Is there a community currency in the downtown eastside’s future?

What is money?  Simply something that we’ve all agreed upon a shared value for.  As long as a community of people can agree upon a value of something as a medium of exchange, it really doesn’t matter what that unit of exchange is.

a complementary currency from calgary

a complementary currency from calgary

One of the opportunities presented by the current economic conditions is that we have time to explore some ideas that haven’t received enough attention and discussion.  Daring ideas that build upon what we’ve learned, in an attempt to improve what we have and want.  We can no longer afford to be limited by what has come before us.

The idea of a local, complementary currency is not a new one.  However, there are several conditions and opportunities that have emerged, making it a good time to revisit the possibilities as they might apply here and now in the downtown eastside (DTES).

I think the idea of a community currency in the DTES holds a lot of potential for local economic development, tourism, sustainability, marketing and creating employment.  The BOB board is currently exploring the idea as a tool for revitalizing the local economy and greening the inner city, and has also recieved some early support by companies such as Edible Planet, Saul Good Gifts and Eclipse Awards.

There has been some early interest from the community as well, and if we can attract an established financial institution like Vancity, it’s possible that we might be able to make this happen.

For some quick background, here are some articles on community currencies for reference:  “Local Currencies: Communities Printing Own Money To Keep Cash Flowing” and a successful local model from Saltspring Island.

Wikipedia explains local currency:

The idea of a community currency presents some interesting opportunities for the DTES.  A complementary currency is meant to be used instead of, or in addition to normal currency.  It’s based on the idea of focusing and retaining economic activity within a certain geographical area so that “economic leakage” does not occur.   For example, if $1million was injected into DTES companies through various programs, yet the staff of all those companies live in Burnaby and spend their money there, how does that initial injection help the DTES economy?  It doesn’t, as that economic activity has essentially “leaked out” of the community.

So by developing a local currency, we know that those funds will be used and circulated within the community/economy that its intended for.  In this case, we would focus on the DTES economy, with perhaps interchangeable bills for Strathcona, Chinatown and Gastown.

The concept is fairly simple and based on the Saltspring Dollars model.  Say for example, we secured a seed investment of a $1 million – this would be stored in trust at a financial institution like Vancity.  An organization like BOB would then oversee the printing of $1 million in community currency that would then either be sold or distributed throughout the DTES – these bills would have a one or two year expiry date, but they could be converted back to cash for face value any time before that.  The bills could feature local artists and should be made to look beautiful so that they are collectors’ items as well – a different design for Strathcona, Chinatown and Gastown could have tremendous marketing and branding opportunities.  Only stores and restaurants within the DTES would accept this currency, at a percentage level they are comfortable with – and they would do so because they know they know the money is backed by real dollars, and that it’s also part of a campaign to increase business activity and tourism.

how currency circulates

how currency circulates

Part of the opportunity comes in people and tourists from outside of the DTES hearing about this special money and wanting to come to the area to get some or see how it works.  They would buy DTES dollars either at par or at a slight premium, perhaps through Tourism BC or similar organizations  They would then spend those dollars within the DTES because they can’t be used elsewhere.

Think of the interest that could be generated amongst 2010 visitors who hear about this currency, or are drawn to see what the DTES $3 bill looks like.  Many of these visitors will come to the DTES out of curiosity, spend money here, and also take some of the bills home as souvenirs.  The more desirable the bills, the more that will be taken and not spent.  Then, when the currency is about to expire, businesses that have DTES dollars on hand can convert them back to cash.  However, all the money that has been removed from the system will still be on hand and “unclaimed” at the institution.  So for example, if $400k is removed from the system as souvenirs or keepsakes, that amount of cash will remain unclaimed at Vancity and can then be used to fund community improvements, local infrastructure, or more economic development.  Ideally, the community will decide beforehand what these funds are to be used for.  This is one way that all businesses can participate in the influx of people from the Olympics.

