Student peer review

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One of the powerful ways that classmates collaborate on Appropedia is through student peer review.

For example, Las Malvinas community center shade describes a student project to provide a community center in the Dominican Republic with durable shelter from sun and rain. Click the “discussion” tab and you arrive here, to see critical and constructive comments from two fellow students. Clearly they’ve followed useful steps they were given at well at using their own insights.

I don’t know which of our academic contributors began this practice, but I love the power of it. It gives students more chances to learn and to improve their work, to help each other to learn, while learning team skills of collaboration and constructive feedback.

Milestones of 2013

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We’ve had a lot of news that we haven’t trumpeted, so here’s a partial rundown of 2013:

  • We passed 50 million pageviews since Appropedia began in 2006.
  • We’re merging with Ekopedia! Ekopedia is a multi-lingual sister wiki, with a couple of thousand pages of sustainability information in French, and hundreds of pages in other languages. The merge is planned for coming weeks.
  • We’ve been allocated a small grant to develop an input tool for projects from Engineers Without Borders Australia – which will also involve the UK and NZ organizations, for their “EWB Challenge” student projects. This will also enhance indexing, and it’ll help us in improving the site overall. Work planned for approx Feb 2014.
  • A recent and long overdue upgrade means we’re now ready to take next steps in site development – including the Ekopedia & EWB work mentioned above.
  • Michigan Technological University’s Professor Joshua Pearce got a bunch of publicity for the Open-source metal 3-D printer. The Appropedia page describing it got almost 70,000 views in a short period. This is one of the many pages Joshua and his students have produced on Appropedia. (Great work, Joshua!)
  • We have a book deal! We’re putting together a collection of work on the theme of “Water” – drawing from Appropedia and soliciting original contributions from experts and those with significant experiences in water.
  • Lonny presented at TEDxYouth, talking about “a better education” – all the projects he described are documented on Appropedia.
  • University classes continue to be a major contributor, with a stream of new articles developed by students each semester on a wide range of sustainability and development topics.
We have challenges as well. We need to communicate a lot more about the awesome things this community is doing. We need to get our volunteer/intern program moving. We need to raise funds. Plans are coming together, but we’re also looking for new energy.
Do you see a role for yourself with any of these? Please get in touch – leave a comment.
Thank you. I look forward to sharing 2014 with you.

Sustainable community action

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Phil Green started the Sustainable Community Action wiki in 2004 – it’s about:

Information and knowledge sharing, but with a focus on what might be useful to community groups and active citizens interested in taking action to make their communities more sustainable and in support of environmental, social and economic wellbeing,

For some time he’s been looking for a new home for the wiki, and he’s decided to work with Appropedia. We’re very glad to have him Phil, and look forward to working with him.

Phil is now adding pages to Appropedia about locations around the world and their community actions – hundreds in total – which he has consolidated from over 2600 pages on the original site. Some of these form new pages (see the Sustainable community action category) and others are being merged with existing pages.

This builds an important area in our sustainability knowledge bank, and I hope we can find a powerful synergy.

How on Earth do we create a better world?

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The Post Growth Institute is raising money to create a book, and (at the time of writing) they’re less than three days away and at 87% of their goal.

Donnie Maclurcan from the Post Growth Institute is a personal friend, and a friend to Appropedia. He’s also an engaging and provocative communicator, and I’m happy to see this book going ahead. He and Jen Hinton write:

Imagine waking up in a world where you feel good about going to work, no matter the nature of your job. You feel positive and motivated, knowing that your work provides you with a livelihood that also contributes to the wellbeing of others in a way that respects the ecological limits of the planet.

Welcome to a not-for-profit world, where businesses can still make profits, but any profits are always reinvested for social or organizational benefit, rather than being accumulated privately by individuals. This world emerged because, around 2013, a large number of people came to the realization that any economic system that centralizes wealth and power is, ultimately, socially and ecologically unsustainable.

People were fed up with excessive executive salaries, a financial sector divorced from the real world, corporations with more say than people, endless spin from politicians and entrepreneurs about the latest technological ‘solution’, and the trappings of mindless consumption.

