Neighborly CEO Jase Wilson is an inspiring entrepreneur working to change how public projects are funded. I’ve been fortunate to chat numerous time with him over the past few weeks and always leave energized and ready to tackle big problems.
I asked Jase if he could reflect on the past four years building Neighborly and share some advice to others.
What inspires you most about the work you’re doing at Neighborly?
Apart from keeping the company funded, and reiterating the vision until everyone’s sick of hearing it (then reiterating it some more), my job is to seek, attract, recruit, and cultivate unimaginably smart and passionate people. Getting to work with the Neighborly team every day is beyond electrifying.
Also, it’s an honor to be the ones modernizing access to public finance. We’re changing how public projects get created, in an era where cities new solutions to address a growing list of economic and environmental challenges. Our work translates directly into more and better public projects — schools, parks, libraries, and next generation things like neighborhood microgrids and municipal wifi — that contribute positively to the world.
It’s been four years. What’s the status of Neighborly today?
Learning to walk-jog. Patience and long view to make big change in a two century old market.
You studied cities and technology at MIT. From what you learned in academics to what you’ve applied as an entrepreneur, what’s your general commentary on cities and technology today?
The megatrend that gives me the most hope for the future is the rise of the region: urban regions — clusters of cities — continue to emerge as the new units of economic and political power. Within our lifetimes, my guess is that regional becomes the new national. We’re living through the turbulence caused by the evaporation of legitimacy, power, and relevance of the nation level, a unit of organization that no longer really suits the way the world works. We see this unraveling worldwide and in our own nation. It can be a scary thought for many since we as humans tend to be tribal and identify with nationalism in deeply emotional ways. But it’s really not a practical construct anymore. I remain hopeful that what’s emerging is a new model of empowered regions, quilt works of thriving neighborhoods stitched together by geographic proximity and mutual interests, a model in which we can help each other thrive and co-exist as a unified planet.
Tech enables and enhances the concentration of power in this clustered organization in a positive feedback loop that accelerates the transition from strong nation to strong region. Every time we draw a map showing commuter patterns using cell phone location data that could not be analyzed at scale 15 years ago, we’re confronted with how the world really works. When we autonomize commutes, we open all new regional extents via passive door-to-door commutes, furthering the regional trend. Then new high tech intra-regional transport like Hyperloop connects the dots between regions. Farming automation draws even more people from the hinterlands to the urban regions. De-centralizing production, storage, conditioning and distribution of energy and other trends all accelerate the rise of the region. Everything we’re seeing right now plays in to the rise of the region.
All of this means our work at Neighborly is of increasing importance. The public realm — the sum of all the goods we co-create and utilize tends to take place mostly at the local level. Public goods rely on public finance which is currently heavily organized around the concept of nation and states. What’s needed is a more efficient, data-driven mechanism for financing very local public projects global capital. Connecting local public projects directly to a global capital network is Neighborly in a nutshell.
What’s your advice to civic-focused startups?
You know why your mission is “civic.” When you’re talking to investors, customers, even potential recruits, be open about how you define your space. Fields like “health” and “finance” are well established industries. Being a tech startup in one of those fields is easy to talk and think about — fintech for example. But “civic” is not a defined private sector field. The term means many things. For many, it invokes ideas of philanthropy, which can create subtle but sometimes strong and entirely unnecessary frictions for you.
Top five books everyone focused on cities should read?
This is tricky and a question I’m often asked. I agree 100% with and defer to the Planetizen All Time Top 20. To it, for civic technologists specifically, I’d add a few — Citizenville is good, Jane Jacob’s lesser celebrated Economy of Cities, Ed Glaeser’s Triumph of the City, and for thinking really, really big about the future of the city Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks.