Helsinki timebank 10 years – A bank truly too big to fail 

Helsinki timebank (Stadin aikapankki) is celebrating 10 years of exchanging of services on the premise that everyone’s time, needs and work are of equal worth. Whilst its workings are significantly smaller today then they were in its heydays in 2013, its potential to support systemic change is as relevant as ever. Needed however are still genuine political pathways through which initiatives like Helsinki Timebank can profile themselves and develop their role in society.

Helsinki Timebank became a registered exchange on 3rd of October 2009 on the international local currency and timebank platform Community Exchange Systems (CES). After half a year Kumpula exchange rink became Helsinki Timebank, the value of one hour became a “tovi” … and in the following years more than 3000 interested people registered onto Helsinki timebank, of which about one third exchanged services for over 30.000 tovi’s. Swimming lessons, translation work, cooking, tekst editing are but a handful of needs that have been met by capacities offered in the timebank, and which were dealt with on the core premises of timebanking, namely that everybodies time, everybodies needs and everybodies work are of equal worth.

Currency as a Commons, for other economies

In its first years the timebank went through a very active and dynamic development process, during which values were charted and Helsinki Timebank’s ABC was written down, in which the timebanks principles and rules of working were laid out.  The possibilities of the timebank were enlargened by several actors adhering to those values as for instance a couple of food cooperatives joining, and in parallel to this an envisioning of the currency developed as an interesting tool to strengthen and develop solidarity economy actors. One could imagine that  different cooperatives and organisations could be working together through the timebank and its currency, allowing for more to happen, for more people to be included, with the tovi currency as it were a tool to check on the equality and reciprocity of the constructed relations. A pedagogical tool.

The users of the timebank’s currency thus together governed the currency, gave it its values which underpinned the relations the currency created and determined what kind of activities the currency in fact supported. Helsinki timebank’s currency is a commons, putting forward that other forms of money are possible, and in par with this, that other economies are possible.

The initiative gained a lot of interest. Members were asked to come to speak on the timebank during public discussions, events, and school presentations to the general public, media and students on a large number of occasions. Also, together with others interested in other economy building, timebank members set up an initiative entitled “Another Financial System for Finland”, which held a discussion series which explored different approaches to the debate around money, including demonetization, and the designing of money as a commons. The timebanks workings also led to the development of the Time heals network which mutual ‘tovisupport’ to people encountering difficulties, and in those first years some 40 other timebanks were set up in Finland, on the CES platform. Aikapankit.fi platform was opened, and whilst by far not all of the registered timebanks were full fledged community process, timebanking in Finland had clearly embarked on a very interesting development process.

(Where) the political process 

Whilst Helsinki Timebank had internally a strong developmental process, this also involved the envisioning of how its role related externally to the building of another economy at large, and included also the taking on of the issue of taxation. The timebank was on the verge of reaching a consensus on the adoption of a timetax in the timebank (which it adopted), when an external political process in which the timebank had no say, led eventually to the coming out of taxation guidelines on the timebank which were to be detrimental to its development. It meant in practice that officially taxation was to be paid on so-called professional services received in the timebank according to their supposed market value (eventhough the services were not on the market, read here Helsinki Timebank’s statement on the taxation guidelines). The main thing about the guidelines was that they destroyed the equality bases of the timebank (on the market notably our time is not valued equally) as also threw up a great deal of confusion. The community developing process in paralel to that also weakened. Helsinki Timebank’s development took a clear down turn from that moment, as also that of other timebanks in Finland. Several of them simply quit their process out of disappointment with this political process.

Several politicians did support the timebanking initiative. Already in 2012, Helsinki city’s global responsibility strategy launched in 2012 raised in a significant way the need to develop timebanking and the local economy. This however did not prevent the forementioned guidelines on taxation to come into being. Following those, the timebank held a first public seminar in 2015 with a variety of representatives from the Finance Ministry, taxation office, helsinki city council and other public actors wanting to contest the guidelines by way of pointing to the potential of the timebank for other economy building. A second such event took place in 2016, Pelastetaan edes aikapankit, again gathering a good number of societal actors around the potential of timebanking in Finland, and its challenges to develop itself.

Whilst internationally it has been commented how fantastic it is a timebank can be calling together such occasions with prominent representatives, the outcome was less glorifying. The events as well as the public political recognition did not lead to a turn for Timebanking in Finland, to a rebutting of the taxation guidelines. Ultimately there was simply no political pathway to walk for an initiative as Helsinki timebank to profile itself publicly, to negotiate any conflict and to develop its role in society. Missing is something like a municipalist platform for other economy building, in which other economy actor and citizens would deliberate and put forward demands regarding other economy building.

A currency for the Commons, for Systemic change

In the years following the taxation guidelines, the timebank continued to raise an envisioning of what a timetax could mean. The timebank has been having a timetax operational in the timebank according to which people can direct the levy deducted from their earned tovi’s to an actor of their choice in the timebank, but the timetax could be used to support many different forms of co-production between timebankers and the city. A public service could be joining the timebank, receive the timetax and through the timecredits collaborate with timebankers who want to be engaged with the public service in question.  A time tax could also be used to start up all kinds of autonomous creative projects, services or goods that are deemed important by both the city and timebank members.

An inspiring twinning idea to the timetax idea also put to the forefront is that of a Basic Income partly funded by a timetax, as developed by Spanish economist Susane Belmonte. According to this idea, a person who would opt-in to receive a basic income in euro’s, would have a debt in a complementary currency. Earning the complementary currency to pay of the debt would be possible by collaborating with common good projects, which citizens would choose via a democratic process. We could imagine a grand pool of common good projects proposed, which would be inspiring for people to be involved with. The currency would furthermore be able to be used in a local network of solidarity economy actors.  In this manner the basic income would kick into life a currency for the common good – a very exciting idea.

The above envisioning importantly points to the potential of a timebank for systemic change. When thinking of our pressing ecological and social concerns, big (government) policy matters, but ultimately the necessary systemic change is to be rooted in peoples processes around daily needs. With this it is being said that the big players as our foodsystem and energy system in fact are game changers IF they are in the hands of people. We could then well imagine how a timebank workings, an idea as that of the Basic Income partly funded by a timetax, can be good tools to facilitate and support that objective of systemic change processes, to be supporting the constructing of systemic change alternatives according to peoples values.

Whilst Helsinki Timebank can then from one perspective be seen as already having lived through its heydays, from another perspective we can say that bit by bit the awareness around the need for systemic change is rising and that the timebanks time is yet to come. It is time for a culture of ‘doing’ to become our ‘high culture’. They also say a next financial crisis is just around the corner.

Ruby van der Wekken

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