How can complementary currencies scale?

Abdul Semakula
11 min readOct 21, 2023

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This is the third of four provocations I generated from the short course Finance for a Regenerative Economy at Capital Institute.

I particularly love this course for the questions it has literally ‘forced’ me to think out aloud with the incredible people here.

In the money session, John Fullerton asked me if it was good that the internet scaled to a global level! Therefore is it a good idea for us to expect money to be scalable? I went right into my default slow-deep-thinking mode :) even when I had earlier written about money wanting to be as free as information on the internet here. So, in this provocation am sharing my thinking merged with my previous learning.

As always, diverse opinions help shape life-centric ideas and actions, so don’t hesitate to chime in with your thinking, ideas, existing examples, etc.

Scaling things, ideas, products, etc, seems to take on the usual form i.e. it can be both good and bad. So, in which situations is it good, and when is it bad?

A quick thought took me to Donella’s leverage points to help answer that question. I thought scaling constants, buffers, flows, etc is bad while scaling paradigms is good.

But then I remembered the paradigm of Individualism was scaled by colonialists and successfully dominated/replaced the community-based human organising that was prevalent in many colonised nations. For instance in Uganda where I live, most of the land was communally owned. Today, land is fragmented into individual plots of land. Fragmenting land has not only reduced its productivity, but it’s also the reason housing prices are aiming for the sky, not to mention the lateral urban expansion that is literally consuming biodiversity, forests, flora & fauna (e.g. ‘Kampala’ our capital got its name from the high prevalence of an antelope species locally called ‘Impala’ — 50–100 years later it’s all skyscrapers — and maybe concrete sculptures of the Impala and other animals as road decorations!). From that brief history, it’s evident how intolerant to Nature scaling our current development paradigm is.

Colonial individualism as a development paradigm has also created disconnected gated communities rife with social inequality, and thus insecurity which also increases (almost 3-fold) the material and energy requirements of households — it’s unsustainable and degenerating.

Fragmenting land also increases investment risk, deterring investors. I bet a responsible investor like the Norwegian Investment Bank would be very inspired to invest in for example a housing project on communally owned land (if the community collectively decided to do so). On the contrary, it is hard work to get say 100 individual landowners to combine already fragmented land for a housing project — that has the potential to reduce (by a third) the increasing destruction of flora/fauna alongside providing affordable housing.

Besides, if we’re going to give every last individual their own plot of land, will we remain with land for agriculture and nature or will we also innovate/engineer artificial ecosystem services that also give us spiritual wellbeing at Scale? Aren’t we instead better off learning to live more together?

It’s obvious, the leverage points framework isn’t designed to tell us what to scale and what not to scale.

So, how can we determine what aspects of our society and systems are worth scaling, and what aspects should be preserved or changed to avoid negative consequences?

I love this response from one Indigenous person I listened to. When he asked his old mom about something, and the mom didn’t know, she told him, to “go and ask your mother”. Which mother, a colonialist/separatist would ask?

Nature. Mother Nature.

And since we are learning about regeneration, it just makes sense to understand how living systems handle the concept of scaling. This requires further research but looking through what I already know, I can quickly say;

Diversity: Scaling is bad if it kills diversity in any way and good if it enables diversity to thrive. Why? Because diversity within living systems enhances their resilience and adaptability.

Evolution: Scaling is bad if it leads to devolution and good if it enables human and non-human communities in a place to co-evolve. Living systems evolve in response to changing environmental conditions, leading to the emergence of new traits, adaptations, and species. Barbara Marx Hubbard envisioned a new (human mind) species, named ‘Homo Universalis, that combines advanced technology with spiritual and social evolution’. Since many of us here have already evolved into Homo Universalis, am not sure we need neural implants, digital twins, and other ‘Advanced Technology’ but I love the transition from material to spiritual motivation to co-create a future based on the consciousness of oneness.

Self-Organising: Scaling is bad if it robs us of the power to self-organise as we see in most of our centralised systems. Scaling is good if it enables us to self-organise — to form patterns and structures without external control.

Long-term: Scaling is bad if it focuses on maximising short-term benefits as in our commercial system.

Holistic: Scaling is bad if it focuses on enabling parts to thrive rather than enabling the whole to thrive — if it kills the interactions and relationships between its parts. This is what we see in the colonial individualism paradigm of development.

