Pondering Batmania – part 1


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


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.

Silent collaboration: low tech is also awesome


After those words of appreciation for tech, here’s a nice balance. It’s high tech by 20th century standards, but text chat is pretty basic tech in 2012.

In Collaborating in Virtual Silence, our friends at the Post Growth Institute describe their silent online meetings, held at least once per month. The meetings are held on Skype, but exchanges are typed, not spoken.

Having typed meetings makes our lives easier when it comes to transmitting information amongst the group. With an agenda already established via email, each of us bring pre-typed, dot-point updates and discussion items to meetings. This saves a great deal of time as pre-written text can be inserted quickly by copying and pasting…

Silent Skype eases the processes of decision-making and establishing next steps. Throughout the Skype chat we have a practice of typing ‘ACTION ITEM’ and ‘KEY RESOLUTION’ in capital letters as a way of noting these important moments…

silent Skype (is) a more viable method for people living and working in areas with slow Internet connections.

In a world of overwhelming noise, could silence be more powerful than we ever realized?

More benefits are described at the original post – worth reading if you have online meetings to run.

E.F. Schumacher would approve – they’ve chosen the appropriate tech for their needs, and in this case it’s not the highest tech available.

Why “rich” and sustainable?


An Australian friend looked closely at the front page of Appropedia and saw:

Sharing knowledge to build rich, sustainable lives.

He said “Oh, rich – you got that American thing happening.” When I stopped laughing, I told him why we use the word rich.

In developing countries, we’ve sometimes found a perception that sustainability is being foist upon them, to block them from having wealth like that of wealthy nations. Something like, The rich folk are already rich, and we want to be like them, but now they’re telling us we have to be “sustainable” instead. You can imagine the resentment. This isn’t entirely imagined, either – think of the worry about the impact of many Indians driving efficient micro-cars, when we the wealthy world’s job is to worry about the multiple enormous cars belonging to families in our own communities (and to think about the kind of leadership, the kind of “wealth” we’re modeling).

That’s not the sustainability we want. Appropedia stands for a fair and just sustainability. Moreover, we know that with the appropriate choices in technology and design, with access to medical care, with water, sanitation and transport, richer lives are possible. A small, well-designed passive solar house is a pleasure to live in – superior to a poorly designed mansion. Healthy soils yield fresh, abundant, delicious food. This is the prosperity we’re talking about.

These are the riches we envision for the world.

Technology is awesome


One. I’m in Melbourne on a train to the city as I type this, chatting with Paul (more about Paul another time) who I’ve never met, and who is  14,000 km away in Costa Rica. We’re discussing Appropedia.

Two. The Appropedia Foundation was founded in 2007 – and none of the 3 founding directors had ever met in person at that stage. I’m not recommending starting a legal entity with people you haven’t met face-to-face, but it’s worked well for us.

Three. One of the admins and significant contributors to Appropedia is truly hardcore in taking action on climate – he refuses to fly to climate conferences. He commutes by foot and bike, and points out that the “100 mile lifestyle” is far more important for the environment than the “100 mile diet”. Yet he works with a global community without flying, without even leaving town.

How awesome is modern technology?

What other amazing things could we do with technology if we decided they were important? Say, if we decided to divert a trillion dollars in fossil fuel subsidies to low carbon energy research and implementation? Because we’re currently using other kinds of technology to cause a drastic increase in greenhouse gases. But I digress.

Technology is awesome.

Appropriately big?


Appropriate technology is a concept we believe in – it’s really the unifying theme of Appropedia. It’s about understanding the context, and choosing the technology (or technique, design or process) which is most appropriate to that context.

E.F. Schumacher, in Small is Beautiful, also talked about intermediate technology – neither primitive and unproductive, nor high tech and expensive or polluting. But is that the same as appropriate technology?

Having a fixed idea about the “right” scale of the solution or the “right” level of tech is a problem. Small-scale intermediate technologies can be wonderful – especially in remote settings. Other times, there’s a lot to be said for the efficiency of scale, especially the large-scale infrastructure in cities. Doing things at scale means being able to afford expertise, monitoring, and backup systems. And the person living in a compact, walkable city, sharing a (very large) public transit system, getting their water from a (large) water utility and buying green power from their (large) electricity supplier, may have a smaller footprint than someone living close to nature with small-scale solutions, with solar panels and (because they’re so remote) a car. (There’s a big dose of “it depends” in such a comparison.)

Small is beautiful, yes. But let’s not be fixated on small for every solution. I wouldn’t want Appropedia to become solely for DIY enthusiasts building their own home-scale tech. As a living appropriate technology knowledge base, with an active community (including many students) Appropedia can bring together wisdom on many issues – including not only home greywater systems, but also the big infrastructure and planning issues we face. The appropriate approach is to take each approach on its merits, without an ideology favoring big or small scale.

Small is beautiful… but sometimes big is also quite good looking.

Education search engine


I recently needed to search for academics in a particular field of sustainability. Standard web searches weren’t focused enough, so I looked for an education custom search – but couldn’t find one.

Now, I can easily search all .edu sites by putting site:.edu in Google. Or search all US, UK and Australian education domain sites by using site:.edu OR site:.ac.uk OR site:.edu.au in Google. But I wanted to search as widely as possible, so I built my own custom search engine.

This tool covers many countries, and many sites for universities and other educational institutions. It include universities from countries such as Canada, France and Bulgaria which don’t have education domains (e.g. Queens University is queensu.ca). So it was a fair bit of work, finding lists of universities, manipulating the layout and adding them to the search engine, but the result, for me, is a useful search tool.

