07/15/2014 10:03 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Peripheral Vision: Climate Change and Global Development in the 21st Century (Pt. II)

  • Global warming poses an existential threat to life on Earth. This existential threat challenges our capabilities and calls into question the viability and effectiveness of mechanically conceived grid maintenance options.
  • Solar Roadways' smashing crowdfunding campaign success provides a terrific opportunity to assess the current state of business crowdfunding in relation to the future of solar power.
  • Distributed investing and distributed electricity are part of a "grid revolution" that may structurally shift financial and political power globally from the 1 Percent to the 99 Percent and from the Core to the Periphery.
  • The distributed grid paradigm echoes current philosophical, engineering, and economic models grounded in an ecological metaphor that values species diversity, small-scale experimentation, and distributed risk and parcelized decision-making.



Part I of this essay focused on the grid-shaking growth of distributed investing and power generation, via crowdfunding and sunfunding.

Crowdfunding Dreams
The Solar Roadways campaign provides a textbook example of how to plan and execute a crowdfunding initiative. However, the more important point may be that the Solar Roadways Indiegogo campaign also illustrates perfectly the underlying psychology of crowdfunding, and that this crowd psychology is tuned to an emotional resonance far different from, indeed orthogonal to, the investment psychology associated with institutionalized finance capital.

The solar roads concept has been around for more than 30 years, but had gained little traction until Scott and Julie Brusaw, hailing from Sandpoint, Idaho -- a picture-perfect small town straight from central casting, nestled between staggeringly beautiful mountain ranges and the placid shores of Lake Pend Orville -- launched their Solar Roadways Indiegogo campaign on Earth Day of April 2014.

Scott Brusaw is an electrical engineer who, since 2006, has explored the feasibility of replacing the 31,000 square miles of paved roads, parking lots, driveways, playgrounds, bike paths, and sidewalks that traverse the United States (about 1 percent of the nation's total land surface) with a "smart" road system constructed of hexagonal, recycled glass-encased solar panels, capable of powering... well... and doing... well... pretty much everything! Through initial funding from the Federal Highway Administration, along with modest support from General Electric, the Brusaw team has designed and built roadworthy solar panel prototypes and completed initial construction of a prototype parking lot that integrates connected solar cells, LED lights, heating elements, and a textured glass surface. Funds raised from the Indiegogo campaign will support creation of a solar panel production capability.

While the Solar Roadways concept itself is pretty interesting, the response this concept has evoked from "simple folk" across the globe is yet more newsworthy, and for the following reason -- "meta" analysis of Solar Roadways as an instrument of the vox populi captures information about shared, species-level hopes and fears for our future that might otherwise remain inchoate and elusive. With this information, we can not only track the deep movements of an organically activated human "mind", but also connect these mental movements directly to policy-relevant and market-relevant feedback loops that short-circuit the existing decision-making loops in Washington, corporate America, and on Wall Street.

