In some parts of the world, half of the women lack basic reading and writing skills. The reasons vary, but in many cases, literacy isn’t valued by fathers, husbands, even mothers. Kuwaiti-born photographer and TED Fellow Laura Boushnak traveled to countries including Yemen, Egypt and Tunisia to document some of the women — schoolgirls, political activists, 60-year-old moms — who are fighting cultural odds for the sake of education. Listen to Boushnak’s talk, then see a gallery of her images on the TED Ideas Blog >>>
Eco-entrepreneur Alasdair Harris is passionate about conserving marine biodiversity, and he’s doing it in unusual ways. While most marine conservationists focus on what’s in the water, Harris’ company Blue Ventures works with people in poverty-stricken coastal communities to engage them in rebuilding tropical fisheries and in the process of protecting both their ecosystems and livelihoods. The company’s approach: eco-tourism.
We spoke to Harris about why humanity’s marine conservation efforts to date haven’t worked — and his vision to change that.
How did Blue Ventures get started?
I was studying zoology in 2000, learning about the enormous threats that were wreaking havoc on the world’s coral reefs, which are the rainforests of the ocean. I was already a keen scuba diver, and this got me asking myself: how on Earth can an undergraduate student in Scotland do something meaningful to help tackle the mass extinction that’s taking place beneath the waves?
I set to work raising money to take a group of fellow students to the Indian Ocean to learn more about what was happening, and contribute in some small way to studying these unprecedented changes. My initial focus was on coral reefs in Madagascar, because this part of the Indian Ocean is one of those regions where we just didn’t know what’s there — there’s a huge gap in the literature. Sadly, this is true for many places; we understand tragically little about so much of our oceans, and marine biodiversity is being lost before we even know it exists.
This isn’t just a tragedy for nature. It’s also a critical issue for many of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. Almost 1-and-a-half billion of us live around our tropical coasts. Hundreds of millions of these people depend on fishing for survival. Our planet’s so-called small-scale fisheries are anything but small — they’re a lifeline underpinning cultures, food security and livelihoods. So tropical marine conservation isn’t just about conserving marine wilderness to satisfy the curiosity of biologists. It’s a human issue of enormous global importance, at the intersection of food security, conservation, and development. It’s an issue on the front line of climate change.
That first trip was an old-fashioned expedition, funded by Edinburgh University and the Royal Geographical Society, among others. Our goal then was simply — perhaps naively — to put these reefs on the map. But it quickly became apparent that we couldn’t hope to change anything simply by carrying out research. The money was spent and we put together some species lists, but we didn’t achieve anything practical in terms of helping either the reefs or the people that depended on them. The only real winners were those of us getting to dive in these fabulous seas.
This troubled me — it was clear that conservation was about much more than simply indulging a scientific interest in these extraordinary underwater ecosystems. Conservation today is about people, markets and behavioral change. And making change happen requires a totally different approach to simply publishing papers and hoping someone might read them: it means listening to what communities need, developing a deep understanding of local issues — and all that requires a permanent presence and commitment — plus funding for the long haul.
After that first trip, I decided to raise the bar. Each summer for over the next two years, our team went back to the Indian Ocean — to Madagascar and the adjacent republics of Comoros and Tanzania. We raised money during the year as students, running marathons and shaking buckets in the streets of Edinburgh and Oxford.
Madagascar was then recovering from political turmoil following disputed elections in 2002, and there was an overwhelming need to build capacity in the environmental sector. This provided the impetus for me to bite the bullet. It was really just saying, “I’m setting up an organization that will continue the work we’ve started.” That was Blue Ventures. It kicked off the day I left university.
The reef octopus is a cash crop for tens of thousands of subsistence fishers in the Indian Ocean. Blue Ventures looks to get them invested in the conservation process. Photo: Garth Cripps
Why did you decide to set up a tourism business to fund conservation programs, rather than just start a conservation organization?
Having the idea was one thing, but finding the means to finance the vision was a whole new challenge. No donor or philanthropic foundation in their right mind would give a 23-year-old support for this kind of vision. So by default I had to look at entrepreneurship. And the solution was there all along. Those expeditions I’d been running were incredible opportunities for people from all walks of life to learn about the ocean, to experience new cultures and the enormous challenges of making conservation work on the ground. We had a business opportunity in our hands. So Blue Ventures Expeditions went live with £500 from my student overdraft, and the business was born.
Since then, we’ve welcomed hundreds of volunteers every year to our field programs around the world. These volunteers contribute to the running costs of our conservation work. They learn to dive with us, play a key role collecting data underwater and participate in our research and outreach work. Crucially, they also provide year-round financial sustainability to the organization, helping keep the lights on as we support a global team of more than 100 conservationists.
Any profits we make get reinvested in the charity, strengthening our conservation programs. It’s this social business that’s provided the catalyst for all our conservation work. We’ve expanded our reach beyond Madagascar — to Malaysia, Fiji and Belize — and we’re launching new country programs later this year.
