Since 2011, the international research association RAMICS has organised the largest bi-annual congresses about complementary currency systems worldwide. In September 2019 the second-but-last congress had taken place in Hida-Takayama, Japan. Only a few months later, most our scheduled events were brought to a complete halt by the Covid pandemic. The following 6th RAMICS congress had already been scheduled for September 2021, but it soon became apparent that this would not be possible without massive restrictions. In order not to loose the possibility of face-to-face encounters with colleagues and friends if the conference had been organised entirely online, the organisers postponed the event by a year. Finally, it took place last month, from 27-29 October 2022, in the Bulgarian capital Sofia.

Rossitsa Toncheva from the University for National and World Economics and the Bulgarian Monetary Research Center had already offered to organise the follow-up event at these institutes at the end of the conference in Japan –  despite or because the idea of complementary currencies is still hardly known in Bulgaria. This made it clear from the outset that the combination of a research conference and a meeting of activists and initiatives, which had proved highly inspiring at the five previous RAMICS congresses, would be difficult to implement this time.

Moreover, many of the researchers who had submitted their papers for presentations during the conference still preferred not to travel to Bulgaria in person, but to take advantage of the virtual lecture format widely practised during the pandemic.

A total of 52 research papers and field reports were presented in the end (see final program here). 30 of them by participants in Sofia who had come here not only from Europe, but also from Brazil, the USA, Japan and many other countries. Together with interested people from Bulgaria and students from the university itself, there were over 40 participants in the audience, at least during the high-profile keynotes and the opening event.

For the online presentations during the first two days, a total of 85 participants were registered, spread over 4 parallel sessions at a time. This was because, unlike other “hybrid” events in recent years, a strict distinction was here made between online and “on-site” sessions/panels. This offered those who had taken the effort and risk of travelling to Bulgaria more opportunities for precious exchanges with other on-site participants, without being limited by the practical and technical difficulties that any exchange with online participants still entails.

Sofia presented itself in her most beautiful autumn dress for the whole duration of the congress!

Even though there were fewer presentations overall than at previous congresses, in terms of content they offered no less interesting and varied insights into the many diverse aspects of complementary currency research (a compilation of all abstracts can be downloaded here). Likewise, the number of reports was sufficient to refute the impression held by some in recent years, that community-based complementary currencies are attracting less public interest today. To name just a few facts contradicting this impression: in France there are now 82 initiatives similar to the German Regiogeld. In Brazil, such currencies continue to receive support from both national social policy and municipal governments. In the USA and Canada, long-standing projects such as Berkshares and Calgary Dollar are developing steadily and, inspired by positive examples from East Africa, even the German Development Agency (GIZ) is currently running pilot-projects with complementary currencies in Cameroon.

A clear novelty since the past congresses has been the greater availability of transaction data and correlatable demographic and sociological surveys. This could be seen as a positive side-effect of the advancing digitalisation in the field and the otherwise often misguided enthusiasm for digital currencies. Although very few projects actually use blockchain protocols for their transactions, even those with central databases now generate data which can be made available to science and analysed anonymously. So far, visualisation and conceptual modelling of what is happening in complementary currency networks has dominated this research trend. But ideas on how to derive clues for better currency design and incentives for users have already been echoed in several papers using such data analysis tools. Likewise, greater attention to evaluation and impact studies, and the additional data collection needed to conduct those, was observed in many contributions – another aspect of research that has clearly gained profile and attention compared to previous conferences. Even if the impact of complementary currencies is still comparatively small and localised in the face of major challenges such as the Corona pandemic and global climate change, they at least indicate a maturation of this type of monetary and financial reforms, which gives hope for future developments.

Opening event and keynote by Prof. Nikolay Nenovsky

How long such conceptional development processes histroically take was indirectly represented through the selection of keynote speeches at the congress. To start with, the Bulgarian economist and central banker Prof. Nikolay Nenovsky gave an overview of the history of the financial landscape of the host country and the rest of the Balkans – a region in which questions of joining the euro-zone and other international integration still seem far more vivid than the promises of complementary currencies. In fact, there is currently only one complementary currency initiative in Bulgaria, which presented its ideas and first activities on the third day of the conference (see picture below).

The second plenary lecture was given by Thomas Greco from the USA, invited because of his tireless commitment to and advocacy of “mutual credit” systems, which makes him a cornerstone of the field complementary currencies to many activists and researchers alike. Prof. Bruno Theret form France, the third keynote speaker, in turn presented a detailed comparison between the value theories of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) and John R. Commons (1862-1954), who contributed significantly to the ideas of cooperative financial practices in the 19th and 20th centuries and can thus be considered ancestors of the modern money reform movement, albeit with different tools. Finally, Susanna Belmonte from Spain used current examples from her home country and various EU programmes to show in the last plenary session how complementary economic and monetary initiatives can serve as nuclei for solutions to larger social and environmental issues.

Sales stall of Bulgaria’s only compl. currency at a Sunday market in the city.

In this same line of thinking it was interesting to observe how several research presentations were about the connection of complementary currencies and ideas of an unconditional or universal basic income. Even if the data in this field is still very limited – and its interpretation sometimes questionable – this at least shows how grand aspirations and small-scale experimental approaches can cross-fertilise each other.

Integrating individual case studies and grand theoretical designs was another strand of research that linked different presentations during the congress. For example, the three members of the monneta expert network present in Sofia, Christian Gelleri, Jens Martignoni and Leander Bindewald, all presented aspects of their doctoral dissertations, which had as an common denominator the interplay between the practice of complementary currencies and economic monetary theory – and how both can be made more robust by including the change of perspective they both demand of eachother.

Jens Martignoni was also elected to the RAMICS management committee during the associations general assembly held on the last day of the conference. In addition, he will relieve Georgina Gomez after many commendable year in her position as Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Community Currency Research (IJCCR). We congratulate on both positions and wish him all the best!

Finally, the practicalities and quality of the interactions between local and online participants was praised by many participants during and after the conference. Especially if the next conference in two years should take place outside Europe once more (the next venue has not been decided yet), the hybrid option of presenting papers onlineis more inclusive for those who cannot afford or do not want to travel. But especially after the past years of virtuality, we very much hope that soon the value of face-toface encounters will again come more and more to the fore. This is also what monneta stands for as a network organisation, especially for the German-speaking members in our expert-network. And this concern for fruitful exchange is also what motivated us to become a co-organisers of the congress in Bulgaria and to continue as the only institutional member of RAMICS.

In this spirit, we hope to meet many of our colleagues, friends and readers in person again soon, at the RAMICS Congress 2024, or hopefully before that at other events organised by and with monneta. For updates on this, keep following our newsletters.