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SIE interviews Economy App

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The European Commission’s DG Enterprise and Industry recently announced the winners of the first Social Innovation Prize competition run at a pan-European level. The competition—launched in memory of Diogo Vasconcelos, a leading advocate for European social innovation—aimed to act as a lightening-rod, attracting the energetic social innovators creating and building on new business models which address unmet social needs across the continent. José Manuel Durão Barroso, president of the European Commission awarded the first Social Innovation prizes for three ground-breaking ideas that seek new ways to create more and better jobs in Europe.

Economy App (Germany) is a web-based software for moneyless economic exchange, allowing the creation of new jobs and businesses in times of scarce liquidity in the goods and services economy. It started by collecting information from users on what services or items they would offer in a barter economy, and what offers they would wish for from others. Then a novel “network barter” algorithm calculates a many-to-many barter deal in which every participant provides and receives items of the same total value, constituting economic exchange without cash or credit. 

Congratulations on winning this Social Innovation Prize. What inspired you to enter the competition?

Thank you! My inspiration came from looking at, and in part experiencing, the absurdity of unemployment: when people are out of work it's not because work is out. These people have economic needs and also time and skills, but while this should result in economic activity, it does not. So for about a year, I had repeatedly thought how to solve this economic gridlock with a smartphone app that could somehow jumpstart a local economy.

It was a vague idea at the time, but because it fascinated me (and I had still two hours before the deadline …) I entered it into the competition. During the competition's runtime our concept matured, guided both by the competition's process and professional feedback from a German startup competition (that we did not win). This development of the idea during the competition was interesting to see by itself – and on a side note, maybe it points to the potential for “collaborative competitions” where ideas are developed, not curated ...

Has this recognition been beneficial for Economy App? How?

It has! We profit from the entailing public visibility, getting attention and sign-ups for our pre-launch site Those who sign up mean a lot to us, since we can get feedback for our beta versions of the software, and also will quickly reach a critical mass of users when finally launching the service.

Another beneficial aspect is of course the prize money, and for a “grassroots social innovation” like ours this is not a small amount. We experience uncertain and low-paid work conditions ourselves as self-employed software developers (so yes, we know why we want to build a network barter economy). Obviously, this work situation limited our resources available for innovating, so we're really grateful for the seed funding through the prize.

But while we were lucky, there are many more social innovators out there, with bright ideas, but hampered by the very problem they want to solve and in need for a little push of support. At least that is my impression from working with the “Edgeryders” network of young European changemakers.

What are some of the major challenges facing Economy App in the next 2 years? Will international recognition or a trans-European media profile help or hinder you in meeting those challenges?

Since our idea is meant for all of Europe, public visibility on European level is exactly what we need once the platform launches. That's quite some way to go though. Until then, our challenge is to build on our current prototype and come up with a proof of viability and a full working version, both regarding our core innovation, the network barter algorithm, and the user experience on the platform.

So for now, we're hesitant to raise much attention because we can't handle much of it at this point. Instead we have to work away on our technical challenges for some time. But already, we welcome contributions to our network barter algorithm. It will be released as open source software soon, so we can imagine collaborations with academia and the free software community.

In February 2014, we will have the platform ready and start our pilot community, very probably in Matera, Southern Italy. From then on, the challenge is of course about financial sustainability, and about building a user community and keeping it healthy. We're still looking for the right person to join our technology-centric team by then.