1. Who are you? What is TimeRepublik? What’s your background?
I am Gabriele Donati, co-founder of TimeRepublik: a global time-banking platform. For those who are not familiar with this concept, it’s basically a community of people that share all sorts of services in exchange of time instead of money. One hour has the same value for anyone involved, no matter what your talent might be. Yes, 1 hour = 1 hour. No matter what you do, no matter who you are. I know, most people cringe when they hear that, but we truly believe in this formula and I will try to convince you why.
Together with Karim Varini, a childhood friend of mine we founded TimeRepublik in 2012. It started more like a mental exercise, in the early 2000, but little by little it morphed into a real thing, and became – to our surprise – the biggest time bank in the world. Neither of us had any tech background, nor past experiences in the field, so we had a lot of homework to do (luckily we both love to read). Karim and I are also coming from two totally different backgrounds: his is the financial world, and mine is music.
I am originally from Switzerland, but I’ve been living in NYC for over half of my life. Ever since I was a teenager I’ve always wanted to become a jazz musician, so I moved to NYC right after high school to pursue this dream, learning upright-bass while getting my BFA at the Jazz Program at The New School For Social Research.
Funny enough, now that I think about it, time has always been consciously at the center of my life, and through music (and especially as a bass player who’s role is the pace setter) I was able to look deep into the meaning of time. Year after year I became more and more aware of the importance of every beat, of every fraction of the second.
In jazz the beat is like the brick for an architect. You need to lay each down one at a time, with as much precision as you can manage, in order to build something as amazing as a cathedral. The same applies to life: where the beats or bricks are the seconds you live. Second after second what you are building is your future, and I don’t mean this figuratively—I am being quite literal.
How did you meet your cofounder? How did TR start? What’s your mission?
I come from Lugano, Switzerland; a small city where everyone knows everyone, but what mostly brought Karim and myself together was the love of nature. Back then I had a cabin in the mountains, where I spend most of my free time. It was this amazing hideaway without any electricity or running water, a river close by and two fireplaces— that was it. I used to throw a lot of parties there, people would visit and stay for short or long periods of time. It was sort of an open house, where friends and strangers alike would pass in and out. It had this wild, natural vibe about it— I thought it was really a special place, but not everyone got it. Karim was one of the few that did, so that’s how we became friends. It was also there that we started to conceptualize TimeRepublik, in the midst of nature, fishing, cooking, and chopping wood.
The main questions were: why are we different when we gather around a fire in the woods? Why do we draw closer to each other, how does that enhance our relationships and make us more empathetic? More importantly: why don’t we have these same dynamics once we go back to our daily lives? I am aware that these are questions that people ask themselves all the time, but we were adamant in doing something about it. We wanted to build something.
We definitely weren’t interested in replicating a ‘60s-inspired commune of sorts— because we felt it was more than just a physical space. It was about a mindset, and what we wanted was to find a way to prolong and expand on that experience. That’s when we learned about timebanking. This was around 2003-2004: we had seen it on the local news channel, they were featuring a local timebanking community happening in a building. Basically, all the building’s tenants were exchanging favors with one another and they were keeping track of every time transaction in a log book. We got excited about the concept, and we immediately tried to find a way that would scale it. Of course this meant we needed to go online, but keep in mind it was way before the internet that we now know—before 2005, so before Facebook got big and before the social media revolution.
So the idea brewed for years before coming to fruition, and then in 2012, we finally decided that it was time.
TimeRepublik’s mission is to scale empathy, dignity, and trust around the world. Our goal is not to create a service-exchange platform borrowing the same dynamics from the market economy. Rather, we want to do use service-exchange as an “excuse” to create relations that potentially generate trust—the only thing that matters—between people. That’s the key, but for some strange reason not everyone seems to understand that. Not everyone gets that trust opens so many more doors than money alone.
We’re finding that changing people’s current mindsets and having them adopt this approach is extremely challenging. For sure TimeRepublik hasn’t scaled as quickly as Instagram or Facebook, and maybe it will never grow as big, but I am not so concerned about it, because, even at a much smaller scale, it will have a much stronger impact and so much more potential than just another social network. I promise you. We see instances of this everyday!
I always joke about having created the first purpose-driven social media—an oxymoron nowadays. 99% of the platforms out there don’t necessarily have any purpose other than sharing a filtered depiction of reality or exchanging biting comments (fine, I am exaggerating, but you get my point), and having users interact through a like or dislike.
The problem with these other networks is that you don’t really DO anything on them. What we aim for at TimeRepublik is to create a place where the one thing you actually do is…. well, DO. The DOs are our LIKEs, if you will.
