we may all be looking to Ying and its successors to buy and sell our services.

Are you participating in a time bank? We’d love to hear about your experiences.


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