Knowledge as currency | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 22.12.2012
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Knowledge as currency

Cleaning windows in exchange for lawn-mowing, physics tutoring swapped for grammar lessons: Talent exchanges are picking up momentum, and offering an alternative model to individualistic society.

"Every person has some knowledge that is of interest to others," says Christian Wenzel. The 33-year-old media scientist is convinced that it all boils down to people discovering their own talents. That's why he and four other friends established the "Austauschhafen" (literally: "Exchange Harbor") in Cologne. Every two weeks, those interested in the exchange meet at different places throughout the city and listen to lectures or participate in a discussion or activity. For instance, hobby physicists offer insights into Albert Einstein's theory of relativity; up-and-coming teachers give lessons on grammar basics; or a self-employed father talks about life as a freelancer while raising four kids.

People participating in another 'Exchange Harbor' event about the topic 'birds' out bird-watching at the Rhine River in Cologne Copyright: Austauschhafen

Lessons on birds were another topic of the 'Exchange Harbor'

It isn't so much factual knowledge as it is wisdom about life that participants are supposed to exchange. "Non-professionalism is the goal here," Wenzel. For instance, once at the Austauschhafen, a homeless person talked about how it is to live on the street.

Such knowledge - often so underused and overlooked in the conventional economic exploitation chain - offers potential and gains importance in the "exchange harbor." "The name of the group itself suggests that we want to take care of this 'cargo' of knowledge," Wenzel explained.

It's more fun together

The exchange harbor is open to everything, an idea that originated in the United States. For the past few years in major urban areas, people have been bartering practical or theoretical knowledge in so-called "trade schools."

Of course, there's a lot of idealism involved when Wenzel describes the idea behind trading knowledge in this way. "The question is: how do we want to live? How will the way we live and work change in the future," he says.

A hand wearing a bright blue plastic glove washing a window with a sponge Copyright: Fotolia/Picture-Factory

Window-cleaning has a same value as tutoring in the 'Tauschring'

Intensifying a sense of community and redefining what it means - these are topics many people in Germany are discussing right now. And that's not only because of the constant reports in the media about countries on the verge of bankruptcy or the threat of inflation, but also because in a period when resources are becoming depleted, collaboration in addressing such problems is required. Also, people sitting at the computer all day - working essentially alone - often feel both isolated and underappreciated. Enhancing a sense of community may be an antidote to that.

Each talent has the same worth

All of this rings familiar - for instance, talent exchanges began popping up in Germany in the early 1990s, aiming to offer an alternative to regular economic schemes that exclude many people, especially in times of crisis. Nowadays, there are more than 350 such talent circles in big and small towns across Germany. The self-employed, the regularly employed, and retired people use their spare time to exchange services in what they're good at.

"People can exchange or trade anything: what they've been trained to do, or something they're talented in," said the founder of "Tauschring". Ten years ago in Cologne, she offered work as a typist in exchange for massages or window-cleaning. Now, she trades her talent organizing the Tauschring for those massages.

An 'exchange harbor' event about sign language Copyright: Austauschhafen

An 'exchange harbor' event about sign language

"We do not use money in the conventional sense," she explained. And the group also doesn't use a point system - as some other online exchanges do - which relies on a scale in which the services are rated. Simple work like cleaning windows does not enjoy the same value as language lessons, for example.

Cologne's "Tauschring," however, foregoes such distinctions and uses its own currency instead. The "talent hour" is based on the amount of time invested in an activity. "It's about abilities and not qualifications," explained the founder. The 170 members of the group offer time out of their lives for a particular service. Window-cleaning is of equal value to computer-tutoring. "We experience different pay for different work in our conventional working lives, and that's precisely what we're trying to get away from here," she said.

Kora Kristof, a researcher of sustainability at Wuppertal's Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, is currently looking at the role talent circles are playing in society. She describes the primary factors motivating people to participate in such exchanges as the wish for a "humane form of economics" and a "meaningful way of spending leisure time."

Time rather than qualifications

A talent hour board in bright green Copyright: Marina Gouva/ Tauschring Köln

One 'talent hour' is equal to any other, regardless of its content

Talent circle participants are convinced of their cause. They believe in a different sense of community and one based on mutual support. Where one person may need some help, another person jumps in. "90 percent of our members are self-employed or salaried workers," said the Tauschring founder. "Only ten percent are retired people, students or the unemployed." Manual labor tops the charts of services on offer in the Tauschring, followed by computer help, household services, massages and haircuts.

This kind of exchange has one advantage, at the very least: a talent hour account can never be overdrawn.

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