Skip to main content

A New Circuit: ReUnion

Chief Editor Christina J. Chua chats with researchers Yin Aiwen and Genevieve Costello on their wellness platform enabled by relationship-driven cryptocurrencies.

ReUnion App: View all P2P relationships

ReUnion App: View all P2P relationships. Image courtesy ReUnion Network.

On the eve of Singapore’s lockdown, amidst the bustle and scramble to stock up on food supplies and toilet paper, I found myself introduced to a lesser-heard-of meal delivery service for the elderly called Dorcas Home Care. A friend who was an artist and poet had posted a call for volunteers on Facebook, and I responded not expecting much except for a refreshing opportunity to break away from the usual grind of office work and art dealing for an hour or two a week. Then, as the “Circuit Breaker” locked the population into our apartments, this newfound circuit became much more than that for me. Of course, on the surface, it presented a sanctioned escape to covertly meet up with my partner who was living in another home apart from me, since meal delivery was considered an “essential service”. But further than that, it was a revelation into the inner-workings and limits of the local welfare system.

Singapore is a state which has Confucian values at its beating heart: meritocratic principles [01] are baked into its labour laws, and these are layered upon a fundamentally traditional approach to the family unit. With a majority Chinese population, these Confucian, Buddhist or Taoist ethics underscore the assumption that children should take care of their parents, a practice commonly known as “filial piety”. However, whilst the former paradigm of meritocracy has bred excellence and success, the security of the family has often been sacrificed in the individualistic pursuit of these material gains [02]. Thus, welfare and labour laws evolve to be at odds with each other, and as a meal delivery volunteer, I became aware of an unsettling urban phenomenon: elderly parents living alone in “prime real estate” apartments that were probably financed by their children, who were likely the same age as I was, just working some place else.

Week after week, as I hung styrofoam-boxed meals on the metal grates of these flats, I began to ask myself, what could change this siloed circuit? Not just more money, surely. Throwing donations at a cause would never transform anything real — anything systemic. But what about uprooting the money itself and implementing a currency specifically targeted at the missing relationships — even a cryptocurrency? Indeed, the promise of decentralisation — of unbanked assets, of complete, cloaked anonymity — is all very enticing to the neoliberal capitalist. But what if we were to also promise the same technology to this very sector on the opposite end of the spectrum: the world of welfare, care and social causes?

This is where researchers Yin Aiwen and Genevieve Costello saw an invigorating potential to rewrite the narrative around the blockchain, especially when considering our increasingly atomised and estranged urban society. Along with a team of collaborators and programmers, they began to imagine a holistic wellness platform called ReUnion Network, connecting small businesses and users through a peer-to-peer (P2P) socio-economic ecosystem enabled by relationship-driven cryptocurrencies and contracts.

Unlike other technologists or startup founders, however, these critical theorists have a completely different approach to problem-solving. They began with artistic speculation and curiosity, and a fundamental examination of the philosophical roots of the welfare system, and then worked outwards into developing a real-life application. Through a Zoom interview, SO-FAR traced this unique evolution, with the hopes that real, sustained impact amongst the community will gradually unravel along the P2P bonds of ReUnion.

ReUnion App: Create self-relationship

ReUnion App: Create self-relationship. Image courtesy ReUnion Network.

CJC:   Let’s start from the very beginning. How did ReUnion Network come into being?

YA:   This project initially started with an artistic curiosity, even though it’s becoming like an attempt to be more practical and implementable.

At the time of the blockchain high in 2017, many expected that we were going to enter a decentralised world, but no one could really explain what was going to happen when our society did become decentralised. This kind of question was always answered in a very McLuhanian [03] way — that if a medium or a technology launches, then society would change in ways according to the message that the medium implies. But before blockchain, the Internet was also invented with the same expectation. Now, it’s been 40 years since we’ve had the Internet, and unfortunately, society hasn’t become more decentralised or democratic, but quite the opposite. And we see the same tendency in blockchain development. I think one of the reasons for this depressed repetition is because we never really discuss what exactly does the decentralisation of a society mean, and what kind of society we actually want? That was the beginning point of ReUnion.

It’s been 40 years since we’ve had the Internet, and unfortunately, society hasn’t become more decentralised or democratic, but quite the opposite.

CJC:   You began with the premise — or the promise — of decentralisation.

