COLLABORATIVE PIONEER: AN INSIDE INTERVIEW WITH GABRIELE DONATI, CO-FOUNDER OF TIMEREPUBLIK

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TIMEREPUBLIK  is a global online community which allows users to exchange services, where the unit of currency is not money, but time.

Belgian Curator Marco Torregrossa had a chat – in a mix of English and Italian – with Gabriele (a native from the Italian speaking part of Switzerland) to better understand the concept of time banking and a community where one can satisfy needs without monetary limitations. 

Where did the idea of TIMEREPUBLIK come from and when did you think it was the right moment for this idea to take off?

I have been interested in systems of mutual help and self-remuneration for some time. The turning point was in 2003 when my friend Karim Varini (also Co-founder of TIMEREPUBLIK) introduced me to the concept of time banking. He saw on TV that an old lady needed help with programming her TV channels and pinned a message on the bulletin board at the entrance of her building. A young gentleman picked that up and offered to help her. In return the lady backed him a cake. The interesting thing was that everyone in the building was also involved in these exchanges. We were later thinking how to make this system more accessible and efficient and since this was well before the social media revolution and the economic crisis – which helped to boost further the concept of time banks – it was particularly challenging. We are now working hard to scale this concept and improve synergies among different platforms.

As it happens, the structure of time banks is very different than the other collaborative consumption services, even though it is based on the same models, which contemplate feedbacks among community members. Time banking is mainly a phenomenon gaining tractions within an older community of volunteers, very localised and with no online presence. We actually are trying to re-brand the whole concept of volunteering, which is currently not very attractive to the younger generation, trying to make a shift towards a more community-based mindset, but also offering a global visibility.

Your marketplace helps ordinary people trading their skills for their time and this may result in lowering barriers to micro-entrepreneurship and promoting self-employment. Do you think in the long run this will help to create new jobs, more wealth and more supplementary income for freelancers? Or is it only about time, good will and stronger community/neighbourhood engagement? How do you position TIMEREPUBLIK in this spectrum?

We believe all our users are a sort of micro-entrepreneurs and our global outlet could inspire people to find their future professional direction. Time exchange is a valuable complementary system to economic transactions. By using it, one starts to gain professional experience, build a reputation, improve self-confidence and visibility, which could lead to new career paths or help people enter or re-enter the traditional economy. We have now begun to negotiate cooperation with a well-respected recruitment agency, so you can see the potential here.

TIMEREPUBLIK has strong social repercussions on community based relationships and it encourages cooperative attitudes. In the future we would hope our system could create more social wealth for the good of the community but also economic wealth, as for instance TIME could become a complementary currency also on other platforms. And if this could expand globally, it would be an amazing thing.

In the US there is a big debate about how some incumbents are trying to defend the status quo. In Europe, in addition to this, collaborative consumption startups (mostly in the peer to peer service industry) are concerned about how Workers Unions will react once this sector reaches scale. The Unions are very strong here – given the European social model – and often influence law makers. What are your thoughts on this and are you in favour of minimum labour protection or safety standards?

I remember when in the 19th century at the beginning of the industrial revolution and after the introduction of machinery, textile artisans in England organised squads to go to the factories and destroy the equipment. Or when in the same period the farmers in US wanted to stop the first cars from being put on the road and lobbied for regulations on maximum level of dusts that could be raised on the street. Historical events as such teach us that one cannot stop a disruptive revolution in the making and eventually both industry and regulators will need to embrace it.

We are in favour of minimum labour standards. However, our users are not bidding for the lowest rates like for instance in other peer to peer service exchange marketplaces. Our system does not lower the quality of a certain service or does not create hazards, as it is not strictly related to money. At TIMEREPUBLIK we are not in competition with the professional market. Therefore we are not affected by labour regulations yet, although as soon as the system of time banks gains traction, I believe we will be affected.

How do you think regulators should address peer to peer exchanges? How can we frame discussions to engage all parties (startups, law makers, large business associations, end user communities) more inclusively and trigger the collaboration needed to sustain innovation in this sector?

Collaborative consumption platforms offer a very strong tool for partnerships. At the moment I am visiting many co-working spaces here in New York to raise awareness of time banking to freelancers and find partners. TIMEREPUBLIK seeks collaboration with other players in both the collaborative consumption and the traditional economy space. Our society has reached the tipping point and fundamental changes are about to happen. Once you have 20 shirts in your closet and 6 computers, what’s next? The system is not sustainable any longer and I think in the long run the sharing economy will take over and win the majority of the market.

We have recently had some positive experience in partnering with local authorities. For instance, the city of Messina in Italy has  published a resolution that endorses its cooperation with TIMEREPUBLIK, encouraging citizens to use our platform and in turn offer their spaces and services. There are also other cities in Europe that are potentially interested in the same kind of partnerships.

Can you share one or two success stories from your community and what is the most unique or extraordinary skill that a user is trading?

Our users are listed under more than 300 categories of ‘talents’. TIMEREPUBLIK’s community currently counts approximately 10,000 members from over 80 countries, who can exchange more 20,000 talents. Even though, programmers, translators and photographers are the largest group, we sometimes have very unique users. Two weeks ago we spotted a finance advisor who was offering both finance advisory and … ironing. He went to a girl who is a yoga instructor to iron for 2 hours her shirts. We have people performing services from pet walking to giving guitar lessons to kids. We have a psychologist in Italy who has helped a girl who was in distress. And we even have one dentist in California.

In Europe there are countries like Italy, Spain, Portugal and Russia where our marketplace is working very well. Beyond that, we have many community managers in Brazil, the US and if we pass the third round of investment we hope we can start to have more outreach in many other countries.

 

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