Bristol Pay – what’s the big idea?

Bristol Pay – what’s the big idea?

Since 30th March, when Bristol Pound first formed the partnership with Payji to bring Bristol Pay to life, we’ve been building up our ideas about what Bristol Pay can offer.

We knew from the outset that Bristol Pay would provide a local, non-profit payment platform for the city. It has been estimated that some £60m leaves the city each year in point of sale transaction charges – a significant chunk of which is basically a profit margin. So we thought, why not operate our own platform, and ensure that our ÔÇÿprofits’ are instead invested in social and environmental projects in Bristol? That was really the starting point.

We also felt the time had come to address some of the problems with the digital money system, which leaves so many people excluded. If you can’t operate digital money in your own name, you are at increased risk of financial abuse, as you have to trust others to process your money on your behalf. By being regulated through the Electronic Money Institution framework, we can explore the use of proportionate and flexible approaches to account holder verification, rather than excluding people who don’t have the exact documentation required by the high street banks. So that’s another positive impact we can make.

But then we got to thinking that once we had an e-wallet platform, we wouldn’t have to limit ourselves to sterling transactions. After all, we’ve been thinking about local currencies for a decade. We built the largest local currency in the UK. And we have created a worldwide reputation for innovation. So we’re the right people to be taking the next logical step for local currencies – an e-wallet integrated solution for both sterling and digital community currencies. It might sound complicated, but in your wallet you might have a bank card, a Nectar card, some cash, a trolley token and a card that gets stamped every time you go to your favourite coffee shop – really we’re all already experts in handling multiple currencies and tokens in our physical wallets.

Addressing the big problems with token schemes

We’ve been changing our economy for the better for the last 8 years through the Bristol Pound – a sterling-backed currency that has helped to keep money circulating in our local economy of independent businesses, keeping wealth here in Bristol where it can be reinvested in Bristol’s home-grown business community. We want to keep encouraging our independent businesses of course, but there is so much more we can do with an e-wallet hosting a range of different sorts of local currencies.

In fact, when we started to think about it, we found that the potential use cases and positive impacts of local currencies and token schemes are limitless, so narrowing down what we’d like to address first has been quite difficult! But we’ve come up with a couple that we think are really good places to start.

Engaging people in positive action

Bristol is a forward thinking city. In 2018, the council led a consultation exercise to build Bristol’s One City Plan – a shared vision for the city’s future. What’s that vision? As Mayor Marvin Rees puts it, ÔÇ£Our shared city vision is clear: In 2050 Bristol will be a fair, healthy and sustainable city. A city of hope and aspiration, where everyone can share in its success.ÔÇØ The detailed Plan itself has a myriad of individual goals, from achieving carbon neutrality, to addressing health inequalities and improving air quality.

Of course there is just one problem. These goals can’t just be achieved by the council spending lots of money. You can create the cleanest buses you like and lay miles of cycle track, but you still need to encourage people to change their behaviour – otherwise car use will continue and the potential benefits of all that investment will be lost. This is where we see the potential for tokens – to highlight the kinds of behaviour changes that are needed to bring about the One City Plan vision, and reward people for their personal behaviour changes.

There are different sorts of token solutions for different challenges. One scheme could encourage kids to earn tokens for engaging in extracurricular sports, and then spend those tokens on a ticket to attend the big match at Ashton Gate on Saturday. Another scheme might mean that I can earn a badge for not using my car for a month – it might not be a token that I can spend, but I could choose to make my badge visible on my profile so that my friends can see what an effort I’m making. It’s easy to see the potential for creating a competitive buzz.

We’re going to be doing some research into what sorts of tokens work best for different sorts of behaviour change. We want to make sure that we preempt any unintended consequences. For example, we don’t want to just replace your intrinsic motivation to change your behaviour (because you want to do your bit for the environment) with an extrinsic motivation in the form of a valuable reward. Why not? Because then if the reward changes or you don’t value that particular reward anymore, you might stop doing the new behaviour. We have to take care as we design the tokens, so that we enhance people’s intrinsic motivation to do something positive by explaining why it’s important and thanking them.

Building sharing communities

Have you bought a power tool in the last 3 years? Did you use it once for a DIY job then put it in the attic or shed where it has languished ever since? When you look in the attic, are you surprised by all the tools you’ve got – in fact perhaps there are two of some things, because the first one had seized up and stopped working by the next time you needed it, or perhaps you’d just forgotten you had one already. Do you think your neighbour has a similar selection of tools in their attic?

Every individual thing we buy had to be made and transported. Each thing took precious resources to make and contributed to carbon emissions in its manufacture and shipping. If we shared our resources better in our communities, we could help in addressing the overconsumption that is damaging our planet. And there would be other benefits – we’d form closer relationships with our neighbours, and save money!

It’s not just tools and gadgets that we can share. Especially at a time when we are going to see very high levels of unemployment and financial hardship, there are going to be many people with skills who have time on their hands but little money to pay for goods and services. In a sharing economy, we can help each other out with favours – Mike’s great at cutting hair, Shelley can plaster and paint, Sarah has a magic touch with computers, Jon has green thumbs. And by putting our skills to good use, we are keeping active, keeping purpose in our lives – in other words keeping happy and healthy, and reducing the burden on the NHS.

Using tokens as a thank you for these kinds of sharing activity doesn’t cost anyone anything – it is literally a token of one’s appreciation. These tokens can encourage us to pay favours forward, enabling the buds that have been emerging in community spirit throughout the lockdown to blossom, creating more connected, caring and self-sufficient neighbourhoods.

Looking forwards

We’re just at the very start of our journey with Bristol Pay, and we’re really excited about what we can achieve by working with Payji’s innovative technology in line with our shared vision. We’re going to spend the next year or two working out just what the new token toolkit can do in terms of fixing some of the problems we face as a society. And when we’ve got some tried and tested solutions, we’ll be reaching out to other cities and regions. We might be building Bristol Pay today, but we’ll be working with Payji to share our thinking – Exeter Pay, York Pay, Manchester Pay – here we come!