YA:   Yes, decentralisation in terms of social organisations. We began our speculation by examining marriage and the family as the most basic social contracts for social reproduction, which encapsulate a lot of financial and care labour expectations for sustaining the society. And so, departing from this analysis, we imagined what would be the counterparts of these contracts in a decentralised society, and whether it would be possible to organise our safety nets in a fairer and more decentralised way.

CJC: How do you link this imagination with your examination of the welfare system?

GC:   Depending on which culture, nation or economic system we’re thinking about, a welfare system can be quite different. I entered into ReUnion conversations through my investigations on how care, and particularly the institutionalisation of care, functions in certain Western capitalist societies. In this context, access to care is predominantly negotiated and achieved through a market-based system, which relies on what are often referred to as “informal” modalities of care, or informal care labour. In this arrangement, care is treated as first and foremost a private matter for the individual to work out. Largely, an individual must make enough money to take care of themselves (to be an able-bodied worker in a living-wage job); or, an individual must have relationships with people who make enough money to access the distribution of care (to be part of a family, which is still heavily traditional in its legal and social norms); or, an individual must have access to a pre-existing substantial accumulation of money without the need to make it in an ongoing cycle (to be in a work or family structure of inheritance).

An individual must be cared for enough and in certain ways to become able to adequately function in the production system of informal care. Seen as an individual’s responsibility, that care is problematic in its concept, as individuals are not equally situated or equipped within the systemic social order as described above, nor in their ever-changing organic composition of being. It is also inappropriate to try to defend an imagination of a welfare system in a social organisation that views welfare as intrinsically an individual matter, as intimate relations are both legally and personally tangled up within, and, make possible, the social system as mandate . A welfare system in a place that assures wellbeing for individuals must exist raw and inherently, without a pre-order of play, as if in a rigged game. It cannot begin at the point of failure to adequately work.

Moreover, life-long performances through a limited set of social roles simply do not work for everyone, and in fact harm many, as well as demand lifestyles that contradict their terms and conditions. Up until recently, and in certain places still, eligibility to qualify for care support that is not achieved, but provided by the state based on need and inability to adequately achieve it within this market-based and privatised system, can be affected by marital status, among other legal familial relations. This reinforces that intimate relations must function within a standard, institutionalised family structure, and, that they may directly impede upon an individual’s access to care outside of it.

It is important to keep in mind that this type of welfare system functions within a judgment-based moral approach to vulnerability…

ReUnion App: View all P2P relationships

ReUnion App: View all P2P relationships. Image courtesy ReUnion Network.

CJC:   Like widows and orphans, as in the Bible?

GC:   In referring to a judgment-based moral system here, I mean the approach of another entity as separate from oneself. Every individual is a separate, autonomous being and there’s a potential for one or another being to be right or wrong. This can be the underlying morality in how freedom, autonomy and securities are conceived and how welfare systems are forged. It may help situate the activities of perpetually judging and feeling in competition with another.

A sense of security becomes based on a refusal of vulnerability. In this setting, instead of understanding vulnerability as a fundamental state of being, there is an approach to deny it and overcome it. In doing so, it becomes practice to accumulate and hoard care, while imposing vulnerability onto some people to carry that burden. This displacement is one way to gain, feel and likely be recognised as a legitimate entity. One aspect that may be a meaningful result of this pandemic period is the increased visibility of those who bear the burden of this social exorcism of vulnerability, such as caregivers, healthcare workers and grocery store employees who support others to be able to be less vulnerable so that they may flourish and live a “public” life.

A sense of security becomes based on a refusal of vulnerability. In this setting, instead of understanding vulnerability as a fundamental state of being, there is an approach to deny it and overcome it.

CJC:   I find it interesting that you point out how vulnerability is embedded into classical Western morality. It is not a state that everyone inherits as intrinsic to our shared humanity, but it’s seen as a negative state.

GC:   Yes, with the unfortunate effects like the hoarding of care by specific wealthier sectors of society, and by extension, judgments made as to who qualifies for equitable care and should live and fill public life (as their private life, i.e. their welfare, is secured). Society is grounded upon inequality. We are missing a more egalitarian approach and understanding of how care is offered as an intrinsic asset of sheer existence within social systems.

