Green Tech: Unlocking the Power of Play

Jessica O. Matthews and Julia Silverman are on a mission to show the world that the value of play can not only be measured in smiles but in very real economic and social terms.  Both Harvard students had volunteered traveled extensively in Africa and also shared a passion for soccer: the continent’s (and the world’s) most popular game.  In an engineering class they got the chance to marry these two passions, capitalizing on an opportunity to improve living conditions in African through the continent’s love of soccer.
What does such an ambitious project look like?  A sOccket, a small generator cleverly disguised as a soccer ball that charges as you play with it!  Three hours of LED illumination is stored in the sOccket per every half hour of playtime.  It can also charge small electronic devices like a cell phone.

This ingenious solution isn’t just making an economic impact by delivering renewable light energy to many rural areas.  There are important health benefits as well because most of the developing world still relies on on kerosene lamps that pose huge safety hazards: the fumes inhaled by children in kerosene-light homes is equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.

The sOccett vs. huge public health threats is been a game that’s garnered the attention of an international audience.
Today there are more than 6,000 sOcckets “kicking around”, literally, from Africa to Mexico to Brazil.  Uncharted Play, the organization founded by Matthews and Silverman to distribute their product received overwhelming support from corporate sponsors principally because of how easily and effectively the tool integrates into daily life.  As Matthews explained, “Why don’t we give you something that you already like to do and get what you need.”

And sOccket has yet another a new fan, President Obama.  During his recent trip to Africa his team set to work distributing the item to many African nations and on a tour of a facility that manufacturers the ball he even showed off some of his soccer skills! A huge goal for the two Harvard girls who knew just how powerful play could be.

Tech News: Cybercafes Get A New Interface

While the cybercafé has grown increasingly rare in North America, in many developing nations it remains the gateway to the Internet and a gathering place integral to community life.  Such is the case in many African nations where these local cafés are still very relevant and the standard way to get online.

The typical scene in these cafes is a crowded one, both with people and bulky computer units that that serve a very limited number of users at a time given the space and energy they require.  Internet connection is often slow, machines unreliable and energy costs huge.

The system could be much more efficient for customers and owners alike. Which is why Google is rethinking the “user interface”, not of a new digital software but of the physical space of the internet cafe.  What, exactly does this look like?  A tablet café.  By replacing desktops with tablets the entire experience of getting online has been transformed for locals in Dakar, where Google is piloting the program.

The first major advantage of the program is economic: tablet cafés make good business sense.  Owners stand to save a significant amount of revenue on electricity, savings that Google Africa hopes, “can be reinvested in faster connectivity to bring in more customers.”

From a social-change standpoint, potential benefits of the program are even greater.  Though customers do not own the tablets, the impact of putting cutting edge technologies into the hands of under-served populations is immeasurable.   Customers emerge with something much more valuable than a tablet: technological literacy that corresponds with some of the most advanced devices and operating systems in the world.  The potential for the democratization through knowledge here is huge.

Finally, from a community building perspective the physical layout tablets afford is inherently more social and much closer to that of a traditional cafe.  Rather than hunched over in separate cubicles customers can sit comfortably on couches, chat and share with total ease.

Do you think tablet cafes are the future face of internet access in the developing world? Can the barriers to sustainability of the program be overcome? Share your thoughts with us!

Sandy and Sustainability: Defining Resilience

Summertime at the boardwalk: melting Popsicles, sea salt in the air, freckled shoulders, and long, sun-drenched days stretching into nights illuminated by arcade lights and the crack of a firework across the sky.

There a few scenes as quintessentially American, as East Coast, as New York.

The shore is a beloved piece of our identity and one of the reasons that the devastation caused by super storm Sandy was so painful.  The now iconic image of the Seaside Heights’ Star Jet roller coaster in washed out into the grey waters of the Atlantic perhaps best encapsulates the loss of joy and innocence Sandy inflicted: that which was sacred, larger-than-life, reduced to driftwood and debris.

The recovery process has been an arduous one for private citizens and communities alike.  For those on the shore the summer’s opening weekend, Memorial Day, was the goal everyone was striving towards, the light on the horizon. With summer now upon us, all their herculean rebuilding efforts finally on display! 