As the mainstream attention on the Occupy movement faded, protesters even started to question whether being fed up was worthwhile.

Then a real alternative emerged. The people already had a business structure that wasn’t centered on creating private profit and concentrating wealth and power; all they had to do was grow the not-for-profit sector, shifting power away from the for-profits.

A not-for-profit economy changed the game by decentralizing wealth and power, while maintaining incentives for innovation and increasing people’s desire for meaningful work.

Before 2013, when for-profit enterprise was the main business model, it was contributing to financial inequity and vested interests. This had led to an increase of status anxiety due to drastic differences in material wealth. The majority of people often felt that because they didn’t have as many material possessions as the wealthy classes, among whom the money had been concentrated, they couldn’t be as happy.

For some people in the lowest income brackets, this inequality not only meant status anxiety and shame, but even a lack of consumption choices, affecting diet and health. For many, the solution was to consume more of whatever they could afford.

On the global level, this overconsumption went hand-in-hand with production practices that exploited workers in sweatshops to make cheap and plentiful products, while decimating key natural resources. This was clearly unsustainable. As more and more people realized that all forms of capitalism and socialism – grounded in a growth mentality – centralize wealth and power and are therefore unsustainable, they also began to see how a not-for-profit economy offered a way to decentralize power, whilst maintaining innovation.

When a critical mass of people reached this realization and accelerated the shift to the not-for-profit business model, everything started to change for the better.

How on Earth could that be possible?

This scenario of a not-for-profit world is closer to the present reality than you might think. Across numerous countries, the economic contribution of the not-for-profit sector has been on the rise since the late 1990s. In Canada, for example, not-for-profit institutions now contribute 8% of the country’s gross domestic product.

This is possible because not-for-profit does not mean ‘no-profit’ or ‘can’t make a profit’. Not-for-profit actually means not for private profit or not for the primary purpose of making a profit. Across most countries and jurisdictions, not-for-profits can make as much or as little money as they want, they just cannot provide payouts to private individuals from any surplus.

The pioneering work of not-for-profit businesses, from sectors as diverse as construction, manufacturing, banking, hospitality and healthcare, suggest that innovative, sustainable economies, with high levels of employment, can exist without the private profit motive.

Many not-for-profits also understand that generating their own income allows them to fund the good work they do (as opposed to the traditional approach that depends on grants and philanthropy). Take, for example, BRAC, the world’s biggest not-for-profit organization.

Since 1972, BRAC has supported over 100 million people through its social development services, but almost 80% of its revenue comes from its own commercial enterprises, including a large-scale dairy and a retail chain of handicraft stores, all of which are run according to a holistic vision of sustainable business.

More importantly, not-for-profit enterprises could regularly out-compete equivalent ‘for-profit’ businesses in the near future, based on a combination of factors, such as:

• not-for-profit enterprises better utilizing the benefits of the communications revolution on reduced organizational costs;
• an increasing awareness of the tax concessions and free support available solely to not-for-profits;
• the trend in consumer markets toward supporting ethical businesses and products;
• the ability of not-for-profit enterprises to survive and even thrive during years of downturn, given their sustainability does not rely on making profits and that profit margins will continue to get smaller as resource constraints impact business costs.

How on Earth can you help?

Here at the Post Growth Institute, we are writing a book: How on Earth? Flourishing in a Not-for-Profit World by 2050. This will be the world’s first book to explore the prospect of not-for-profit enterprise becoming the central model of local, national and international business, by 2050. It will also outline practical steps that you, as a member of the public, can take to fast-track this evolution to a sustainable economy.

We have created a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo in order to gather the financial support needed to finish researching and writing the book, as well as the funds to publish, print, market and distribute it. You can help by contributing money to the crowdfunding campaign here and spreading the word about this project and crowdfunding campaign as far and wide as possible.

For an outline of the book’s main ideas, see this 2012 talk by the book’s lead author, Dr Donnie Maclurcan, at the Environmental Professionals Forum.

Saturday is Free Money Day

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Around the world this Saturday, people will be handing out their own money to complete strangers, two coins or notes at a time, and asking the recipients to pass half on to someone else. This is Free Money Day.