Other advantages of a DTES community currency might include:

  • Strong community building element, differentiating our communities from others, yet also drawing Strathcona, Gastown and Chinatown together.  Builds on the independent mentality that is prevalent in the DTES.
  • Attracting Olympic tourists and other Vancouverites to the area to collect and spend this unique currency.  Imagine three dollar bills.
  • Showcasing local artists and history or neighbourhoods through the artwork on the bills.  Chinatown, Gassy Jack, Cherry Blossoms etc.
  • Encouraging sustainability by supporting economic development within and between local businesses
  • Generating “legacy funds” that could be used to enable community projects or infrastructure…community gardens, public washrooms, etc.
  • Eliminating some black market transactions as this currency would be used for legitimate transactions
  • It might allow people on welfare or work support programs to “earn” more than they would typically be allowed to, if they were paid in part with these funds as well.  Help create new employment opportunities
  • If led and administered by BOB, it would help secure its position as a progressive organization on the cutting edge of economic development
  • help attract new funding because donors would know that any funds they injected in this manner, would actually stay and circulate within the community it was intended to

The concept is fairly simple, yet not without obvious challenges in terms of launching and administration.  Humans are creative though, and these are challenges would not be insurmountable.

This post is simply meant for discussion and as a possible different approach to local economic development, marketing, tourism, community building and sustainability.

Can a community currency help with some of the challenges faced by the downtown eastside?  None of our traditional methods seemed to have worked so far, so why not be more creative in our approach in developing sustainable communities?  What do you think?


Regenerative Marketing for Green Businesses

Everywhere we look, our economy is changing in fundamental ways. Massive cultural shifts are not only forcing us to look at new ways of doing business, they are providing the opportunities for us to do so.

We recently celebrated our 11th year of making crystal recognition awards at Eclipse Awards, and since I founded the company all those years ago, I’ve never seen the pace of business move faster as companies struggle to stay relevant.  How do we take responsibility for the environmental impacts of our organizations?  Can we influence and change the standards of what people value or find beautiful?  What role do happiness, compassion and love have to play in business and how can we start talking about it in a way that doesn’t make people feel uncomfortable?  What does it mean for a business to create value today, and how does that legacy translate in the future?  These could be seen as scary questions if we remain attached to “business as usual”, but they become exciting prospects if we choose to see ourselves as “the ones we’ve been waiting for” to evolve the world of business in a positive and sustainable way.

Lately at Eclipse Awards, we’ve been working on a new style of marketing that we’re calling “Regenerative Marketing”. It’s a form of marketing that we hope will ultimately turn small businesses into engines of community revitalization and richness, rather than beasts of consumption. At Eclipse, we take our marketing budget and instead of pursuing traditional direct mail campaigns, we choose to support tangible, substantial projects that contribute value to either the environment or our community, or ideally both. Then we tell those stories through word of mouth and social media such as Twitter and Facebook (click here to join our fanpage). This focus has allowed us to develop and build meaningful community assets and relationships, while also conserving many of the resources normally associated with direct mail campaigns. We call it Regenerative Marketing in the sense that it helps regenerate both the community and the environment, while also helping to renew peoples’ confidence in businesses as a positive force in society.

At Eclipse Awards we take great pride in our commitment to excellence and the philosophy of recognition. We also place tremendous value on the quality of our work, our reliability and integrity, the happiness of our staff, and our commitment to sustainability and our community in the Downtown Eastside – indeed, these have become the very foundations of our company’s existence.

What people may not notice immediately though, is how we market our awards and company. You will definitely see us online at and possibly in some magazines. Word of mouth referrals, testimonials and notable clients have also contributed substantially to our growth. What you won’t see much of though, if at all, are printed materials, mailouts and catalogues. In part, this stems from our commitment to minimize our footprint by limiting our consumption of materials, or avoiding them altogether. In our experience, the majority of these promo materials typically end up in the landfill, fewer are recycled, and even fewer result in any sort of a sales. We also spent several years perfecting a photorealistic way of generating our award images by computer. In fact, DELL recognized us as one of Canada’s top 10 Most Innovative Small Businesses, in part for this reason, as it allowed us to virtually eliminate the need to create and ship actual samples. We’ve also invested heavily in technology to provide better, more efficient customer service, and we’ve used these freed resources to pursue more sustainability initiatives.

