Nicolas Nova 26

Nicolas Nova

Nicolas is both researcher — with a specific interest in user experience and foresight in particular with regards to future technologies/practices and their implications — and the editorial manager of the highly acclaimed LIFT conferences. He has a PhD in Human-Computer Interaction from the Swiss Institute of Technology (EPFL, Lausanne) where he also worked as a research scientist at the Media and Design Lab.


Barter after the financial crisis

The bartering meme is spreading with interesting developments. This is clearly a...

Currency evolution and crisis

Last week at a conference in Paris, I attended a very interesting talk by people...

New on-line bartering platform in Switzerland

A recent and intriguing announcement coming from Switzerland: a swiss bank recen...

Barter after the financial crisis

by Nicolas Nova

The bartering meme is spreading with interesting developments. This is clearly a favorite topic of mine, as attested by this introductory blogpost (or the presentation of this swiss platform). For several months, there is renewed interest in this topic as specialists aim at using bartering to fix issues related to the financial crisis.

I’ve seen more and more articles in the press, and Russia appears to be an important site for practices and potential business platforms that would support bartering. There has already been some documented research about this phenomena in the 1990s.

See for example this article in the Moscow Times. The journalist reports on the activity of the Anti-Crisis Settlement and Accounting Center, led by German Sterligov, which plans to start facilitating the barter of debt and goods. This russian millionaire is indeed convinced that “barter trade would be the right choice for the world in times of liquidity problems and payment delays”.

Of course, this is not just for the local Joe Smith who would like to trade his DVDs against a proper haircut. It’s far more complex and connected to the economy as the company built an interactive database allowing the barter of debt and goods worldwide:

“Sterligov illustrated a possible barter deal with a real-life example: Magnitogorsk Iron & Steel Works’ estimated debt of 1 billion rubles ($30.4 million) to Mechel for coal supplies. “Mechel could put information about MMK’s nonpayment in our system and then add which products it needs itself,” Sterligov said. MMK, in turn, would put 1 billion rubles of steel into the system, he said. At some point, a company would surface that wanted steel and had a product needed by Mechel, and the deal would be completed. “For this to work, you have to have thousands of bids in the system,” Sterligov said, adding that debt would probably become the most popular item for barter. (Mechel and MMK declined to comment about their possible participation in such a system.)”

An example that is of course criticized by some because “barter would not work because of hassles involving taxes and property rights” and that it’s mean that “throw us back into the Dark Ages, which is definitely not what modern economy needs”.

Currency evolution and crisis

by Nicolas Nova

Last week at a conference in Paris, I attended a very interesting talk by people from Bureau d’Etudes, an interesting artistic and activist group based in France. They basically focus on creating informational maps whose purpose is to visually represent different facets of contemporary capitalism: corporations, industrial and financial or influential groups.

One of the representation they worked on few years ago interestingly represents the Argentine crisis. This mapping quite fits with our topic here since it shows the evolution of a currency, going through various cycle and crises.

Entitled Crisis, this map by Bureau d’Etudes is a chronology of the world financial system at the end of the 20th century. This representation shows the evolution of various currencies as well as political crises. This chronology show both the failure of the financial markets and the popular responses to these failures. For example, it represents alternative monetary systems that has been introduced during the Argentinean crisis. Brian Holmes describes this more thoroughly in this blogpost.

What is interesting here is to have a visualization of these elements. The time dimension is important and it’s highly relevant to see parallel events in a descriptive way. Unfortunately I did not manage to find a high-res picture to analyze it more deeply.

New on-line bartering platform in Switzerland

by Nicolas Nova

A recent and intriguing announcement coming from Switzerland: a swiss bank recently backed a on-line bartering platform.

easyswap is a new platform that allows to exchange goods and services. The company aims at promoting a different set of values ranging from encouraging the trading of unused goods, allowing exchange between different socio-economic circles and “supplement the market economy”. Which is intriguing when you consider that the project is supported by a local swiss bank (BCV).

The point is that users will have access to an original currency:

A virtual currency, the swap, not convertible in any currency, but based on the Swiss franc and following a simple rule: 1 swap is equivalent to 1 Swiss franc. Note that the swaps can be purchased, for example, in the form of subsidies by a company in favour of The swaps cannot be converted into currency and sold.

