It seems every day I meet someone in the community who’s spearheading something truly innovative and visionary. If only I could come up with these ideas and lay them out in a way that seems so easy and doable. Well, not everyone is a genius, but everyone knows how to share, (at least I hope), so here”s to sharing what Sam Smith of thesymbiosisproject.org and lonelydinosaur.com has drafted as a way to show us that together, we have the ability to build a more peaceful, abundant, beautiful world, one neighborhood at a time. And man, with a name and a vision like this, I think Sam should run for mayor!
This is a true story. It all started one week from today.
After reading about it on the internet, a single person in a neighborhood in Portland, OR, decided to start a community beer-brewing co-op. He gathered a group of eight neighbors, and together they bought the equipment to brew 30 gallons of beer for $500. They went up and down 3 blocks, and found 45 people who also wanted to drink and brew beer with them. Here’s how it worked. They asked for $30-100 a month, sliding scale, and in return, the members all got a “share” of one growler (4 pints) once a week at the weekly brew session. At $30 a month that was only $1.88 a pint for delicious home-brewed beer, brewing lessons, access to expensive brewing equipment. But most importantly, it was an excuse to get together every week with neighbors over a few drinks. Folks who couldn’t make it to the brew sessions got their growlers delivered to their door the next day.
It turned out that everyone in the community was strapped for cash, so everyone just paid the minimum amount, $30 a month, and even still they collectively raised $1350! The ingredients cost $400 a month for 120 gallons, and the brew equipment cost $500 the first month, so in just the first month, the group had created a surplus of $450, and still had 30 gallons of beer left over even after they gave all the members their growlers. So at the end of the month, they decided to throw a big block party, and invited all their neighbors, whether or not they were part of the coop, to have dinner in the middle of the street and discuss how they wanted to spend their surplus!
During the discussion, one thing that kept coming up is that everyone felt they were paying too much for internet. One member of the community happened to be interested in networks, and offered to use the $450 to buy routers and set them up as a free community WiFi network. For $350 a month, he proposed, they could buy a high speed business internet connection, which could provide fast internet service to everyone on the street! It turned out this would save all 45 households in the neighborhood $30 a month! So during the second month, the wifi network was installed, and another $1000 was raised from the beer brewing.
By the third month, they had raised $1000 from the second month, $1000 from the third, and were now collectively saving $1000 a month on internet. Now they had $3000 a month to work with as a community. Another neighbor had had solar panels installed by Solar City the previous year, and remembered that they offered solar panels for zero money upfront. They made their money by owning the panels and selling the electricity back to the grid, and offering slightly cheaper electricity to the customer, saving the customer $5-10 a month for 15 years. They also offered $400 for referrals. So the neighbor mentioned it to his neighborhood, and, since he didn’t want anyone to think he was trying to sell them something, he said that if anyone got panels and referred him, he’d pitch the referral to the neighborhood fund instead of keeping it for himself.
Panels don’t work on all houses, but out of 45 houses, five of the households did end up getting solar panels, and they all put their referral bonuses towards the community fund, adding an additional $2000!
With weekly brew sessions and monthly community gatherings in the street, the community began to get closer socially, building trust and mutual understanding. Not everyone was best friends, but people generally understood where their neighbors were coming from. At one of the community meetings, someone suggested that they all sign up for Getaround.com. Getaround.com is a car sharing program, that allows neighbors to share their cars. They charge a fee that covers full insurance while the car is borrowed, so the owner is covered if anything happens. They try it out, and find that it meets their needs for transportation. A few folks who had cars no longer need them, because it’s much cheaper to simply rent the cars from their neighbors at a low rate. Owning and maintaining a car costs an average of $6000 a year. Every person who was able to get rid of their car on the block saved $500 a month!
Sharing food and cars and beer (but not at the same time) eventually brought the community close enough to start talking about hard topics. At a community dinner, one community member admitted that she had lost her job, and was facing foreclosure on her house because she was unable to make her payments. The community decided to work out an agreement to keep her in her house. The community agreed to rent the house from her, covering her mortgage payments, and in exchange she got to stay in the house and bake bread for everyone in the community, something she loved to do anyway, while she looked for another job. She also offered up an open room in her house as a bunk room, so people could come in live for free in exchange for doing community work, like WWOOFing. The community began accepting applications for people to live in the house for free in exchange for doing the work they are passionate about.
Some students from Concordia University and PCC Cascade, studying urban planning, permaculture, and engineering, heard about this opportunity and applied to their faculty sponsors to receive credit to work as interns, to apply their studies and ideas directly where they live.
One of the students was passionate about bikes and engineering, and offered to build the community a fleet of open-source hybrid electric tricycles, which are electric assist, able to carry groceries and other cargo, and weather enclosed so they are comfortable to ride in the Portland rain. They meet all legal standards of a bike. With $3000, one month’s surplus, he was able to build 4 of these, that the community can check out at any time. In addition, by then a few more neighbors had realized that they work near to each other, and had started carpooling to work. This, coupled with Getaround, made it so a few more folks could stop owning cars without compromising their transportation needs at all.
