Entrepreneur looks to crowdfunding to help cities pay for the things we want and need
With the world on the computer screen, Jase Wilson can get philosophical about cities.
Zooming in on Tokyo’s cityscape at night, brought to him courtesy of Google, Wilson says: “It’s like a circuit board. It’s beautiful.”
Next to the sparkling grid of one of the world’s largest cities, Wilson calls up a picture of a brain, its neural paths rendered in luminescent colors.
“What’s the real difference?” he asks.
Some of that reflectiveness also could be the unwinding of a Friday afternoon. Wilson, 31, in shorts and a T-shirt, has a glass of Jameson Irish whiskey at hand to celebrate “Whiskey Friday” in the Crossroads office space that houses Neighbor.ly, the digital fundraising platform for civic projects that Wilson founded.
Neighbor.ly is partly an outgrowth of Wilson’s love for the structure, both physical and social, of cities. After working on city design as an entrepreneur and student, Wilson has turned to their finances in a time of contracting municipal spending and political clashes over taxes and budgets.
Through Neighbor.ly, city and county governments, neighborhood associations, nonprofits and other civic organizations can raise money from individual contributors. For their money, contributors can get charitable tax deductions and other perks brokered by the organization promoting the project.
Often these take the form of shoutouts to the donors. For example, those who give $1,000 to a project to restore Kansas City fountains can get their names mentioned in a media advertisement at the end of the campaign.
So far, Neighbor.ly has raised $100,000 for civic projects, such as helping to finance a bicycle sharing program in Kansas City, a playground on Cherry Street, an effort to sign up Kansas City neighborhoods to the Google Fiber network and a skate park in Portland, Ore.
Neighbor.ly takes the wisdom and wealth of crowds approach of crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter, which allows artists and inventors to raise money for projects through a social media platform and applies it to what has traditionally been the domain of city councils and investment banks.
The platform joins a wave of crowdfunding networks and a handful of crowdfunding sites devoted specifically to civic finance that have sprung up in the last couple of years.
Tampa-based Citizeninvestor, for example, lets municipalities post projects that have been approved but lack funding. Users can pledge money toward a project, which gets the green light once 100 percent of the needed money is raised. Others include Brickstarter, based in Finland, and Ioby, in Brooklyn, which focuses on environmental projects and has raised more than $500,000.
Cameron Cushman, manager of entrepreneurship at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, said Neighbor.ly is the only startup of its kind he knows of in Kansas City.
The company has garnered national attention. On June 18, it won a $175,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which promotes media, civic engagement and the arts. Wilson said the grant would help them build the next phase of Neighbor.ly’s software platform.
Neighbor.ly was also invited to join the Points of Light CivicX accelerator, which puts civic-minded startups in front of potential investors, customers and mentors.
From need, an idea
Wilson thinks Neighbor.ly could be used one day to fund heavy infrastructure projects: sewer maintenance, road repairs — the nuts-and-bolts stuff that makes cities livable. He eventually wants to see “thousands and thousands” of projects funded and “tens of millions” of dollars raised.
Neighbor.ly still has a ways to go to meet those lofty goals. The company is still in the early, pre-revenue startup stages. But his optimism is part of Wilson’s modus operandi. In fact, the very creation of Neighbor.ly was an optimistic act.
While still an undergraduate in urban design at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Wilson founded Luminopolis, which started out as a design company before turning to software development for communities.
In the early years of Luminopolis, Wilson and Briston Davidge, the chief operations officer of Luminopolis and co-founder of both that company and Neighbor.ly, had no trouble finding projects and customers.
By the time Wilson was a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he continued to work on Luminopolis, he “could make a six-figure deal during a 10-minute smoke break,” he said.
That, like just about everything else in the business world, changed in 2008.
“The stuff we were doing that was making money dropped off the face of the earth,” Wilson said. “It wasn’t a profession anymore.”
The economy forced Wilson and Davidge to reinvent their business. They began looking at a product they could take to customers instead of waiting to be hired for design jobs.
That happened to be when Kickstarter and the idea of crowdfunding were starting to take off. After a colleague suggested a crowdfunding network for civic projects, everything else fell into place. Under the umbrella of Luminopolis, Neighbor.ly was born in July 2012.
To the city Wilson describes as a “comfy pair of jeans,” he represents precisely the sort of technology-minded entrepreneur it is striving to cultivate.
Cushman calls Wilson a “go-to” guy for anything tech-related that intersects with Kansas City’s civic life.
Among other civic ventures, Wilson served on the Mayors’ Bistate Innovations Team. Mike Burke, who spearheaded the Missouri arm of the team, calls Wilson “brilliant” in his understanding of technology’s sociological role.
“Jase was truly one of the most valuable people on the team,” he said.
Wilson regularly looks for ways to help Kansas City capitalize on technology. The document that became Kansas City’s request to be first with a Google Fiber network actually originated on another Whiskey Friday at the Crossroads office. It was partly Wilson’s brainchild.
Once Neighbor.ly entered the scene, it helped hook up neighborhoods to Google Fiber through last fall’s “Paint the Town Green” campaign, which initially raised $5,000 to help lower-income neighborhoods pay the fees to connect to the network. Wilson said the effort was probably his proudest achievement at Neighbor.ly.
Public finance in flux
While the funding campaign proves Neighbor.ly can be used to help poorer areas of cities, it also highlights a danger in the platform, the same danger also posed by Google Fiber.
Sweeping innovations, both technological and financial, can deepen the rift between the haves and the have-nots.
The promise of Neighbor.ly is that it can ease the burden of municipal finances, keeping cities from having to raise money through debt, which comes with economic baggage attached, or through taxes, which carry heavy political baggage.
Yet if more and more municipal projects are financed through crowdfunding — meaning they will be paid for by those with Internet access and money to spare — where does that leave everyone else?
To be sure, Neighbor.ly goes out of its way to connect financial generosity to financial need. Wilson is optimistic about the “digital divide” between those with technological access and savvy and those without it. But even he admits to worrying that Neighbor.ly could potentially fail those who need it most.
“That one keeps me up,” he said.
Time will tell whether Neighbor.ly changes the public financing landscape and, if so, in a way that benefits everybody.
One thing is apparent here and now: Wilson is plugged into the city.
“We need a lot more people like Jase in Kansas City, suffice it to say,” Cushman said.