Looking at the status and trend of our economy, we’ve mostly used ‘Scaling’ in mostly negative ways. Am guessing this has to do with the way innovation is done in relation to scaling products — top-down, solving every last problem for the ‘individual’, rather than developing the potential of the ‘Individual’ to meaningfully contribute to the immediate whole next to them — their Place.

So, how can we shift our innovation/creative focus from maximizing short-term money accumulation towards an economy where money fuels the care and commitment of the communities and ecosystems we are a part of?

Place-Sourced Regeneration.

As a powerful tool for exchanging the fruits of our labour, we shape money and it shapes us back.

Our money is designed for limitless scale. The negative kind of scale. It then shapes our economic behaviour to chase scale, again, the negative scale. Particularly, it’s designed to scale the cyclic concentration of itself into fewer and fewer private accounts — and far far far beyond need. No wonder the rate of wealth concentration has been on a steady increase.

But this design of money is an extension of a colonial economy — again which scaled around meeting the needs of the individual as opposed to meeting the needs of a whole. An economy that is now scaling wealth concentration disguised as scaling GDP and development by serving wants (instead of needs) of the INDIVIDIUAL — because it’s individuals who have the money to pay.

While innovation’s obsession with the individual has led us into this poly-crisis, ironically, and inevitably, it’s the one to lead us out of it. How? By redesigning what projects, businesses, or organisations focus on — expanding it from enabling the individual’s potential to maximise self-interest to enabling the individual’s potential to contribute to the health of their place or community — which is the next whole for the average person to play a valued and value-adding role.

So, what if a project, business, or even global corporation that wishes to come or serve a place; as a first step took the initiative to understand the geological, biological, and human patterns that have influenced a place over time and then positioned itself to partner with the “natural and human communities to develop and draw on their creative potential” to influence and be influenced by the place. Because, all people (or should we say all things) are born creative. And so tapping into this inner force motivates the person to see, feel, and act beyond the self.

Without this inner-outer force, without this bottom-up approach, without focusing on serving or contributing to the needs of the whole (places in this case), our economic system will always not just bring top-down solutions to parts (focusing on humans only), but will always function out of synch with the living systems it depends on — treating them like externalities. And so will our money.

The monoculture of our national/regional currencies today has its advantages but they are not designed to value local needs, local relationships between humans themselves, and between human and nonhuman inhabitants of a place or bioregion.

There is a mismatch between the national/regional currency and local needs. These currencies are essentially telling the person that, ‘we know your community has social and environmental needs, we know housing prices are going up and creating more homelessness, we know wetland X is degenerating or river Y is becoming fishless, and floods are increasing, but first consider contributing to this expensive but irrelevant war, to this bloated and corrupt administration, to this oil well expansion, etc.

These currencies are so disempowering for the person to contribute to local thriving. Of course, there are genuine activities that get done by governments — education, health, infrastructure et. c. But imagine what this ‘disempowering design’ of national currencies does to the mind, energy, and spirit of the local person. “I care less about the rising pollution, I care less about the rising food prices, rising homelessness, rising mental issues, I care less about species X being overfished from river Y, et. c. — that is the government’s work, mine is to accumulate wealth — that’s all I care about”. This is our current ‘will’, state of being, and how we function.

These currencies have molded us into self-interested bystanders waiting for, well, busy, corrupt, inefficient governments to handle everything of common interest to us. And as we can see, governments have not turned up on issues like climate change, and inequality, et. c.

But most importantly these currencies have blinded us from the power of our everyday economic decisions in influencing systems change. It’s easy to see how currencies are systemically embedded — they are like the blood transporting the billions of commercial decisions or transactions happening globally in this minute — only to perpetuate a cancerous system.

Currencies are potent sources of power driving our everyday economic behaviour towards, well, you already know where — but to bring that closer, the way we are using our currencies is scaling our way to more wildfires, more floods, heatwaves, more inflation, social violence, droughts, soil degeneration, species loss, and more degeneration.

So how would a currency that empowers persons to contribute to the health of the whole work — starting from their places be designed?

A place-focused economy requires us to downscale currencies to a place or bioregional level. So, imagine a community/bioregion currency designed to engage a community/bioregion to meet the specific and unique needs of the human and non-human inhabitants of that place!