Swaps can be either transferred from the account of a profit swapper of a service to the account of the swapper providing the same service and/or, from the account of a swapper utilizing the same or temporary service to the account of the owner/swapper of this same service. A swap can be offered by a company financially sponsoring to the accounts of its employees members of, with the double aim of supporting the development of and to bring a surplus in term of service to the employee users of the services of

Although the idea of becoming a “swapper” looks strange if you think about the street definition of the word, this project is interesting. It’s really intriguing to look at how they have set a system to evaluate the value of things and services. They for instance defined different scales such as “White, a degree of difficulty and physical requirement and/or intellectual low / Gray, a degree of difficulty and physical requirement and/or intellectual average / Red, a degree of difficulty and physical requirement and/or intellectual high”. There’s also a service search engine!

Of course this kind of platform really needs a critical mass of users to succeed but it looks like a relevant experiment. I wonder about the impact between local and global communities, the role of diasporas and how some peeps will surely try to trick the system ;)

Turtling all the way down to 5 key questions

by Nicolas Nova

Reading all the content we have produced so far in the train, I am quite amazed by the richness of the material we have. It’s a bit messy but that’s how collaboration is generally made of. Given the schedule we have, I think it’s important to shoot the questionnaire to secondary authors pretty soon. I am not sure whether we should wait for other refinements of issues. The most urgent is to agree on 5 key questions and shoot them over to the others. After browsing the material, we can for instance propose the following 5 key issues:

  • Driver for change: what factors, according to you, may change the way we exchange, buy, trade objects and services?
  • An ecosystem of currencies: what are the alternative currencies or exchange systems you foresee in the next 10 years? Think about experimental forms of exchange, the role of technologies.
  • What are the economic aspects of this? How do disparate groups exchange goods and services without a stabilized and intergroup fungible currency?
  • How different social scales will be impacted by this? How nation-states/communities/families/man/woman/kids will change?
  • What do you hope/desire for the future?

I tried to clean up and remove some elements (like the
global currency
which is unlikely, or the absence of currency) and went straight to the point in terms of the most important questions that came out from our discussion this week. The question may have to be reformulated but I do think they give a clear overview of what we talked about. The last bit (about people’s desire) is important IMO as it aims at grasping secondary authors’ personal impressions. I hope we can get a wide range of insights here. That being said, I wonder about the openness of the question. It’s clearly more valuable to get some open answers but it will require more work on the part of the contacts.

Issues summary - Common patterns for 2015

by Nicolas Nova

Carefully perusing all the different questions we’ve put on the table this week, I tried to find a commond thread, or at least a common set of issues that our group is interested in.

  1. The unique currency issue: there is so far no global, or unique, currency, the issue of having a new one has been discussed in the contributions by Bruce or Josh. One of the question is therefore: can there be a new and unique currency? This topic also applied, as Josh mentioned, to social currencies which are even more fragmented than money currencies. And Bruce’s point about tipping points between financial power and social power also touches upon this issue.
  2. The advent of experimental forms of value exchange: the current financial turmoil can be a driver for change: either for a global currency (or first more regulated markets) OR experimental exchange of value.
    1. Experimental forms of value exchange: what sort of shapes can correspond to that? Is it about bartering as I explained in my first blogpost? Is about what Régine described in her post concerning Platoniq’s free knowledge market?
    2. Role of communities in this experimental exchange: can there be a new model of transmission/free exchange based on self-training communities? How the fragmentation and friction between religious, cultural and ethnic communities will influence the spread of new forms of exchange? Will it stays among certain communities or spread across groups?
    3. How do we call these new forms of exchange: freemarket knowledge? kashklash? …
  3. The economic aspect of new forms of exchange: how value will be regulated in this new context? what about fungibility? How does the relativity of value (based on their culture, their geographical location or other factors) will influence the transaction between groups? within the groups?
  4. What about technology? A corollary issue to all of this corresponds to the role of technology is the process: do we have tools to support these new forms of exchange? How can the history of interactions (or location) be helpful (or problematic) here? Who can propel them? What about control and privacy? Or can specific technologies (such as AI) be relevant for regulating social currencies (the tendency of public opinion for personal gain that Josh mentioned)
  5. Of course, this is just the common pattern I noticed in all the blogposts we’ve produced, perhaps there’s more ;)

Some questions

by Nicolas Nova

One of the most important point in the picture I sketched in my other post is the cultural and geographical fragmentation of communities. Based mostly on ethnic and religious segmentation, this phenomena will be an acute driver of change. Why is that? simply because people from the same culture will be scattered in different countries, cities and continent; because these cultures will have trouble cohabiting with each others in the local; because these diaspora will stay connected all around the world, etc. What this means practically is that “friction and connection” are definitely interesting keywords to describe the near future (2015 is the near future right?). Frictions between different cultures who may fight against each others on one hand, and connections between people within the same diaspora (but geographically dispersed) or between cultures who may learn from each other.