Now that there were significantly fewer cars on the block, the neighbors noticed that they had much more space to meet and play during their monthly community block parties. One of the students, studying city planning, proposed to the community the idea of a Street Vacation Permit- a legal permit that allows the residents of a neighborhood to close their shared street, and own it collectively in trust.
This permit costs $5000, but the community already had that money put away. It takes a lot of work, but the student volunteered to bottom-line the project for school credit. So they began the process, and began planning what they will do with their new communal space. One of their neighbors turned out to be an architect, and another turned out be a contractor, and so they work with the students to create a plan.
The plan closed the street to car traffic, and left 4 parking spaces on either side for community shared cars. It also left a single, 8 foot wide common area large enough for one car to drive down the middle, so that firetrucks and emergency vehicles could enter if necessary. A community kitchen was planned in the middle, with a bread/pizza oven, biogas stove, and beer brewing kettles. EPDM rubber was laid down over the pavement, since it was much cheaper than tearing up the concrete and allowed the neighborhood the option of changing their minds about closing the street. That left 400×32 feet, almost 13,000 square feet of community space, most of which was dedicated to growing food. The sides of the street were lined with gravel-filled beds that ebbed and flowed with water from aquaponics systems- symbiotic systems of plants and fish, which created a source of hyper local meat and fresh produce for the community. The edges of these beds served as community benches where people could gather and talk.
At 6 foot intervals along the street, guide poles were laid. Almost invisible during the summer, in the fall they allowed large bent metal poles to be installed easily, spanning the length of the street. These were covered with a reusable greenhouse sheeting. Installing the greenhouse every year took about a day, and so the community eventually made a festival out of it, celebrating the Fall Equinox on October 21st by raising the greenhouse during the day and eating underneath in the evening, celebrating the shelter and warmth it will provide during the rainy months. In the Spring, they had a festival for removing it in the spring, celebrating the return of the sun.
After having filed for multiple block party permits, the street vacation permit, and following all city and federal laws up to that point, the community was well known by the city government, and viewed as a model of urban sustainability. Now they had hit on something beyond they law, so, working with ReCode and the City of Portland, they installed the first communally owned neighborhood biodigester system, basing it on the new model of performance-based municipal code, as opposed to the outdated technology-based code model. This meant that as long as the system met and continued to meet the agreed upon standards for safety and performance, it could be based on any technology, quickening the pace off innovation and adoption.
The biodigester allowed for all of the neighborhood’s kitchen waste, food scraps, rotting fruit, and even food scraps from surrounding neighborhoods and restaurants to be converted by methanogenic bacteria into clean-burning methane fuel that could be substituted for natural gas. The effluent from the biodigester was simply water with dissolved nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous- a perfect liquid fertilizer! This allowed for the addition of even more aquaponic grow beds, and the production of more vegetables.
Once the biodigester was installed, one of the students hit on a novel approach to heating and lighting the greenhouse during the winter. A second hoop greenhouse was build over the first, with an air gap of 2 feet. The methane from the biodigester was piped through cheap gas lantern mantles, producing pure bright white light, clean CO2, and heat. As the sun went down during the winter, the light from the mantles extended the growing time for the plants by providing supplemental light. The CO2 coming out of the burning mantles passed through heat exchanging pipes within the greenhouse, cooling it down to room temperature while heating the greenhouse, and finally pumped through soapy water. This produced a fine, CO2-filled foam that filled the space between the two greenhouses. CO2 is a greenhouse gas that absorbs infrared light strongly. Water also absorbs IR very strongly, while the white foam reflects visible light. So the net effect was cheap artificial lighting that required no electricity and created an efficient insulation, all while processing the community’s solid waste into a useable fertilizer.
Since the students were working for credit, the community and their faculty advisors required them to show their work. The community required that all of the work the students did be made available for free to the whole world, using a decentralized system of information sharing called “Federated Wikis”- wiki’s that are hosted on servers that are decentralized all over the world, and automatically connect and reference each other when they are connected to the internet. So the project was extensively documented on a wiki page. The community installed a cheap, open-source Raspberry Pi microcontroller to monitor the inputs and outputs of the system- recording things like temperature, pressure, pH, flow volumes of influent and effluent, methane to carbon dioxide ratios, retention times etc. This micro-controller automatically updated data points to the wiki page in realtime, making it’s data available on the internet, along with specific designs, specifications, and materials lists so that anyone in the world could see the performance of the system and learn how to build it themselves and submit it to the same tests.
Due to the success of the project, several other groups from around the world decided to try and build the biodigester systems based on the community’s design. Naturally, each made adjustments based on new ideas, and make-shift adaptations due to the restraints of the materials they had around. It turned out that one of the groups, in India, made a novel design change that lowered the amount of electricity needed to pump water through the system, and another group, in Peru, happened to find that their culture of bacteria produced much more methane faster at the same temperature. They both linked their projects to the original project, so that people could now access not only the plans and performance data of the original biodigester, but the second iterations built by others, and compare their performance.