One of these most interesting acts of resilience has been the redesign of the system of lifeguard stands that dotted the New York coastline and were nearly all destroyed. City architects took this challenge as an opportunity to reimaging the stands and go above and beyond when it comes to sustainability as well as functionality.

A regular overhaul of this scope would take up to two years but this was an eight -month challenge from design to unveiling. The units were built in modules and each includes an office, public washroom and ample office space. Sustainability and flood resistance were at the center of the design. Therefore, the structures rely on solar heat, photovoltaics, and skylight ventilators, boast a net zero energy system and are elevated above FEMA’s most recent storm surge number. Nineteen new stations are now up and running.

Perhaps the most moving detail is the city architects’ use of boardwalk planks that were salvaged from Sandy’s destruction. In a seamless integration of reuse and remembrance, the summers on the shore will always carry with them a piece of their essence and a token resilience.

Sustainable Living: The Incredible, Edible World

We often think of wealthy, urban centers as the crucibles of change in sustainable living. We think of cities as the place where the world’s innovators, and the necessary capital, collide and ideas become real.  We also tend to think that social change proliferates, dilutes and finally trickles down into smaller communities.  Well, the people of Todmorden, West Yorkshire, (a market town in Northern England) have a word for this ideology: bologna.
This small community of around 14,000 began a project in 2008 that is now shaping the way world leaders see sustainable agriculture and, just like their growing practices, the change was from the ground up! These motivated citizens did not wait for politicians, or the next urban zeitgeist, they simply got to work.
What work exactly?  The project is in essence an community gardening venture established by Pamela Warhurst, Mary Clear and a group of neighbors. Incredible Edible Todmorden aims to connect residents through local food-based activism and promote a world of kindness, both towards each other and the environment.
The word “homegrown” describes the fruits of the town’s labor, but it also encapsulates the flare with which they have executed the project.  According to Warhust, there were no action plans, no proposals and “we sure didn’t ask anybody’s permission.”  This spirited-roll up your sleeves-playfulness permeates every aspect of the project: from what they call “propaganda gardening” (planting corn stalks in front of the police station) to their beloved “sprouting cemeteries” (where they the soil they say, is very rich!).  In Todmorden there is none of the calculated, media-combed, dryness that is more and more germane to gross roots movements.
The three pillars of their project are simple: community, education and business. They believe that, if they can keep all these plates spinning, they will be sustainably self-sufficient.  The project started as a seed swap and has grown exponentially.  Volunteers have created vegetable tourism and an edible path tour of the town.  The local high school now teaches horticulture and local farmers have seen their profits increase so much they can now move into other areas like cheese and beer manufacturing.
In Incredible Edible Todmorden the motto is simple “If you eat, you’re in.”  And, as a result, the idea is spreading fast.  There are now more than 30 Incredible Edible towns worldwide from England to America, Japan to New Zealand.  People are getting a taste of this small town’s genius and coming back for seconds!

The Giants of Iowa: Reuse, Re-rigged

The world of reuse is sometimes relegated to all things tiny: tiny homes, tiny devices, tiny art.  But in Iowa reuse is going not just big, its going gigantic, 8 stories to be exact!  That’s because in the middle of Iowa’s rolling farmlands there is, surprisingly, a mountain climber’s paradise where a number of unused grain silos have been converted into ice climbing walls.

In the fall of 2001 Don Briggs, a professor and climbing enthusiast, was helping a friend till his farmland in the municipality of Ceder Falls when he made a bet that he could scale one of the silos looming in the distance.  In the end, he won the bet and discovered that the most workable way to reach the peak was to ice climb it.

Briggs has now developed an intricate icing process by rigging hoses at the top of the structure which slow-drip downwards creating a semi-malleable wall of ice that changes depending on wind and weather conditions.

Since the silo opened for business it has attracted both beginners and experts alike and exposed a community famous for their flat farmlands to a taste of mountain life, close to home.  To learn more check out Silo Ice Climbing.

