From the cradle of civilization to global collaboration


The birthplace of civilization (at least based on the clearest evidence we have) was in population centers based in abundant agricultural lands, at the crossroads of moving groups of varying ethnicities:  the Fertile Crescent, i.e. the eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamia.

This was an exciting development in human development. Cities are culturally dynamic and innovative places. At a critical time in our history, seeking to change the direction of civilization and commit to a zero-carbon or negative carbon economy, we do well to remember this.

Most observers agree that the way forward for Canada lies in achieving a more effective innovation economy, but there is considerably less understanding of the role that cities play in an innovation economy. The reality is that cities are ever more important as sites of production, distribution and innovation around the globe.

via Conference Board Speeches and Op-eds > Innovative economy vital to take cities into the future.

On the other hand, people outside the cities are more connected than ever. So while a city’s face-to-face interactions are great for innovation,  we can still keep track of a project like the Factor-E Farm, where innovative appropriate technologies are being developed in an off-the-grid context that’s forcing them to hard work and creativity to achieve their aims.

There’s no need for a a fiery debate about whether off-the-grid or cities are better. Each have their advantages, and there are different choices for different people – and a thrivable future means having choices. But off-the-grid technologies and the social, creative energy of cities can work together. Social technologies that enable collaboration – of which Appropedia is one example – can bring together the creative forces of cities and physically isolated people.

Not sure if that was coherent or a ramble. But share your thoughts in the comments.

A low-meat diet – as good as a Prius


As has been reported in the media, and highlighted by animal welfare groups, eliminating animal products from your diet is better than trading in your gas-guzzler for a Prius. But as in all things, moderation achieves good results and, importantly, is achievable:

The idea that one need not go “cold turkey” and avoid all meat also makes the prospect of changing diet more palatable. New York Times food writer and cookbook author Mark Bittman has recently adopted an eat-less-meat habit, sharing low meat recipes as part of an easy, delicious modern approach to cuisine. As Bittman has pointed out, it’s much easier to go low on meat than to say no to meat. Indeed, with greater availability and variety of high-quality vegetables, beans, and grains-plus more appealing and varied recipes, inspired by a more cosmopolitan cuisine, the possibility of eating very well with a low meat diet is now greater than ever before.

via Ann Vileisis: Time to break the low-meat barrier.

Super fresh local food, with yardsharing


Eating fresh local food (and super fresh food tastes so much better) is appealing, but for some of us, we’re just never going to make our own gardens. Behold, a solution:

What is ‘yardsharing’?

Yardsharing is an arrangement between people to share skills and gardening resources; space, time, strength, tools or skills, in order to grow food as locally as possible, to make neighborhoods resilient, kids healthy and food much cheaper!

via What is yardsharing? « Hyperlocavore.

Turn that wasted space (that you have to maintain) into a resource.

Turn a chore into a social activity. While I grew up around plants, and love lazy gardening (better eating by doing a little pleasant activity), I know that many people are daunted, uninterested, or feel that they don’t have time. With some local teamwork, you can have a garden anyway!

Find a local group/website if there is one (e.g. Portland Yardsharing) and start from there. Or visit the Hyperlocavore social network and ask there.


Small is beautiful in house design


An unconventional architect, Joseph Esherick emphasized practicality over ostentatious design. While big may be showy and attention getting, Esherick designed functional living spaces that were sometimes remarkably small.

A mere 875 square feet, the house is made from inexpensive materials though its spatial arrangements are quite complex. Ironically perhaps, the current owner, Jim Friedman, builds $10 million to $20 million 20,000-square-foot houses for a living. “The Esherick house has taught me that really great architecture doesn’t require gilding a lily,” he said. – via Utopia by the Sea –

Yet another demonstration that technology’s best contribution to our quality of living is not through conspicous consumption, but through wise design and providing just what is needed.