By reallocating our traditional marketing budget, Eclipse Awards has been able to:

  • build 2 green roofs with vegetable gardens that add beauty to our neighbourhood
  • support the St. James Music Academy that teaches at-risk youth in the Downtown Eastside how to play musical instruments
  • launch a free, community “sustainability library” that provides resources to people with shared interests in green business
  • host a mason bee “apartment” on our building to help with local biodiversity
  • provide free community meeting space for community and guerrilla gardeners and those interested in green roofs
  • and a whole range of other fun and enjoyable projects

These are lasting projects and assets that will benefit our community for years to come. In the past, we’ve pursued traditional marketing campaigns which had questionable value even two weeks later….how many flyer campaigns from last month can you recall?

Today’s consumers are intelligent, thoughtful and discerning…they can separate the real from the superficial and they yearn for integrity, authenticity and values in a service market that’s become devoid of service. Our clients love the fact that by using Eclipse Awards, they not only get world class service and personalized awards, they’re also empowering us to make our community a better place.

Admittedly, we are in new territory and learning as we go. The important thing is our fundamentals are in place – quality, service, reliability and convenience – so it gives us some freedom to explore new ways of doing things. Now, if ever, is the time to be bold and creative!

Will it work? Only time will tell. A lot depends on our ability to get these messages out through non-traditional channels and if clients will continue to value the types of sustainable, community projects that we pursue. In my mind though, the next generation of marketers will understand this new generation of marketing – substantial, positive and tangible projects, presented in a way that respects people’s intelligence. It’s working for our company, so maybe it will work for yours.

Can you imagine a reality in which small businesses support meaningful community projects become successful because of it? Imagine a new paradigm for business where building community gardens and green roofs, enabling renewable energy projects, supporting community arts, contributing to education, or caring for our elders are all in a days work. What kind of a world will we have created when happiness, creativity and compassion are how we measure success and why we reward one another in business?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on regenerative marketing. Email me your comments to or follow me on twitter @tobybarazzuol. Can this work? Maybe you’re already doing something similar? Are there any things you’d like to see us try? Let us know because the future is simply what we all decide to make it.

Want to meet your neighbours? Plant a garden.

After much huming and hawing, I decided yesterday was the day I was going to plant a vegetable garden.  I had the wood, the nails, the soil, and the seedlings; all I needed now was some good ol’fashioned manual labour. Rather than run the risk of landlord disapproval, I decided to put the raised garden beds into the existing landscaped garden out front of my apartment. ‘Landscape’ is a slight exaggeration, since the shrubery gets attention about once a year (and apparently at the wrong time since the bushes contain more sticks than leaves), and the term ‘weeding’ likely doesn’t exist in the landscaper’s vocabulary. After removing the broken glass, rocks, and the occasional dandylion who was brave enough to set up residence, I was ready to set in the box and fill it with soil.

While this was happening, a funny thing occurred. Not funny in the ‘haha’ sense; just not something I was expecting to happen. What started as me by myself on the front lawn turned into me and 3 of my neighbours, periodic visits by walkers, and a particularly enjoyable visit from Bob who was staying in the nursing home across the street while recovering from recent open-heart surgery. People stopped on their way by to ask questions, chat, and offer advice. Neighbours came by to loan tools, wood, and even nail my wooden box together (which is a good thing, because hammers and I do not get along).

It was remarkable, and it became very obvious in a matter of hours; gardening brings people together. So if you’re looking to green the inner-city, or your city, start a garden. There is no telling who you will meet.