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New method for harvesting energy from light

“Harvesting energy from light” has an exotic sci-fi vibe – it’s about better methods for extracting solar energy to generate electricity, and improved fiber optic technology for communications – applications we’re familiar with — this isn’t the Bellero Shield.

The new work centers on plasmonic nanostructures, specifically, materials fabricated from gold particles and light-sensitive molecules of porphyin, of precise sizes and arranged in specific patterns. Plasmons, or a collective oscillation of electrons, can be excited in these systems by optical radiation and induce an electrical current that can move in a pattern determined by the size and layout of the gold particles, as well as the electrical properties of the surrounding environment. Because these materials can enhance the scattering of light, they have the potential to be used to advantage in a range of technological applications, such as increasing absorption in solar cells.

Link to University of Pennsylvania press release.

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Landfill Harmonics: rethinking/reusing what we’re throwing away…

Transforming garbage into good-quality musical instruments – forget flying cars, this is the more relevant future. Thanks to Joseph Rowe for sending this my way. Joseph says of this sort of good news: “… most media (big or small), if they report it at all, class it condescendingly as ‘entertainment’ or ‘human interest. When will those with power and influence start to realize that art is not an ornament, nor a luxury, but a necessity of life?”

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Christopher Alexander and “A Pattern Language”

Great post about Christopher Alexander’s work and influence via The Permaculture Research Institute of Australia, originally published at the Metropolis website, which followed up with posts on “The Sustainable Technology of Christopher Alexander” and “The Living Technology of Chrisopher Alexander.” The authors emphasize Alexander’s emphasis on patterns, context and a whole-systems vision. He was writing as an architect, but his influence has been more widespread.

an earlier generation of computer programmers, organization theorists, design theorists and many others, were struggling then to figure out how to generate and manage the large new design structures of that era — computer software being one prominent example. Alexander gave them some very helpful conceptual tools to do that…. In essence, the tools were patterns: not things, but relations of things, which could be identified and re-combined and re-used, in a language-like way.

The article goes on to say that Anderson’s work has “…amounted to a kind of technological critique, revolving around the observation that we’re doing something wrong in the way we make things. We’re substituting an oversimplified model of structure-making — one more closely related to our peculiar hierarchically limited way of conceiving abstract relationships — in place of the kinds of transformations that actually occur regularly in the universe, and in biological systems especially.”

Ours is a much more limited, fragmentary form of this larger kind of transformation. The result of this problem is nothing less than a slow unfolding technological disaster. We know it as the sustainability crisis.

That’s where this discussion touches on what’s happening today — economically, ecologically, and culturally. Growing numbers of people do recognize that we have to get our houses in order. But whose house, to what extent, and in what way? That’s the big question of the day.

What Alexander argues is that we have to make some very fundamental reforms — not only in our specific technologies, but in our very way of thinking about technology. We have been isolating things, as mechanical sub-entities, and manipulating them. That works quite well, but only up to a point. As any systems theorist or ecologist will tell you, the context, not the thing, is the key.

So it seems that we have ignored an incredibly important aspect of natural systems — namely, the fact that every structure is embedded in a larger structural context, and ultimately, in the entire structure of the cosmos itself. What Alexander offered was not just the recognition of this truth, but the basis of a new technology that could incorporate it.

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“We’re headed for a disaster of biblical proportions!”

Jeremy Grantham has been doing the math, and is convinced that world resources are way insufficient to support the current population.

Grantham believes that the planet can only sustainably support about 1.5 billion humans, versus the 7 billion on Earth right now (heading to 10-12 billion). For all of history except the last 200 years, the human population has been controlled via the limits of the food supply. Grantham thinks that, eventually, the same force will come into play again.

This is where we should be innovating – how do we match the level of resources to the (growing) need? Space travel is the old school sci-fi remedy: let’s go to Mars!

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Innovation is Madness

Genius architect Pliny Fisk of the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems is featured in a GE Focus Forward short film contest semifinalist, “Innovation is Madness.” “This whole idea that I am a mad scientist essentially comes from the fact that I have created a situation where madness can happen safely…”

Innovation Is Madness | Mark Decena from Focus Forward Filmson Vimeo.

