The Future of Money? Simply Commons Sense

November 24, 2016

Given recent global political events, it has never been timelier to discuss the meaning of wealth, mechanisms for its measurement and instruments for its equitable distribution. Transition designer, Sean Esbjorn-Hargens’s PhD, and his MetaCapital Framework (MCF) are providing futurists with a language to talk about emerging economies in a way that invites more people to join the conversation.


Dr. Esbjorn-Hargens tells the story of a transitioning economy that is quite compelling. It begins with the reappropriation of the word currency. In this new narrative, current-see is the move to make conscious tacit stores of value that we trade in everyday, some monetizable, but most not.


From reputation to knowledge, we continuously trade in all kinds of flows. Consider the number of Facebook likes you have - a perfect example of a currency that measures popularity rather than dollars. Or grades and degrees, worth more than gold if you are a young person trying to get into a top tier university.


There are other pioneers working in the domain of economic transition. Michele Bauwens is from the P2P Foundation, a global network of researchers, activists and citizens monitoring and promoting actions geared towards a transition to a Commons-based society. In a recent lecture in Canada, Bauwens was quoted as having said,


We live in an interesting period where the 3 ruling classes - neo liberal capitalists, social democratic politicians and post war academics - are in charge of demoralising us.


Dr. Esbjorn-Hargens stands as counterpoint to this perspective, being the first academic practitioner to offer economic futurists a translatable language that is rich in optimism and wisdom.

Eric Harris-Braun is the co-founder at MetaCurrency Project, a collective dedicated to developing tools and platforms 
for open sourcing the next economy. In his interview with Money and Life filmmaker, Katie Teague, Harris-Braun refers to money as the perfect symbolic representation of flow for trading in commodities when scarcity makes them high in value. However, he also highlights money's insufficiency to represent flow for things that are high value AND abundant, like air?


Harris-Braun hammers in this point with a metaphor. In the interview, he describes Paleolithic man’s communication upshift from image making to written language, and the exponential expansion of expressive capacity as consequence. In this example, money as a symbolic representation of value is as insufficient to cope with the multiplicity of flows as pictographs were in communicating the sophistication, nuance and subtlety indicative of written language.   


Harris-Braun goes on to compare future economic structural changes to the shift from molecules to DNA. Yikes! He describes it as a future that is difficult to talk about because we don’t have a language for it yet.


Michele Bauwens applies the concept of block chain or peer-to-peer current-see exchange to everything including money, knowledge, manufactured assets, human capabilities and more. For Bauwens, block chain is an ethos versus market driven model that is as as much about the exchange of information as it is assets.


Bauwens speaks in 500-year timelines dating back to the Roman Empire. He traces transitioning economic structures from conquest and slavery through to feudalism and capitalism. He discusses the adaptive nature of past societies and compares them to the Commons economy that is emerging today.


According to Bauwens, the Commons, or peer-to-peer distribution models, are replacing traditional mechanisms for centralizing the production, storing, distribution and value accounting of financial, knowledge and manufactured capital. He shares examples of engineers working in the digital Commons co-designing cars, prosthetics and houses that are being manufactured using 3D printers. This design global, manufacture local movement is already slashing costs and distributing capacity toward localized markets based on need rather than mass production at scale.


The P2P Foundation is building structures to bridge the connection between the current extraction markets and emerging contributionary ones. Their commitment is to design the social contracts that fairly distribute market value created by the commons back to all who were contributors.


Today, we are in transition between stories. Esbjorn-Hargens, Harris-Braun and Bauwens are part of a design community building the infrastructure for emerging economic systems. Already, the Commons is stewarding and managing shared resources in ways that acknowledge collective wealth and facilitate its fair distribution. 


Sam Cooke’s famous lyric, I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will, keeps swimming around in my head. The truth is, change is already here. How well those at the emergent edge are able to craft a compelling story using language everyone can relate to is THE design challenge of the 21st century.


Susanna Carman is a trans-disciplinary designer, researcher, facilitator and writer specialising in Design Leadership and Creative Intelligence. With backgrounds in adult development, design, brand, business strategy and the arts, Susanna works with leaders of enterprise and organisations to embed Design Thinking into the cultural fabric of human systems. To work with or read more by Susanna Carman, please visit or contact her directly at



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