In ReUnion, we are bringing a different approach that goes beyond these mechanisms, and attempting to create conditions so that care becomes an accessible, common resource through peer-to-peer, long-term relationships.

YA:   For instance, during this COVID-19 situation, we are suddenly realising how ageism is playing out in the medical system. In Europe and the United States, when the medical system crashed, people openly discussed how they had to let go of senior patients in favour of the younger ones who had greater recovery prospects. This is a very economic perception of human life, and you also see how certain vulnerabilities become a matter of life or death in the welfare system.

Another one of the pitfalls of the current welfare system is that it is always dependent on the state, within the boundaries of sovereignty. Once we leave the state that we are dependent on, we are out of that safety net. This actually contradicts the living and working expectations of globalisation. The pandemic also makes it so clear that we are all in the same boat — we are dependent on each other’s collaboration and support — yet our welfare is not. We are contributing to one economic body (global capitalism), yet the institutions that are supposed to support us are so disconnected and self-concerned. Inspired by these observations, ReUnion’s next step is to look into how citizenship is linked to the whole welfare system, and what can we interject there.

CJC:   So to sum up, the restrictions surrounding welfare are manifold and stringent, and the affordability and quality of the care we receive may be tied to institutionalised family structures (such as marital status), age, wealth, class, and citizenship.

I also want to ask about the name itself — how did it come about and what is the core solution that ReUnion offers?

YA: The name ReUnion came about because our earlier motto was called “unionising through relationship”, so basically it is a relationship union. We currently live in an atomised society where, when our safety net is broken, and our economy no longer supports us to have a locally-situated family. We are atomised, we are apart — but then, there is the question of whether we can unionise  once more. ReUnion isn’t necessarily about being nostalgic or hoping to reinforce the old family structure. Rather, it’s about having an infrastructure that is more open and working better for our contemporary life, although it doesn’t exclude the traditional family structure as a way of living.

Although every marriage or family is different, as social contracts they are very monolithic templates for us to have a stable commitments with each other. But in our contemporary life — and in our team’s personal experience — we have noticed that these basic social contracts can easily become devices to carry out wishes and desires that are contradictory to each other. They become this whole basket of hopes and expectations that can blind us to seeing each other’s real needs, and what is actually happening in a relationship. So a permanent commitment that is supposed to stabilise a relationship in fact becomes the destabiliser…

Although every marriage or family is different, as social contracts they are very monolithic templates for us to have a stable commitments with each other.

The good part about a traditional marriage ideal is its presumed permanence which brings a strong sense of security. However, the issue is that this kind of contract doesn’t have an active motivator for its parties to be attentive to how the relationship evolves, because change is simply not welcome by the very definition of “permanence”. As individuals, it’s easy for us to understand that we all grow and change. But in marital and familial contracts — or at least in the normative imaginaries of them — developments and changes in a relationship are not expected. For example, the imagination of a parent-child relationship is permanently monolithic, even though we all have experienced the growing and changing contents of that relationship with our parents as we grew up. Disregarding the fact that even within a stable relationship, the nature of our relationships will constantly change, this is the reason why a monolithic and permanent expression of a social contract can become the source of repression.

In ReUnion, we set up “checkpoints” as a possible resolution to this problem. We let individuals who are in a committed relationship to “check in” to assess whether their relationship is in a healthy state or not, giving spaces for a moment of reflection and honest discussion about the future of the relationship together.

ReUnion App: Create Relationship and Activity

ReUnion App: Create Relationship and Activity. Image courtesy ReUnion Network.

CJC:   You mention the giving of spaces to each other. How different or similar is ReUnion from the gift economy, because it’s focused on the commons or a redistributed kind of relationship?

GC:   People have different conceptions of the gift economy. Broadly, in a gift economy, there’s an exchange of power that is is open-ended. The sense of ownership is different, where a right to ownership or position is transferred — entities step into a role, from which they will step out of again, rather than possess it. We might be wary of how this could develop in social relations, with feelings of entitlement and unevenness, actions of vengeance, or even violence.

In ReUnion we employ some notions associated with a gift economy, like the impermanence of holding a particular position of exchange, ability, or power, and a sense of open-endedness — although the ReUnion system does offer a form of closure or settlement, when both parties decide to conduct this.