INNOVATION IS MADNESS is a Semifinalist in the $200,000 FOCUS FORWARD Filmmaker Competition and is in the running to become the $100,000 Grand Prize Winner. It could also be named an Audience Favorite if it’s among the ten that receives the most votes. If you love it, vote for it. Click on the VOTE button in the top right corner of the video player. Note that voting may not be available on all mobile platforms, and browser cookies must be enabled to vote.

Pliny Fisk III was one of the founding members of the green building movement. In 1975 he co-created the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, a non-profit education, research, and demonstration organization specializing in life cycle planning and design. Shooting a video series for the US Green Building Council, we were introduced and subsequently fell in love with Pliny and his merry band of crazies. CMPBS has not only become a collaborative model for invention, but a physical space for innovation to happen. It’s time for the inmates to run the asylum.

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Resilient Communities

Elements of Resilient Communities

Follow John Robb and pay close attention to what he has to say, because he has his finger on the pulse. He’s currently promoting the concept of resilient communities, defined here:

A resilient community is the path to a safe, prosperous, and vibrant future for us, our kids, and our neighbors — despite an increasingly chaotic world…. We take control of our future. We implement the only solution that can give us the a safe, secure, and prosperous future. We become resilient. We find ways to help local people, businesses, and municipalities to PRODUCE, and that’s and important word, more of what we rely upon…. Fortunately, we now have the technology and the insights required to produce with quality and efficiency at the local level like never before.

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Alex Steffen at SXSW Eco: Carbon Zero

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Worldchanging Interview with Jean Russell on Thrivability (2009)

In September 2009, Worldchanging published my interview with thrivability consultant Jean Russell. I’m republishing the interview here in its entirety. Jean and I have had many conversations since, and I’m persistently intrigued by her well-grounded positive vision of a world in which we humans not only survive sustainably, but thrive. (Last February, Jean arranged for Todd Hoskins to interview me – that interview’s at Thrivable.net.)

Technology consultant, entrepreneur and thrivability theorist Jean Russell joined Jerry Michalski’s August 3 Yi-Tan Conference Call for a conversation about thrivability as a conceptual replacement for sustainabilty. After that talk (which you can hear via the above link), I asked Jean to join me in a brief but enlightening Worldchanging interview.

Jon Lebkowsky: Let’s start with the definition of thrivability I found at http://thrivable.wagn.org/wagn/Nurture, that it’s “our path out of unsustainable practices toward a world where all people have a high quality of life, a voice, and a nurturing earth supporting them. Using whole systems approach, it demands that we evolve our way of being together, of collaborating, so that our collective wisdom and action bring forth a flourishing world and thriving life.”

What’s the origin of this definition, and what led you to start thinking about “thrivability” vs sustainability?

Jean Russell: At a Recent Changes Camp in Portland Oregon in 2006 I had a powerful two-hour conversation with Jair. I have not stayed connected to him, but in that conversation he mentioned the word thrivability. And it took hold of me for several reasons. Jair and I share a connection to Tom Munnecke, and I had been engaged in conversations with Tom on the Omidyar.net community. Tom wrote about solution-focus, positive deviance and other ideas that informed my concepts of thrivability. So I chewed and chewed on the idea, starting a blog to track my explorations.

This definition of thrivability evolved from that blog. Because this was so alive for me, I would talk with people about it wherever I went. And so I really feel that the idea is less mine and more the ideas of people who have shared with me. It is also strongly informed by the three years of conversations on Omidyar.net. I came to the Omidyar.net space as a writer focused on philanthropy, but while there I learned about such a wide variety of elements of social benefit work. I let my curiosity lead me, and the great wisdom of many there guide me. So, for me, thrivability is the umbrella that holds all of these efforts — it speaks to the unified whole of our efforts and the world those efforts aspires to.