The Solar Roadways campaign has channeled the vox populi by using messaging strategies that allow the intellectual concept of solar roadways to resonate across an emotional range - encompassing hope, fear, happiness, frustration, humor, excitement, and inspiration. The following "bridge" elements of the Solar Roadways campaign activate emotional receptors for communal bonding experiences around this intellectual content.
  • Tell Me a Story -- The Solar Roadways message is easy to understand, easy to trust, and scales in a narrative that conforms to a clear and simple logic -- starting with parking lots and driveways in small-town America and ending with superhighways crossing every nation of the world.
  • Sing Me a Song -- Solar Roadways resonates melodically. As in a Broadway musical, the Brusaw crowdfunding campaign hits every note needed to harmonically score the right emotion in a larger drama. Like John Denver's iconic song Country Roads, the Solar Roads concept creates a level of comfort that we associate with Mom or Dad tucking us into bed at night, the secure belief that a familiar pathway can transport us home, the conviction that we are safe and that everything will be okay.
  • Paint Me a Picture -- Were Scott Brusaw to approach Wall Street institutional investors, they would ask him tough questions and quickly expose logical problems with getting from A to Z, covering every letter of the alphabet. By contrast, Main Street crowdfunders will only respond to a simple, evocative picture of what it would mean to get from A to Z. They don't even want to know what happens between B and Y. The technical merits and financial nuances of the project are simply not relevant to their evaluation.
  • Give Me a Hero -- The Solar Roadways campaign is genius at communicating the tropes of popular American success mythology -- the Sarah Palin view that anyone with good old American "spunk" and "grit" can change the world. Whatever the Brusaw clan may think of their fellow Sandpointillist (Sarah Palin was actually born in Sandpoint in 1964), they artfully attach their project to old-style, non-corporate, can-do values. And whether intended or not, their (somewhat passing) reference to a decentralized grid evokes similarly resonant themes of individual freedom, autonomy, and innovation.
  • Make Me Smile -- Unlike many crowdfunded initiatives, Solar Roadways does not promise to deliver its product -- functioning solar surfaces -- to donors. Rewards are merely symbolic. The absence of any need to justify the product except at the symbolic level, liberates the campaign instead to elicit excitement, astonishment, awe, and good feelings all around. The Solar Roadways gang makes solving a set of huge and scary problems look so easy! And fun! Compelling details about the myriad benefits of solar roads, such as programmable colored LED lights, evokes late-night television commercials for all-in-one devices like the Ginsu knife -- But wait! There's more! However, one cannot overstate the marketing value of these LED lights -- we can solve global warming and pollution and also play Dance Dance Revolution on the grid!
If there is a childlike simplicity to the Solar Roadways vision, well, perhaps that is the point. Naive simplicity is an integral, and remarkably functional, element of crowdfunding's appeal and effectiveness, making it possible for projects to surface, fund, live, or die, quickly and definitively. Crowdfunding represents what one might call an acceleration ecology, in which -- as in nature movies that speed up annual cycles of birth, maturation and decline -- allocation of small funding amounts from large numbers of individuals rapidly and continually distributes investment risk across a constantly shifting map of opportunity and possibility.
The crowdfunding paradigm appears isomorphic to other currently fashionable philosophical , engineering, and economic models grounded in an ecological metaphor that values species diversity, small-scale experimentation, and distributed risk and parcelized decision-making - what Nassim Nicholas Taleb has called stochastic tinkering; what RAD software engineering advocates aim for with dramatically shortened planning, development, and release cycles; and what Thomas Piketty has imputed with his exposure of wealth-concentration dynamics within capitalist economic systems.
Not surprisingly, knowledgeable observers of the Solar Roadways phenomenon -- pavement engineering consultant David Peshkin and solar energy physicist Zoltan Kiss -- are skeptical about the practical details and feasibility of the Solar Roadways vision. Perhaps more surprisingly, Peshkin and Kiss marvel at the success of the Solar Roadways campaign and frankly acknowledge the larger significance of the attention crowdfunding has brought to ideas about solar power and the distributed grid. The innovation genie is out of the bottle. And given the difficulty in picking technology winners, no matter what selection process one adopts, both Peshkin and Kiss would probably agree with Taleb that the best approach is to let a thousand flowers bloom and minimize the risk associated with any particular outcome.
Going forward, the challenge facing established "financial grid" players -- commercial lending banks, investment banks, private equity firms, venture funds, and angel networks -- may not be whether they can match the growth arc of crowdfunding platforms. The financial grid itself may be at risk. Few pundits would argue that risk and capital-allocation models used by financial institutions will disappear any time soon. But even those who assume that early-stage investment capital can absorb crowdfunding lessons and co-opt crowdfunding portals may be mistaken. Because almost by definition, the operational imperative of financial grid systems is a command-and-control gate-keeping imperative -- the hierarchical, top-down deployment, organization, and direction of finance capital toward targeted ends.
The viral spread of the distributed, acceleration funding model obliterates the gate-keeping functions of institutionalized finance capital, and in the process deals a significant blow to the legitimacy of the financial grid itself. Because it directly activates the human hive mind -- with the capacity to apportion risk more minutely, more quickly, and across the surface of the globe -- crowdfunding is now structurally positioned to always run ahead of institutionalized, grid-integrated investment capital. The ascent of the crowdfunding regime surfaces altogether new perspectives on the eternal questions we face as human creatures: Who bears the risk? Who receives the reward?
In Part III of this essay, we will consider the structural decay of traditional grid institutions and how the concept of peripheral vision can attune us to pivotal impact of radically decentralized mobile technologies in providing access to money and power (electric and otherwise) to millions of people whom the 20th-century industrial grid could never reach.