What does this mean? “Organize the world’s energy”

Through a Fred Wilson post, I decided to check out Umair Haque’s call for the development of technologies that will help a number of the world’s problems:

Organize the world’s hunger.
Organize the world’s energy.
Organize the world’s thirst.
Organize the world’s health.
Organize the world’s freedom.
Organize the world’s finance.
Organize the world’s education.

The piece lays out some strong indictments of capitalism and the focus of web 2.0. To be honest, that’s pretty damn offputting for me. Socialistic urges don’t interest me.

But Fred Wilson is a smart guy, so I decided to read through Umair’s post and all the comments. I really wanted to know what he meant by “organize the world’s” problems.

As I read the comments to Umair’s post, I saw a recurring theme. Businesses and providers of capital just don’t get it, just don’t have the right incentives for this. No one really had a good answer for changing these dynamics. But the post made for some good venting, such as this comment by Platypus:

Bloggers are the online equivalent of “ladies who lunch”–a bunch of rich people chattering amongst themselves about how they’re going to spend their afternoons.

In the post itself, Umair provides an analogy that really helped me understand what he’s thinking. And it’s less socialistic than his preamble sounded:

Google utilized a market – AdWords – to utterly eviscerate a stale, broken media value chain. Here’s a more visceral example. Muhammad Yunus revolutionized finance – not by collecting more money to lend, but by using communities to fundamentally alter the value equation of lending to the poor. The result was industry transformation.

See the similarity? Two vastly different industries – finance and media – were both revolutionized by new DNA. It was new ways to organize and manage that exploded the boundaries of value creation.

The new DNA to which Umair refers is the web 2.0 ethos – people’s contributions and ideas create new value in hidebound industries. Also note that in both cases there was an organizer for people’s contributions. Google for web pages, Muhammed Yunus for the solicitation of capital. Here’s a graphical depiction of what he’s talking about:

Yes, that looks like most social media sites. Hence the web 2.0 angle.

But it’s hard to apply this model to heavier, capital goods sectors. Google applies the above model to digital information. Microcredits apply the above model to digital currency transactions (until the “last mile” where someone actually needs cash).

Capital goods aren’t as easy as transferring digital information. Moving water is capital intensive. Energy production and transfer is capital intensive. Agriculture is capital intensive. These don’t lend themselves well to the disruptive flows that digital information does.

With oil and gas prices through the roof, I want to stay on that problem. There are two ways to read the New DNA when it comes to energy.

  1. Web 2.0 allows more people to find out about energy production, usage and alternatives
  2. People will create their own sources of energy, the way they might create their own blogs

In #1, people could provide information of value to the organizing entity. Paul Kedrosky asks about something like this in a tweet:

why is there no Mint/Wesabe for home energy use? i want a tool that integrates all my energy/water/etc into a single web dashboard

Not bad, it puts conservation at the forefront. And you could compare your usage to that of others.

In #2, people would actually provide power to the organizing entity. Well, that becomes more capital intensive. Honey, we’ve left the web.

But there are probably some good possibilities out there. Solar panels for every home sounds plausible. And in Fred Wilson’s post, there’s this idea from one of the comments:

The friend I refer to in my comments on HN: he’s a grad student who has built a small-scale digestor that can convert any type of waste — human/animal/food — into usable energy. He is not a guy for hype, but he says it could technically replace every septic tank in America. That’s huge.

I don’t how real that idea is. Sounds promising. How much energy would it really produce? My dinner scraps probably won’t power much. In that comment though, I do see that there are people much more learned in the field of energy than me. So I won’t discount the possibility that individuals could create new sources of energy. But it does seem like a stretch, just based on my physics courses where we learned about the law of conservation of energy. I don’t where the untapped energy sources are around my house.

So we’ll see what Fred comes up with over the next year or two in relation to Umair’s post. Was Umair’s manifesto more feel good exhortation or the start of innovation desperately needed in a number of areas?


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