Sustainable Living – small homes making a world of difference

The compact housing movement has been a buzz phrase dominating both design and sustainable living literature for years now. There are small house awards, organizations, a documentary, coffee table books and thousands of blog posts. But believe it or not, there is still something different to be said for minimalist structures that doesn’t have to do with hip urbanites on a space diets! Small homes have now moved into the forefront to community rebuilding efforts, most recently in disaster-stricken Haiti.

The types of homes making a mark are known as Earthbags, a name derived from the building blocks of the structures: earth, manure or concrete-filled sandbags that stack securely, essentially like Lego, to make construction an cinch. Though Earthbags have taken on many shapes the original prototype, developed by Iranian-American architect Nader Khalili, has a distinct beehive shape. The houses have become infamous also for their surprising strength. Earthbags are fire, flood and earthquake resistant, they also stand up to violent surroundings (a sad reality common among disaster zones where many struggle to procure bare necessities long after the event itself) and are blast and bullet resistant.

Spearheading the proliferation and production efforts in Barriere Jeudi, Haiti is Konbit Shelter. “A group of artists, builders, architects, and engineers, who, after the January 2010 earthquake, asked ‘how we could use our skills and resources to directly assist another community in a time of crisis?’ Konbit Shelter is a sustainable building project with the objective of sharing knowledge and resources through the creation of homes and community spaces in post earthquake Haiti.”

One of the huge advantages of the project is that it is ongoing and provides secure employment for many locals (as much as a third of the budget goes towards the salaries of the workers) while also equipping them with the construction knowledge to build their own homes at a very low cost yet with quality materials. Thanks to a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign (raising over $30,000!) the organization will be back on the ground this spring to break ground another community building. Keep tabs on the progress at Konbit Shelter’s site and blog.

Sustainable Living: How Chicago Streets Just Got Sweeter

Chicago is discovering that an apple a day doesn’t just keep the doctor away. It turns out that more fruit, of all kinds, keeps other societal ills at bay, like unemployment and obesity. This month the city is beginning to see the fruits of a partnership between Neighbor Capital (a grass-roots organization which aims to facilitate sustainable solutions to the challenges of health, jobs, and green spaces in marginalized communities) and StreetWise (a social program that offers “a hand up, not a handout” to the homeless and at risk population, traditionally though the sale of StreetWise Magazine). The organizations have teamed-up to create Neighbor Cards, mobile fruit stands that simultaneously fight unemployment and promote access to healthy, fresh produce.

The Neighbor Carts are stainless steel, very well designed and the leases are affordable. But it doesn’t stop there: StreetWise has also set up a training program for those looking to create job opportunities for themselves. Upon completing the fruit stand training, graduates receive tax ID numbers, their own licenses and even private bank accounts to manage their funds and revenue. Furthermore, with increased financial literacy education, the hope is that this will lay the groundwork for such individuals to find other business opportunities in the future. According to Treehugger, it is estimated that each fruit stand will create three jobs.

This fruit revolution was made possible by changes at the governmental level when summer legislation approved fruit stands (yes, they were formally illegal, if you can believe it). This came about as part of an effort to better serve the 450,000 city residents living in “food deserts”, where fresh fruit and vegetables are not available within walking distance. The ordnance mandates that no limit be placed on the number of licenses given to aspiring, entrepreneurial, fruit stand operators.

For the time being, those working with The Neighbor Carts are partnered with Chicago wholesalers as their produce source, but hopefully as the program expands venders can establish their own relationships with independent, local food sources like roof-top farms or community gardens.

At ExchangeMyPhone we couldn’t be happier to see the social-impact business model taking root in Chicago streets: the more the business grows, the greater the social good, and everybody benefits.

Sustainable Living: The Highline’s hidden track

Posted on October 22, 2012 | Community building, eco-economy, Re-use, Recycling

There’s still some apples growing in the Big Apple, and no, not on an urban garden rooftop. Somewhere less expected. They’re on the third, still-unfinished section of the gem of the West side, the New York City Highline. You might know and love the Highline, but what you may not know is that there still remains a third half-mile stretch that is yet to be “parkifyed.” This third section of track lies, just as the original parts did in the ’80′s and 90′s, virtually untouched. The new refurbishments will extend the Highline park to 34th street.