Here it is. I hope it can be useful for someone else as well.

Note: you can also find this custom search easily by going to Appropedia and looking up “Education Search Engine“.



AppropediaFox is a free and open source plugin for the Firefox browser to help make editing Appropedia faster and easier, developed for Michigan Technological University (MTU).

MTU classes under Prof. Joshua M. Pearce learn about applied sustainability, including solar photovoltaic power, semiconductors and industrial symbiosis. Students document what they learn on Appropedia – making lots of great new pages. More info.

Now, because he wonderful folks at MTU do so much good work on Appropedia, a browser plugin was seen as a way to streamline their work. We worked with them to make it happen.

And AppropediaFox is free for all to use. It’s still an early version, but if you want to do some serious editing of Appropedia, check it out.

So, what’s it good for? First activate it (download and install, then View > Sidebar > Appropedia-Fox). Then check out the functions:

Adding categories and templates

It’s handy for finding categories to add to an Appropedia article – you browse through the alphabetical list in the left sidebar, click one and it automatically copies it to your clipboard (as if you’d gone right-click > copy). Then go to your wiki article and paste it in. Repeat as needed – one at a time.

Similarly with templates – browse the templates (by category, this time), then click and past in. Templates are harder, as you have to guess exactly what the template does, but the name gives an idea. Just try out your template first, by pasting it in then pressing “preview”. (If you want to view the template page, you can use preview and then click the appropriate link under the Appropedia edit box, where the page’s templates are listed.)

Marking technologies by stage of development

There’s also a “Status” function, useful when writing about a technology or a design. This important tool (developed by Prof. Pearce) tells the reader whether the technology is proven and in use, or just an idea, or somewhere between.

Creating maps

It’s possible to embed a Google map into an Appropedia page. Normally it’s a challenging job – too daunting. With AppropediaFox it’s much easier.

AppropediaFox lets you choose your display options and create the map, and shows what it will look like. When you’re done, the code is in your clipboard, and you can paste it on the Appropedia page you’re editing.


Okay, you can upload from the web and it looks pretty much the same. But if AppropediaFox is open, the upload form is one mouse click away

Download AppropediaFox for free here. To learn more about how to use and install it go here.

And here, a screenshot of AppropediaFox being used to create a map:

Screenshot: creating a map.

P.S. If you want to hide it, View > Sidebar > Appropedia-Fox (i.e. the same way you made it appear).

P.P.S. Message to the wiki universe: this plugin is specifically for Appropedia, but being open source, it could be adapted to any wiki, with a bit of work creating the template and category . And if your wiki has maps set up the same way as on Appropedia, that part would work.)



This wiki profile part of our green wiki series.

energypedia is one of the handful of ongoing, very active sustainability wikis. Benjamin Rebenich of energypedia describes their wiki project for us:

From an energy perspective, the world is facing two seemingly contradicting problems. On the one hand, CO2 emissions continue to rise, especially in transition countries like China and India. On the other hand, there are still many regions suffering from extreme energy poverty. For example, the electrification rate in Sub-Saharan Africa is below 25%. We at energypedia believe that we can tackle this challenge of combating climate change while achieving universal access to modern energy by promoting renewable energy solutions in industrial and especially in developing countries. Offering free access to up to date information is our contribution to a better and cleaner future.

Energypedia – Connecting Knowledge

Energypedia logo

There are many projects fighting against climate change and energy poverty. However, there is still a huge lack of information and knowledge exchange between those efforts resulting in the disappearance of important information and experiences collected by individuals and institutions. Energypedia tries to fill this gap, connecting knowledge by offering an open wiki platform where everyone can benefit from the experiences of the global society by reading, writing, and revising articles on technologies and approaches related to renewable energy and energy efficiency.

We not only want to foster worldwide social and economic development by removing knowledge and communication barriers, but we also intend to connect people. By bringing energy experts, universities, civil society, as well as the public and private sector together, theoretical knowledge can benefit from the lessons learnt by practitioners and vice versa to catalyze innovative sustainable energy technologies and services. Therefore, energypedia not only offers editable wiki articles but also social media features like a newsblog, an event calendar, and an internal messaging system.

Health and physical space


Where we live

The physical context we live in affects our community and our health. How close are you to your neighbors, and how often do you see them in the street? Is it walking distance to the train station, grocery store and cafe? Is it safe to ride your bike?

The built environment and its effect on community has been a passion for me for 15 years, since reading that community development programs are more or less successful depending on the layout of housing in the community. Where houses are spread out, interaction is less and community development struggles.

Young and old

A few years ago I saw a new (to me) application of this idea: a documentary about an orphanage in France which was placed together with a retirement home. Children without ancestors, together with ancestors without children – a gap was filled in the lives of both. I’m suggesting it as a panacea – it could be done well or poorly. One obvious issue is the importance of freedom to participate or not – to have common space for the young and old, but also have space for each to retreat when they wish.

(By the way, if you know anything about this orphanage and retirement home, please leave a comment – I can’t recall the name, and I’d love to know how it’s going. I may have some of the details wrong, but I saw it on the “Global Village” program, SBS Australia, I think around 2005.)

The following video describes a somewhat similar idea in the USA: a school that brings children, adult learners and the elderly together, with benefits for young and old in health and educational outcomes and in quality of life.

(The video here launches when he starts talking about the school. If you want to hear about Alzheimer’s disease, scroll back to the beginning.)