“It’s time to prototype tools for a new Economy!” was the rally cry on a Friday night at 8pm. Creative Currency, a Hackathon put together by GAFFTA, the Hub, American Express, and the City and County of San Francisco, brought together 150 people committed to spending their weekend creating tools that could illuminate and make accessible invisible systems of currency in Mid Market, the city’s most dense, dynamic, and economically impoverished community, located in the heart of the city. 

Generally speaking, Hackathons are a chance for people to prototype a product that will go to market, scale, and bring the makers money and fame, all in 48 hours. When you have a group of coders and developers trying to make a technology based solution, 48 hours seems reasonable. But Creative Currency was about breaking the mold. Participants were designers, artists, community leaders, teachers, and social entrepreneurs mashed up with programmers and developers, united by their desire to learn more about and improve the lives of people living in Mid Market. 

In a groundbreaking effort to link Hackathon outcomes directly with community needs, the planning team spent 2 months working on a brief of issues informed by interviews and research on the target community. The findings, even to someone who has worked in economic development in the Bay Area, were astounding. For example, 31% of residents in the Mid Market district, located in the heart of the city, earn less than $15,000 a year, with nearly half of its residents living in extreme poverty. 90% of San Francisco’s subsidized housing lies in the district, and 4,000 of the city’s children live here. It’s one of the city‘s most dynamic communities, but also the one in most danger of being displaced by pending gentrification. You can find this and more information in the community brief.   

The basic needs of the residents of Mid Market are the same as everyone’s – Food, housing, employment and skill building, and economic and asset development. In theory, these conditions make it ripe for implementing existing sharing economy tools like time banking, informal lending circles, and various forms of asset sharing – and also ripe for innovating new tools for a necessary new economy, one that is inclusive and can meet the needs of a complex and evolving community.  The challenges of Mid Market are not unique to San Francisco, every community has a Mid Market – the hope is that if solutions can be created here, they could be replicated in similar communities all over the world. 

Presentations from Kiva, Glide Memorial, Square, and the City of San Francisco’s Office of Financial Empowerment all highlighted the need to provide tools that help people to become micro entrepreneurs,  build assets, get crucial information to the most vulnerable, and use community resources like trust and word of mouth, to help empower the community. 

With a clearer understanding of the challenges, participants were then invited to propose project ideas that could fundamentally disrupt systems and change life for residents of Mid Market, and by association, the lives of people in cities all over the world. What set this event apart was the onus to understand the community by interviewing residents and organizations as part of the design process, and to create a tool that is accessible without technology, in an effort to design with not for the community. 

Initially, I had some reserved skepticism – would we, a group of privileged, insulated, “do-gooders“, actually be able to create projects that reflected actual needs? What assumptions would be made, and would people actually interact with the folks they’re designing these projects to empower? Would meaningful connection to understanding undervalued assets in a community be realized, validated, and, if possible, improved upon? 

I’d like to introduce you to the finalists: 


Often in communities, the most valuable but underutilizes asset is connection and trust. But in an economy that uses tools like credit scores to gage people’s trustworthiness,  many people are left out of the economic mainstream. And while there are trust tools being developed, specifically around the sharing economy, one can imagine that many who have traditionally been left out of the current economy will be left out of trust scores that are based on online reputations. TrustScore partners with community organizations to vet people’s trust worthiness in order to give them access to micro loans, then invites people who have built a positive record to invite others that they know could likely do things like repay a loan to start their own business. It turns the currency of relationships, networks, and trust into access to capital and economic development.   


During the presentations on the initial day, we learned that people experiencing homelessness can spend 8 to 9 hours a day looking for a safe bed to sleep in and food to eat – which doesn’t leave time to search for employment or apply for benefits. The team decided to try to streamline the process for applying for a bed at a shelter or meal at a food pantry, in the same way we book a hotel room or make a reservation at a restaurant. Touch screen kiosks would be placed all over the city for people to book real time reservations for food and shelter. With minimal effort, this could free people’s days up to focus on all the other things they need. 

A big theme of the weekend was the idea that small businesses are the backbone of the community, and the ones most likely to hire residents and spur the local economy. In mid market, you have the challenge of having real estate that is about to become very valuable as companies like twitter move in, but in the mean time, landlords are still having trouble finding tenants, and are unsure if they want to committ to a business long term. At the same time, you have residents to are skilled and looking for work, and entrepreners who are looking for spaces to test out or launch their business. YourSQFT is like Airbnb for spaces and employees in Mid Market. You can go on the platform and be linked with landlords who are open to Pop Ups or short term leases, find and hire employees from the community to work in the space, and get help streamlining the permitting process for said space.  

And finally,

If you happen to live in a city, people experiencing homelessness is a daily part of your life. In time, many of us turn blinders on to the fact that it exists all around us, especially on pulbic transit, and in public spaces we share like libraries or parks. What always strikes me so keenly, beyond the fact that those experiencing homelessness experience a loss of their identity, is that in the process, they lose what the rest of us take for granted as our basic right as a member of society. The right to dignity. Many things provide dignity in our society, but none is as clear and basic as the right to access water to drink, bathe, and clean ourselves and our belongings. Access to water for washing is a currency also only available to certain members of society in this country. This project strives to give people a place to access this basic necessity in a way that honors their inherent dignity. The team wisely framed the case that this should be funded as a public health issue that effects all of us, as we all share public spaces.  

So, what do you think? Did these projects bring value and light to invisible currencies? 

To learn more about Creative Currencies visit: https://creative-currency.org. To see all the projects from the weekend visit: https://creative-currency.org/projects.

Milicent Johnson


Milicent Johnson

Milicent is an idealistic realist with a passion for learning, laughing, and building community. Her passion for empowering communities to find meaningful solutions and resilience led her to work on

Things I share: Love, life, happiness, and almost everything between.