Last year Umair Haque, a Harvard University technology commentator, vented his annoyance about the fact that the new wave of Web 2.0 start-ups being funded out of Silicon Valley mostly contribute very little towards solving the world’s really big problems. I’m inclined to agree. So are New Zealand’s online ventures providing anything of real social value?
I’m not saying that simply selling stuff and making a profit is not an admirable goal in itself, because it is. Such activities generate taxes and contribute to the fabric of society in a variety of ways. But it would be great to see some more initiatives that have purely social or environmental goals, but with a sustainable business model. So I drew to Haque’s attention a New Zealand venture called Celsias.com. This is a community site that aims to “solve global warming one project at a time”. The site so far has no fewer than 126 global projects listed in which organisations or individuals commit to changing the environment for the better. Celsias also aggregates recent articles on green issues and has a discussion zone where users can initiate conversations on topics of their choosing.
Celsias looks great and makes a tangible contribution to society and probably doesn’t get the attention it fully deserves. Every workplace should have an account on their site. As Ben Milsom CEO of Nexx points out in this well considered blog article, for the most part we haven’t really progressed from simply being online consumers. After all, the sites with the most traffic in NZ are actually Web 1.0, simply replicating real life activities online such as banking and selling consumer goods. As Ferrit discovered, there is not a lot of upside left in this business model. We need more innovative online services that actually solve real problems.
Very few of the most highly trafficked websites offer true interactivity or provide an opportunity to be creative. As a nation, we are possibly not as digitally savvy as we might like to believe. However Ponoko is one site that simply shines because of the way it pools and leverages talent. Ponoko won’t save the world but it does allow its community of users an unusual creative outlet, one that has garnered global interest. It also facilitates collaboration and provides lots of advice and guidance on designing and selling. It is good to see new online business models emerging. Recently launched TribeHQ also takes a fresh approach to online knowledge sharing and, by acknowledging network effects and cluster theory, looks set to redefine white collar recruitment.
But ventures like Nexx, Celsias, Ponoko and TribeHQ can change the world, if for no other reason than that they remind us that the economic order is changing. Unfortunately there is a great deal of inertia out there. The battles with bureaucracy encountered by Nexx and other “social lending” platforms are instructive. The gatekeepers haven’t yet realised that we are in the midst of an economic, technological and social revolution. If a platform like Kiva can be allowed to facilitate micro-financing to clients in developing nations, why can’t we have a peer-to-peer lending platform in New Zealand? If we can get a project like Nexx underway perhaps it would expedite some much needed capital flowing into the technology sector too!
Got any other online ventures that have social, creative or environmental objectives? Let us know.