I have puzzled over the connection between sustainability and thrivability. When I started the thrivability blog, I wondered if it was simply a language shift or if there was something deeper. Thanks to the network of people involved in the conversation, I feel clearer now than I did in ’07. If we drew a Venn diagram of the two, there is significant overlap. A lot of the work done under the umbrella of sustainability totally fits the concept of thrivability too. It is less that the actions are significantly different as much as the approach and aspiration is different. The language of sustainability is about neutralizing. Thrivability is about succeeding.

An example can help. If we ask, when building a home, “what isn’t sustainable here?” then we get a list of what we could do to make the house sustainable: maybe it says something about the materials we use and how the energy flows. If we are innovative, it also includes water flows and a green roof. If we ask instead, “what would make this home thrivable?” I want thrivable materials and thrivable energy. But I also want thrivable design — how do the living creatures of the home move through it? And while putting in a green roof, did we make it something that can be a garden? Did we consider the interior lighting of the house — not only for heating and cooling, but also for seasonal affective disorder? How does the house play together in the ecology of the neighborhood? Who works to build it? Are their lives more thrivable for having created the house? What else is an input/output or otherwise impacted by this house — and how can that be thrivable? Do you see how the shift from problem-focus to solution-focus includes the strategies employed in addressing the problem but also goes further?

JL: I understand the difference between the two, but it seems to me that you could have a ‘thrivability’ that isn’t sustainable, or that diminishes the sustainability of related or dependent systems. Would it make more sense to talk about “sustainable thrivability”?

JR: I think Arthur Brock points to the answer quite well. He recently wrote:

Thrivability builds on itself. It is a cycle of actions which reinvest energy for future use and stretch resources further. It transcends sustainability by creating an upward spiral of greater possibilities and increasing energy. Each cycle builds the foundation for new things to be accomplished.

Thrivability emerges from the persistent intention to create more value than you consume. When practiced over time this builds a world of ever increasing possibilities.

Thrivability already includes what is meant by sustainability. And it goes beyond it. To say sustainable thrivability in some way limits it, in fact. Think of life forming on Earth — to sustain single celled organisms is one thing — to transcend that and create multi-cellular organisms in another. The earth has conspired for life to thrive, creating upward spirals, building resources, and evolving greater complexity.

It was Arthur who first pointed out to me that the last few hundred years of consuming resources might have been just what the earth required for us to transcend this way and move to the next form of interaction, the next level of complexity.

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Self organizing solar panels

“Scientists at MIT have discovered molecules that spontaneously assemble themselves into a pattern that can turn light into electricity — essentially a self-creating solar panel. In a petri dish.” [Link]

I was wondering if this discovery has a practical application. A commenter has the same question, someone else answers:

The implication of the addition of an ‘additive’ to disassemble into a liquid ‘soup’ is that the stuff can be sprayed/painted onto a surface. It also means that it can be mixed with polymers and woven into materials etc.

Paint or spray your house/car/boat/aircraft with it, and decide you want a different colour? No problem, spray the additive/solvent and it comes off.

(Thanks to Audrey Thompson for the pointer.)

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Pay attention

I ran across A.O. Scott’s video review of Errol Morris’s “Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control,” a documentary that weaves together interviews with four men who have an “endless, absorbing facination with what they do.” It’s clear that the four – a lion trainer, a topiary sculptor, a mole rat specialist, and a robot scientist – focus much, probably most of their concentration on their particular endeavor.

As so often happens with me, I was already thinking about attention when I found this particular data point that brought my thinking into focus. I had just been reading an article about Texas Tribune’s recent QRANK Live event, which I sadly missed – sadly because I’m a QRANK addict and was signed up intending to go. QRANK is a game you can play once a day via iPhone, iPad, or Facebook. It’s a quiz where you respond to fifteen out of twenty multiple choice questions that are presented. The questions are categorized (Entertainment, Science and Nature, Literature, History and Place, Life, Business and Government, Sports) but the categories are broad, so they’re all over the map. Successful players are eclectic, have read broadly, have heads full of random inconsistent facts. I’m often surprised at what people know (or know enough to guess correctly). I’m an average player, though a few years ago I would have been much better, but I’ve become more focused lately. I often say that “my head’s too full,” but I expose myself less often to facts I don’t seem to need and more on facts that are relevant to my work in specific areas.