How does the tourism enterprise work?
We accept volunteers who want to come and learn about conservation. Say you want a career break, or you want to learn to scuba dive for six weeks, or reboot your career in conservation or development. We even get families looking for a new experience. Each expedition lasts six weeks and involves a series of intensive training programs in diving, marine science and underwater surveying. You then live and work alongside our conservation staff, getting hands-on experience of the issues that we confront on a daily basis, in incredibly remote settings.
Another great thing is the network Blue Ventures has formed. We have an inspiring community of more than 2,000 alumni around the world, all of whom have lived and worked with us for extended periods of time and are very close to the spirit and culture of the enterprise.
By making conservation work for people, Blue Ventures works to mobilize fishing communities to support marine protection. Photo: Garth Cripps
Your view of marine conservation today must have been very different 11 years ago.
Absolutely. By approaching conservation as an entrepreneur, the challenges and limitations of “conventional” funding models are made very apparent to us. Marine reserves — areas of ocean protected from fishing, within which ecosystems can recover and help rebuild and replenish fisheries — are the end goal for any marine conservationist. They’re our currency. And given the threats our seas are facing — from overfishing and pollution to climate change — science tells us that we need to be setting aside about 30% of our seas within these marine reserves if we’re to have any hope of safeguarding our seas from the soaring stresses that humankind is unleashing.
But we have some serious problems in reaching that 30% target. Firstly, these conservation zones are typically funded by donors or governments in short-term project cycles, with no real hope of attaining financial sustainability for the protected area. Compounding this is the issue of scale: despite tireless efforts and commitment from thousands of conservationists and marine park managers working for this cause from the Arctic to the Southern Ocean, at best we’re fully protecting barely 1% of our seas. Worse still, the funding available for conservation isn’t growing in any significant way
Alison Killing thinks a lot about death … and specifically, how its ubiquitous, hidden presence shapes our cities. In Death in Venice, her June 2014 exhibition on the topic, Killing mapped London’s death-associated architectural features — hospitals, cemeteries, crematoria, and so on — making visible the invisible mechanics of death and dying. She asks us to consider: What might a good death experience mean today? And how can we design differently for the dying, as well as those caring for them?
Here, the Netherlands-based British architect and urban designer, who specializes in humanitarian architecture, talks about how the project has challenged her own perception of death, and how she plans to make space for better dying.
First of all, it’s hard to miss the connection between your work and your name. Is it just a coincidence?
Yes, it’s my real name. My firm is called Killing Architects — I like to say that I started Killing Architects four years ago. [laughs]
How did you become involved in the architecture of death? Was it a long-term interest?
It began rather suddenly and recently with a call for proposals to the 2014 Venice Biennale. The theme was “fundamentals.” Most countries in the world stage their own exhibition in a national pavilion. For 2014, nations were asked to look at modernism in their own country between 1914 and 2014.
Two days before the deadline, a friend emailed me with an idea for the British Pavilion’s call for entries: “Let’s do an exhibition about death.” He and a partner had already completed a thesis project on this topic, and I pulled in a couple more friends to build a solid team with a curatorial and research base. We didn’t get accepted, but at the end of a quite rushed process, we had a proposal that was well worked out, and an idea that we liked. So we applied for funding on our own, and produced it in Venice as an independent event, coinciding with the opening week of the Biennale.
We had about 500 people come and see the actual exhibition, a few really nice reviews and quite a lot of press attention for the project, too. Part of the funding for the exhibition came from a Kickstarter campaign, and through that we had a lot of social media buzz. We could only stay open a week, but we heard of a lot of people going to Venice for the Biennale later on and looking for Death in Venice.
A close-up of one of the infographics in Death in Venice, showing changing life expectancy over the course of the 20th century. Early in the century, many children died before their 5th birthday, and the average life expectancy at the time was around 48. Today we can expect to live to almost 80. Photo: Alison Killing
What was your focus for the exhibition?
When death has been studied before, it’s usually been from a memorial standpoint — about monuments and tombstones and so on — straightforward architecture. We had a lot of background research on this aspect, but we decided to think about how, while death is something that we don’t talk about much publicly, or even think about on a day-to-day level, it’s pervasive in our lives. Hospitals, hospices, crematoria and cemeteries surround us, yet we are not aware.
The architectural history of the 20th century is often presented in terms of advances in science and technology leading to light, airy, green, healthy cities for the masses. It was a reaction to the filthy industrial slums of the previous century. The narrative is about life and increased health and progress — but death is never mentioned in this story, even though these developments have also massively changed the way we approach it.
At the start of the 20th century, people typically died at home and of infectious diseases after a short period of illness (and a huge proportion died of “other causes” that couldn’t be adequately explained at the time). Developments in medicine — like the discovery of penicillin — and in public health led to a decline in deaths from infectious disease. At the same time, the invention of heavy and expensive medical equipment, like X-ray machines, needed to be kept somewhere central, which gave us the modern hospital. Universal health care meant more people got access to proper medical treatment, which in turn created a need for more of these buildings.