Sure, there are obstacles to us scaling due to higher barriers to entry. We are not leveraging on voyeurism or narcissism, we don’t have those metrics that attract so many members of the larger public. But in a way, I view that as a “good” filter of userbase. Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to put down the competition, nor am I comparing TimeRepublik to giants that have revolutionized our world. All I’m saying is this: that their promises haven’t been fulfilled. Their promises hinged on happiness, on social connection. They’ve promised us that through connecting with each other we would become happier, but we all know today that the exact opposite is true: the more time we spend on those platforms, the more isolated and alienated we feel. So connecting us is simply not enough, we need to go one step further.
It is also important to understand that we are not trying to replace money with time. TimeRepublik wants to be a valuable complementary system. We’re all in agreement that money is extremely efficient in creating transactions, but it is precisely because of its efficiency that it tends to “pollute” other domains that shouldn’t have anything to do with money or alternative currencies. What we seek to do is to separate these domains. But don’t listen to me, take it from Edgar Cahn (legal professor, former counsel and speech writer to Robert F. Kennedy, and the creator of TimeBanking): “All the current economic planning omits an economy that is much more important. It’s called home, family, neighborhood, community, civil society that raises children, keeps neighborhood safe and vibrant, raises strong families, takes care of the elderly, gets involved in things like elections, tries to makes democracy work, holds officials accountable, fights for social justice, tries to keep the planet sustainable.” –Edgar Cahn TEDxAshokaU.
What are the biggest challenges?
To date, our biggest challenge has been in attempting to explain what TimeRepublik is really about— translating all the above I just said into the oft-beloved “elevator pitch”.
As you can imagine, one of the things we get criticized most often for is the 1 = 1 rule, the non-flexibility of time (or the timecoin: TimeRepublik’s currency). It usually takes us about half an hour to articulate an explanation, an infinity by today’s standards. But here’s my question: are we sure flexibility is a good thing? Without delving into conspiracy theories or deep economics, I believe that the flexibility of currency is what led us to where we are today. If today we find ourselves in a world of extreme disparity (like the 1% vs the 99%) it’s also very much due to this (fictional) idea that money is flexible. Let’s not forget that a flexible system, much like our current monetary system, is essentially gambling. Here’s an example: I need a logo design and I hire a graphic designer for an hour. She/he charges me $100. So now I need to make sure that what she/he produces will bring me some sort of ROI (Return Of Investment), say, at least $101. Flexibility is basically a guessing game, where you try to expand and increase what you started out with, passing on the cost to someone else.
What TimeRepublik seeks to offer is a platform where transactions transform into relationships, and this can only happen if you take money (or any flexible measuring tool) out of the equation. We are trying to facilitate social capital exchange in order to establish (re-establish?) best human practices. At the end of the day, we believe that what truly makes us happy is to give and share something with someone else. We believe that time, on a 1 = 1 level, is the perfect solution. Any other currency, or any other flexible adaptation of it, would be akin to measuring a sphere with a ruler.
I guess it all comes down to a finite vs. infinite ROI. I believe that the exchange of time leads to an infinite ROI, if—and only if—one hour of your life has the same value as one hour of mine.
What did you learn in the years after launching it?
The biggest lesson I’ve learned over the years is that trust cannot be outsourced. It’s an individual responsibility that can only be established with reciprocity. In a way, TimeRepublik and timebanking are fertile grounds for trust-generating interactions, if only for the fact that we value relationships over transactions. For me, the scary beauty in it is that you cannot really protect it, because just like as any other system, it is vulnerable. But once you honor a relationship, that’s when you’ve found the key.
Every transaction in TimeRepublik is a very low-risk transaction, at least economically speaking. The system is based on reciprocity and not on monetary benefit. The point of doing anything on TimeRepublik is to ultimately generate trust through relationships and vice versa, and not (as some might think) to accumulate as many timecoins as possible so that I can exploit others.
The problem, as I see it, is upstream: we often confuse trust with insurance (assurance). Today, even in the so-called sharing economy, sharing goes hand in hand with profiting. Ask someone in this COVID-19 crisis what they think of the contact tracing apps and they’ll list all the reasons why they aren’t comfortable with sharing their details… but then you look at their digital footprint and discover they’re sharing the most intimate parts of their lives with the apps they use—not because they trust the person/people behind those apps, but because they perceive there to be enough benefits provided by these organizations to offset their risk. We trust credit card companies, insurance companies, e-commerce websites… on AirBnB we even share our most intimate things: our homes! We put our nest out there, and we do that NOT because we trust that the renter will be respectful and carful, but because we belive that if anything happens the company will protect me. That’s very dangerous. It’s what economists call the moral hazard: when a person is willing to take more risks if someone else is bearing the burdens of those risks. That’s not a balanced relationship based off reciprocity, and that’s definitely not genuine trust. That’s something I’ve learned: to stop outsourcing trust.
Can you tell us nore about complementary currencies and time banks. What is the theory behind them?
It’s hard to find one basic theory behind time banking. Everyone has a slightly different take on it.
I see timebanking as different operating system. I’ve always loved this quote by Buckminster Fuller: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” For us, this is what timebanking is.
