In Brief
Universal Basic Assets (UBA) is a system in which each citizen receives an equal amount of baseline assets, in contrast to Universal Basic Income, which deals only with money. But could UBA produce a more equal society?

What is UBA?

Universal Basic Assets (UBA) have been suggested by the Institute for the Future (IFTF) as a more progressive and fair way to challenging inequality — which, at this point, is staggering. Currently, according to Oxfam, eight people own as much wealth as half of the world’s population.

This inequality will become more severe with the exponential increase of two factors: The first is climate change, which creates “climate refugees” due to water and food shortages as well as the wars that start as a result. The second is advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) and  automation technology, which will displace many workers. Stephen Hawking has recently added his name to the growing list of scientists worried about the impact of AI on middle class jobs.

Universal Basic Income: The Answer to Automation?
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UBA has been proposed as a way of averting economic disaster by properly assessing and distributing our resources to meet the needs of every person. It can be seen as an evolution of the concept of Universal Basic Income (UBI), which gives every citizen, regardless of how much they earn, a set amount of guaranteed money. The biggest criticisms of this concept are that it is hugely expensive, not all individuals have equal skills in managing money, and that — as Lenny Mendonca of NewCo Shift wrote in an opinion piece — “it is giving crumbs to pacify rather than means to participate.”

The IFTF defines UBA as “a core, basic set of resources that every person is entitled to, from housing and healthcare to education and financial security.” Rather than just focusing on money, the IFTF divides assets into three categories: First, private assets owned personally, such as housing, land, and money. Second, public assets owned collectively and usually managed by a government, which can include anything from the police force to public art galleries to national parks.

And third, open assets owned by neither an individual nor the government, but by a defined group. Resources in this category are epitomized by how open-source software operates today. John Clippinger, founder of the Institute for Data-Driven Design, said this category usually evolves with society, giving the example of British Common Law in an interview with Forbes, “It was constantly reinventing itself around the circumstances, and there was no single point of control.”

Better Than UBI?

The IFTF is still early in its planning stage, so its members are vague about exactly how they propose to implement UBA. Their model going forward is to:

  • Catalyze a community to create a “new economic operating system built on universal basic assets.”
  • Conduct research, particularly on open assets.
  • Launch experiments from which they can forecast the kind of society we can create.

However, there are some key issues that will have to be faced in order to change the economic operating system:

Firstly, there is the issue of quantification. In order to distribute something equally, there must be a way of measuring it in order to assign the same amount to each individual. While this is fairly simple with private assets (money can be counted, land measured in feet etc.), it becomes murkier when applied to the IFTF’s categorization of open assets.

Secondly — and linked to the above point — while private and public assets lie within a country’s borders, open assets do not. An example of this could be the air we breathe. So even if we can find a way to quantify open assets, how will we be able to distribute resources that we do not own, and cannot be owned?

Finally, if a problem with UBI is that not everyone has equal financial management skills, then the same criticism can be applied to asset management.

Douglas Rushkoff states in Economics Is Not a Natural Science that “The marketplace in which most commerce takes place today is not a pre-existing condition of the universe.” UBA is a promising means of making the economy a more equal space. However — like any new idea — there are some problems it has to overcome first.