Just over a decade ago the Highline was an city relic, known only to urban explorers, daring photographers, curious neighbors and stubborn wild grass. Residents thought it was an eye-sore and mayor Giuliani and other administrations promised its demolition (the structure was protected through awareness raised by railroad enthusiast Peter Obletz and photographers like Joel Sternfeld).

But thankfully the railroad endured. The world-class Highline park now stands (or better said, suspends) as a reminder of the power of reuse and reinvention, one most innovative public spaces in New York City and the country.

But, if there’s an urban explorer in you wishing you could have seen it pre-makeover, you’re in luck. Earlier this month the unfinished section was opened to 1,600 very savvy folks who registered months in advance to visit the area as part of Uniqlo‘s Rail Yards Weekends. If you were not among them, not to worry. You can still get a peak at the self-seeded landscape that originally inspired “Friends of the Highline” to turn the area into a park: wildflowers, apple trees and all.

The Highline extension will be opened to the public officially in 2014.

Killer cooking

Sometimes the most important tech advances are the most simplistic.

When you think of the dangers facing the current population of Haiti, the consequences of charcoal and wood burning cooking probably wouldn’t make the top, or bottom, of your list. However, this is a serious health threat that kills nearly two million people a year worldwide through upper respiratory infections and other dangers of open-flame cooking. The victims are almost entirely women and children. All over the world millions of people rely on such food preparation techniques, the sum of which has both global health and environmental consequences. Deforestation in Haiti has become so out of control that only small parts of the once densely forested country remain.

To put a stop to this, Colorado-based non-profit Trees Water & People has designed a safe, efficient cookstove and put it in the hands of thousands of Haitians. Which, on its own is wonderful, but the reason why ExchangeMyPhone thinks this organization goes above and beyond is their mission statement. TWP has taken a community-based approach to sustainable development, they really mean it. All the cookstoves was developed and constructed in Haiti (creating jobs and decreasing transit pollution). Furthermore, the cookstoves developed by TWP are cheaper than purchasing charcoal, or maintaining a traditional wood-burning stove. The final product of the Haitian program is aptly called Zanmi Pye Bwa, Friend of the Trees, in Haitian creole.

But TWP isn’t’ stopping with Haiti, in fact they have already developed country-specific stoves for Uganda, Nicaragua, and Honduras. All these stoves are developed and manufactured using the same process and practices with an essential focus on local growth. The stoves themselves reflect the resources, environments, values, innovation and culture of the countries from which they come, and thus, the three stoves are markedly different: as different as the dishes they are used to prepare.


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Why spend when you can lend?

Posted on April 16, 2012 | Community building, eco-economy, Re-use, Upcycle, Waste less

With victory gardens sprouting up everywhere, the modern public is well aware that we have much to learn from our penny-pinching ancestors.  So, if you’ve watered your tomato plants and are looking for another tried and true tradition of thrift why not start a lending library?

Yes, the libraries we know contain books, but there are so many other ways that the simple idea of sharing, through the model of a library, can serve the public.  For instance, many communities have opened tool libraries because, let’s face it, how often are you using that cordless drill that Dad bought you? Chances are you could spare it for an afternoon in return for some gardening gadgets this summer, or a step ladder when you tackle your spring cleaning, both items that your neighbors may have tucked away collecting dust.

Of course the central benefit of a lending library is that it saves money, just like breaking a hard-cover habit in favor of your local library or used book store.  But it doesn’t stop there. Lending also cuts down on consumption, preserving the energy it would have taken to either make another step ladder or break it down in the dump when you toss it out.  Finally, lending strengthens our sense of community and fosters trust and dialogue among neighbors, which we all could use much more of.

If starting your own lending library feels overwhelming, consider joining some of the pre-existing ones online. With a bit of searching, you can find people that are willing to rent out everything from baby shower décor to video games. Its also important to remember that lending, even on the smallest scale, is profitable. So, instead of rushing out to buy a new outfit for that special occasion, why not raid your best friend’s closet?

The final, and perhaps least obvious, commodity for lending is knowledge.  Rather than signing up for drumming lessons, why not just ask that guy down the street? Chances are he just might be looking for a ___________ (insert your specialty here) tutor as well. It is a lot cheeper than the alternative and you might even get a new friend thrown in for free!

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