Artist Bassam Tariq is determined to shine a light on the incredible diversity of Muslim life – and he does it by any means necessary. Known for his blogging project 30 Mosques in 30 Days, Tariq and a friend took a month-long road trip through all 50 states, breaking their Ramadan fast each evening in mosques along the way and documenting the people they met.
He also traveled to Pakistan to film These Birds Walk, a documentary celebrating the life of the unassuming man who created Pakistan’s first ambulance service, through the lens of a coming-of-age story. And if that’s not enough, back home in New York City, Tariq cofounded Honest Chops, a halal butcher shop in the East Village that offers high-quality meat to his neighbors, 90 percent of whom aren’t even Muslim.
As his TED Talk, “The beauty and diversity of Muslim life,”is released, we spoke to Tariq about the unifying vision behind these wildly disparate projects, and how they each serve to alter perspective on what it means to be Muslim.
Your arsenal of talents is somewhat bewildering — butcher, blogger, filmmaker. How did you get here?
I was born in Pakistan, but after a short time in New York, where we lived in a very middle-class Astoria neighborhood, we moved to Houston — to the hood — when I was about 11. We didn’t even realize how bad the neighborhood was at first, because New York was so dirty in the ’90s. It was a subsidized housing complex. We thought, “Wow, this is so nice and so big!” It turned out to be violent.
I realized that everything was divided by race. It felt really weird, because in New York, we all just got along and everyone was from a different background. This neighborhood was a predominantly African-American area, and we were the only brown kids, and we always got into fights — always. So I started lying to people, and told them I was Jewish, just to get around. I didn’t want to be called “Gandhi.” To me, that was the worst thing you could be called.
I can think of worse people to be.
I know, right? But my attitude was, “That stupid little Indian man ruined everything for me.” They’d show videos of him in school, and everyone would be like, “Yo, that’s your dad.” And I was like, “Oh my god. No, I’m Pakistani.” People would respond: “What’s that?” No one really even knew where it was on a map.
Then, when we moved into the suburbs, we lived among more affluent people. It was the first time I started seeing a lot of white people in my life. I was in ninth grade. And I thought, “This is weird. These are American, WASPy white people.” Very different from the Greek and Italian kids that I grew up with [in New York]. That’s when I started seeing a different side of privilege. Until then, I believed our problems were due to having a victim mentality. When I went to college, I got involved with student organizations. The pivotal point for me was 9/11. I was forced to deal with Islam and what it meant to me — if anything. It’s such a cliché. But our politics and beliefs were put in the spotlight.
I also met affluent Pakistani kids who grew up wealthy, and until then I had no idea what that wealth was like. My dad worked in a restaurant, and we owned a gas station — that was our upward mobility — and we weren’t particularly religious. My dad would open the doors to the mosque in the morning, and then he’d go to open up the gas station. Later, we closed the gas station and my dad then opened a Chinese restaurant.
How’d that go?
It was really good food — Pakistani-Chinese fusion. It was awful as a business; it only lasted about a year-and-a-half. But my dad’s a great cook.
Above, watch the trailer for These Birds Walk, Bassam Tariq’s documentary feature that follows the coming-of-age story of two boys in Pakistan.
What did you grow up thinking you’d do?
I thought I’d go into business, or maybe become a doctor. No one in my family went to college, so it was really important that one of us go. But during that time, because my parents couldn’t afford college, I was signed up as a subject for medical tests to make money. It was dehumanizing. They’d hook me up to these weird machines and feed me medicine, and then follow my heart rate and so on. Then I took this class called “Creativity in American Culture,” and that really shifted my perspective on what was possible. I picked up a camera and thought, “I’ll start shooting videos. That might make some money.” I learned how to edit from a friend, and then did corporate videos — like videos for the university mental health department, and so on.
Is that why you became a filmmaker?
Yes, but I didn’t have an interest then in the art of film. In the beginning, I was excited about the creativity of advertising, and that’s the route I took after I graduated and moved to New York. It was really tough, being the only non-white person in the creative world of advertising. It’s very, very homogenous, and there’s no nuance to stories. There’s a façade of creativity, a sense that you’re changing the world. But I saw through it, and I ultimately got axed from my first job due to my lack of interest.
How did end up making These Birds Walk?
When I went to New York, I wanted to get away from Muslims, because in Texas, I saw how we bubbled ourselves. But as soon as I got to New York, I ended up meeting Muslims — and they were an amazing group of creative artists. My roommate, for example, was a filmmaker named Musa Syeed. He was setting his own rules, doing things his own way, and he was unapologetic about his beliefs and his practices. Until I met Musa and others in this circle, I’d worried more about being the token Muslim, that my work would be only for Muslims. Even now, for These Birds Walk, it was really important for me to make it about universal themes — family, youth, growing up.
