The beauty of ideas

Over in the UK there’s a design team building something called a Gravity Light. Their challenge was to build some kind of light suitable for underdeveloped countries, and after looking at solar for a while they said “well, anything that requires you to keep buying batteries might be better than kerosene but it’s still pretty crap”. And they came up with a light that’s powered by gravity. You lift a weight which then falls slowly over time, powering a tiny generator as it falls. Totally human-powered, no batteries needed.

I put funds towards this project on Kickstarter – or was it IndieGoGo? I don’t remember. One of the crowd-funding platforms that have started to appear. I wasn’t the only one. Their funding target, to pay for the development and build of a test batch of lights and get them into the hands of some communities who’d work out the problems with it, was $55,000. They raised just $410 less than $400,000. It was an elegant, simple, well-researched, beautiful idea – and the Internet world noticed.

The Internet is a funny place at times. You don’t always know which way its whims are going to go and what it’s going to focus on next, though there’s a strong perception that social media is dominated by leftie green ethics-and-justice progressives which can give a hint of direction. And there will always be pictures of cats. It can feel a bit like I’d imagine riding a bull would be. The odds are against you steering it, but if you hang on long enough it might happen by accident and then you’ll be off on a fast and furious ride for a whole fifteen seconds. What is consistent though is this love of beautiful ideas. There’s a lot of mental trash and soap bubble froth on the Internet, stuff that’s nothing much, but every so often out of the soup rises something that is remarkable. Captivating. It’s an idea that sticks, because it’s beautiful.

The rise of crowdfunding in some ways is an act of service to beautiful ideas. It doesn’t take much – most platforms allow people to contribute with as little as $5, though there are rewards and incentives for chipping in more. So anybody can become involved, can invest their emotions as well as their cash, into any idea that sings to them. And then they become invested in the process, with regular updates on how the project is turning that beautiful idea into something real. Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of arts and creative projects on the crowdfunding platforms. Graphic novels, card sets, short films – things that are easy to distribute but tend to need cash up front. Crowdfunding has become a perfect way of both getting the initial capital and also capturing a guaranteed audience for your product – reducing the risk involved in any artistic initiative. One project I funded was a toy. A construction story-and-toy kit for ballerina-princess-engineers. There’s nothing like it on the market and it’s not going to be one of the top 5 products this year, so it would have been hard to get past product selectors into the big toy stores. But it was an idea which sang to people. Lots of people. Who wanted a toy like that for their daughters, their nieces, their friends’ children. The Kickstarter for it went past the stores that choose what we are allowed to want, reaching directly into its market to get the 3% of people who’d adore it, selling its idea with a promise of a finished set at the end of manufacturing. It raised funds well over its target. And it delivered. Both my kids love the book and toy set. It’s currently getting passed around through several families we know who all think it’s fantastic. It’s been so successful that ToysRUs have picked it up as a line, and they’ve got funds to revamp it. And we have set number 2 on pre-order, hopefully to arrive around Christmas time.

Would they have gotten a startup loan in the regular, reliable banking system? Hard to say. The risk to a bank would have been much greater. That’s one of the things with crowdfunding. It distributes the risk. Venture capitalists with the ability to put in tens of thousands of dollars to several projects just to see if something comes out of one of them are a bit scarce on the ground at the small end of life. But I know many many people who’d happily risk $5, $20, $50 for a beautiful idea. And they come from many sides of the economic and political spectrum. I have friends who ask for Kiva cards for Christmas. Kiva is crowdfunding microfinance to support poor people around the world, people who normally wouldn’t be able to get a loan because of ultra-low incomes or high risk. It appeals to the social-justice types, and those who want to do more to help poverty than just click on a webpage. It also appeals to those who feel that we should do something to help, but that we should be the ones choosing what we help and our government shouldn’t be spending our tax dollars on complicated bureaucratic programmes that are probably hemorrhaging funds to corruption anyway. Here in Australia, the Climate Council‘s recent launch is a stellar example. The government decided to drop funding for our independent climate science advisory body. Enough of us thought we still needed such a thing that the Climate Council’s request for crowdfunded donations netted them a year’s worth of operating costs. The government’s response was “See, we didn’t need to pay for that”. And perhaps they are right. How many of the government assistance programmes could be funded directly by the people who care? Perhaps quite a few. Social media allows the sharing of beautiful ideas and things that make people passionate on a scale not seen before. It also allows the sharing of ideas across physical divides, between disparate communities, across cultures, from one world into another.

Which brings me to agriculture.

Let’s be honest. We’d all like the government to pay for the big things we think are important. And we’d all like the government to spend less money, to waste less money, and to take less of ours in taxes. And we know we can’t have both. Unless, of course, there’s a good alternative to government control of funding.

One of the first responses I hear to statements of change-is-needed is “who’s going to pay for it?”. In the ag world that’s a really important question – any change in practices or in product means a big capital expenditure followed by up to several years of reduced-to-no income. Agriculture is a constant game of future-proofing, of short-term actions for long-term results. It’s not a trivial problem. Another big issue I’m seeing in ag conversations is the farmer-consumer relationship. I am surprised at how often I hear farmers saying words to the tune of “The city people just don’t get it”, though I shouldn’t be. There is a growing demand amongst city people for ethical local produce, whatever they think that means (there are endless variations). Because a concept of ethics is involved and the people who produce the food and the people who need the food don’t really know much about each other or what life is like in their separate worlds, the divide between them gets exaggerated.

So, we have a set of problems that combine needing to build a strong relationship with consumers and a need for funding, in an environment that has to manage risks carefully over the long term. Emotional investment, financial investment, risk-lowering. That sounds a lot like a situation where crowdfunding could show benefits.

Of course, not everything in agriculture would work well as a crowdfunded project. But there will be possibilities. Situations where people contribute funds in exchange for a tour of the farm, a special chef dinner, a bag of produce at harvest or a swim in the sheep dip. Outreach projects where Aussie ag books or short films or documentaries get funded in exchange for a copy of the final product. Urban farming initiatives that need community engagement to run. Then there are the charity options (for example Buy A Bale), crowdfunding assistance in difficult situations or in areas such as landcare that show no direct commercial return, without thought of reward other than the glow of altruism. Given that this current government is reducing and redirecting assistance all over the place that might become quite important too. Would city folk who don’t know as much about farming as they think they do get captivated by a beautiful idea?

Definitely.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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