Can the crowd get capital-intensive?

Atkins | 18 Dec 2014 | Comments

With the rise of sites like indiegogo, kickstarter and gofundme, crowdsourcing is now very much part of the innovation landscape. People and organisations can raise money for charity, campaigns, consumer projects, and start-ups – everything from hobbyhorses to hoverboards. But how much of this can really help with the challenges of infrastructure, where projects are capital-intensive, running into many billions, or long-term, taking decades to conceive and deliver? Private capital demands a hefty bite and often a five-year exit strategy – in fact, in the UK, private investors are often constrained to no more than two years by their tax incentives. There is a lack of “slow capital”, capital which could be patient. At the same time, much of the UK’s infrastructure is now owned by institutional investors like pension funds, the quintessential patient capital, an example being the High Speed 1 railway owned, in part, by Canadian teachers. Many of us would be delighted if our pensions were backed by a robust and high-value piece of longterm infrastructure rather than an exotic financial product existing largely in the dreamscape of financial engineers.

GE Capital recently released a report by their chief economist showing that it is possible to crowdsource ideas in capital-intensive industries, but would it be possible to crowdfund the projects themselves, for the benefit of the society that relies on them? Serious investing sites for crowdfunding exciting new products, like crowdcube and Seedrs already exist and although these handle serious engineering innovations like the Pod Point electric vehicle charging network, a far greater order of magnitude is required for a major piece of infrastructure like a bridge, a school or a renewable energy installation. Many of these would be welcome and attractive investments for the communities that they could serve and in the current parlous economic climate, a means for the country to bootstrap its own requirements by a modern version of public subscription could transform the madness of crowds into something eminently sane and sensible, without the need to rely on the profit motive or a spurious economic case.

The triple bottom line benefits that infrastructure undeniably brings are rarely evident to organisations principally concerned with the value of their asset portfolio. The crowd may be savvy when it comes to sourcing the latest gadgets, campaigns and consumer products, but crowdsourcing has not yet reached a level of maturity that could provide it with funding for capital-intensive projects that could deliver decades, or even centuries of value. The word “engineering” is linked to the word “ingenuity” – so perhaps it is time to exhibit some of this in conceiving infrastructure as well as designing and delivering it.