The impact? A lot of positive confusion and questioning, the kind that leads to a rethinking of values. One example: A couple in Chiang Mai, Thailand, inspired by Free Money Day, declared they were “giving away half of our small land holdings… to begin a land trust for up and coming permaculture farmers”.

This action is organized by the Post Growth Institute, a thoughtful and provocative network of people around the world whose motto is “The end of bigger, the start of better.” When I first encountered them I was skeptical, but they’ve been encouraging people to question our unsustainable, GDP-focused status quo, and they deserve applause for that.

Do something you wouldn’t normally do – give out change to random strangers. Find out more at www.freemoneyday.org – and see the Participate page.

Here’s one of the great videos from the Post Growth Institute’s YouTube channel:

Monthly chat – today, Sunday September 9

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It’s Appropedia’s monthly chat time, 2nd Sunday of the month (or the Monday morning if you’re in Asia/Australasia). It’s an open discussion this month, so bring your questions about Appropedia, or your grand plan, or just come and find out how we’re making a difference.

It’s at 10pm GMT – some local times:

  • In the USA: 3pm PDT & 6pm EDT
  • London: 11pm
  • Eastern Australia (Melb/Syd etc): 8am Monday 10th
  • NZ: 10am Monday 10th

Easiest way to join the chat – just go here and enter a username. (Ignore the “Auth to services” box unless you have a Freenode account): http://webchat.freenode.net/?channels=Appropedia It’s an old-fashioned chat, a simple page in your browser with a box at the bottom for typing into.

See our Monthly chat page if you need more info.

Hope to chat with you then. If you get this message late, then my apologies. You can mark it in your calendar for next time.

Tools for wiki spam warriors

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We’ve been holding back the tide of spam, and I want to thank all fellow spam-warriors. Just in recent weeks, J.M.Pearce, RichardF and Danny B. have been deleting spam pages, and Lonny is working with other tech helpers on upgrading our server-level defences. Now, our spam-fighting has been getting better organized and I want to share some tools:

For admins (i.e. for those with the ability to delete pages) : A great and easy way to help is to keep an eye on the NewestPages. The spam articles are easy to spot by their titles. Spammy user pages show up here, but they’re harder – they need to be eyeballed.

For everyone: Keep an eye on changes by new and anonymous users. This is also good for spotting comments by visitors, difficulties faced by newbies, and good edits by newbies that we can say thanks for.

For IRC-using super-geeks: Danny B. set up a real time recent changes channel on IRC (that link might work if you have an IRC client installed – see A:IRC for help), and he’s been deleting spam that he spots this way.

For me: There’s a spam filter which I maintain, checking and tweaking to ensure we keep blocking most of the spam before it hits the wiki, but avoid blocking good edits. If you notice any new patterns in the spam that’s getting through, please let me know the details. I’m also happy to collaborate if someone else knows regex and wants to help with  writing the filters.

I mention all this because I’m cutting back my spam patrol to focus on meta-Appropedia work, like the internship program and fundraiser that I’ve been wanting to work on. I’ll keep maintaining the spam filter, but I’m closing my browser tabs with NewestPages and the changes-by-newbies feed  that I used to keep open permanently. and I’ll resist the compulsion to check on those. Thanks for understanding, and thanks to all those who are able to step up!

Swarm solution to recycling

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If you’re an enthusiastic recycler, like me, you’ll probably know the frustration of seeing how oblivious most people are to recycling.

Recycling in Japan offers a glimmer of hope. See especially the Japanese town of Kamikatsu, aiming for zero waste. These are examples to follow and directions we need to move in. But to get to a zero-waste world, we’d better not rely on everyone being as orderly and disciplined as a Japanese town. Given the range of personality types, the difficulty many of us have in keeping our desks tidy, and our computer files and backups in order, what would it take to get everything recycled?

I see help coming from technology. Bioplastics are here already – plastic bags that can be composted. They cost just a little more (there was a 15 cent charge for compostable shopping bags when I saw them), and they take around 2 years to compost, but those figures will improve with mass production and learn what conditions help them to compost more quickly.