Mohammed Dalwai shares his idea for a Mobile Triage App at TEDGlobal 2014. Photo: Ryan Lash/TED
Every day, emergency room workers use triage to prioritize patient care — but exhausted personnel in under-resourced hospitals can easily make deadly errors in diagnostic tests and symptom scoring. South African emergency room doctor Mohammed Dalwai witnessed such avoidable tragedy firsthand while working with Médicins sans Frontières in Pakistan. He resolved never to let it happen again.
Dalwai urged MSF to apply a standard triaging system — the paper-based South African Triage Scale — in his emergency room in Pakistan. This led to an 86% improvement in successful triaging, and to MSF adopting this standard in emergency rooms around the world. It also led to a big idea for Dalwai. Now, with The Open Medicine Project (TOMPSA), he and his team have made an app that is freely available. They are planning to roll it out across many regions.
Here, Dalwai tells the TED Blog about the app’s development, and its possible future uses — including the ability to track realtime data of disease outbreak.
How did you end up joining Médicins sans Frontières and creating the Mobile Triage App?
I actually always wanted to be a biomechanical engineer! But then I started studying medicine, and fell in love with it after the third year, when I began seeing patients. That was it for me. I finished med school at Stellenbosch University, and afterwards went into rural medicine. I went into the bush to work at Manguzi Hospital, on the border of Mozambique and South Africa.
There, I met an MSF doctor, who told me about the organization. The idea of going into low-resource settings and helping to make an impact in the system appealed to me, and I wanted to experience medicine outside of South Africa. So I went on multiple missions with MSF — to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Haiti and Sierra Leone.
It was in Pakistan in 2011, on my first assignment, that I saw patients dying due to incorrect triaging. One day, I lost a patient. A young woman, 22 years old, came in with abdominal pain. She was incorrectly triaged, and she waited for eight hours. She had something called an ectopic pregnancy — a pregnancy outside the uterus — and she was bleeding internally. When I found her, she was barely alive, and we tried everything to resuscitate her. But she died — and it really affected me. She was a woman, she was sidelined, she was put in a corner — no one cared, no one did the triage properly. If she’d been triaged correctly, we would have realized she was pregnant, and we would have prioritized her.
From that day on, I became determined to sort out the triage problem. I was part of a team that implemented the South African Triage Scale in my emergency room, and it was the first time it had been used in an MSF hospital. It was the first time the South African Triage Scale was ever implemented in Southeast Asia.
Villagers from Hhohho, Swaziland, wait outside to get their vitals taken before seeing a physician or dentist. Photo: Air Force Staff Sgt. Lesley Waters
What is the South African Triage Scale?
It’s a paper-based system based on a composite score — including complaints and vital signs — and one of the only triage scales made for the developing world to evaluate both adults and children. It was developed in a small but busy hospital in Cape Town in a low socio-economic area in response to massive patient loads, understaffing and high death rates. It was introduced in 2008, and shown to be effective when implemented.
MSF had never had a standard triage system in place before this. We lobbied hard for change and standardization. They let us try it, and we did a study that showed a successful implementation. It was at that point that MSF realized how valuable it was, and they started implementing it in every emergency center around the world.
But this is not necessarily a one-size-fits-all solution. The South African Triage Scale (SATS), being relatively new, has been tested extensively in South Africa, but not yet rigorously tested outside of the country. I’m now working on my PhD, documenting the SATS’s validity and reliability in other sectors and countries. For the last two years, I’ve been collecting data on the SATS and how it’s been implemented globally. We proved that it works in Pakistan, and we proved that it works in certain African countries. But Afghanistan and Haiti are different. What are those differences, and how can we adapt the system for local circumstances? In Sierra Leone, for instance, there was a massive malaria population, which has lower hemoglobin levels. Because of that, the triage scale wouldn’t pick up certain patients, so we would have to adjust one or two discriminators after research so that the triage scale is more sensitive for these people. Small things like that make a massive difference in patient care.
A look at TOMPSA’s Mobile Triage App. Photo: Makkia da Costa
Why create a mobile app, when it sounds like the paper-based system works very well to correct the possibility of human error?
Even though the SATS works, it still needs to be implemented correctly across a variety of situations, so we need to standardize the format to further avoid human error. Health care workers are trained to various degrees across different countries. One of the easiest ways to standardize things is through technology. When I came home from Pakistan, I discussed my experiences with my friend Yaseen Khan. Together we decided we had to tackle health system problems using technology — and that’s how we formed The Open Medicine Project (TOMPSA).
