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Cool Currencies – Atom (Astro Boy) Currency

Words by Huy Ho


Complementary currencies are not a new idea. Dating back to the 1800s, local currencies have been making a meaningful difference to communities across the globe, such as the labour notes by Robert Owens in 1832. Complementary currencies are used to strengthen trade between individuals and businesses who share a common bond – like geography (Bristol Pound) or personal values (Koin Rewards). Aside from economic empowerment, community currencies have been shown to help tackle social and environmental problems.

In the following example, we’ll see how Atom Currency works in a district of Tokyo, Japan – how it motivates individuals to behave sustainably and how it strengthens the community.   


How did it all begin?

After a fireworks festival in Waseda-Takadanobaba, event organisers noticed that, although many visitors cleared up after themselves, not everyone did. They wondered how they could encourage all visitors to leave the venue clean. The event organisers and the local government got together and created Atom Currency – a community currency incorporating one of Japan’s favourite cartoon characters: Astro Boy!

Colourful Astro Boy notes were printed and the units were called ‘horsepower‘. It was used to pay litter pickers and could be spent on goods and services at participating stores in the district. Not only did Atom Currency add an element of fun and childhood nostalgia, it incentivised litter picking.


Did it work?

After a decade of ongoing success and annual new note designs, this token of social contribution proves to be a well-loved reward system. Although Atom Currency is not citywide, only being accepted at a limited number of shops around Waseda University, it has approximately 20 million horsepower in circulation every year!

This success can be partly credited to Waseda University for accepting the currency. Instead of hired caretakers, students are responsible for most of the site’s daily maintenance and upkeep. With the introduction of Atom Currency, students now earn horsepower for helping to keep the university clean. On top of sustaining the circulation of horsepower, the large pool of students and young professionals using Atom Currency creates volumes of talk and attention, keeping the currency in the limelight.

For people earning horsepower, the system makes small but welcome contributions to daily expenses, taking the edge off the dreaded end of the month bill. For example, Hiroto may decide to pick up litter in the park in Waseda University and then later choose to eat dinner or purchase some stationary from the University shop using the Atom currency he just earned. As the reward system is so simple and instantaneous, Hiroto might do this again and again. The horsepower will be received and spent within the same community, creating a positive spiral effect.

All in all, Japan’s Atom Currency is actively addressing litter issues and promoting shops in the local area, plus it remains popular for the individual, rendering it a success on many levels.


From litter picking to saving lives

With the growing success of Atom Currency, you can imagine that there isn’t enough litter to go around for everyone to gain rewards. However, the activities that can earn you horsepower are not limited to cleaning rubbish on the streets. In fact, the positive impacts of this local currency have expanded nationwide since it began circulating.

You can now earn Atom Currency for participating in a great variety of programmes and activities, including: the ‘life without rubbish’ project, taking children to and from school, helping farms to cultivate rice fields, shopping with a reusable bag, the conservation of forests project and the chopstick recycling project – to name a few. In this way, a community currency can make a real impact for people and the environment by rewarding and reinforcing sustainable behaviour.

Onagawa, a town badly affected in the 2011 earthquake, even used the currency as part of their recovery programme. Volunteers would earn Atom Currency by searching the rubble, cooking and cleaning to aid the survivors. This programme helped to save hundreds of lives whilst strengthening community relationships in the area.


What’s in it for the businesses?

Atom Currency cannot be exchanged for legal currency and, with a limited number of participating businesses, it would be impossible for shops to maintain running costs using horsepower alone. However, the store owners believe in the long-term benefits. They participate in the community currency project with the bigger picture in mind – community revitalisation.

Ever since the introduction of Atom Currency, the Waseda-Takadanobaba district began to see a strong and growing sense of community. More volunteers working to resolve issues, means a safer and better district to visit and live in.

On top of this, the local university’s participation in the community projects helped to boost the number of student activities, which attracted more students from overseas. Meanwhile, visiting tourists (both local and international) took an interest in the currency, giving the district good publicity and media coverage. Like a domino effect, Waseda’s Atom Currency motivates people to contribute to the community, which in turn attracts more visitors, which continues to keep the economy thriving.

Whereas volunteers use horsepower to buy goods, shop owners accept it, not to support their own finances, but to reward individuals for their services to the community. In a way, business owners are the champions of this project.


Points, prizes and positive change

Similar to Atom Currency, Koin Rewards is a scheme launched in the UK to encourage people to shop ‘responsibly‘. It was designed for individuals and businesses with shared environmental values.

Shoppers earn Koins for spending money in sustainably sourced or environmentally conscious businesses, such as: Planet Organic, Tribe Sports, Swoon, Evermore, Open for Vintage and many more. Members can then convert their Koins into money to spend wherever they wish. 

Community currency is an old concept and it continues to be an important feature of communities around the world. As we see in Atom Currency, community currency proves to be an innovative tool for solving problems and making long-lasting behaviour changes that improve our society, economy and environment.

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