The four guys in the Morris documentary probably would not have done well with QRANK. They’re also very focused on what they do, and that focus makes them very effective. But it also makes it less likely that they’re soaking up trivia.

You may think I’m going to say I think this narrow focus is better, that real genius involves focus and concentration on “just one thing.” But I’m actually concerned that a narrow focus constrains creativity. I find that when I do cast my net more widely, I find connections and synergies that I would miss if I was always narrowly focused. What’s important is balance: be focused on what you do but allow time for exploration.

Related to this is the problem of attention, and I think that’s where we really have an issue. I just spent 3-4 years studying and thinking about social media, which meant that I was also using social media more and more. Much of the activity so categorized is happening on Twitter, which I refer to as “drive by” conversation. Twitter conditions us to share and take small chunks or packets of diverse information. Thought many attempt conversation via Twitter, real conversatons via microblog form are fragmented and constrained. Facebook is similar – in its activity streams longer conversations do break out, and are still more coherent, but they’re still short bursts, all over the map, and we’re in and out of them quickly.

I find value in Twitter and Facebook conversations, and I appreciate the fact that I can sustain so many relationships, ranging from strong to weak connections, in those spaces. I’m a social media advocate and strategist, and I think we’re evolving a rather amazing environment for all sorts of productive communication and organization that were never possible before. I could go on about this at length.

But the point I’m getting to today is that we need balance. We need to work on our sustained attention and have places to go for sustained, coherent conversations. I’m personally working to manage my attention, be disciplined and focused, without losing the value of random online exploration and the power of serendipity.

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Stewardship

I’ve been thinking a lot about stewardship as the requisite basis for action in an era of greed and confusion. Stewardship can be defined several ways, but the general sense I get is that it means taking responsibility for something that you don’t “own.” Ownership also needs definition for the sake of clarity, and as a Buddhist I’ve cultivated some depth around the concept of “I” or “self” and the concept of “own.” If the self is an illusion, then ownership is part of that illusion.

But we have to live in the world, and accept consensual hallucinations like the concept of “self.” I can also think of “I” as a bounded awareness, and stewardship as taking responsibility for something beyond that boundary.

The case that came up most recently for me was that of technology stewardship, which I just spent two weeks discussing on the WELL with Nancy White and John D. Smith, authors of Digital Habitats; stewarding technology for communities. We were talking about how people with a community of practice who have relative clue about technology take responsibility for assessing, selecting, and sustaining technology platforms for the community to use, primarily for communication and collaboration. Communities are complex, technology can be complex as well, so there’s much to be discussed in this context. Check out the discussion and the book if you’re interested, but I’m more interested in how the act of stewardship works, especially the attitude behind it.

While stewardship may or may not be through some role that is compensated, it should be inherently unselfish. To effectively take responsibility for something beyond yourself, you have to be prepared to put your “self” aside and think in terms of the best interests relevant to the stewardship role. In technology stewardship for a community, you’re selecting the technology that best serves the interests and capabilities of the community, not necessarily the technologies you would prefer or be most comfortable with.

We also talk about stewardship in the context of The Austin Equation, where I’m involved as a resource on community development, especially online. For that project, a group of volunteers have been defining and mapping scenes local to Austin, with the idea that they will take a stewardship role with the scenes they’ve selected, i.e. help build coherence and effectiveness into a community where the only glue, at the beginning, may be affinity and marginal awareness. How do you step into a community, in a role that the community itself didn’t define or originate, and provide effective stewardship? That’s an issue I keep considering – somehow you have to engage the community and convey the value of your stewardship.

These are some initial thoughts about stewardship; I’d like to have a larger conversation, especially about how to inspire an attitude of stewardship more broadly so that people are generally more focused on helping than “getting.”