Green wiki #2: Playgreen


Update: Playgreen is no longer active – the site is live but overrun by spam. If the owners, administrators and/or community would like help, please get in touch – leave a comment below or see the Contact us page. — 26 June 2012.

We recently looked at the Green Powered Wiki – and we’d still like to make contact with the team behind that effort, and know if they’re still interested in co-creating a knowledge base for renewable energy.

But let’s look at a green wiki which is still online – Playgreen, a wiki on green living.

Some observations:

  • Topics covered are similar to the Appropedia wiki – both have howtos and organizational profiles but Playgreen is more focused on green living, without the emphasis on sharing designs and project write-ups.
  • It hasn’t been active recently – just 2 or 3 edits per month. Spam is an issue.
  • Playgreen uses a true open license, without noncommercial restrictions – specifically the Creative Commons Share Alike  CC-BY-SA license, which Appropedia also uses. It’s good to know that we can share content with complete ease.
  • Okay, not quite complete ease – the wiki uses a different markup (way of representing formatting) which I’ve never seen before. I get a bit impatient with having to several different kinds of markup on all the sites I post to. On the plus side, it’s relatively easy to figure out.
  • The skin is quite slick – better than our MediaWiki skin (development of which is on the backburner until we can get help from a CSS wizard).
  • I can’t find history page for each wiki page, so I can’t revert the spam I found tonight. I also can’t find a statistics page.
  • There seems to be no site map or category structure.
  • I’ve sent a message via the contact form at least twice in the past couple of years, suggesting we explore collaboration. Either they’re not interested, the form is broken, or (maybe the most likely) it’s one of hundreds of messages they haven’t answered yet because they have day jobs. We know all about that.

So, it’s an interesting effort, but it’s stalled. There are clearly still people who visit the site and contribute, but there’s a lack of critical mass to fill the need for quality green living info.

But the great thing about Playgreen is the use of a proper open license. That means that even if the site doesn’t take off, these contributions of green wisdom can live on and grow in different forms – the “no such thing as waste” principle applied to the labors of green wiki contributors.

By the way – check out our green living info. It’s a very different layout to Playgreen, and perhaps not as well packaged, but there’s a growing collection, and I hope it’s usable – please give feedback!

This is part of the green wiki series.

Thrivability 1: Milk


Fake cow by macieklew.

In 1993, the FDA approved the use of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), otherwise known as bovine somatotropin (rbST), in cows. Farmers inject this synthetic hormone into their animals to increase their milk production. This practice has been banned in Europe, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and Australia.

via Organic Milk – Hormones rBGH and rbST in Milk –

I’m not going to get into the details of the good and bad of rbST – but the Wikipedia article refers to European Union and Canadian government reports that the use of rBST substantially increases health problems in the cattle. The effect on human health is less clear, it seems, but causing suffering to the animals that produce our food is something I want to avoid.

I also find that organic milk tastes better, and organic dairy farmers seem to pay more attention to the animals’ welfare (if only to get certification and keep their customers happy – that’s how capitalism works, after all). Considering all this, I do now have a strong preference for organic milk, and will go without milk rather than use milk from system that abuses its animals in this way. We’ll see how strong my willpower is. And yes, I already knew they abused the animals, but this brought it home.

There’s a bigger picture here: that’s the question of how we attain abundance. Consumerism might be rejected by us green folks, but having plenty of tasty food to eat is something people around the world aspire to, especially those who don’t have enough.

So, let’s admit we want it – that simple living is fine up to a point, but most of us don’t want to live on a meager diet, or pay through the nose for our staple foods. Let’s ask: can we attain abundance and at the same time protect the world that supports us, and without compromising on issues like humane treatment of animals?

This is not just the better way, it’s the only way. Selling “being hungry and paying through the nose” just doesn’t look promising. Selling thrivability means building and showing a path to change – it’s hard work, but an achievable outcome, and one that we’re continuing to strive for.

