The Rust Belt drew national attention during the presidential election in 2016, playing a pivotal role in helping Trump to garner a surprise win.  It reminded us of the harsh reality of a modern economy, which has been creating artificial but explicit boundaries between winners and losers.  And since they are artificial and temporary, those boundaries could shift surprisingly drastically.

Take a natural resource, such as coal or iron for example, and you could be a winner – but only as long as you could produce it cheaper than your competitors.  If someone outperform you, the market would abandon your region.  You’d be destined to suffer from a ruthless economic decline, population loss, and urban decay, due to the shrinking of a once-powerful industrial sector.  You’d be left with no clue about how to get out of it.

This trend is seen elsewhere in the world.  In Japan, marginally economic regions of any sector – whether it’s agricultural, commercial or industrial – have been steadily deteriorating over the last two decades.  Unable to survive fierce global competition, these areas have been experiencing what the Rust Belt has been seeing: economic decline, alarmingly rapid aging population (because there are few jobs for younger generations), and the collapse of once-vibrant downtown/suburban areas.

You could call this an economic problem and try to fix it by “fixing” the economy.  Trump’s protectionist message resonated with voters in the Rust Belt – global trade is to blame.  All we need to do is to “make American industry great again.”

But wait.  Isn’t the economy itself the root cause of the problem, because it’s a never-ending efficiency game, which inevitably creates losers?  And isn’t it an obvious trend that there are decreasing numbers of increasingly powerful winners, and a growing number of the rest – who could be categorized as losers?  Would protectionism or walls solve all the problems and secure us a place among small groups of winners?  And we don’t care about the new losers that we may create?

Weary of never-ending, ever-intensifying economic game to create winners and losers based on efficiency, there is an increasing momentum to re-invigorate such ailing economic regions by not relying on conventional economic tools .  People are trying to create a new game in which success and happiness is not determined by draining competition on who can offer things more cheaply.

But what else can we leverage to “make our region great again,” if we are not relying on financial investments such as opening new factories or building big shopping malls?

One of the movements seen worldwide is a creation of local currency.  Local currency or community money is a currency independent from national currency, valid only within a defined region.  One of the most famous is Ithaca Hours used in Ithaca, NY.  It aims to create an independent and resilient economic bloc that is not exposed to global competition. People in the system therefore should be able to exchange products and services that have equivalent values based on unique standard accepted by the region. It is supposed to invigorate various activities within a region, and increase intra-exchange or trade of the outcome from those activities, even when they don’t have any values for people outside the community.

Despite the enthusiasm, most of local currencies are struggling. Maybe it has to do with inherent characteristics of currency – which assigns uniform value to enable easy exchange, even for products/services that may have incomparable values. 

One of the few successful local currencies – Atom currency in Japan (named after a cartoon Astro Boy and based on the philosophy of Osamu Tezuka, the author of Astro Boy) may have some answers. 

Atom currency was introduced in 2004 in a local community in Tokyo where Astro Boy was originally produced. Based on Tezuka’s philosophy, the currency is distributed to support grass-roots activities related to environment, community, international partnership and education.  It is not a currency in a narrow definition because it is issued to “thank” people for their goodwill.  But still, earned Atom currency has values that can be used in multiple ways.

Even though it’s called “currency,” Atom currency is gaining its popularity exactly because it CANNOT be exchanged easily.  First of all, it’s given as a proof that your work has been appreciated by the community.  As The Beatles sang, “Money can’t buy me” Atom currency.  Once proudly earned, it can be used just like a national currency at member stores/businesses, or can be exchanged to specific services, or handed to someone as a way to express your gratitude.  Other regions wishing to join the system can have flexibility designing their own exchange platform based on their needs such as disaster relief, boosting local innovation or strengthening local network.  To increase excitements, the currency has original Astro Boy design on it, which is a rare item worth collection for many Tezuka fans.

Clearly, the success of Atom currency is coming from everything “nonexchangeable.”  Your volunteer work is nonexchangeable.  “Thank you” is nonexchangeable.  Tezuka’s legacy is priceless.  It has very narrowly defined validity and hard to obtain.

Maybe we are weary of anything that can easily be exchanged.  We are weary of being put $ on us and forced to compete with someone far in the world.  Maybe we need a system that can assure us that “we are not exchangeable.” 

However, many local assets that are not exchangeable or on the verge of disappearing losing fight against global economic competition.  Next article discusses how MUJI is working with one of such rural Japanese communities to preserve nonexchangeable assets.