Can Web 2.0 Save the World?

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 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.

3 thoughts on “Can Web 2.0 Save the World?

  1. Hey Paul,

    I was actually going to draw the writings of Umair Faque to your attention, because I thought that you’d find them compelling and relevant reading. Though I was right, you had beat me to the punch.

    I think that New Zealand’s less than stellar show of making a significant transition to the Web 2.0 reflects their awareness of the uncertain nature of value derived from producing for the web and maybe an intution that producing for it will merely result in corporations appropriating even more value from the effort of others as Google does with youtube etc.
    “The gatekeepers haven’t yet realised that we are in the midst of an economic, technological and social revolution.”

    On the contrary, they are aware of this and are doing their utmost to prevent it happening. They fear a challenge to their historic monopoly of control. The next few years are going to be very interesting.

    “Got any other online ventures that have social, creative or environmental objectives? Let us know.”

    There are to that I’m aware of that do all three.

  2. I was down at our parliament today protesting against (another) silly, unenforceable law that looks set to restrict certain freedoms in New Zealand. The same government are contemplating 25 year “life” sentences for repeat offenders and already allow certain other prosecutions on the basis of “conspiracy to commit” a crime as if they could possibly know what an alleged “criminal” was thinking. Thought crimes?

    I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but there is a tension between the paranoid post-9-11 faction who want to restrict freedom in the name of “greater security” versus those who realise we can leverage internet technology and social collectivism to solve a lot of important problems in the world.

    I’m rather inclined to think that our legislators are simply completely out of touch with this reality. When was the last time you saw a Cabinet Minister on Twitter or entering into a free exchange through a blog discussion like this?

    Look out for more on this subject in the future. My hands are tied at present.

  3. The introduction of the copyright laws is merely the latest manifestation of the tensions that public policy makers are subject to from their attempts to reconcile the desires of various, often competing special interest groups. In this example the alliance of multinational telcos and groups like the RIAA have won.

    Note: Moderator has edited this reply for brevity. Points noted however.

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