Frictions and connections actually set up the scene for imagining issues regarding value exchange as they show the underlying factors that can explain the near future. The tension between the local and the global is also an interesting couple of factor.

[This graphics is built through service and property of IBM.]

A list of questions I am thinking about sitting at the airport in Geneva:

Will these communities stop using regular currency such as dollar-euro-yen-yuan-… and use their own currency?

Will Hawala spread out of the islamic world to other communities? Which, back tot he factors I delineated above corresponds to ask whether the local connections between different in big cities communities may lead to the spread of a value system from one culture to another. Will technology-based currencies (M-Pesa) spread from developing countries to the developed world?

Will there be a growing bartering/micro-tasks platforms (such as the one I described in my post last week)?  Who will it serve? Will it be limited to specific communities? Will it be limited to techno-geeks?

Will be bartering be limited to obscure communities? Will current currencies be only used by the developed world? Or will the situation be more complicated with currencies to support legal transactions and bartering to support non-legal ones?

Which forms bartering systems can take? Will mobile and location-based applications will enable bartering process? Is this view too technology-centric and eventually only local population would manage to barter services and goods?

What would be the consequence of having more and more bartering systems? How would States react?

What about the inter-relationships between the digital and the physical? Would I be able to trade my google history against a free access to the local foodstore (which would actually correspond to a huge hydroponic plant connected to a server farm that provide enough energy to grow apples and cherries in winter?)

If my on-line material (history of interaction uploaded pictures, mass amount of emails, google docs and communications such as tweets and blogposts) is intrinsically valued, the ones who host them act like a bank. Who’s going to be such “bank”: mobile phone carriers? search engines? internet providers? internet hosts? what sorts of other services will they eventually propose?

Will there be some “esperanto“-like transaction system? a group of people/country/institutions tired with the tyranny of the euro-dollar which will propose its own attempt to replace them by a more valuable and user-centric money? Possibly by developing countries who both manage to have enough economical resources and intellectual workers to set this up around 2010 after the big subprime crisis? I find this scenario intriguing and may expand it a bit later on, especially because esperanto is close to “desperanto” (desperate) and I can quickly imagine the failure of the high expectations people would put in an esperanto-like transaction system.

From now to 2015

by Nicolas Nova

Important, uncertain, uncontrollable. These are the 3 characteristics shared by the events we are looking for till 2015. Foresight is mostly about sketching and playing with the factors that will have an important influence on how we live, that we cannot be sure of and which we cannot always control.

10 years ahead, the big picture is quite clear, let’s set up the scene using some common pointers. On the environmental side, the pressure will be more and more important, with the beginning of the natural resource exhaustion in some petro-region, the possible re-localization of production in places which used to outsource it to developing countries. In terms of demography, developed countries will experience both aging population and the arrival of younger migrants, which will surely lead to some unbalanced repartition of wealth and social protections. Of course, developing countries will keep seeing a booming young population, only a part of it may escape and leave for the western world. Globalization will be more and more reinforced with the interdependence of different economies but in 2015, some weak signals of today may even be more pregnant:

view globalization

* the competitive advantage of countries with low cost of labor may decrease, and the transportation cost will rise

* the creation of wealth will be even more affected by technological and industrial factors thanks to the advent of computer-based design tools (such as 3D printing), new materials and energy sources.

* the preference of consumer will more and more go to locally-produced artifacts and food.

* on the political side, states and institutions will try to reduce the dependency their territories have with other sources of production.

* jeremy rifkin’s “age of access” will be the right metaphor here as consumers will have tons of “services” at hands mediated by various technologies. The difficulty to maintain the interoperability of these services will of course lead to weird scenarios and misunderstandings.

* social relationships will still thrive with an even wider range of links: merchant-based, family-based, politically-based but, above all communautary-based with an shape: the diaspora model. The cohabitation of communities with different needs, ethnic and religious ideals, sources of wealth and desires will of course lead to some frictions.

