Tag Archives: design

Recycling Rant – Mixed Materials

I know that recycling shouldn’t be our first line of defense to handle our waste streams, but it is something that can help divert materials from the landfill once they already have been created. But you wanna know what really grinds my gears? Mixed material food packaging. Sure, China’s National Sword cut a great big hole through US recycling efforts, but we can still recycle #1 and #2 plastics in most municipalities, and #5 if there’s a Whole Foods somewhere in your area.

If we want to encourage recycling though, we need it to be easy. People are busy, making their waste stream pretty low on their priority list. So, why on Earth would you make a dairy container out of #5 plastic and put a #2 lid on it? You took the time to make sure the two plastics looked identical for cohesive branding, but the only visual difference to the consumer is if they look at the little recycle triangle on BOTH parts of the package. Is this easy? NO! Store bought icing is even worse with its #5 or #2 body and #4 lid. Where the heck am I supposed to recycle a #4 that isn’t a plastic film like a bread bag?

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As engineers, I know we want to find the optimal solution for every component of a design, but for single-use containers, end-of-life needs to be high on that priority list. I’m not a food packaging engineer, but my hierarchy of design would go something like safety/preservation of food, taste impact, mechanical stability, and end-of-life. I’ll grant you that you can’t package in something that will impact taste or safety, but is that #2 lid really making enough of a difference in your product that it’s worth confusing people so you get #2 and #5 plastics mixed up in each other waste streams?

If you ARE a food packaging engineer, I’m begging you to please consider end of life when designing your products. We are on a finite planet, and because plastic is such a useful material, I would really love it if we could easily reclaim it for future use. Whether it’s particularly safe for contact with food or whether we really need so much of it is a whole ‘nother ball of wax. For today, please think through your material choices and try to find ways to make recycling easier.

Moving toward a zero waste, solarpunk, circular economy is high on my wish list for the world, and there’s plenty of research that shows that unless you make something easier than the alternative, people just don’t have the bandwidth. The onus is on the designer, not the consumer for this. We can do better – please do!

Is there anything you’ve run across that was packaged ridiculously? Let us know below!

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A Better Way to Pay

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As Adam Flynn said back in 2014, solarpunk takes infrastructure as a form of resistance. One of the biggest pieces of infrastructure that people interact with on a daily basis is payment systems. Payments aren’t as visible roads, or as tangible as housing, but decentralized, democratic payments are an important part of ensuring a brighter future.

We’re at a turning point for money. Since the middle ages, money has been controlled by the nation-state through fiat currency. The first experiments with digital-first money started in the 1980s, and we have seen an explosion in the availability of cryptocurrencies since the Bitcoin whitepaper was released in 2009. While Bitcoin hasn’t lived up to its original goal of being a replacement for fiat currency, it did revolt against the idea that only the state can create money.

Nation-states are now looking into developing crypto-fiat hybrids, and large corporate actors like Facebook are developing their own cryptocurrencies as well. The additional pressure of countries considering bans on cryptocurrencies that shield user identities makes me feel that governments see the danger that a truly decentralized monetary system would pose to their monopoly on power.

Brett Scott at Roar wrote about gentrification of payments from centralized issuers, “Put bluntly, digital payment facilitates a vast new frontier of financial surveillance and control, while also exposing users to new risks not present in the cash infrastructure.” He points out that the current trend for countries to emphasize digital (fiat) money over cash puts people’s finances increasingly into the hands of a small number of banks and state actors.

four assorted cryptocurrency coins

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I’ve previously touched on the subject of designing appropriate incentives into a monetary system, but for now I’m going to focus on how true digital cash could work. Bitcoin is the opposite of private since every transaction ever made with Bitcoin is recorded to its public ledger. Privacy coins allow for transactions to remain private by being recorded to the blockchain with the details obfuscated to all but those who performed the transaction. This has major benefits, particularly for the fungibility of a currency, which is a fancy way of saying that every unit of the money is created equal. For completely public blockchains like Bitcoin, certain Bitcoins may become “stained” due to their use in criminal activities in the past, meaning they may become harder to trade or spend than a “clean” Bitcoin. There is no such distinction between the status of a specific unit of Monero, for instance, since its past is unknown. The MimbleWimble protocol is a new blockchain which greatly simplifies the privacy aspects of a blockchain resulting in less power and data consumption.

