"A lot of the projects out there are not fun or engaging," says Banks. "People are missing a trick here. Where's the tech angle? Where's the social media angle? There needs to be rethink about how we build tools to help people succeed in these kinds of projects."
And so, in the interest of what Banks calls "fishing where the fish are," he says that Means of Exchange will focus heavily on mobile apps that harness the sharing power of Facebook and Twitter. He says one idea that has struck his fancy is something called "cash-mobbing," where people decide to descend en masse on, say, a candy store and each spend $5 or $10 each. It is very different from setting up a barter system, but still taps into the idea of communities helping each other out.
Imagine, Banks says, some kind of application that could allow individuals to easily set up a "cash-mob" like this with their friends. "People will do it because other people want to give it a go, feel like you're part of a community and people doing something cool and fun," says Banks. "And the fact that the shop keeper can stay in business for six more months is almost incidental to that. It’s a subliminal way of doing it."
Banks says he eventually would like to create a host of different applications that will allow individuals and communities to "pick and mix" depending on their specific needs. Not everyone will want to create an alternative currency, he notes, but maybe they would like some kind of credit system based on time or job-swapping. And some, he says, might one day want to expand the network farther afield.
"Maybe you could connect local communities up with each other, so that my village could then trade and barter and use whatever systems I've created with the next village, so I can actually use my units with the village down the road. You could make a virtual local trading area, by connecting up communities around each other."
But that's in the future. For now, Banks says, he's concentrating on making the Means of Exchange website a hub for anyone interested in these kinds of economic alternatives and developing the project’s first app, which will be available first on the site, but then also on mobile platforms such as iPhone and Android.
Banks says he is not in any rush. Like FrontlineSMS, he says, he believes that if he builds it “they will come." The trick, he says, is to have fun and engaging tools in place when people come looking for them.
"If I can get this right, I think it could be potentially much bigger than FrontlineSMS, because I just think the need is so great," says Banks.
"People are suffering through no fault of their own in many cases. They want more control over their lives, and we want to create self-help tools for those who want to rebuild something that was lost a long time ago in their communities."