When you look at the way the nurses or health care workers make mistakes, it’s usually one of two areas: it’s either they don’t understand the discriminator — so the first symptom that the patient comes in with. The paper-based version of the SATS offers no additional information, whereas a mobile app can. They also make mistakes in calculation. In the SATS, the vital signs are all linked to a composite score, and each one is different. So say, for example, you have a heart rate of 98 beats per minute, that’s zero point. If you have a heart rate of 101, that’s one point. It’s easy to make mistakes, and a massive number of errors are happening in that scoring system alone. So digitizing systems offers more information as prompts for medical care depending on the score. Nurses were forgetting to do pregnancy tests, for example.
The app is essentially a digital checklist. Checklists make massive differences in both the airline aviation industry as well as in medicine. You see the same thing with the WHO surgical checklist. It saves lives.
Over on the TED Ideas blog, TED Fellow Chris Woebken imagines the future in the shape of objects you might find in a 2050 pawn shop. Read an excerpt here, then follow the link below for more!
For most of us, trying to picture the future is a futile exercise that leads at best to some bad ideas that should likely never be shared out loud. For people like TED Fellow Chris Woebken, it’s why the present exists.
Along with Elliott Montgomery, Woebken runs The Extrapolation Factory, a studio devoted to imagining future scenarios. One recent project challenged visitors to the Museum for Arts and Design in New York to come up with products you might find in a pawn shop in 2050. Like all good science fiction, the results riff off things that are already shimmering in the real world. And like all good science fiction, some of them are more than a little bonkers. A nice twist? You can buy them all, with profits going toward researchers working in that particular area. Here, take a look at 16 objects that don’t exist yet … but might.
1. A robot frog to replace those wiped out by disease.
The artificial, bio-robotic “Anura-43″ frog replaces flesh-and-blood counterparts that had become extinct by 2050. Sadly, the loss isn’t entirely that unlikely: asThe Guardian has reported, a fungus epidemic first threatened frogs in Costa Rica in 1987 and it now threatens nearly 3,000 amphibian species.
2. A gizmo to design your children (and your children’s children)
Genetic engineering has provided the basis of much moral handwringing and discussion (see this interview with ethics professor Julian Savulescu). By 2050, concepts such as genetic terrorism and “sterility suicide bombers” will likely have become unnervingly familiar. The “Clean Gene Machine” allows people to visualize and understand all the genetic permutations that could result from their reproducing — and be rid of any unwanted glitches that might result in their children being infertile.
3. A robotic drone to bring you … yogurt.
Even by 2015, companies were excitedly trumpeting the potential of drones (or “unmanned aerial vehicles,” as their makers would rather you called them) to transform lives for the better or, at least, bring you stuff now. (See the TED playlist Will drones save us or destroy us?) By 2050, the “Dro-Yo” could do both through the drone-delivery of yogurt. Why yogurt? Because it might just be the healthiest thing out there. In 2013, Yovivo wanted to use synthetic biology to amp up yogurt’s naturally healthy properties and include clones of resveratrol, the molecule commonly found in red wine that lowers bad cholesterol and improves circulation.
Written by Helen Walters. To find out what Woebken’s 13 other objects are, visit the Ideas blog >>>
What if you could build a civilization from scratch, using tools that could also be built from scratch? In his talk “Open-sourced blueprints for civilization” at TED2011, Marcin Jakubowski introduced the Global Village Construction Set, open-source blueprints that would essentially allow anyone with a heap of scrap metal — and a few production tools — to make 50 machines covering all the needs of a basic civilization: agriculture, energy, transportation and production.
In the last two years, this TED Fellow has been working to make this radical idea a reality on Factor e Farm — a community based on 30 acres near Kansas City, Missouri. The TED Blog caught up with him to find out how the project is going, and to hear how his marriage to fellow Fellow (and open-source scholar) Catarina Mota (watch her talk, “Play with smart materials“) has brought domestic bliss into the construction equation.
It’s been a couple of years since you gave your talk on the Global Village Construction set. It generated a lot of excitement and about $1 million in funding. How has the project developed since then?
Machines that are ready for viral replication are the brick press, the hydraulic power unit and the soil pulverizer. The tractor needs some work. We’ve built a number of other prototypes — like the CNC torch table, a backhoe, an ironworker machine for cutting slabs of steel, a circuit mill and a trencher. We have an early prototype of a microcar and a 3D printer.
As we continue to prototype and develop more tools in the set, we are working to both develop a community and generate revenue, because our foundation funding has run out. To do this, we’ve experimented with a workshop model, where we teach interested people how to build the tools in a three-day immersion learning course. People paid a fee to take a weekend-long workshop, and we also sold the completed equipment. We’ve done a total of four microhouse workshops, one brick press workshop, one Power Cube workshop and one microcar workshop. Take the brick press, for example. It costs $5,000, we earned about $5,000 in tuition fees, and we sold the press for $10,000. It’s an education/production revenue model. The person who bought the brick press even came to the workshop and participated in the build. The general feedback was that people were really excited to build things that they didn’t think they could before the workshop.
A backhoe manufacture in progress at Factor E Farms. Photo: Open Source Ecology
How has your perspective on this project changed since your talk?