The problem with most cryptocurrencies right now, however, is that they typically use what is called Proof of Work to verify transactions on the chain. Proof of Work burns large amounts of energy in an effort to “prove” the validity of the blockchain. Various other schemes have been developed to secure blockchain networks including Proof of Stake, Delegated Proof of Stake, and Proof of Cooperation. Proof of Cooperation was developed for FairCoin to enable a less energy-intensive verification method for blockchains. I think that a Proof of Cooperation-based MimbleWimble coin could provide the privacy and lower energy consumption that would be desirable for digital cash.

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This digital cash would restore the peer-to-peer nature of cash and avoid the data-mining perils of current digital payment companies like Visa or PayPal. It is still dependent on computing technology to work, which makes me feel like it would be less inclusive than actual cash. In an increasingly digital-first world, however, thoughtfully-designed cryptocurrencies will be more inclusive than the options designed by corporations or governments. For more on the subject of post-capitalist money, check out In each other we trust: coining alternatives to capitalism by Jerome Roos.

Money is often considered a taboo subject, but feel free to let us know your thoughts below. How do you think a separation of money and state could be liberating?

Why speculative fiction matters

woman reading a book

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When facing existential crises, it can be hard to see the point of things that aren’t directly related to the problem at hand. One thing that often comes under fire in times like these is fiction, both in books and other media. Even within fiction, scifi and fantasy have long been disparaged by “serious” academics since these realms of speculative fiction deal with fantastical elements that don’t exist. What these critics overlook, however, is the difference between truth and reality.

While elements of the political landscape are dedicated to obfuscating the truth, this isn’t what I’m talking about here. I’m referring to the ability of stories to separate all of our social and cultural baggage from important issues. Star Trek, for example, is known for holding up a mirror to the human condition and such important issues as racism, death, and war.

The other benefit of speculative fiction is stretching the imagination. As Einstein said, “No problem can be solved by the same kind of thinking that created it.” Fiction lets us see problems in a different light, whether they be social or technological in nature. Love it or hate it, the cellphone has its roots in science fiction, along with innumerable other technologies that now make up the fabric of daily life.

Most engineers and scientists I’ve met trace their interest in the sciences to scifi or fantasy. One of the main reasons I became an engineer was growing up with Star Trek: The Next Generation, Dinotopia, and other works of fiction. Asking ourselves “What if…” is the underlying principle of the scientific method, and it feeds our innate human curiosity about the world around us. Something doesn’t have to be “real” to help us explore what is true. So, even though the world is burning, take this as an invitation to think differently about the problem. The solutions to climate change just might be a fictional account away.

Is there a book or other story that influenced how you think about the world? Let us know below!

The Upcycle — A Review

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The Upcycle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart is the followup to Cradle to Cradle. Written in 2013, it brings a decade’s worth of new information and experience to the concept of Cradle to Cradle design thinking.

If you’re interested in the circular economy and can only read one book – this is it. There is a short section at the front that recaps the underlying principles of Cradle to Cradle systems in case you haven’t read the first book. While Cradle to Cradle was groundbreaking for the concept that we should design human industry to be a positive good for the environment, The Upcycle contains many more specific examples of projects where the authors were able to achieve these ends.

For example, in the book there is a story of Dan Juhl who pairs farmers with investors for building renewables on their land. The investors get a guaranteed return on their investment for ten years, and the energy generation equipment reverts to the farmers after this period. More renewables end up on the grid, and families get an additional source of income by owning the means of energy production.