Money is an expensive tool. Moreover, as I previously mentioned, when you use money, it is a little bit like gambling, since you are trying to estimate the value of something that mostly loses its value right after you purchase it. With time it’s a completely different matter, if not merely for the fact that everyone, “prince or pauper”, has 24 hours a day to spend, no matter who they are. That’s it, 24 hours, that’s what’s given to you.
It’s also interesting to me how time is the most scarce resource out there, but everyone has access to it in equal amounts. Equal access to a scarce resource makes everyone “rich”. It’s the equivalent of saying that everyone on TimeRepublik is rich—or better, that everyone has access to everything.
I believe that these are the foundations of our new operating system.
Who’s using your platform?
We have a wide spectrum of people and organizations using TimeRepublik.
Some want to learn a language or a musical instrument, and then there are those who need professional help, like legal advice or graphic design tips. People need all sorts of things, from logos to websites, to artistic portraits and even yoga. We also have several non-profit organizations that use TimeRepublik to organize and grow their volunteer work force, and municipalities who use the platform to increase civic engagement by harnessing the potential of their citizens’ networks, of relationships, skills, passion, and experience.
Working with municipalities is incredibly valuable, because we are providing them with new hybrid ways of payment: through reciprocally providing services or allowing citizens to pay with time (for parking tickets, rents, etc). We are currently setting up a project in Colombia in collaboration with the Colombian government, who’s seeking to facilitate the post-conflict transition. Once again, the key is in engaging communities—our role is to provide the tools for precisely this. Engaging communities is a topic close to our heart. As (maybe) Margaret Mead has famously said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Last but not least: large corporations. According to a TowersWatson study almost 90% of the employees of large companies (1000 employees and up) are not actively engaged. TimeRepublik helps these companies create more engagement within their employees. Overall, everything boils down to trust— or the lack thereof.
What are your plans for the near future? What are you adding to it? Who is your new partner?
Over the last year and a half, we’ve been working on a new platform—we’re redesigned and revised our UX and UI, and will introduce two new features to TimeRepublik: Services and Communities. Before, users could only post requests, the “demand” in TimeRepublik. This worked well enough, except there wasn’t a way to post the inverse of a request, which is what Services are: the “supply” in TimeRepublik. We’ve noticed that so many people come on TimeRepublik to help instead of asking for help, so this feature is going to match demand with supply. With Communities, we’re allowing anyone to create their own community and timebank— members will not only be able to exchange tasks within their Communities in the form of Requests and Services, but they’ll also be able to perform these on behalf of their communities, contributing to the growth of their Communities’ timebanks.
I’ve also harped on inflexibility a lot in this interview and this brings me to the next update regarding TimeRepublik: blockchain technology. But, no worries, we’re not going to come up with a new crypto nor an ICO. What we’re seeking to do with the technology is to render the record of activity in TimeRepublik permanent and tamper-proof. We are much more interested in working towards a secure validation of the transaction and towards, of course, decentralization. I view the implementation of blockchain in TimeRepublik as the second phase in the genesis of the platform; the third could be embracing open source.
The tech partner we’ve merged with is an Italian company called Mangrovia Blockchain Solutions, who’s being touted as being one of those to watch. They’re only a team of 30-odd staff with offices mostly in Western Europe, but they were in a list of only 9 international blockchain consultancies in a recent Gartner report, along with the well-known ConsenSys some Americans will have heard of. Mangrovia specializes in consulting, development and support services for blockchain technology, and through their enterprise-centric software, they cover industries ranging from fintech to supply chain and energy.
What we’re most impressed by is their work in the energy sector—their Energy offshoot, Prosume, is currently working with various European town councils on projects that seek to give citizens back their ‘power’, in both senses of the word—a lot of their efforts are focused on driving pilots in incorporating NZEBs (nearly zero-energy buildings) or smart grid networks with technology that will render entire communities self-sufficient in both energy consumption and production. This to us is exemplary of using technology for social good, and that’s why we’re confident that we’re in good hands.
Do you think that this crisis is an opportunity for TimeRepublik to scale?
I mentioned before that we may never get as big as Facebook, Instagram, or TikTok but it’s not like I would cry in myself to sleep if we did. However, I still think that our focus isn’t on scale— it’s not on building the largest network possible, but the best network possible. Is it necessary for the best network to be the largest? Some might argue so. For now we are focusing on making it the best it can be.
As far as the crisis is concerned, it’s hard to think about it as an ‘opportunity’—talking about it that way feels like exploitation. Our generation has never experienced a pandemic of this proportion before, so your guess is as good as mine as to what will happen next.
One thing I do think that COVID-19 is making happen, however, is that—in many instances, from climate change to economic disparity—many of us are finally “opening our eyes”. I think that all the users who “get” TimeRepublik have generally became members because they’ve always instinctively felt a malaise of some sort, and in some way, no matter how small, had this urge to do something about it. But this is a more philosophical discussion, maybe we can go deeper into it next time we talk.
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