How do we achieve this? How we advance towards “thrivability” rather than just sustainability? This is something that we explore together on the wiki, and something that we’ll look at in coming blog posts. Stay tuned!

Photo credit: Fake cow by macieklew, open-licensed underAttributionShare Alike CC-BY-SA

Finding curiosity


Curiosity..... what are they reading? by Tom@HK.

From Curiosity and Creativity in Children ( blog):

Professor Steven Dutch takes very strong exception to the assumption that curiosity is innate… In his eyes children are not innately curious. Instead, they are tinkerers with generally short attention spans.

…“curiosity and creativity collide headlong with another trait deeply rooted in biology, the desire to minimize effort and expenditure of energy.”

This rings true for me, but note that in his direct quote, he’s not saying curiosity doesn’t exist, just that it’s overstated, and opposed by other forces. (Read a book or eat an ice-cream? Watch a documentary, or a cartoon?) And this is a highly relevant question for open educators, in terms of how we engage people.

When I refer to open education, I include projects such as Appropedia and Wikipedia, in the broad sense of offering education to all of society.

So how has Wikipedia engaged people and garnered such an enormous community of contributors? Here’s one thought: Although most of us might lack general curiosity, almost all of us have areas of curiosity. And in Wikipedia, they almost certainly have an article on your area of curiosity (and possibly a whole category structure) where you can learn more, and also share what you know.*

There is curiosity there. Those of us building community for collaborative projects just have to find it, and tap into it.

*I was going to add “and if there isn’t an article, you can create one!” but that’s not so easy on Wikipedia any more. Appropedia is still very open, because it’s newer and has different aims, different criteria, and a different approach to community.

Image credit: Tom@HK, available under CC-BY

Green wikis #1: Green Powered Wiki


The Green Powered Wiki at, now defunct, was a wiki focused on renewable energywritten up in Treehugger in 2005.

The shame is that we don’t know what happened to the drivers and contributors in the project. If you know, please leave us a note in the comments, or contact us another way. A wiki needs a large community to really work, and we’d love to keep creating synergy.

This is part of the green wiki series.

It’s not developed versus developing


One thing that naturally affects what kind of abundance we’ll experience in future is: how many people will have to share what we have? This has led to much fear and many generalizations over the rapidly growing poor parts of the world.

There are many oversimplifications in this thinking. One important observation on this comes from the former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK government:

We are today at the point where the average woman on the globe is having only one female child. We’re still committed by the momentum of population growth to see population increase another 50%. But within the developing world there are huge differences, where some countries, not in a coercive way, but with culturally sensitivities, have empowered women, and given them the ability, made available control over reproductive choices. Other countries have done absolutely nothing or even opposed, and you see fascinating patterns.

When India was partitioned… originally, Bangladesh had about 5 million more people than Pakistan. They have had three decades of culturally sensitive, information rich, resource rich empowerment of women. Pakistan’s done nothing. By the middle of this century, Pakistan will have 60 million more people than Bangladesh.

So it’s not first world, third world; it’s not developed, developing. It’s the governments within the developing world, and in many countries in the developing world, their models that act better than we do.

That’s Lord Robert May, transcribed from a Lowy Institute video. (Quote is from 3:26 – 5:24)

Usability in blogs and stoves


Design prototypes in Myanmar. Which is cooler?

Over at 3brick design, a project spawned from Stanford’s Extreme Affordability class, they take user-centered design seriously, and respect the dignity of the people they’re trying to serve. The examples they’ve displayed so far look elegant and functional – I’ll be interested to see what they come up with.

One thing is sure: it’s unlikely to be a single design. As the context changes, the appropriate technology for the situation tends to change as well. Do the users mainly frying or do slow cooking, for example?

Showing that they think about their users in more than just a cooking context, the project has chosen a nice lean blog skin for WordPress called Darwin, designed to be fast-loading and easy on the eye. Good work.

Picture credit: “3 bricks. Many users.” at the Stanford Cool Product Expo blog.