We also work with the idea of the commons in combination with those aspects. First, we take vulnerability to be a common orientation, and we take care to be a common resource that is needed by everyone, that can be contributed to its creation and maintenance by most. We are not looking to ignore how power hierarchies and inconsistencies in ability exist in relationships. In ReUnion’s design, we try to consider how we can better be with these imbalances, to not suffer from them so that everything is based on consent or negotiation that’s specific to each moment — whether that’s an understanding by the person on where they’re positioned, or where they’re positioned in terms of other people in that moment, and how they’re able to give and receive in exchange. In ReUnion, we try to encourage presence and non-acquisition in elements that are often typical to monolithic care-relation templates, as Aiwen has described, of both intimate and less seemingly intimate standardised roles of care in society. The care as commons, is a perpetual, ongoing system. Nothing should remain stagnant, nor have the ability to be built into a hard-coded hierarchy.

The institutional set-up already indicates that you need other people in order to be part of the economy.

YA:   In a gift economy, if we don’t hoard power or accumulate a power dynamic, it usually means that the gift exchange is somewhat short-term. If the relationship becomes long-term and it’s still a gifting relationship, the power dynamic tends to become more asymmetrical, unless the two parties have absolutely equal power in every aspect.

ReUnion is trying to do something different. From the beginning, we insist on long-term because we want stability. We want people to feel safe in their safety net. At the same time, the interesting point of ReUnion is that we are trying to use programmable money (via the blockchain) to create an economic mechanism that can actively recalibrate certain power dynamics.

The programmed money in ReUnion is a dual set of currencies: a Personal Token (PT) and a Composite Coin (CC). The PT represents the emotional labour and caring activities you give to yourself or to someone else. But it doesn’t really participate in the economy unless you combine it with other users’ PTs to forge a CC that represents the care commitments between you two. The institutional set-up already indicates that you need other people in order to be part of the economy. From the creation of the CC to spending the coins, you need an active and sustainable relationship to legitimise the process. You need someone’s PT to create a coin that can be circulated, furthermore, you need their consensus to spend the coin. The process asks you to recognise the other person’s role and agency in the relationship, and of course, it also give you institutional reasons to maintain a good relationship with them. This is the most important mechanism we have forwarded to constantly reset — at least to some extent — the accumulating asymmetric powers in a relationship.

Furthermore, at this point, we are only working with the P2P scale — not a group scale — because we think that a P2P relationship offers a comparatively more equal dynamic. With two people, theoretically they both have 50-50 veto power to stabilise or destabilise the relationship. This means you have to really take the other person’s opinion into account, and their value matters because they are part of the relationship. These may be obvious principles when we want to have a good relationship, but in practice, it’s hard to remember because our institutional framework for all kinds of relationships are set up for permanent order, not for the quality of the relationship itself. We set up a different kind of institutional ground where we reworked the power dynamic inherent in a traditional gift economy.

ReUnion App: View all care activities

ReUnion App: View all care activities. Image courtesy ReUnion Network.

CJC:   In your User Interface (UI), you weigh these relationship dynamics and “checkpoints” with a gentle colour gradation. Why is that?

YA:   A lot of platforms translate feelings and judgments in very one-dimensional ways. From our research, we learned that this process actually alienates you from what you’re feeling. This happens when you’re translating your intuitive feelings to a systematic framework, you are disconnecting your own frame of reference and turning it into a presumably universal judgment — five stars grading, thumbs up, likes, or a categorised emoji — you have to pick from the given options. This system works to provide mass judgment. The data is designed for algorithmic profit processing which demands users to operate on a common index. For example, if you click “happy”, the system will interpret that everyone who clicks “happy” is happy in that particular situation too. But if you click “yellow”, a colour which has no universal indication of its signifiers, does everyone else who clicked “yellow” in the system have the same idea in mind? This offers an anti-surveillance-capitalism approach to data design.

But more importantly, it offers a different relationship between the user and their data. What we are doing at ReUnion is borrowing from art therapy, a clinical psychiatrist’s method that guides people to have a much closer relationship with their feelings, by using non-verbal and non-analytical expressions, such as painting in abstract colours. So instead of encouraging self quantification, the data in ReUnion works as (for the lack of a better word) a “spiritual” abstraction, where users can have a closer relationship with their feelings.

