Can we can trust the public at large with important decisions? We all remember Boaty McBoatface..
Crowdfunding has come on in remarkable strides since the advent of the internet. In some form or another this pooling of resources to invest, develop and create things for the advantage of the group has been part of human nature for thousands of years — its no new phenomenon. What is new however is the ease with which people can connect and the scale at which they can do so. The interconnectivity that has revolutionised our lives over the last 20 years has seen a rise in the demand for crowd-funding opportunities as people connect and share resources to develop a range of projects, from innovative products, start-ups even movies and video-games. But what about does this new crowd-funding model mean for traditional models of financing projects, especially with regard to government investment in infrastructure.
Taxation of the populace and its subsequent expenditure by government is a form of crowdsourcing that we engage in every day. We pool a portion of our wealth into a consolidated fund and elect representatives to dispense this money in the public interest; but this relies on two assumptions of efficiency. Firstly, that the current system of progressive taxation is the most efficient way to collect this money and secondly, that elected representatives form the most efficient body for determining projects for investment and for determining what is in the public interest. Doubtless there are many who would question the soundness of the assumptions.
Largely the argument for continued taxation and investment via a vehicle such as government has been that while useful for pooling investment for projects with a level of sex appeal, its potential application for investment in infrastructure and the other day-to-day things that government provides finance for, is limited. However, there are emerging examples of communities crowd-funding infrastructure projects — such as a pedestrian bridge in Rotterdam and for years now the largest source of investment in infrastructure projects has been the private sector, not government.
Crowdsourcing offers the other potential benefit of being able to more accurately represent the needs and services that the public want. Large-scale projects that don’t resonate with the public won’t get funded and projects that do get funding can be fearlessly stated as being in the public’s interest. No doubt there are great hurdles to overcome in this area. For instance, is such an investment to made on a philanthropic or return basis? Do the residents of Rotterdam pay a toll to cross the bridge to reimburse those that stumped up to see it built or do they all enjoy the benefits. The practicality of the former and the sustainability of the latter model must be investigated further. Beyond this we have to also question whether we can trust the public at large with important decisions of such a scale — we all remember Boaty McBoatface…
There are doubtless many more obstacles to be considered and overcome but the opportunities for a consumer driven approach to infrastructure is appealing, community projects directly funded by the community for the community. We’ve seen great success with AirBnb and Uber being consumer driven in traditional areas of regulation so there is no reason that in time we can’t and won’t see a shift in infrastructure investment and development towards the crowd.
Join www.mindhive.org for more discussions on crowdsourcing