Disclaimer: This blog entry reflects the thoughts of the author and does not speak on behalf of the Sensorica OVN.
They did it again!
In the spring of 2015, the SENSORICA network delivered another important proof of concept for commons-based peer production. We demonstrated that equipment for peer production can be endogenously crowdfunded.
Everyone today knows about crowdfunding. In case you are just returning from a trip to Mars, crowdfunding is a new way to raise funds which involves hundreds or even thousands of individuals, the crowd. If you need money for a venture, instead of going to the bank for a loan or getting venture capital you can now use websites like Goteo, Indiegogo, Kickstarter, etc. You present your project on one of these platforms and ask people from around the world to fund you. Crowdfunding is either a donation scheme, people help you to achieve something without expecting much in return for themselves, only a good feeling for having contributed to a good cause, or a pre-sale scheme, people give you money upfront for a service or a product that doesn’t need to be finished before the crowdfunding, that you will deliver a few months later. There is also crowdfunding for equity, where people give you money in exchange of shares in your venture, but very few countries have permissive laws for it.
You can find a lot of stories about individuals or small groups who raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for their product ideas. This shows that crowdfunding democratizes innovation.
It didn’t take long before companies caught up with this trend, realizing that they could not only finance the productization phase (transforming a prototype into a manufacturable product at a competitive price) but also get immediate and valuable feedback from the market (if people finance you before you even have a finished product that means that you have a market, and they might even tell you how to improve your product).
So, before we see what SENSORICA did different, let’s review a few important features of crowdfunding in general.
Most crowdfunding is used as a pre-sale scheme, Kickstarter
being the most popular platform. Goteo
is more for open source projects, or for projects that have a social impact. Crowdfunding for equity seems to be adequate for financing infrastructure or capacity development, but it is still in its infancy.
Almost all the crowdfunding mechanisms are dissociated from the ventures that are using them. They are centralized platforms owned by a classical organization that acts as a mediator between project initiators and their support crowd.
The crowdfunding model is fueled by three types of actors: the project initiator who proposes the idea and/or project to be funded; individuals or groups who support the idea; and a moderating organization (the “platform”) that brings the parties together to launch the idea.
There are also a few examples of self-crowdfunding, where organizations run their campaign on their own platform. This practice is problematic though, because people see in it a conflict of interest. When a third-party that specializes in crowdfunding is used, people trust that the same rules will be applied to everyone and that the data displayed during the process reflects reality.
But things are changing very fast now. Within a year or so, crowdfunding will be implemented on p2p infrastructures based on block chain technology. This means that the centralized crowdfunding platforms (the website that lives on a proprietary server or cloud, Kickstarter for example) will become entirely a p2p processes (will not be websites hosted on a private server or cloud anymore, instead the information will live in a bunch of interconnected machines, individually owned by everyone who uses the system). Simply put, the block chain technology (and who knows what will follow next) decentralizes funding even further. If traditional crowdfunding allows people to fund each other using a centralized proprietary platform, this new technology eliminates the proprietary platform, the company in the middle, and puts the same people in charge of the process. See more here.
Born in 2003, crowdfunding is already making a leap forward, leaving platforms like Kickstarter wondering about their own survival. The new p2p (or real) crowdfunding, based on block chain technology, can give much more flexibility to projects or ventures. The problem is that its time has not come yet. It is technologically possible, but the world around it hasn’t advanced far enough for it to have a proper ground for implementation. This is where SENSORICA and its proof of concept comes in.
SENSORICA is not a typical organization. It is an open value network. It is an open network that does peer production. It is a cluster of open enterprises. It is, in my opinion, the most audacious attempt to implement commons-based peer production of hardware, started in February 2011, one year and 3 months after Satoshi Nakamoto published his paper “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System“. It is the furthest humanity has gone into hard core peer production, building peer-run physical labs, peer governance and normative systems, methodologies for open product development, as well as legal structures compatible with all that. SENSORICA is the proper type of organization for p2p (or real) crowdfunding.
