Student peer review


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.

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.

Coalition Movement Camp: Online Work Party, Sunday 10/10/10


Only a few  hours to go until the Coalition Movement Camp 10/10/10 Work Party – it runs 10 am to 10 pm EDT (that’s current NY time), i.e. 2pm to 2am GMT. GMT sometimes gets called UTC now.

This is for all of us who want a new information-action ecology, for tackling climate change, and enabling the environmental knowledge, innovation and climate action communities. (If you’re wondering who the coalition is, then see the Coalition of the Willing film – and remember that it’s evolving.)

Here in Jakarta it’s 10 pm to 10 am, so I’ll be taking a nap in the middle, and I have my caffeine sources on standby. For many of you the hours will be better than that, so sign up at and stay informed, and there’ll be more info on that page when the day arrives, with chatrooms and video links.

There are a growing number of sessions, all about collaborating on tackling climate change. There’s one on green knowledge trusts (focused on green wikis) co-facilitated by Appropedia, and there are plenty more, including:
Opening session:  Coalition Brainstorm. Be ready to think big picture!

  1. What existing sites/services perform the kinds of functions described in the film? What additional functions are required?
  2. What might be achieved by linking these sites/services (i.e. interoperability)? What are the challenges?
  3. What social/ethical protocols are required to sustain creative collaboration between different online audiences (e.g., activists, innovators, green wiki enthusiasts, and so on)?

2 hours into the meeting (4pm GMT, 12pm NY time), it’s How Cooperatives Can Save the Planet, facilitated by CoopAgora (online advocates of cooperative culture) and the JAK bank (a cooperative, interest-free, institution). Can the cooperative ideals of these sorts of organizations be used to impact the climate crisis?

3 hours in (5pm GMT, 1pm NY time): The Future of Online Activism. Joe Solomon, social media coordinator for, leads this one.

4 hours in (6pm GMT, 2pm NY time): Metacurrency – the attempt to broaden out the concept of currency beyond money, to totally refigure standing ecologies of production and exchange.

5 hours in (7pm GMT, 3pm NY time): Green Wikis Are Go! We look forward to sharing our experience and vision on building and sharing green knowledge, and hearing yours. Later in the session (probably around 8pm GMT, 4 pm NY time) we’ll also be hearing from GreenTribe, a new green directory coming online in October. Join the discussion on the future of online sustainability!

It is not too late to register a session of your own. If you’d like to do this, please email Michael Maranda (tropology at gmail) ASAP.

Can you help us build the Movement Camp?

If you’d like to help — spread the word around! Please forward this email to anyone you know who might be interested, and ask them to pass it on too! If you can think of suitable mailing lists or discussion groups, post a short summary and link to the Movement Camp sign up form. The busier and more diverse we can make this event, the more productive and exciting it will be for all of us and for our planet.

The Future We Deserve


The Future We Deserve is “a curated collaborative collection of 100 essays about the future.” The contributions are being coordinated on Appropedia – see The future we deserve.

From the homepage :

The Future We Deserve is a new book project about collaboratively creating the future we deserve. We will be working together at internet scale on internet time to brainstorm and barnstorm our way towards an image of a world we all believe in, a world of fairness, collaboration and living within a harmonious balance with nature. The book is open to all contributions — essays about technology, politics, working examples of better ways and fantastic ideas which just need to get done.

The print edition will be created together, as we collaborate to select and coordinate what goes into the final book. We'll use open licenses and crowdfunding to lower the barriers to collaboration, and do our level best to make the book the start of a ongoing journey together into the future we are shaping with our lives.

This is creating The Future We Deserve.

Collaboration Fail


David Stairs of the Design Altruism Project argues that many collaborations aren’t actually collaborative. In a sobering post, he notes that people want to set up a project to be the hub for collaboration in their field… often without checking who’s doing the same thing, or even using the same name. We’ve observed similar behavior.

Partly it’s about wanting to be at the center of things – and that’s natural. And partly it’s about not realizing just how much work is involved in making an online community. I’m not sure what the solution is. One possibility is the Wikipedia experience: perhaps what happened with Wikipedia is that it was a single project which gained a good reputation, gave a good experience to many contributors, was a clear concept to grasp (a free encyclopedia), and a broad enough scope to be of interest to many, many people.

This hasn’t happened to the same degree in architecture, design or sustainability, though we’ve made good progress on Appropedia – especially as we’ve come from a number of different projects and chosen to collaborate rather than compete.

Another key element in collaboration is a recognition of our limits. As Wes Janz noted (quoted in the same blog post)

“…And, you know, it’s all good, an orphanage in Sri Lanka, house inspections in Mississippi post-Katrina, a community center in Kenya… But I just got sick of it and had this idea that you should change the name of DWB to Designers With Borders. As in, maybe there should be some boundaries, some active awarenesses that we are unqualified, or unfit, or unable to work borderlessly.”

Not that we need to be changing names – just recognizing our limits. I can’t recall who said it, but it is our weaknesses that make us great, not our strengths, for our weaknesses lead us to work with others and create something greater than ourselves.

Pardon this meditation on failure. There are many encouraging successes to dwell on, support, and learn from, and we’ll continue to do that. A cautious recognition of where things go badly pear-shaped is one side of the coin of success, and we do well to keep both in mind.

Online collaboration doesn’t happen by magic


Blogger on global health issues, Christine Gorman, was researching patent issues around “Plumpy’nut,” an easy-to-make peanut-based food used to effectively treat malnutrition. (In brief, there are concerns about whether the patent is preventing some who need it from getting it, and even questions about whether the patent is valid.)

