Living Without Money

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Come with us to the future as we at Echo imagine a a future where people, not banks control the trading: a brave new world and evolved opportunity for brands.

It’s been 3 years since accidental social-entrepreneur Greg Sante founded Unis, the real-life sharing community. With successful stints at both Goggle and` YouWork, and the subsequent launch in 2012 of his skills distribution platform ‘Share’, he has both driven and ridden the Silicon Valley wave.

Technology Weaves Unobtrusively with Escapism

Unis, it quickly becomes apparent, was always the natural progression for Sante; a man renowned for harnessing complex algorithms to make very human solutions. And at the risk of sounding like a hippy- idyll, Sante reassures me: “It’s a remarkably pragmatic reaction to global and political events. I am particularly curious to see how this experiment fares in the wake (and vacuum) of the bitcoin crash."

According to Sante, his motivation lies with the big corporations, those he says, who failed to address the future and alienated their one-time consumers: “Whilst the country was micro-managing its global ego, businesses lost sight of their original purpose; racing to keep up with technology’s heels, they forgot the one significant link in their marketing DNA: serving and connecting people.”

So it’s here, inland from the glassy Tahoe blues, that he brings me to Unis, the real-life sharing community where technology interweaves unobtrusively with escapism, and humanity has become the true financial currency. "Unis ostensibly lives off the institution grid," Sante explains, “our principles are simple – give, share and work together.” An ethos that spans across pretty much everything, from cars to washing machines, electrical work to book-keeping, yoga to baking. In many ways it’s like settlements of old, except here the exchanges are all facilitated by smart technology that supports more sophisticated networking.

This is where it gets interesting for brands. An ultimate gauntlet to hardware’s planned obsolescence, Unis requires products that are designed, literally, for life. The pooling of resources, products and ideals means brands need to assume their continuous community role and stand true within its value system. A much sought after opportunity and enviable position for a brand, yet one, much like any lifelong relationship, that requires continual investment on both sides.

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The Pooling of Resources

So how does a brand take up its place at this rather lofty table of individuals? Co-owning / sharing belongings is nothing new, but the integration of progressive technology is. Products & services that thrive within Unis collaborate not only in shared values, but also in being fitted with intuitive nanochips that learn consumer behaviour to ensure optimal product lifespan, useful service provision and facilitate community self-sufficiency whenever and wherever possible.

Autonomous car manufacturer Zapka jumped at the opportunity to be part of Unis, installing chips in its cars to enable pooling of rides. Guests heading to a similar destination are offered a shared ride. The vehicle caluclates the optimal speed / weight ratio and route for energy efficency.

Sante’s roots tell their own colourful tale, and best explain Unis fundamentals. An avid Burner (the neatly titled participants of Nevada’s former hedonistic Burning Man Festival) Sante and his old business partner, and original Unis member, Todd Benson, from this disruptive position found a clarity that crystalises. It was, Sante explains, the 10 founding principles of Burning Man that felt particularly pertinent in Unis: decommodification, gifting, communal effort and participation to name a few.

“Both Todd and I feel continuously inspired by Burning Man. The challenge was always how to apply more of these principles in everyday life. To be honest I increasingly found the financial side of things jarring – it was like this utopia and incredible human experience could only be accessed by an elite few with deep pockets, myself included.”

It was from this unrest, coupled with, let’s be honest, some sound financial backing and the technological know-how, that Unis sprung.

Finance both poses and represents the most interesting challenge for Unis. Whilst it’s all very well living off grid, there has obviously been a lot of community funding to get to the point that they’re at now. Albeit not, he stresses, from banks. And here I seem to have ruffled him. “It is our ambition to be as self-sufficient as possible, but obviously we still work, and are not outcasting ourselves. We just feel strongly that there is a much smarter way to do things that doesn’t always involve exchanging money with the old institutional powers to maintain a balanced lifestyle and even facilitate growth and change."

And as our wounds slowly heal from the most recent global crash, he may just have a point: “Money is both our crowning glory and downfall. We created it; it took over. Now we are learning to de-create it.”

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Facilitator of peer-to-peer learning and social enterprise

So can financial institutions still have a place in this brave new world we are creating, and why did they fall out of favour?

Perhaps unsurprisingly it is technology that Sante believes holds the answer on both counts. “As banks quickly adopt new technologies as a cost cutting exercise, customers are pushed further away. What was previously a chat over a cup of tea, became a sea of alienating algorithms and frustrating computer says
yes / no scenarios.”

These algorithms weren’t just running riot at consumer level, he goes on to explain, “global trading desks were beset with the same issues – we, as humans, were completely out of control.” The idea that technology systems could replace their precious money systems (and that after all is all money is – a system) was an anathema.

So is there still a future for financial institutions? “It’s the ethical and peer-to-peer exchange schemes that hold the key” states Sante.

ForYou – a community led bank that allows its customers to decide what to invest in - is one such scheme that demonstrates how the Unis principles need not be confined solely to the Tahoe Springs. It facilitates peer-to-peer lending and is run as a social enterprise, flying in the face of what banks are supposedly synonymous with. ForYou is now active in 8 countries, so hardly an idealist outsider.

With trademark Sante simplicity, the complex relative exchange select your availibility system is accessed through a user-friendly interface. Barbara can offer anything from vegetables and gardening skills, to child- minding and nature walks. She needs her kitchen table fixed, so puts out a request. And books in a ride to Emerald Bay in one of the community electric cars for the following day. It’s simple, effective and totally inspirational.

As the time comes for me to leave, I do so with a spring in my step, feeling like I too can change the world and bring a glimpse of green into London grey. And this is the 2 very beauty of Unis – by replacing money with algorithms, it makes the complex seem simple, and the lofty feel achievable. It gives power back to the people and, despite my initial reservations, it’s remarkably empowering to see technologies of the future facilitating human constructs of old.



What’s the opportunity for the new wave of financial and service brands? Key considerations:

  • How can we humanise value exchanges between people and brands?

  • How can a global brand connect on an individual level?

  • How can brands champion and facilitate the sharing of a community’s time and skills for mutual benefit?

  • How can we motivate brand ambassadors within a community to strengthen grassroots connections?

Helen Richards