What we are doing at ReUnion is borrowing from art therapy, a clinical psychiatrist’s method that guides people to have a much closer relationship with their feelings, by using non-verbal and non-analytical expressions, such as painting in abstract colours.

CJC: Speaking of design, Aiwen, you’re not only a theorist but a designer yourself. How did you assemble your team?

YA:   Initially it was just me in 2017, then a year later, a game designer Jelena Viskovic joined. After she left for other professional pursuits at the end of 2018, our team expanded. Genevieve joined as the main concept researcher, followed by Mi You as a social developer to help transition ReUnion from an artistic speculation to a real-life application. Tamás Marquetant and Tamas Pall became the proof-of-concept developers. Mary Ponomareva and Jonatan van der Horst are the UI and User Experience (UX) designers who also help with artistic direction. Since the project is quite all-encompassing, we have a lot of other people who have supported different parts of the project, and as we are diving into different parts of the project (currently the economy and the legal sections), our collaborative network keeps expanding [04].

CJC:   Could you break down who the users are? Are there any vendors involved?

YA:   Essentially, our users are everyone who needs a sustainable model of care provision, so that’s about everyone on earth! What’s more obviously in front of us is the growing senior population and people have a compromised health condition, as well as the middle class who don’t manage to have, or keep a traditional family as their main informal care provider. In our current society, rich people don’t need to worry about care provision because they can pay for it, whereas for lower or working class people who have little access to public resources — such as refugees — they learn to organise their informal safety net from very early on. It is only the middle class who are told independence is the measurement of success, and as a result, have very thin safety nets.

As for vendors, local businesses are involved in the outskirts of the current iteration of ReUnion. People can spend ReUnion’s relationship-driven currency on them, so that the care work they do for each other can have economic value. But because they can only create and spend their relational money together (i.e. people cannot receive or spend the rewards by themselves), the rewards of care will not become the financialisation of care, but rather, it will become an incentive for stabilising the relationships. On the other hand, by spending money on local businesses, users are contributing to the activation of the local economy. And having a strong local economy, in theory, can provide a better environment for relationships to healthily develop.

There is another kind of user that we don’t talk about often. This is the local government which distributes welfare via CCs that are stored in what we call a CS-3 contract [05]. This is a way to have a fair, efficient and privacy-protected distribution of welfare for all sorts of relationships and small care activities, so the administrative overhead in this process does not have to be an issue.

CJC:   How are your tests going so far in applying relationship-driven currencies to small businesses?

YA:   They are in the planning state. We received grant support to launch community testing in the Netherlands, but our initial plan involves a lot of community gathering and it won’t work with  COVID regulations. With an invitation from the Shanghai Biennale, we are working out plans amongst self-organised communities in Shanghai along with researchers from universities there. But obviously all these plans are constantly contingent to the pandemic situation.

ReUnion Economy Flow: Welfares for the Commons.

ReUnion Economy Flow: Welfares for the Commons. Image courtesy ReUnion Network.

CJC:   It’s rare to see artistic speculation being translated into real world application. How did you hit the ground running, in terms of funding?

YA:   We received Dutch art and design grants from the Creative Industries Fund NL and Amsterdam Fonds voor de Kunst to develop ReUnion, which means we can compensate everyone in the team to an acceptable degree. All the hours that everyone put in are immeasurable. They have all been very generous in contributing to this project.

CJC:   Besides the grants, what does your road map look like, say, after the pandemic recedes? Do you intend to have an initial coin offering (ICO) [06] or will you be needing additional funding to see your vision realised?

YA: In 2017, ICOs were the go-to options for blockchain projects. After that hype, we can see that there are a lot of issues in this mechanism — both practically and systematically. It definitely needs a lot of improvement for developing a healthy relationship between the capital and the project. Additionally, the ICO market has been motivated by speculation, but our coins are designed to be quite restrained against speculation and inflation, because stability and sustainability are the core of ReUnion. If we figure out a responsible and supportive way to create a strong coin, then of course it’s a good option to consider.

ReUnion started with an artistic curiosity, but it’s more interesting and important for us that it’s active beyond the institutional space  of art.

Whenever we think about these financial instruments, we also think about what they imply. For instance, many interesting blockchain or other digital projects get screwed up by the venture capital (VC) system. From the VC perspective, rapid growth is essential, because the goal is to get immediate returns. But this pursuit easily comes into conflict with projects that require substantial connections with their communities and local governments.

