Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Microfinance: Our Media (and Immediate) Future?

In examining the three “Es” of social change – economics, environment and empowerment - economics are of course the foundation for spawning new growth in local communities. And while we are at odds with how to get there, and have been for quite some time, it seems that we've gone the way of 'micro-thinking' in just about every digital discourse... from tags, to content, media packages and payment systems.

And now, microfinance.

Microfinance is not a movement that was born yesterday. In fact, for some two+ decades, it has been implemented in carefully small successes in usury and heifer pools within areas spanning from Bolivia to Bangladesh. The idea was hatched as developing areas around the globe would desperately seek relief funding from banks that simply wouldn't lend to the poor or communities in crisis. As with any commercial lender, the primary issue centered around not having a way to collateralize loans with an asset base, or subsidies that could be guaranteed to those represented in outside investment. So, the very simple solution has been to enlist individuals in lending smaller increments of hard cash to these communities, and mitigate, as well as allocate, the risk across these groups.

Pundits have often spoken about the inevitability of corruption - extortion and collusion among them - as well as the larger threat of socialist schemes percolating these communities as the surefire argument against the microfinance movement. But the reality is that this method of fund raising is actually bringing the prospect of an acutely balanced, healthy return to the privatization of our banking and lending systems, and when you consider the parity we are experiencing across our global markets, perhaps we are staring a revolutionary new form of capitalism right in the face.

Case in point: Platforms such as CommunityLend, Lending Club and Zopa have managed to sidestep banks and build rich enough capital pools to strengthen local economies, and in some cases, save individuals and families from financial distress. The peer-to-peer model has even been extended to mid-size investment banks, private equity groups and special interest lenders that have been developing scalable solutions for international relief funds, educational centers and social reform initiatives involving select U.S. companies and more active players abroad.

And here's where things get even more interesting.

Cut to a certain corner of the world - Ontario, Canada - where a so-called 'socialist' economic system has kept a steady stream of academic and technology talent belly-full and wistful in creating a new cultural value system for current and future generations. Discussions with several of my colleagues there have shed light on the thought that we can not only use microfinancing models to engage whole communities of people in affecting social, political, educational and environmental change, but that we can develop whole new ecosystems in the process.

'Ecosystem' is the operative word here - representing the ecological and economic aspects of tying culture, commerce and common interests all together. Sounds like a load of verbage, but when you think about the fact that central banks can be removed from the development process, again, we are sitting on something of great value and worldly influence.

Think about it. Hollywood studios can barely support the arts, let alone themselves in getting movies and TV shows made. The recession has nearly killed off the entire independent film market, and TV shows are only getting harder to produce as private investment from independent entities is shrinking by the day. To boot, entertainment properties on the whole are still fetching up decent upfront advertising dollars, but the ad business has been plagued by commoditization, and consumers are tired of being fed thousands of messages a day. And where technologies have been able to abate the hemorrhaging by providing the promise of conversation, we are still stuck with the challenge of how to keep those dialogues ongoing and how to tell better stories.

Notice a theme here that we touched upon earlier: parity. More importantly, there is a clear symbiosis between the elements of storytelling, media influence and culture... the coursing thread of which is clearly economic.

So what does this mean?

It means that a good idea can be invested in. It means that technologies can be built to host, cultivate and help spread good ideas. It means that communities can adopt and shape stories as their own. It means that higher learning institutions, research facilities and entertainment arts centers can be built. It means that endowment funds don't have to wait on quarterly contributions to be redistributed to those in need. It means that global non-profit organizations can employ top-shelf private sector talent to run their divisions like real businesses.

It means that on the media side of things, we can tell stories the way we want to, and that we can be platform agnostic if we so choose. It means that we can create new channels if we so choose, and that we don't have to find ourselves beholdent to media models that only serve the needs of holding companies and upper management.

It also means, coming full circle, that we can monetize on our own terms, as well as build infrastructure that can create jobs and new economic opportunities. As a people.