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Finding the forks in the road

Joel Makower considers four studies that explore the impact on business of climate change and related issues – the need for water management, and uncertainty about energy sources. Says Joel, “our world these days seems to be a succession of forks in the road, points at which decisions need to be made about which pathway we collectively must take.” This reminds me of something Rod Bell used to say, repeatedly: “To solve big problems, you have to go through big confusion.” [Link]

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Thanksgiving dinner’s travels

Ben Paynter at Fast Company has a post on the hidden costs of Thanksgiving – many of you travel, and so do your groceries.

Studies show that most groceries travel about 1,500 miles from the farm to store shelves. The same distance covered by your average car (one that gets about 30 miles per gallon) pumps out about 1,200 pounds of CO2, according to this math. Most commodities arrive in bulk on the back of a flatbed, so the impact is likely even greater.

Follow the link and check out the charts that will help you decide what kind of PIE you’ll want to be eating based on where you are (e.g. pecan pie is the thing, here in Texas where pecans are plentiful). You’re not going to save the world by choosing one pie over another, but it’s worth thinking about the true cost of the food on your table.

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Heads

In a conversation with a longtime friend, I just sent an email message that was fairly clear on some points I’ve been thinking about, so I’m reposting part of it here, ending with an unusual reference.

I’m currently into Buddhist practice and a related qigongish practice, and while many people who aren’t into those things mistakenly believe they’re “religious” or “spiritual,” they’re really just practices about understanding mind and self. In Buddhism we talk about emptiness, the realization that there’s no permanent real self. I heard a Buddhist say the other day something about not believing your thoughts. I think that’s really key to getting straight. We identify with thoughts in our heads as though they were real objects with weight and permanence, and it just ain’t so. The voices in your head aren’t necessarily your friends, and often it’s better to ignore them. I thought about all this when I read your paragraph above about identity and opportunity. I think it’s important to get behind your identity and realize there’s nobody behind the curtain. It’s a hard realization and it takes work. It leads to a real opening, potentially, though.

Truth, power, justice, framing, global warming etc. are just concepts and aren’t real things, and it can be helpful on some level to realize this. You do have to come back to a level where they’re treated as real – but there’s creativity in understanding that they’re not real things that are beyond your reach, but concepts that you’re co-creating with everyone else – that can be asserted, diverted, hacked, etc. They’re only real in a kind of mental consensus that we have about them.

***
Our politicians are more focused on politics and power – concepts, not realities – and they’re not so much into focusing on what’s real. What are the markets of the future and what skills do we require to be competitive and have viable economies? My business partner and I have been saying that we’re moving away from economies where you make money by extracting resources, applying labor to produce products, and tossing whatever’s not used as waste – to economies where knowledge substitutes for labor and heavy equipment, and where we engineer to extract as much as possible from any resource. Knowledge and social capital become as valuable as, or more valuable than, finance capital. We’ve wanted to study this more and write about it more, but we’re working on our social media consulting business, where we have deep knowledge and understanding. However we see that social media is relevant to sustainability economy, so we’re moving in the right direction no matter what.

Around 1966 or 67, Bert Rafelson and Jack Nicholson made a film called “Head” starring the Monkees (Nicholson was the screenwriter). There’s a scene in that film, where the Monkees stumble into a steambath where a Maharishi-like yogi is sitting, and he says this:

We were speaking of belief; beliefs and conditioning. All belief possibly could be said to be the result of some conditioning. Thus, the study of history is simply the study of one belief system deposing another, and so on and so on and so on… A psychologically tested belief of our time is that the central nervous system, which feeds its impulses directly to the brain, conscious and subconscious, is unable to discern between the real, and the vividly imagined experience. If there is a difference, and most of us believe there is -am I being clear? For to examine these concepts requires tremendous energy and discipline. To experience the now, without preconception or beliefs, to allow the unknown to occur and to occur, requires clarity. And where there is clarity there is no choice. And where there is choice, there is misery. And why should anyone listen to me? Why should I speak, since I know nothing?