I’m seeing that this work takes a long time to develop, so it’s more like a two-decade project than the two-year project I initially imagined. So I’ve revised my timeline and am planning for the long haul. I’ve realized that to make the Global Village Construction Set tools feasible, we need to explore what’s known as extreme manufacturing, which means rapid parallel building of the technologies. That means we have to get full infrastructure for rapid development in place — rapid prototyping, collaborative design — and a massive parallel development effort. The key to this is producing excellent, comprehensive, open documentation that anyone can access, and thus join the project rapidly. The workshop/funding model is a part of this plan.’
We have shown that we can build a brick press in a single day, for example. Now we’re focusing on building multiple machines and structures at the same time with different groups of people. Recently, we got that to the level of housing. We built a house in five days using compressed blocks from our Compressed Earth Block Press, plus standard modular construction techniques. Our next goal is to build a 3,000-square-foot electronics workshop in two days with 100 people.
In essence, what we’ll attempt is parallel group builds via workshops happening simultaneously. We are creating a process that’s social, educational and productive all at once. We just need to scale it and make it highly replicable. If we can hire people to teach, we could have a number of these revenue-generating workshops going on all at once. Meanwhile, I could carry on developing machines.
The missing link is people. That’s the perennial issue. We are in real need of diversely-skilled people who are both organizers and builders. However, we’ve had a couple of workshop attendees that later became workshop leaders. They had enough skill that they could actually pull it off.
An engine module, for use with the Power Cube, which generates hydraulic power. Photo: Open Source Ecology
What kind of person is motivated to do this?
A maker, a creator, a DIY-type of person. People interested in self-sufficiency, regenerative development, as well as survivalists. A person who does it because it’s possible. Our goal is to bring the barriers way down to do this.
In fact, one new insight we’ve gained is that we’re able to lead unskilled teams of people through a process of a complex machine build. At the workshops, we had people who’d never welded before. And even myself — without prior experience in fabrication, I taught myself to do it. If you have the willingness, the technology is accessible. But you do need the open-source design blueprints and detailed instructions.
And then there are motivated entrepreneurs. One of our guys is now selling our Power Cubes, the hydraulic power units, as a business.
PowerGen’s “PowerBox” comprises 1.4kW of solar panels, 9kWh of batteries and a 3kW inverter. It supplies power to 14 clients in Nkoilale, Kenya, all of whom pay for the electricity via mobile phones. Photo by David Sengeh.
As part of the TED Ideas blog ongoing series “Questions worth asking”, David Moinina Sengeh explains why he’s bullish about the “microgrid.” Here’s an excerpt.
Nearly 70% of the sub-Saharan African population doesn’t have electricity. That’s about 600 million people who are completely off-grid, often paying high prices in cash and health to use diesel generators, kerosene lamps and charcoal fires.
Recently, we’ve seen a wealth of stories about entrepreneurs who promise clever solutions for these unhealthy, smoke-belching products. The replacements may differ, but all seem to agree: Installing actual electricity infrastructure in Africa would take too long and be too expensive to be practical. So instead there’s a focus on products that, while often very smart, and certainly well-meaning, serve only one single use. I’m talking bike-powered mobile phone chargers, solar-powered lamps,“pot-in-pot” refrigerators.
I’m not alone in finding something grating about the idea that people living on the continent should make do with an inferior solution that westerners wouldn’t tolerate for a second. The cleverest solar lightbulb in the world is no replacement for a standard AC-current plug that allows you to power anything you want or need. Pot-in-pot refrigerators will not store and keep safe large volumes of vaccines and bicycles will not generate enough power to support any form of manufacturing or production.
A friend of mine, Sam Slaughter, is the co-founder of PowerGen, a company that wants to install “microgrids” across the continent. Microgrids are small, local versions of the traditional electricity grid. They can run independently, powered by fuel cells, wind, solar, and so on. Their autonomy makes them appealing in remote locations where sustainable energy such as wind and sun are abundant — and they help to pull the focus away from these one-by-one solutions, and toward giving homes and businesses real power they can use as they choose.
Lillian Muthoni owns a restaurant in Nkoilale; now hooked into the microgrid, she now pays about $22 a month for power. Previously she’d spent up to $130 on diesel for a generator. Photo by David Sengeh.
When I spoke to him recently, Sam compared the current state of the African energy sector to the state of the African telecoms industry decades ago. “The pioneers of wireless telecommunications in Africa made a big bet that African consumers wanted world-class mobile communication service, and they invested in the infrastructure to deliver it by building tens of thousands of telecom towers throughout the continent,” he told me. “They faced enormous risks — including serious regulatory headwinds from government-owned landline telecom operators.”
The result: African telecoms have famously leapfrogged the west, building mobile payment systems, for instance, that many western countries haven’t yet managed to pull off.