Back in Portland, the original neighborhood excitedly watched these developments. They could see the pictures and data from the other projects and compare them to their own, but the found that the team in India had written their documentation in Bengali, and the team in Peru had written their documentation in Spanish. Within 2 weeks, however, these projects had been automatically translated from their original languages into English, due to the use of an innovative platform called DuoLingo. This harnessed the power of millions of language-learners around the world to translate these projects in every language, for free, while teaching people how to communicate better with other humans and keeping a diversity of languages alive in the face of an emerging global culture.
After the projects were translated, a fourth group was able to build on the new innovations and integrated the new culture of bacteria, and the new pump system, creating a new hybrid system that outperformed all the previous models.
This model of innovation was so successful, that communities around the world began using it to document their permaculture and sustainability projects, so that the entire world could easily find, replicate, share, modify, and improve them, all using standardized tests and measurements for performance, and rapidly being translated into every language. The federated wikis required to share this information, could be hosted and run on open-source Raspberry Pi’s- $30 micro computers that can be powered by solar or bicycle and connected to the internet at long range using shortwave radio.
In addition to federated wikis, the boxes also served as mesh-net routers, and hosted a federated social networking platform called *Diaspora. *Diaspora allows users to own their data, instead of selling it to Facebook, and it allows them to follow hashtags based on their specific interests. Using hashtags, users were then able to fill a social feed with projects from around then entire world, specifically tailored to their particular needs, interests, skills, and passions. It also allowed people with similar interests to find each other and collaborate on large projects by breaking up the R&D into small bits and each doing their part.
Projects could be replicated, and result compared. Improvements could be iterated, and claims could be confirmed. Like open source software, only techniques that had had their performance claims confirmed by independent groups were considered “Stable”. Techniques that had not been substantiated or replicated were considered “Experimental”.
The students leading these groups found that by documenting their work and making it open-source for the entire world to see, review, and replicate, they had recreated peer review in a form that was accessible to all people on earth, free of the for-profit University and Journal systems. The students found that since their work and achievements were immediately available on the internet, they could reference them as proof of mastery of skills and concepts, from engineering, to programming, to construction and design. They found that these documented projects reflected their applied knowledge and skills better than the outdated model of resumes and degrees, and they began pursuing projects as a form of education and reputation building, educating themselves and building careers outside of the debt-based education system.
The interns and students, since they had no other jobs, began engaging the children from the neighborhood in community problem solving as a form of education, using the challenges facing the community as projects and challenging them to apply their learned concepts critically. Children and teenagers, with unlimited access to the internet, were encourage to research problems on their own, and come up with their own solutions. The student mentors did not need to be experts, but simply guides to help the children find and utilize the information needed to problem-solve.
During one of these projects, one of the teenagers in the neighborhood, who was interested in programming, realized that once the data points from several technologies were established and confirmed, it was possible to model the performance of the systems in computer simulations. Just as she had observed in the aquaponics system that fed the neighborhood, the outflows of one system could always be made the inflows of another. By using maximization algorithms, she was able to find out the most efficient combinations of all the open-source technologies on the world-wide federated wiki network and discover new ways to fit them together in continuous cycles, creating plug and play, regenerating ecosystems designed to meet the specific human needs of any community and environment, entirely eliminating the concept of waste.
This led to a worldwide open-source innovation revolution, where the performance of all new micro-scale innovations were documented in a standardized format, and added to a database, with which users could simulate the performance of different combinations of techniques, that would utilize the flows of energy they had in abundance (solar energy, water, wind, decomposition, etc) and use them to drive ecosystems that met all of the needs of the community. Open-source laser sintering 3D printers that could print in metal, glass, ceramic, plastic, and graphene became widely available, allowing for specialized parts for systems could be fabricated immediately in every community, and new, improved parts, were constantly available for download, much like software updates are now.
Innovation on this scale allowed for the utilization of the vast resources of human ingenuity to tackle local problems and generate many different solutions. The computer simulations of the combinations of these solutions closed the gap of linear consumption, and ended the incentives to participate in linear consumption that did not feed resources back into the community. These naturally regenerating cycles created an abundance of food, clean water, energy, information, and technology, allowing the Earth to sustain a high standard of living for all 9 billion of it’s human inhabitants. The open-source model of innovation led to a global sense of brotherhood, since each community gifted it’s solutions in good faith, without forcing their ideologies or assumptions on any other community.
This innovation liberated 9 billion thinking, dancing, loving, exploring, laughing, striving human beings to spend their time exploring their connections with each other, the natural world, their own consciousness, and the things that sparked their passions, ending the age of competition and beginning the next chapter in the never-ending story of the evolution of consciousness.