First International Meeting for Sustainable Construction in the Dominican Republic


On a run of four presentations in three days, I wanted to share the most visually stimulating one from ENICONS First International Meeting for Sustainable Construction in the Dominican Republic.

I had the pleasure of presenting with some amazing architects to an audience of engaged architects and change makers.

Please feel free to ask questions since the presentation is mostly pictures. In addition, the majority of the technologies presented do have Appropedia links to more information.

Socializing innovation


An experimental site called cross-innovation is exploring innovation in appropriate technology. Founder Jon Minchin asks “How can we improve / augment collaborative innovation online?” I like the question, and these are my thoughts:

To socialize hardware, think about social structure. Communities doing things on the ground are key to the physical activities that people participate in. That’s partly helped by networking – finding out (A) who else is near you who likes the same things as you, and (B) what building and tinkering is going on near you (in case it catches your interest). Uniiverse sounds interesting for that.
It’s also helped by information flow. This is my own focus – the socialized information. I’m hoping we’ll make the most of th possibilities of socialized information, by building a comprehensive library of how-tos, guides, designs and topical info (which is what Appropedia, a wiki for appropriate technology, is about).

I might be that person who only has a hammer and find that everything looks like a nail – but my feeling is that access to quality information, inspiring stories and great designs is actually central to making things happen.

wikiHow delivers (a baby)


Two stories from recent years got me thinking. (If you know the stories, you’re allowed to skip to the last paragraph.)

1. A British father helped his wife give birth at home. He’s not the first, and won’t be the last, but there’s a lot that can go wrong. You really want to get it right, and if you don’t have a midwife or doctor handy, and you (and the woman giving birth) never happened to learn how to deliver a baby, what do you do? Leroy Smith turned to the web, via his mobile phone. He found a wikiHow article, and by following the 10 steps, he did his part well.

2. Surgeon David Nott had a more complex challenge. A hippo had bitten off a boy’s arm, and faced death within days from infection. An amputation of his shoulder blade and collar bone would save him – but the doctor didn’t have any experience of this unusual and complex procedure, and no one he knew in the Democratic Republic of Congo could help. But a colleague in the UK could help – and did so via SMS. In two very long text messages he explained the procedure, and wished Dr Nott luck. The operation – carried out in a basic operating theater, without the equipment and support the doctor would have expected back home in the UK – was a success, and the boy’s life was saved.

In the appropriate technology for solving a problem, the key component is often information. Whether we’re talking about health services or development, the right information can be the difference between a good outcome and a failure.

I’m inspired to see wikiHow used in this way – as I am with the stories I hear of Appropedia being used in the field. It’s also true that making the best use of expert knowledge, as Dr Nott was able to do, supports good outcomes. Combining these ideas – enhancing ways of accessing knowledge, and making available the best knowledge – continue to guide our mission.

Knowledge sharing in a nutshell


A super-brief version of the article Knowledge sharing in practice, on the wiki:

  • Encourage contributors, especially knowledgeable people.
  • Use an open license – that’s a real open license, no Non-Commercial or No derivatives clauses).
  • Use open standards and open formats. Do not use PDFs unless you also make it available in (say) HTML. And a wooden spoon to those sites that require specific software, often restricted to Windows and/or Mac. Tsk tsk.
  • Use a wiki.
    • Use an existing wiki where appropriate – they’ll be thrilled to have you.
    • You need several highly focused people working on it daily, and you need to avoid re-inventing the wheel.
    • Make it open edit.

Also on the wiki:

Humboldt Sustainable Future


Last Wednesday, I had the honor of presenting on the future of Humboldt (Northern California) Sustainability for the Humboldt Bay Center for Sustainable Living and the Redwood Coast Energy Authority. The presentation was part of a growing movement of community wide sustainability and hopes to catalyze a series of large-scale open space technology style meetings.

This clip starts a few minutes into the presentation, just after I describe that the presentation was made with the help of many local and over-the-internet colleagues. Click the info button to access the introduction (part 1).

Thanks to StreamGuys for providing excellent streaming services.

Enabling the Windmill Bills

Curtposts, English

I had the good fortune to meet William Kamkwamba last Friday night as he and his co-author Bryan Mealer stopped in San Francisco at a private residence as part of their book tour for “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind”. As the two took a few minutes to share a bit about William’s life, Bryan referred to William as “Windmill Bill.”  Fair enough, except that we soon learned there’s a lot more to William than windmills.  For example, he also built crude but effective power switches and even a circuit breaker to protect his home from risk due to the bare metal wiring he had used.

I’ve only just begun reading the book, and yet I’ve already been struck by several ways in which William’s story highlights the power of Appropedia’s vision.  William used available materials, mostly from a local junkyard, combined with insight from a high school physics text and a book on windmills, to construct his first windmill a few years ago.  William could not then read English, but painstakingly translated some sections of these books with some help from a local library. With his windmills, William has generated power to light his household, and pumped well water to supply his village of Wimbe, Malawi.  In the first chapter, William talks about how learning about science displaced a pattern of magical thinking.