It’s important for ReUnion to raise funding to realise our vision, but we are very careful how and whom we approach it. We are considering what it means to have that kind of money — since money always has some sort of conditions attached to it — and whether it actually works for ReUnion’s essential pursuits. How do we join the economy in a way that our core values are preserved, and not be swept along by regular market-driven capitalism? We are working on a strategy for this.

If ReUnion is going to come to life, it needs to be done in a way in which we are capable of doing damage control, as a project like this could create more distress to people’s life if it wasn’t well thought out. And sometimes investors have a hard time waiting for that. If we weren’t sure it could emerge in ways that serve people’s wellbeing, it’s perfectly fine staying in its initial shape as an art project. It’s still a strong art project and we are happy to keep it in the art world, but of course, it gets more powerful and substantial when we take it a step beyond. ReUnion started with an artistic curiosity, but it’s more interesting and important for us that it’s active beyond the institutional space of art.

  • 01.

    Administrative meritocracy had its origins in the Qin and Han Dynasties, around 200 BC. The concept then spread to British India, and via the tentacles of the colony, into Europe.

  • 02.

    There are competing perspectives on how the unique mix of Confucian and Western values has affected elder care in Singapore. Read Kathryn Muyskens, “Will Confucian Values Help or Hinder the Crisis of Elder Care in Modern Singapore?” ABR 12, 117–134 (2020).

  • 03.

    Herbert Marshall McLuhan CC was a Canadian philosopher, whose work is a cornerstone in the study of media theory. He forwarded the most influential statement “the medium is the message”, claiming every medium is encrypted with certain social messages which make a fundamental impact on the way society is organised.

  • 04.

    For the full list of people involved, see ReUnion,

  • 05.

    Contract stages indicates different levels of commitments and responsibilities of a contract, and the contract’s visibility (to individual user, to relationship partners, to local governments). For an overview of different contract stages, see

  • 06.

    An Initial Coin Offering (ICO) is the cryptocurrency industry’s equivalent to an Initial Public Offering (IPO). It is a way for a company to raise funds to create a new coin, app or service. Interested investor can buy an offering and receive a new cryptocurrency token issued by the company.

Artists and Contributors

Christina J. Chua portrait picture

Christina J. Chua

Christina J. Chua is Co-Founder and Chief Editor of SO-FAR, a hybrid publication, gallery and artist incubator. Prior to founding SO-FAR, she worked at galleries and art fairs throughout Asia representing and exhibiting a spectrum of emerging to blue-chip contemporary artists from around the world. As a writer, she contributed to various international and Singapore art publications. Today, Christina is committed to bridge-building in the Singapore art scene, while developing a new generation of art patrons through her fine art consultancy and education group, Metis Art. With her interests lying at the interstices of business, technology and contemporary art, Christina is also Strategic Advisor of innovation consultancy ArtBizTech.

Genevieve Costello picture

Genevieve Costello

Genevieve Costello is a researcher of digital culture and artist. She is working on her PhD project, "Communities of Care for Technofeminist Futures" at Royal Holloway, University of London and collaborates as part of ReUnion Network. She is currently a fellow at Akademie Schloss Solitude, living on a hill near a forest in Stuttgart.

 Yin-Aiwen portrait picture

Yin Aiwen

Yin Aiwen is a practicing designer, theorist and strategist, who uses writing, speculative design and time-based art to examine the social impact of planetary communication technologies. She advocates relationship-focused design as a strategy to redesign, re-engineer and reimagine the relationship between technology and society. Besides publishing and exhibiting internationally, she also works as a strategist and researcher for cultural institutions. Yin obtained an MFA degree from Design department of Sandberg Instituut Amsterdam, and a BFA on Visual Communication from Beijing Institute of Fashion Institute. She is a Curatorial Graduation tutor at the Master Institute of Visual Cultures (AKV | St.Joost) and a researcher in Avans University in the Netherland.

 ReUnion logo


The ReUnion team is a network of independent collaborators of cross-cultural background and multi-disciplinary practices, who are exploring ideas and experimentation under the framework of ReUnion Network — a design prototype for civic implementation of a common-oriented care-based economy. ReUnion Network is mainly operating in The Netherlands and funded by Creative Industries Fund NL since 2018.