Then there are robots. Boring repetitive tasks like sorting rubbish are ideal for robots – and once they have good enough vision (and maybe other senses) and suitable processing to tell PET from polypropylene from clean paper from soiled paper, we’ll be most of the way there. Look at what swarms of robots can do already:

Ok, it’s scary to think about some applications of this technology, and we need to think hard about that. But the beneficial applications are also huge – and I like the idea of hackers worldwide understanding swarm robot tech rather than having it restricted to militaries and governments.

This is one reason I’m excited about open source hardware. Between Arduino processors, the enthusiasm of hardware hackers, and the latest ideas in swarm robots, we may yet get as near as dammit to a zero-waste world. The important thing is to get to work making this happen, sharing best practices as we go.

Pondering Batmania – part 1

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I’m staying in the world’s most liveable city, allegedly. I like it here, but I refuse to believe this is as good as it gets.

Melbourne, Australia has been popping up on “most liveable city” lists since 1990, and the most recent version of The Economist‘s liveability ranking puts the town on top again.

(Random trivia: Melbourne was founded by Batman, and Batmania was one of the proposed names for the city – so I like to use that. Pardon my juvenile sense of humor. John Batman was no hero, though… But I digress.)

Melbourne certainly has good points – it has a lot of cultural activity, great cafes, and perhaps the best public transport in Australia, in that it works, is kind-of  frequent, and has integrated ticketing. (Melbournians  complain a lot about their public transport, but I’ve lived in Sydney and Jakarta, and Melbourne is way ahead of both.) There’s a reasonable amount of green space, the water in the bay is clean and clear (if you pick the right beach, away from stormwater drains) and you can cycle with less fear of death than in Sydney. It’s also the social entrepreneur capital of Australia, which is great if you’re a passionate changemaker.

But it’s expensive if you want to live near those great cafes, and has sprawling suburbs if you don’t want to pay those prices. It can be hard to be without a car, though not as hard as Sydney or American cities. And like most Australian and North American cities, the carbon footprint is huge.

And then… Sydney is also in The Economist‘s top 10, which makes me question the whole exercise. Sydney is my hometown, and I’m glad to be away from that beautiful, congested, expensive city, and I regularly run into other Sydneysiders who feel the same way.

Are these cities the standard we want to aim for? Surely we can do a lot better, but how do we get there? I’m all for protesting for more bike paths, and voting for candidates who support public transport, but we’re making slow progress on these things… when we’re not going backwards.

Suburbia, highways and McMansions are helping to drive dangerous climate change, and they’re often creating stressful places to live. We need a major change in awareness, in expectations, and in the conversations we have about our cities – whichever part of the world we’re in.

Where would you start? Where will you start? Leave a comment below, or on the Facebook page for Appropedia. And stay tuned – the conversation continues…

Better places to live

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The Sustainable Cities Institute describes a positive vision for cities, towns, and neighborhoods. It’s one of many sites and communities advocating better places, places designed to human scale and with our planet in mind.

There’s also Peter Calthorpe, an urban designer who emphasizes space’s economical use to create better places. He advocates transit-oriented development with well-ordered transit nodes to make travel convenient and sustainable and greatly reduce cars’ need. He also talks about urban design’s key role in fighting climate change. He’s part of the New Urbanist movement – which has an approach and an aesthetic that is sometimes controversial but which has a clear vision for what it takes to make a city sustainable and livable.

Other “city thinkers” are designing buildings and cities with dense housing interspersed with large amounts of green space – Singapore is a leader in this approach and has become a desirable city to live in. Proposed developments in Kuala Lumpur further take the idea, with tall buildings that narrow down at the bottom to allow more space for greenery.

Visions for the future aren’t all about high rises. Peter Newman describes the Danish “dense-low” tradition – compact, walkable communities of 2-3 story buildings and plenty of open space.

This is just scratching the surface. StreetsWiki is a great source for more ideas about making a great city – sadly, it’s no longer active, but we’re making an effort to reach out to that community, support, and continue the work.

There is no shortage of ideas, but there’s a need for better coverage and presentation of these ideas so that policymakers, journalists, and voters can use them to inform themselves.

We have the ideas and experience to tackle this, and we’re looking for partners in the urban design and planning fields. Please leave a comment below, or contact us.