When I have conversations about climate change with other people, the recurring theme is helplessness: They are acutely aware of the severity of the threat to life on the planet but struggle to find constructive outlets for their concern. Petitions, marches and other forms of advocacy have important impact but can feel inadequate given the urgency of the problem; those in positions of power occasionally make progress but generally fail to respond as rapidly and boldly as required.
Photo by Herb Neufeld
For a few years now, our small team has wrestled with the question of how to address this sense of powerlessness. Unsatisfied with waiting for elected officials to do what is right or for corporate actors to take responsibility, we wondered if we could create a new way to respond to global commons problems like climate change, species loss and ecosystem destruction. We conducted a number of prototype tests and arrived at what we believe could be a new form of civic engagement.
Our proposed solution is a platform called Shared Nation. We believe that if millions of people aggregate their resources to invest in solutions to global Commons problems we can remove the middlemen and take our fate into our own hands. We can take regular actions with our shared money and manpower that will put precious land into protection, buy out bad actors, and support those harmed by these crises.
In essence, Shared Nation is a global giving circle — a group of people from around the world who pool their money and then regularly join together to identify good causes to invest it in. What makes this community exceptional is its aspiration to become truly massive. Where most giving circles top out at hundreds of participants we can accommodate thousands and even millions, requiring only very small contributions of money and time from each participant.
Shared Nation is able to still function and make good decisions with a very large group of participants because of its innovative “pairwise” voting technology. Each person who has contributed funds helps the group decide how to proceed by making a few quick choices — between a small subset of investment options — through an interface that makes it quick, fun, and educational. Numerous non-expert decisions quickly narrow the number of good causes the group might support, adding up to choices that are wise, fast, and impossible for special interests to influence.
This approach relies heavily on the science of sampling and embraces the notion that when participating voters are independent of undue influence from outside groups, diverse in composition, and broadly decentralized, the group will make decisions of a high quality, not dissimilar from those they would make with infinite time for contemplation (or from those that expert panels might make).
Each month, the Shared Nation community pools its money and makes decisions between solutions to new problems. Our current round, for example, focuses on start-ups and other organizations whose work reduces carbon emissions. From zero-waste supermarkets to solar roadways to gardens atop skyscrapers, these organizations educate us and raise our optimism that progress is possible. And though one organization wins the majority of our funds (roughly 80 percent), the good news is that those organizations that compete for our funds all win by gaining exposure and taking a small fraction of the pooled funds just for competing.
Once funds are awarded, the community also has an ongoing investment — both financial and personal — in the success of the solutions they have chosen to support; in many ways, selecting a project and allocating combined funds only marks the beginning of the group’s work since additional contributions of volunteer time and social capital are also possible.
While the concept of an international community of millions, continuously pooling money and taking action on urgent global problems, might seem ambitious, recent activity suggests to us that it is not so terribly far-fetched. Major political campaigns driven by small-dollar donors (e.g., Bernie Sanders 2016 presidential campaign) show that massive sums can be raised by the general public while large activist groups like SumofUs show the potential of massive coordinated boycotts and similar actions. Making this kind of cooperation regular, easy and fun — which Shared Nation aspires to do — feels like a reasonable next step. Recent mobilization of young people in response to national issues, especially the gun control debate, only increases our confidence.
We have run two successful rounds of funding so far and participants’ feedback indicates that the voting experience is both educational and enjoyable, giving us confidence that we might be onto something special. We hope others will consider joining us! You can still enter for the March round on reducing carbon emissions here.