Recent technologies like Ethereum, which also builds on the block chain technology, have made possible new types of economic entities, the so-called DACs, for Distributed Autonomous Organizations. The first implementations of DACs are quite simple, service based, see for example Peertracks. But this technology will very soon mature to fulfill the needs of p2p hardware innovation and production, which is very complex. This will most probably become the infrastructure on which open value networks like SENSORICA will be built in the not so far future.
All that to say that in parallel with the continuous development of crowdfunding there is also a continuous development of organizations, following the same philosophy, based on the same logic, enabled by the same technology. The two movements are about to merge into a coherent economic system, operating on new principles. We are already passed half way into the transition and we can already see what’s on the other side.
So what did SENSORICA demonstrated? Sorry for holding it, I am trying to save you the best for the end : )
SENSORICA used its network resource planning and value accounting system (NRP-VAS), in a context of peer production, to endogenously crowdfund a piece of equipment for the first time in its history. In other words, this is the first time a p2p network that is focused on hardware innovation and production has used a crowdfunding mechanism part of its own infrastructure, not as a service from an external platform, centralized or not.
We used the NRP-VAS to co-finance a $4,000 3D printer. 11 SENSORICA affiliates have contributed to this purchase. The example might seem insignificant for the untrained eye, but there is a lot more behind it.
First, there is the issue of trust. Most of these participant affiliates have never seen each other. Two of them live in the US, the rest live in Canada. Some of them are so far away that they will not even be able to use the 3D printer. We passed the trust hurdle. Participation was a bit slow in the beginning, but after we reached a critical mass it got easier. This is trust in a system, trust generated by processes, trust generated through openness and transparency, not so much trust in each other. This is what makes a system scalable and reproducible.
Second, there is the complexity that comes with co-purchasing. Who owns it? What’s the agreement between the co-owners? Who can use it and under what conditions? Who is going to pay for maintenance? How are we going to deal with community use, and commercial use, and other types of uses? It is not simple, but this is what technology is good for, reducing complexity or hiding it behind user interfaces.
We created a co-owner agreement and we implemented new functionality within our NRP-VAS to handle the printer’s use logging and to perform calculations to account for the material used in the printing process, usage time, technical assistance, etc. For example, is someone makes commercial use of the 3D printer the cost is split into:
- cost of the material used,
- some % will go into a maintenance budget account for the 3D printer,
- some % will go to a general infrastructure maintenance and development account,
- some % will go to pay back the co-owners (the agreement stipulates that once they are paid back plus 20% to cover their risk, the 3D printer becomes part of the pool of shareables),
- some money will go to pay a technician, if needed.
All that complexity is absorbed by the technology that we are developing.
NOTE: SENSORICA‘s NRP-VAS is not decentralized, it is not using block chain technology, because this new p2p infrastructure is not ready yet to handle all the complexity that the open value network is dealing with. This will probably come in two years from now. Moreover, when SENSORICA was created the block chain technology was still in its embryonic state. Therefore, it is probably difficult for the untrained eye to understand how this new SENSORICA proof of concept fits with new pure p2p processes. Think of SENSORICA as p2p at the socio-economic level, but not entirely at the infrastructure level. This is still a work in progress.
This crowdfunding endogenous to an open value network was implemented using the Custodian’s financial tools, a Paypal account (open the webpage where the contributions where gathered). See definition of a Custodian. All the contributions were recorded into a virtual account on SENSORICA’s NRP-VAS, specifically opened for the purchase of the 3D printer. Once the printer was purchased this account balance went back to 0$.
The lesson here is that an open value network is able to not only crowdsource and crowdfund innovation and production, but also infrastructure development. The tools used by SENSORICA, a p2p organization at the socio-economic level, are not entirely p2p, but we are building understanding and valuable experience, and we are anxiously waiting for the block chain technology to mature.
By Tiberius Brastaviceanu