Designing a gift-based economy


In my effort to keep understanding the concept of a gift-based economy, this time i’m sharing some reflections on Nepun Mehta’s work. I first heard of him last year, when I read about his commencement speech given at the University of Pennsylvania.  As of today, it’s been read 176,884 times. You can read it here.

In this humble but very inspiring speech, Mehta talks about a pilgrimage him and his wife did in India relying entirely on strangers” kindness for food and shelter on their 1,000 kilometer long journey for three months. Throughout this trip Mehta describes how people like vegetable vendors, shared the little they had to support him and his wife. Mehta calls this process inner transformation, referring to how giving becomes an act of love and brings joy to the person giving, despite of how fair that exchange might be. In this video below you can hear him talk about ”designing a gift economy”.

These acts based on self-less generosity is what makes Mehta”s organization, ServiceSpace, stand out. It started as CharityFocus in 1999, an organization that provided free web services to non-profits.Since then it has evolved into ten different initiatives that share volunteerism as its common thread. Amit Dungarani, a volunteer with ServiceSpace, describes in a video interview how “by giving I”m getting something back and both parties are mutually benefited”. Mehta seems to emphasize this process of giving as an ongoing personal transformation that happens every time an act of generosity is made. Dungarani also describes how ServiceSpace is intentionally run by volunteers, as opposed to being an organization that relies on raising funds to pay for staff salaries.

All of ServiceSpace projects are run with a $0 overhead.ServiceSpace’s work is very much related to communications and technology. Besides CharityFocus, other initiatives include works & conversations, a magazine with touching stories of artists” lives;; a website that hosts resources and news related to development work in South Asia;; a site and mailing list of good news delivered daily to nearly 130,000 people.  Only one project has a store-front presence: Karma Kitchen, a pay-it-forward restaurant where guests pay $0 for their meal but are invited to pay for the next people coming in. Dungarani has some insights on the value of volunteering small acts. “Focusing on the small is something everyone can do and seems less daunting,” he explains. ServiceSpace relies on these small acts that amount to millions of dollars of work in public service. Mehta calls these successive acts of generosity “giftivism” (gift-iv-ism).

The takeaway: Nipun Mehta has done a great job at starting a great organization, but also communicating the great joy that acts of love and generosity bring to those who donate their time and skills without expecting any reciprocity (communicating generosity can also be an act of generosity).

In one of his TED presentations, Mehta asks, “what designs emerge when we assume people want to behave selflessly?” That is the premise behind a gift economy, relying on people’s trust, as opposed to a rational evaluation of what might be a fair trade. How can we as designers and communicators begin experimenting with small acts of generosity?

And finally, the biggest takeaway I get from ServiceSpace is that we can all do more for others if we’re nudged a little by love, and like Mehta says, and move “from isolation to community” a little more.