Even better, we can get governmental support, and corporate participation, precisely when and where it is needed. This is not a party plan, or a special interest play... this is literally the manifestation of by the people, for the people, of the people.

So here's an abridged blueprint of how this might work in what can be considered a transmedia capacity, and know that in certain parts of the world... it is already happening.

A narrative is built around a cultural, cause-related need - be it educational, social, environmental, political, or perhaps all of these combined.

Communities adopt the narrative and shape it as their own; in effect, they tell their own version, and supply their own story arcs or touch-points.

The microfinancing process begins; incremental payments are made and moderated by community designates, those trusted by peer groups and with reputable track records in their respective areas of trade or interest.

Brands are recruited into the development process and are invited into the conversation, using their own stories to empower the process, supply their product as utilities to support it, or to fund further development as passive investors.

Collaboration ensues at scale, allowing others with like interests to participate. Jobs are created, and more stories develop.

Technology tools are built or provided to formalize this job creation and syndicate these stories. A thread is created between the jobs or tasks at hand, and the stories from which they are told.

'Spread' occurs. Adoption happens on a larger scale. The model is replicated to other communities who have similar needs, or those that can lend support.

Government is empowered to regulate, and reaps the benefits of a higher tax base, all streaming from the private sector. It then has the ability, and discretion, to develop new programs tied to the transmedia narrative, or, create new ones using a similar model to the previous one.

Brands who have been involved in the ebb-and-flow of development can then purchase pieces of the narrative that most accurately represent market needs and specific consumer interests; these are new currencies that will take on strong economic and social value.

A new media marketplace has been building; now, these currencies have a proven value, a 'convertible shareability' of sorts that move with markets, as opposed to pushing against them.

Creative development resurges; new artists of all types and backgrounds emerge into the fold, inspired by commonality and challenged to exceed the latest quality standard. Their efforts are measured by their true merit, and they are well compensated for it, along with others who have participated in the process.

If you believe in our future, believe in this. It is very real, and the possibilities are virtually limitless.

"Imagination is more important than knowledge. For while knowledge defines all we currently know and understand, imagination points to all we might discover and create." -Albert Einstein

It's time to create.


Charlie Quirk said...

That is a crackerjack post G,

I think ecosystem is a fitting description here. It's an ecosystem of western capitalism writ small. I think that unlike the inefficiency of large donations, the genius of microfinance is that profitability and long term viability of the business is mandatory - for it to continue, it must be built in to the business.

Victor Hugo once said, "There is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come." Today he might have added to that, the necessary tools, sentiment and connectivity to allow it to happen.

Furthermore, the model you've outlined it is so transferable across industries and causes that people can gather around the issue that matters to them.

Top stuff!

Misty Mays said...

That was a pretty good post I always say we al should pay it forward.

Gunther Sonnenfeld said...

Charlie and Misty - agreed on the power of ideas and paying it forward, well put.

For the sake of brevity (even though all my posts are way too long ;), I left out a lot of backstory on this movement, including the sage insights of Muhammad Yunas, a banker and economist who developed the concept of microcredit.

As I mentioned briefly in the post, there is a group of us here in the states and in Canada that are working on a viable model to start building 'institutions' in areas across the world that implement transmedia ideas through microfinancing arrangement.

Fingers crossed, maybe we can make progress sooner rather than later...

Brian said...

Really great stuff Gunther. I've always believed that if you empower good people with good tools and resources they will create amazing things. Clearly, microfinance is the catalyst for great great things.

Good post!

Colin Henderson said...

Wow, lots in this post Gunther. Anyhow thanks for the mention, and in our own small way we just want to make things better for borrowers and lenders who are seeking a potentially better alternative.

Gunther Sonnenfeld said...

Colin - thanks for the visit and the comment... Charlie and I are working on an graphical representation of this model so as to offset my confusing and often overwrought descriptions ;)