It’s hard to imagine! Especially when one is clouded by the imposing limitations of our current system. Of course, there are several aspects to think about. What narratives will motivate people, what tools are adoptable and or adaptable, usability, design, direction, goals, who pushes which buttons, etc? How will for example supermarkets change? I love this example from Douglas Rushkoff, he proposes a supermarket can open its parking space for farmers to sell their produce on a specific weekly day and then offer to purchase the unbought produce using the local currency, and there are hundreds of other examples.

Generally, I think it’s only hard to imagine, if it’s top-down and if it’s not collective. Otherwise, with collective imagination and experimentation, we can learn everything we need to know to empower people to care for and protect the health of their places. In this whitepaper, I just managed to scratch the surface of how bottom-up, collective imagination can be used to develop not just a caring community/place/bioregional currency, but to experiment and learn a place-sourced model of development — using a real-world project.

Finally, this was about scale. Remember! What is good and bad scaling, especially in the context of money? Am open to your thinking. But we’ll end with why and how the above model is/can be good scaling.

First, it’s based on living systems design, the bottom-up collective imagination ensures diversity — reconciling diverse human and nonhuman community voices and motivating them to self-organise towards influencing and being influenced by the essence of the whole — the place they call home. Think of it as new commercial blood inspiring participants to collectively change/redirect daily commercial decisions toward the health of their place.

Second, the usage of a community currency need only scale to the needs of its locality. But there are going to be needs from external communities, even global communities. This is where Forex Services get not just busy but creative to serve this increased scale.

The biggest and best kind of scaling comes when the concept scales to hundreds of thousands of need-based bioregional/place or community currencies around the world, that interact to care for and protect the health of communities and thus the earth. Transactions between communities can be in the form of commercial exchange, investment, but also non-commercial where stronger/well-off communities vote to fund neighboring, regional, or global social or environmental needs/activities in other communities. In climate action terms, this catalyses local production and consumption, reducing material and energy use.

In money-flow terms, this removes the need for waiting decades on states and other central powers like philanthropy to fund urgent regenerative activities.

This creates a network of currencies that are rooted in the unique essence of places interwoven with the unique essence of persons to facilitate local regeneration as a gateway to global regeneration.

In this article, I elaborate that it’s time for us to free money the same way we freed information on the internet. And that designing systems requires us to leverage collective participation — engaging people to change the Goals of the System, while also expanding what they see, feel, and decide from self-interest to system health. The internet itself is a network of networks, where each network has its own rules, and meets the unique needs of its users. This is the same decentralised structure that money needs to be freed upon.

This course now tells me that complimentary currencies are at the center of shifting our relationship with money. This doesn’t mean bigger/national currencies have to go away. In this balancing relationship, centralised currencies bring efficiency to the table while downscaled decentralised currencies bring diversity to the table — ensuring currency, economic, social, and ecological resilience.

I mean, if our currencies were not built on the colonial foundation of separation and domination, but on the indigenous foundation of oneness, community, reciprocity, gratitude, and balance, we would probably have fewer financial crises. And this is a consistent theme am seeing is what needs to happen to accelerate systems change — i.e. balance useful modern values of enterprise, inventiveness, justice, etc with indigenous values that are based on abundance and gratitude to the natural world.

So, in a nutshell, I think complementary/smaller currencies can overcome their failure to scale (as John mentioned in the lecture) not by scaling currency usage outside their region, but by scaling this bottom-up currency model to many other places — so as to allow valuable interaction. This means they have to work well to appeal to other places/regions. It would be interesting to learn why the model used by WIR currency for example hasn’t been appealing to be customised by other regions or situations, where the Euro was over-adopted to replace national currencies. From a usability perspective, it can be overwhelming for me to have to carry several currencies in my wallet or a business to transact in several paper currencies. This is where technology comes in to make it seem like you’re dealing with one currency even when you dealing with several.

What is clear is that we need more funding for real-world experiments of complementary currencies especially for regenerating places.

If we manage to restore a place that is on a trajectory of degeneration, and put it on a trajectory of regeneration, we’ll have made a strong case for not just bioregional/place currencies, but also Regenerative Finance for mainstream adoption, by investors, international development funders, and finance in general. We just need to experiment it.

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Abdul Semakula

Systems Innovator co-creating bottom-up a distributive & regenerative future at https://opencollective.com/nvc