Commons-Innovations Vouchers

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Katharina Bohnenberger:

"The fourth type of vouchers, commons-innovation vouchers, are issued to enable the emergence of transformative innovations. Commons-innovation vouchers establish the demand for a certain good, but contrary to the shift voucher the goal is creating new (“innovative”) institutions that serve communities and society (“commons”). Hence, the voucher is issued before the institution is (fully) developed or expanded and can be useful for supporting the emergence of eco-social innovations [126].

Examples include vouchers for local transport in regions where there is not yet sufficient demand for local transport to be operating [127] and vouchers for locally produced organic food [63,85] in regions where the demand for this is still too low for farmers to switch towards organic agriculture. The strategy has been implemented with childcare vouchers in areas where not enough public childcare is (yet) available and non-public solutions are needed to timely meet the demand (e.g., through daycare staff).

Another example is collaboration vouchers, which are proposed as “annual grants given to each citizen, able to be spent on the membership fees of any registered collaboration . . . Unions may become registered collaborations, able to receive vouchers, and hence represent not only salaried employees but also the precariat and unemployed” [20]. It could help provide entitlements for political representation and establish civil society organizations, which are seen as crucial for transformation.

Also, some timebanking institutions have issued vouchers for new members to be able to receive services before having to provide services. Timebanking is analyzed as particularly helpful for expanding social networks and suitable for reaching socially excluded citizens [35]. Timebanks also possess the advantage that every hour of work counts equally and thereby rule out income inequality resulting from different hourly wages. For these reasons, timebanking is appreciated as a highly desirable institution for sustainable welfare [113,128]. Particularly digital timebanks operated by platform cooperatives can constitute an alternative to an exploitative crowd working concept of platform capitalism. Vouchers for free access to these services of platforms cooperative an establish network effects and thus facilitate the necessary participation in these platforms [129].

An even more encompassing example of commons-innovation vouchers are complementary local currencies, which are widely proposed by post-growth research for promoting relocalization (e.g., [3,71,114,130], for an overview see: [35]). Complementary local currencies give access exclusively to locally produced goods, although these goods and services are also accessible by all-purpose-money. Some scholars propose to issue basic income in a complementary currency (“which is exactly what a voucher is” [63]). Two proposals stand out for their elaborateness: Douthwaite’s proposals of regional energy bonds, which pay the bearer the price of a specific number of kWh on the day they mature [113].

“Once the energy plant starts supplying power its managing committee could as well turn it into a sort of bank, issuing energy ‘notes’ that the locals could use for buying and selling goods, secured in the knowledge that the note has real value as it could always be used to pay energy bills” [114]. The second proposal is Hornborg’s concept of a spatially encoded complementary currency (CC) that can “only be used to purchase goods and services that are produced within a given geographical radius of the point of purchase. This radius can be defined in terms of kilometers of transport, and it can vary between different nations and regions depending on circumstances” [122]. He states multiple possibilities of scaling up the currency: “distribution would be to provide each citizen with a plastic card which is electronically charged each month with the sum of CC allotted to him or her . . . states can choose to make a proportion of their social security payments (pensions, unemployment insurance, family allowance, etc.) in the form of CC. As between a third and half of some nations’ annual budgets are committed to social security, this represents a significant option for financing the reform, requiring no corresponding tax levies” [122].

What is crucial about complementary currencies and other commons-innovation vouchers, is how the relationship between the issuer and the provider is structured. The recipients’ needs are not at the center of attention of commons-innovation vouchers but the establishment of new institutions. Yet, if the use of vouchers is voluntary and the state is not demanding and not even allowing the providers to pay the tax in the complementary currencies, the financing structure stands on shaky ground. Instead, if the state demands issuers’ tax payment in these currencies, it would become a quasi-currency voucher. In this case, commons-innovation vouchers can provide a financing framework for the provision of a certain good or service.

The realization of the benefits of commons-innovation vouchers relies on non-state actors, like companies, cooperatives, or civil society engagement. On the one hand, this demands quality control by the state and includes risk for the quality of the good or service. Hence, the application of commons-innovation vouchers is easier when quality standards are easy to assess (e.g., quantity of km of local public travel) or the quality of the goods or service is already monitored by another institution (e.g., organic food certification). An even larger limitation is that the desired innovation is not taking place. For example, in regions with no skilled labor force, no entrepreneurs with suitable business ideas might be present to create a functioning business model; or when the goods and services are provided by a voluntary organization, provision might depend on the availability of volunteers. Because of this unreliability, commons-innovation vouchers should not be used to replace other successful welfare benefits or be applied for essential systems like emergency healthcare.

On the other hand, the provision of welfare benefits by private actors has three advantages. Firstly, it can spread distribution systems to non-state sectors, like vouchers for local food baskets which influence the (private) food market. Secondly, commons-innovation vouchers can be used for finding solutions for challenges when no best-practice is yet available. They can also implement institutions that cannot or only ineffectively be provided by the state to bridge times when the state is not fast enough in establishing the welfare benefit. Thirdly, non-state actors can also issue commons-innovation vouchers and create transformative business models. For example, housing cooperatives could issue rent contracts for a certain amount of square meters per person of the household (not for a fixed flat). When household size changes (e.g., new children are born or adolescence move out), households are guaranteed to be able to swap to flats of suitable size. This can have social benefits (e.g., enough housing space for everyone) and ecological benefits (e.g., no oversized flats) at the same time. In comparison to monetary benefits, commons-innovation vouchers have the advantage that they entail signaling. They advise certain acknowledged minimum consumption levels e.g., for fruits and vegetables or for sports activities and can raise the consumption for under-consumed goods (e.g., bike-sharing infrastructure, night trains, community space). They might also signal certain points in time when people collectively switch their behavior. Local bus services, for example, need a certain minimum user intensity to be economically feasible. Even when this user intensity could theoretically be feasible because sufficiently many people would be willing to use the bus, in practice a negative spiral of low participation, worse quality, lower participation, etc., often lets these institutions erode. The introduction of commons-innovation vouchers for free local service could provide a salient point in time when sufficiently many citizens decide to try a new service or even organize a community bus themselves and thereby let a sufficiently good service emerge which can persist.

In summary, commons-innovation vouchers support the emergence of community-based institutions, cooperatives, and common ownership or the consolidation of grass-root initiatives, which often have difficulties for sustaining them [71]. Particularly, complementary currencies can re-localize economic activity [114] and contribute to community building [35]." (