Gorman decided to try a collaborative approach – but as many others have found, getting concrete contributions is a challenge:

Online collaboration may be the wave of the future but it’s not so easy to convince people to do it…

This was not the instantaneous burst of community magic that I had hoped for. But a kind of long-amplitude wave eventually did materialize. My old Plumpy’Nut posts kept getting traffic. Maybe I had brought a fast-food mentality to a slow-cooking world.

And indeed, a year after the blog went up (and many months after I stopped posting anything new), I received an e-mail from Martin Enserink at Science, who was working on a story about Plumpy’Nut and wanted to include a sidebar on the patent controversy.

via Global Health Report: What Plumpy’Nut Taught Me.

The biggest part of online collaboration is making a start, putting it out there, and making it open for people to use. It’s hard to say when results will come – but sharing and practicing openness creates the possibility.

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 wiki as a platform


Paul Currion at got my attention with this:

I think there’s a lot of potential in… FrontlineSMS – mainly because it’s a platform. Like any good platform, it’s up to the end user (in this case, grassroots NGOs) to work out how they want to use it, and how they want to incorporate it into their organisation and activities.

Not being a software expert, I looked up Wikipedia:

A platform might be simply defined as ‘a place to launch software’. It is an agreement that the platform provider gave to the software developer that logic code will interpret consistently…

This sounds a lot like the strengths of a wiki – it’s a blank slate in many ways. People use Appropedia and other wikis in many ways. They create structures to use on certain types of pages, and are free to adapt or ignore those structures, as they innovate. And in a growing wiki with a very broad scope, there is a lot of room for innovation.

A topic that has come up repeatedly in conversations is whether a wiki is a good way to share designs and ideas for development, sustainability, open manufacturing etc, or whether a more structured approach is needed. I’ll look at some of those approaches in coming posts (filed under ).

I’ll leave it to others to decide whether a wiki is a platform in the software sense (and ask Is a Wiki a platform if you don’t program it?)

The making of a wiki page


The wiki pages that make the news are Wikipedia articles where things go wrong – libel, conflict of interest and the like. It’s worth taking a look at an article where things work differently – for example in the following case of an article about an environmental technology.

In September 2005, an anonymous editor added a piece of information to Wikipedia about wastewater treatment equipment:

UASB – Upflow Anaerobic Sludge Blanket technology normally referred to as UASB Reactor is used in the treatment of wastewater.

That was the entire UASB article – no categories, no images, no links, no formatting. Not even a comma.

Four and a half months later came the second and third edits – a cleanup tag and a suggested merge. Thanks to these tags, I found the article a few days later, and thought: Merge? A UASB is a really cool piece of technology – it deserves its own article! So I helped turn it into a short but respectable article. After a quick consensus on the talk page, the merge tag was removed.

At this stage this stub article (an article with just a few sentences of useful information) painted a broad picture, describing a valuable piece of technology that turns waste into energy, at the same time as it cleans wastewater. It would be a good place to learn the very basic facts, and had some valuable links to more in-depth information.

I went back to working on the appropriate technology articles (this was shortly before Appropedia started) and left the UASB article for someone else to develop further. Another editor improved the article a little, and then, less than 2 months after I did my basic work the article, came a new Wikipedia editor with a passion for water technologies.

Anaerobic digestersVortexrealm‘s userpage says he works in the field of waste management – but more importantly, his edits showed a consistently good understanding of water and wastewater treatment. 11 weeks and many edits after he started on the article, a solid, informative article had been created, including a photo he took himself of a wastewater treatment plant with UASB. The article had become a great starting point for anyone – student, worker, curious citizen – who might want to know about a valuable piece of sustainable technology technology.

Today the article, renamed as Upflow anaerobic sludge blanket digestion, is even better, after still more work by a number of editors, both regular editors of the article, and new editors.

The history of some articles on Wikipedia is smoother than others. This is what it can look like on the many, many occasions when it works well.

(Note: All of these changes can be seen via the articles history page, linked from a tab at the top of the page.)

Photo: A “Mechanical Biological Treatment facility” in Tel-Aviv. Credit: Vortexrealm (Alex Marshall).

Getting it: Ekopedia


It’s very striking when we meet people that really get what Appropedia is doing – why knowledge sharing matters, and why we practice radical openness and collaboration. Examples are when I heard Akvo‘s Mark Charmer talk passionately about the importance of breaking down the barriers between our silos of information; another was in 2007, on my first call with Andrew Lamb, head of Engineers Without Borders UK, hearing his lament over the many, many development organizations, each with knowledge that is not actively shared.

The most recent example is Jean-Luc Henry, founder of Ekopedia, a mostly French language sustainability wiki. Like others, he didn’t need to be converted – Ekopedia has been sharing sustainability knowledge since 2002 (well before Appropedia, which began in 2006), and branching out into multiple languages.

In the last few weeks we’ve begun talking seriously about our shared vision, and how we can work together. As a first step, we’re moving all French language content on Appropedia to Ekopedia, and all English language content on Ekopedia to Appropedia. Less duplication, more synergy – and an expression of our trust and shared vision.

With our own translation projects, starting with Clarion University’s program and expanding from there, and with like-minded people working on translation for related projects (such as OLPC), there is the potential for massively ramping up the work of effective multi-lingual knowledge sharing. If we can get funding to develop new translation tools, it could be better still.

We’ll keep you informed. If you want to join the team, please get in touch!