Cambridge Skills Exchange: “A different kind of energy is created”


Once a financial sector employee in the city, health problems forced Karina Wells to think about more innovative approaches to help with the day-to-day activities of raising her family. She devised and implemented a skills exchange scheme for her street, and has successfully replicated the idea in two different communities – the most recent is in Cambridge. Here Karina, now a serial community entrepreneur, explains what she has learnt from her experiences.

Before I had my children, I was in investment banking and experienced the big crash in 1987. It made me think; we were so remote in that office, trading all the time, just numbers. At no point did I think how A trade could affect people in a small remote community  anywhere in the world. I felt you have to bring the economy back to its core, where you know when you have hurt someone – because you see each other.

I had a toddler and my health was letting me down This was a potential disaster because my husband was travelling a lot. I lived then in West Bridgford, a suburb of Nottingham, and I made leaflets asking the people on my street to join a skills exchange. There was no internet (or chip and pin) at that point, so we used spreadsheets and tokens that I called ‘chips’ – as in ‘chipping in’. A really strong community formed -and is still going- we had regular social events and also created a lending library.

In Cambridge, we use tokens called ‘gems’, and each ‘gem’ is a token of appreciation equivalent to one hour’s work. When a new person joins, I meet them for coffee and talk about what they enjoy doing. Sometimes people want to offer different skills to their day job, and that’s absolutely fine! I can always find something. I have also learnt that it is generally more sustainable when members are walking or cycling distance from each other. I am still trying to find the best technology to communicate group updates – at the moment, we use a shared Google document for people to share their requests and offers.

With any group, there tends to be a third who is not active, a third who occasionally use it, and the remaining third who use it a lot. For a group to work well, I think you need a minimum of about 20 people, and 120 is perhaps the maximum. I think remembering 120 people’s names and addresses is about the limit!

We deliberately use physical tokens, because in life there are people who are really good at taking, and never give back. And then there are people who are really good at giving but find it hard to receive. Both attitudes are problematic – because if someone only wants to give, after a while other people feel embarrassed, and won’t like to accept their gift any more. With the exchange of tokens, there are a set number in circulation, so it becomes the duty of all to spend as well as receive.

There is an energy created in exchanging tokens that money does not create. Somehow, offering a token of appreciation inspires a different feeling in people. People become more generous and aware of other people’s strengths. That’s why I see it as a community building group rather than a trading system without money.

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