“Now,” Sam continued, “we are faced with a similar question in energy: do we as the private sector invest in infrastructure like microgrids to deliver the solution that the consumers want — which is grid-style, AC electricity — or do we ignore the lessons of the telecom revolution and decide that African consumers should settle for something less, which is DC-only solar lanterns and solar home systems?” No prizes for guessing which bet Sam is preparing to make.
This week, the TED Ideas blog launched its new “Question Worth Asking”: “How weird will the future be?” The series of articles kicks off with weird and wonderful piece from poet and TED Fellow Ben Burke.
[Dear Helen- So sorry. Didn’t have time to write that poem. But my future self sent me one yesterday. So we’re good. Crazy, right? It’s totally legit and actually from the future, so no need to double-check, you’re probably too busy anyway. Also included is the typewritten note that was taped to the package. Happy New Year! – Ben Burke]
THE TRANSHUMANIST’S LAMENT
TOO MANY RIVERS, NOT ENOUGH LAKES
OH, FUTURE — YOU SO CRAZY
I arrived in the basket that was weaved here before me
And I stayed in any place with a roof that would store me
I have lots of belongings
But didn’t pack for the trip
I got here, they put pants on me
And then the world gave me the slip
I’ve lived as slowly as I could
Because there was no time to waste
But then things just got so weird
That I just had to grab your ear
And give the tongue inside your mind a little taste:
The wallpaper can see that you’re stressed,
So it turns a lovely shade of blue
The thermostat has thought things over
And is ready to have a word with you
And your closet picked out your outfit
for the party Friday night
Whilst the blender and the toaster
made vindaloo by candlelight
And Doctor mailman robot
Printed your pills in quite a hurry
Your vitamins were running low
Now there’s B12 in your curry
But your personality algorithm
was accidentally miswritten
You forgot your fingernails were all encoded
and you bit them
Now the discs of your thumbnails
are gangrene, corrupted
The chip that was slipped
twixt each digit erupted
Your sensors and servos
Implants and additions
All bent towards a personal program of precision
Your body’s expanded
Your spirit is failing
The row boat got a motor but wants to be sailing
Yes every Thing now is thinking
We are each our own king
But there’s no kingdom here to speak of
It’s a pot luck, but we’ve nothing to bring
For the air now is as thick as the sea
With every thing we created, each idea we have dreamed
Yes we screamed and filled the skies with drones and clones of drones
Now they’re crashing on our couches as they move into our homes
And taking in some old stray nanobots
Now the drones have a family
Now the drones have a dog
There’s so many drones, we all miss having cops
Yes life never stops, there’s no room to start over
Though we have deftly fashioned countless walls
Every thing that you want or you need or just hoped for
Is always round the corner, and just down the hall
We are tubes inside of tubes inside of tubes inside of more
We are a sinking ship that’s filled with valves, and pouches, switches, doors
A whirling servo for your heart-
It no longer beats, it hums
Every poem will be disposed of that once compared our hearts to drums
We are a hurricane that just built a fountain
A pile of rocks with an eye for the mountain
But keep your ears to the ground for the counting
For the number of hooves that are rumbling round it
Numb to the sound of the sirens surrounding
For we will stretch ourselves further
Than we ever have before
And one day, there’s no doubt, we will snap
With our nose to the grindstone
We’ll all make our way
to the top, then collapse
For though we’ve imagined where it is we’re all headed-
We do not yet know where we stand
The future can’t hold for us a promise, my friend
It’s a ghost with a pair of clouds for hands
Yes the future isn’t waiting there for us-
It is quietly being pulled through us
It’s an illustration of our secret ways
and yet we cannot say who drew us
For as soon as the word is pronounced
There’s a parade!
The new product arrives!
In your ear
On your finger
Up your nose
In your eyes
Yes we’ve figured out a way to make you all feel MORE alive
(side effects may include
shortness of breath
thoughts of suicide or death
but most likely just
You’ll be a walking coral reef
You’ll be the tide pools filled with teeth
You’ll be a mouth that’s always chewing
You’ll be a tongue that’s underneath it all
You’ll be the roof, the ceiling, and all the papered walls
You’ll be prefixed
As they watch you
And poke you
And cut you
And shoot ya
Let us mend every seam with some sutures
Let them sew up the holes in your life with the future
But who are we inside of this thing that we’ve built?
We’re a bowl full of milk that’s about to be spilt
For there is always a storm that is coming
The word on the tip of all tongues now is fear
We’d all love to cry out, but we’re too filled with doubt
That’s no diamond, my friend, it’s a tear
That’s no animal, in fact-
No we’ve all just learned
each of them is a sentient being
Why there’s so many facts
That are all in the past
It’s unbelievable- the things that we weren’t seeing
It turns out that Reiki is real
And meditation’s no longer a joke
We’ve all been such fools, but now we teach it in the schools
And yes the hippies are all pretty stoked
And the universe, it just so happens,
Is just the way Tesla found it-
It’s all about frequencies… and vibrations….. and things
We just had to wrap our little heads around it
Yes, we still don’t like the unknown
We need to have things defined
We want our world to make sense
We like it when nature rhymes
Even if only slightly
Even if we must bend
What we see and we hear to fit the means to our end
We all just spend our lives
Trying to overcome our births
Trying to get along with Death
And then untie ourselves from Earth
Now we vacation on the moon
And yes, we’ve flown beyond the stars
And can you guess where I just sent this from?
