So you want to start a LETS?

Is it a good idea to start a LETS in 2014? The brand is 30 years old, and has a track record littered with poor governance, currency collapse, low participation and high turnover. The domesticated hippies of the 80s and caring sharing consumers of the 90s are not the same as the Occupiers and Transitioners of today. The existing LETS projects at least in UK are failing to thrive even in recession. The movement preferred decentralisation over software coordination, and slicker projects emerge every week.

Could there be be anything worth picking from such a carcass? What would a modern community exchange system look like? Is there a better model already, like timebanking?

We must consider that the formulation of LETS long predated the internet, digital money, and convenient communication by email. In those days spreadsheets were cutting edge, and data storage was very unreliable. The Committee put a lot of time and paper into processing membership fees, creating checkbooks, entering transactions into a ledger, updating directories, publishing newsletters, photocopying and periodically mailing updates to members. Most of that work has gone away now there is free, open sources software like mine, and services like Community Exchange Systems, and Community Forge. The availability of software seems to have sustained the LETS movement into the 21st Century, but we haven't seen the revival that some hoped for since the depression started in 2008.

Instead we've seen new approaches to community resilience like Transition Towns, the Sharing Economy, and diverse local initiatives. And we've seen existing LETS groups largely failing to embrace these complementary local initiatives. No Transition Town to my knowledge is using any kind of locally created credit. And projects like StreetBank which are getting traction in UK have no accounting tools. The Work of relocalisation, greening the economy, replacing our energy systems, creating a solidarity economy, reclaiming food autonomy, is much more broadly understood now than in the 80s.

However this diversity of activities is absolutely not supported by software. There is a vast pool of incompatible and half completed projects just supporting community exchange. As each community articulates for itself what it is doing, it is very difficult to compose coherent requirements. And while a devoted developer, like in Streetbank, can gradually support many kinds of activity, building generalised open source tools on an open source platform is an order of magnitude more difficult, and organisations like NESTA who funded Streetbank are completely ignorant about software and software politics. I have described the kind of software architecture we need for community level services, but don't hold your breath for that.

So in conclusion, a LETS is a great model because it is well defined, well understood, and supported by software. But arguably the branding is poor, and we need to be innovating and doing more with our local communities than just the function of exchange.

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