The power of ideas and knowledge is immense.  William’s initiative and perseverance have fittingly won him a rare opportunity at the African Leadership Academy, where 200 other young Africans have the opportunity to get a phenomenal education.  Ideas and knowledge.  William certainly had limited educational resources when he first built his windmill.  100’s of  millions of others in developing nations, both school-aged and older, have even less. Many are working to expand access to libraries, but the task is huge and hard to scale. However, just as the developing world has been able to bypass the huge investment in landline phone technology, they may have alternatives to physical libraries.

In the coming 4 years, half a billion new Internet users will come online, a great many in developing countries. In the past year, shipments of data-enabled phones outnumbered simple SMS phones in Africa.  In ten years, even those in the developing world will begin to gain some access to the internet. That puts a library within reach of every inquisitive mind. Imagine what will happen when all the world’s Windmill Bills can read about useful ideas in their own language.

That is what the Appropedia community is working toward.

Joining the Commons: Appropedia switches licenses


The open license we use is central to what we do. Open knowledge can empower development, sustainability, appropriate technology, emergency management and all manner of progress. This means understanding what an open license is – giving freedom for all kinds of reuse and remixing, not restricting commercial use. This is the kind of license we have always used, as have Wikipedia, other Wikimedia projects and many other wikis – and the particular license that we have used is the GFDL, or GNU Free Document License, managed by the pioneering organization (some might say radical) the Free Software Foundation.

However, the GFDL was intended for software manuals, not for wikis – it’s good, but not quite the right tool for the job. The good news is that it’s now possible for a wiki site to convert its license from GFDL to a more suitable license – the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0. This has essentially the same freedoms is the GFDL, but also:

  • Is more practical for making printed works (you can reference the license rather than printing the whole thing);
  • Has a useful “human readable” summary (at the page linked above);
  • Has a “mark”, a linked image such as the one you see at the bottom of this page, which helps readers know what permissions they’ve been given, and helps search engines to index pages by permissions;
  • Is used by many bloggers and other creators of online works, meaning we can share with these more easily.

We in the Appropedia Foundation have been reading, weighing our options, asking questions and listening. It seems clear that the best course is licence migration to CC-BY-SA-3.0, so we are not delaying any longer. We’ve set the 21st of April as the day to convert to the Creative Commons License. This final week is your opportunity to give feedback and insights. We strongly believe this is the right course of action, but you can consider this as a case of “Speak now or forever hold your peace.”

(Okay – we wouldn’t tell someone to keep their mouth shut forever, but this really is a major decision, and it’s hard to imagine turning back once we’ve switched.)

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Btw, if you have a WordPress blog, like we do, there’s an easy way to add a Creative Commons mark in the footer: the creative commons license widget – that page says it’s only tested up to WordPress 2.5, but it seems to be working on version 2.71 without problems.

Aid agencies need to make themselves irrelevant


If you make technology appropriate and you make the how-tos accessible, you can get people to solve the problems themselves. They don’t need aid agencies any more. That’s the dichotomy, that’s the problem that the aid sector’s got to face, with this knowledge. It’s got to try and release it, to achieve their mission, but it also means that a lot of their revenue streams, a lot of their purpose will become redundant. And this is generated by people themselves.” Andrew Lamb, CEO, EWB-UK and director of the Appropedia Foundation.

That’s from this presentation by Vinay Gupta and Andrew Lamb at the recent Open Knowledge Conference in London:

Be informed through Twitter


I must apologize for the silence on this blog. We’ve all been busy – building the wiki is the priority, of course, and blogging is a conversation that we haven’t been making time for.

One reason for the silence is that I’ve been managing Appropedia’s Twitter account. There are different styles of “tweeting,” and the approach I’ve taken is to be informative, post links (not only to new Appropedia content but other great sites and blog posts) ask questions and engage in conversations with kindred spirits – but keeping chatter to a minimum. So if you’re a Twitter skeptic, and are afraid of inane comments about what we’re having for breakfast – fear not. You will be informed – so join the conversation, and follow @appropedia.

Note that Appropedia is also on, the open microblogging service. I send a lot of posts via to Twitter, but Twitter catches more of the conversations, as there are more followers on Twitter. But I use where I can do so and connect with both communities. Open source and open content give us greater freedom, and deserve our support.

I’m also doing a report on open collaborations for appropriate technology for Akvo, the Dutch water NGO that’s really taking a lead with open knowledge. Very soon there will blog posts about that, and then one day I will dig into the couple of hundred draft blog posts I have and start posting on all manner of questions about knowledge sharing to change the world.

Reuse – it’s bigger than papers and bottles


Reuse for efficiency and economic strength, not just for the environment. There’s no such thing as garbage. When we stop throwing resources away, we stop throwing money away. Biogas and composting can take the mountains of resources we throw away daily, and give us richer lives. Every kind of industrial waste has the potential to be recycled or reused – that’s industrial ecology.

But there’s somewhere we don’t usually go with re-use. It’s not just for physical resources – it’s also for knowledge, information, wisdom. Information can be shared and reused, and we’re using the Appropedia wiki to do that. Help build the wisdom on worm farming, and you’ll not only be turning your own kitchen waste into the next crop of food from your garden – you’ll be helping tens thousands, and potentially millions of readers do the same, when they read that article.