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Crowdfunding – a new model for infrastructure investment?

Sam Stephens | 28 Sep 2015 | Comments

The ‘sharing economy’ is now synonymous with brands such as Uber and Airbnb, but in many ways the concept is not new; we as a civilisation have been sharing resources for millennia.

In more recent times, the industrial revolution of the 19th Century developed shared transport systems, the rail networks, which the manufacturing revolution of the 20th Century scaled and developed into personal transport systems, the car. The internet revolution of the 21st Century will develop this further, using technology to optimise the use of resources.

As part of this, technology will provide the platform for individuals to connect and share in ways that were not previously possible. It is in this respect that crowdfunding is a natural subset of the sharing economy. Growing out of ‘peer to peer’ lending, through pioneers such as Zopa over ten years ago, crowdfunding is becoming more commonplace. Whether it is investment in startup companies, innovative products, presidential candidates, solar farms or more recently a bridge in Amsterdam, the process allows a large number of people to individually contribute a small amount, to a project they hold a shared belief in. In some ways this is not a new idea; we’ve been paying taxes for centuries to governments that we entrust to invest in our infrastructure and public services for the common good. The really exciting thing about crowdfunding is the potential to circumvent the cumbersome decision making process of how much to tax each person and how to spend it to ensure an even distribution of wealth. The key aspect of it is that it monetises peoples’ beliefs; which are difficult to ignore if the public are willing to collectively fund a project.

As the process becomes more widespread, the power of its scalability will become evident. No longer will major infrastructure projects be solely funded by wealthy individuals and philanthropists of the 19th Century, or state funded behemoths of the 20th Century. The 21st Century will be about projects for people, funded by the people.

While crowdfunding a transport system or solar farm generates a return for investors, investing in public infrastructure is more challenging – do you subject every user to a toll when they use the footbridge in Amsterdam? Or do you expect every person to philanthropically contribute to every infrastructure project? The practicality and sustainability of either situation is a challenge. If we are to see greater application of crowdfunding to infrastructure investment, there are a couple of key aspects that need to be considered; the process for identification of suitable projects and the method to generate at least some form of investor return.

To identify projects, new methods will evolve. Again, technology will be an enabler to better understand how people live and work, what services they require and how they move around our cities and countries. For example, Atkins’ recent innovative partnership with EE in the UK provides access to anonymous mobile phone user data to develop a deeper understanding to predict demand for improved transport links. ‘Outsourcing to the crowd’ or ‘crowdsourcing’ provides another method for pooling ideas, identifying what really matters to people and generating alternative options. This is a key aspect for crowdfunding investment, people need to care about the schemes. In Atkins we have experimented with crowdsourcing internally in several ways, from a rudimentary cardboard ‘ideas wall’ in Bristol to a web-based platform to gather ideas to improve our business. We have found that it is important to pose a suitably direct question at the front end, and provide intelligent refinement and rehashing of ideas at the backend to generate usable solutions. It is also important to recognise that often the best ideas are not consensus driven, the ‘hidden gems’ are often the best ideas. In addition to this, collective wisdom is not always the best judge, as we see regularly on X Factor.

To provide an incentive, our governments need to take a role to regulate to protect our environment, and provide incentives to the markets to direct their efforts appropriately. In California, MUNI bonds have served as a mechanism to encourage citizens to invest in local infrastructure. It is this investment method that ‘Neighborly’, a recent startup seeking first stage investment, is looking to exploit and enhance by using modern technology. In a broader sense adapting the public finance initiative (PFI) model to a ‘public public partnership’ may provide an alternative source of finance while retaining state involvement. The key with this is the power of crowdfunding to assign value to peoples’ shared beliefs, with them accepting a lower return on investment than a commercial investor.

Whether methods such as crowdfunding change the way we deliver infrastructure investment will remain to be seen. However it is clear the digital engineering revolution is only just beginning, and the internet and technology are key enablers that are instigating this change. The traditional roles of the user, government, engineer and contractor in infrastructure delivery will evolve, but no matter how the schemes are funded, great engineers will still play a key role in transforming ideas into reality.