I’ll give you a hint- It’s Mars
Now we can grow your bones for you
And buildings build themselves, for free
But there’s still work for you to do:
You must remember how to be-
Just like the ocean when it’s thinking
Just be that storm that’s always brewing
You’re an idea
Just one idea
Of what one person on earth could be doing
And what animal doesn’t love
Going out to chase wonder?
Only to learn of the lightning
just before there is thunder?
Look above you- it’s raining
Look around- there’s a flood
Who can say when it started,
but now the ghost is in our blood
We can only move forward
Only turn back for a time
Now the only sacred space left
In the world
Is our mind
And it’s running away with itself and the others
Like the wind through the trees-
Phantom sisters and brothers
Have gone the way of the bees
And the birds and the lovers
Yes they’ve all been drawn and quartered
A million horses left the track
The future will take your mind off of itself-
So I suggest you start stealing it back
For our time here, like the twilight
Is precious and fading
And while there’s certainly nothing new under the sun-
Under the moon, there is waiting
Good day and good luck and good bye
Oh that’s right,
I nearly forgot-
Everyone in the future says Hi
Did you know that across the United States, cameras are automatically taking pictures of your car’s license plate as you drive by, recording your plate number and your locations over time? In a chilling talk given at TEDGlobal 2014, civil liberties lawyer and TED Fellow Catherine Crump called attention to the ubiquity of mass surveillance technology currently being deployed without public awareness, laws governing its use or privacy policies regulating what happens to the data being collected. (Watch the talk, “The small and surprisingly dangerous detail the police track about you.”)
Crump tells the TED Blog more about her work, and the technologies that are quietly threatening the privacy and civil liberties of innocent people.
You are a civil liberties lawyer with many different strands to your work, but in the talk you gave at TEDGlobal, you focused on automatic license plate reader technology. Why did you choose that topic?
I think it is commonly understood now that the National Security Agency is engaged in the mass surveillance of entire populations. But I don’t think people realize that local police departments often have very powerful mass surveillance technology as well, and I wanted to be able to focus attention on that. At the moment, many people don’t understand this technology, its ubiquity and how it’s being used. People often don’t realize that if you drive a car in the United States, you’re most likely being tracked by license plate readers, and that photographs of you are being taken and stored on a regular basis.
How does it work, and what’s it for?
The license plate reader takes pictures of every passing car, stores the photographs, and converts the plates into machine-readable text to extract the license plate numbers. That plate number can be checked against a hot list of cars — for instance, cars associated with someone who’s wanted for a crime. That part is unobjectionable. It’s good for the police to be able to automatically tell when a car goes by whether it’s been stolen, for example.
The problem is when law enforcement agents then engage in the mass retention of all the plate data the readers collect — whether or not it pertains to people who may be involved in wrongdoing. You end up with what is essentially a massive tracking database that gathers information about innocent people. The vast majority of us are innocent. Allowing the government to collect massive quantities of information about everyone opens the door to abuse.
A City of Alexandria police car equipped with mobile automatic license plate readers. mounted on the trunk. Photo: Something Original
But what could anyone really do with that information that would hurt us?
That information can be abused in a number of ways. Where people go is very revealing. In most parts of the United States, you cannot get anywhere without driving a car. So if you want to go to your therapist or an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting or to church, all your movements can be tracked. And your movements reveal the types of things you value.
Another reason for concern is that the government has abused information about private citizens in the past, to engage in surveillance. I’m thinking specifically of J. Edgar Hoover, under whom the government collected personal information and used it for political purposes. Unregulated data can be used for political reprisals, for blackmail, or even for simple voyeurism. That’s not something the American public should tolerate.
Traditionally we live in a government of limited powers, and the idea has been that the government only investigates people when they are suspected of wrongdoing. Technology like this almost reverses the presumption and tracks everyone just in case the information may be useful someday. I don’t think that’s in keeping with the limited view of government power that we’ve traditionally had.
Realistically, what can we do?
I think one problem is that often, even local city councils doesn’t know that their police departments have acquired this technology. At the very least, we need rules that say if you’re going to acquire a surveillance technology, local government needs to know about it, and there should be policies in place that govern how it can be used.
In the case of automatic license plate readers, the good news is that it would be fairly straightforward for policies to allow fair use of the technology for law-enforcement purposes while simultaneously protecting people’s civil liberties. That’s why I think it’s useful to focus on this issue. It can be win-win for everyone.