The quick and dirty picture I’ve painted here is of course characterized by a clear lack of balance and symmetry between various actors (developed/developing countries, migrant versus others, those who have access and those who don’t) which will eventually lead to conflicts and crisis. Globalization will foster migration, re-localization, nuisances caused by transport and their creeping infrastructures, etc. The asymmetry between different communities will also lead to greater surveillance and threat of privacy. One of the answer for this will be the recurring “calls for more regulations” in the economic, cultural, political and perhaps even religious spheres. Regulation at global levels will be so slow that nothing may happened through the UN but some regional blocks (such as the EU) may manage to structure a bit their socio-economic system. The side-effect of regulation will inevitably lead to resistance and the reinforcement of the aforementioned communities.

In my next post, I’ll try to address what this means for the evolution of transactions and how these factors may reshape the exchange of value. Or, to put it shortly what happens at the individual or social level.

The near future of on-line bartering

by Nicolas Nova

by Nicolas Nova

The reason I enjoy reading science-fiction is not because it features MIT-inspired and glossy technological devices a la Minority Report. Instead, it’s how this genre enables the discussion of the implications of change, be they technological or sociological. For instance, to get back to the topic at hand - the future of value exchange. I find it less intriguing to observe the über geek representation of digital devices that may replace tangible coins than looking at what shape relationships between people would take.

If you read Charles Stross’ Accelerando , you would find a curious character called Manfred, who is supposedly at the “peak of his profession”. Half consultant, half spin-doctor, he delivers ideas and insights to others, who subsequently turn them into loads of money. However, as seen in the novel, Manfred is not paid with cash. The model is very different: essentially coming up with whacky but workable ideas and giving them to people who will make fortunes with them. He does this for free, gratis. In return, he has virtual immunity from the tyranny of cash; money is a symptom of poverty, after all, and Manfred never has to pay for anything. (…) The Internal Revenue Service is continuously investigating him because it doesn’t believe his lifestyle can exist without racketeering.

In design, we would call this person an “extreme user” because that character’s non-revenue model may clearly be unique and limited. Nevertheless, it offers us an interesting extreme case of value exchange. What is important here is not to take Manfred’s job as the sort of activities a normal human would do but rather to think about his business model (or perhaps one should say his life model). Therefore, let’s call Manfred an extreme user of the future. His walk of life is meaningful because of the underlying mechanisms that could be applicable for a more general group of people. We can look at him as a way to provide insights regarding human interests and desires, relevant for foresight outcomes.

What does the “Manfred case” mean for the future of value exchange? Simply, he represents how certain people could live: by trading services instead of cash. While Manfred trades potentially rewarding business ideas against a hotel room and a fresh toothbrush, others could simply barter a bit of help with gardening and get some fresh fruit or vegetables in return. This model is actually not so farfetched or futuristic: it currently exists. It’s called a local exchange trading system (LETS) but the French term is more intriguing. It’s called a SEL (meaning “système d’échange local”, system of local exchange), while “sel” in French also means salt.

I won’t enter into much detail about what the state has to say about that, nor will I try to depict how this reshuffles the notion of value. What I want to delineate here concerns what this would look like in a technologically-mediated environment. To some extent, I am thinking here of a sort of bartering platform where you can trade goods or services. What we need here is two things: a bartering platform and a service layer.

Bartering is the easy thing. Try to picture a second-hand objects marketplace such as eBay in which instead of paying you would offer to trade one or some of your belongings against the artefact you want to get in return. We’re close to that; the first brick of such platforms actually exists. Look for example at folkd or giventake , which offer debuting solutions for that matter. There is a whole ecosystem of modules (such as cclite or sweblets ) and software (xolimited , bartertrainer ) which support bartering mechanisms.

Additionally, we also have the service layer somewhere in the Web2.0 realm: Amazon Mechanical Turk or innocentive are two instances of platforms where you can offer your horsepower online and get something in return, generally money. Turk and innocentive are examples of a new kind of marketplace that enables a web-based program to co-ordinate the use of human resources to perform tasks which computers are unable to do. What we need to facilitate Manfred’s business model is basically a platform that hooks up such a service layer on top of a bartering system so that users can exchange their horsepower against goods or services.

The two examples I’ve chosen here are all but random: while the former is about micro-tasks, the latter is about collective work. Both have interesting characteristics that can serve as a model for a service-based bartering platform. Micro-tasks are indeed pertinent in a collective context because they can enable us to do small things multiplied by big numbers, which can lead to big influence.