The physical book itself is a nice counterpoint to the design of Cradle to Cradle. While Cradle to Cradle was designed to be reusable in technical nutrient cycles, The Upcycle is designed with biodegradable inks and paper so that it can become a biological nutrient again. One of the main ideas of Cradle to Cradle design is that things should be delineated into two separate nutrient streams: biological and technical. Wood, paper, and things of this nature can be reused as they would be in nature by returning to the land while technical materials like plastics and metals should be reclaimed for infinite technical cycles. Preventing the creation of “monstrous hybrids” is an important goal of the Cradle to Cradle design process. These materials are amalgamations of material that are difficult, if not impossible to separate and reuse. This is particularly harmful if the materials in these hybrids are toxic in nature. The book quotes McDonough, “Let’s put the filters in our heads and not at the end of pipes.”

The Upcycle is a breath of fresh air. McDonough and Braungart show how we can rethink the way we design everyday objects to fit into the constant cycles of Mother Nature and end the insanity of cradle-to-grave mentality. Cradle-to-Cradle design is definitely the way we should be thinking  when we design technologies and objects for our solarpunk future.

Do you use any Cradle to Cradle products in your life? What has your experience been? Let us know below!

Making it real…

As you may recall, I want to find ways to bring more practical solarpunk into my life and into the world. To that end, I purchased a Raspberry Pi 3 B+ kit made by Canakit. I’m hoping to explore some of the ideas I discussed regarding solarpunk phones and communications during the last few weeks. I’m not an electronics savant by any means, so we’ll see if my hobbyist level skills can cobble anything interesting together out of the kit.

Box containing a Raspberry Pi 3 B+ and breadboard for electronics experiments

On a related note, I also just ordered a new wifi-enabled wall switch to control the lights in our main living area. While that isn’t particularly solarpunk, I think reflashing the electronics to not be dependent on a third party service is. As sold, the switch requires downloading and using an app that sends data out to the web through servers owned by Samsung and then back to my apartment to control my lights. This is both creepy and seems silly since the lights are right above the voice assistant I’m using to control them. Why do I need servers hundreds of miles away involved in this conversation?

I’ve had good luck with the Sonoff-Tasmota firmware from GitHub for other smart home devices, and will be using the information from their wiki to attempt to reflash this new switch. Since it’s a totally different piece of equipment, I’m a little nervously optimistic about the results. If all goes well, the switch will only talk to my local network and the only connection to the outside world will be through Alexa.

Wifi-enabled smart switch with front cover removed. Green circuit board is exposed showing a TYWE3S wifi chip. Other components are hidden from view as they're on the back side of the board.

At some point, I’m hoping to switch to a more privacy-centric voice assistant like Mycroft or Snips, but getting all of my smart home devices other than my voice assistant to be local only should make the transition simpler once I do get that setup. The Raspberry Pi will be an important part of this transition as I’m hoping to begin testing Mycroft and/or Snips once I’ve gotten some of the basic input/output bits of the Pi figured out.

Raspberry Pi 3 B+ in transluscent plastic case

If all goes well, then I’ll try building a mobile voice assistant that can kick result data to a simple linked smartwatch like a Pebble. I sketched out a highly detailed schematic for your pleasure below.

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I’m not sure how hard the communication with a watch will be, but the first step will be getting the voice assistant going on the Raspberry Pi. After deciding which AI is better to work with then I’ll try adding battery power and watch communications.

What are some of the ways you are making solarpunk real? Let us know below!

Energy: A Human History – Review

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Energy: A Human History by Richard Rhodes chronicles the development of industrial power sources with a focus on the innovators and scientists who developed the technologies. Starting in Elizabethan England with none other than William Shakespeare, Rhodes weaves a compelling tale of the western world’s energy sources starting with the transition from wood to coal in 1600s Britain.

The book paints the picture of the industrialists we now love to hate as human beings with hopes, dreams, and failings. It can be hard to remember after so long that James Watt and Henry Ford were once actual, living beings, and that they had hoped to make the world a better place with their inventions.

Drawing from many primary sources, Rhodes has lifted many gems of what the people of the time found concerning about these new technologies. With references to coal as “the devil’s excrement,” and many other such epithets, one might wonder why such dirty fuels ever became predominant. As Rhodes points out in the book though, industrialization with coal and other fossil fuels led to a near doubling of human life span and a higher standard of living. Rhodes does devote a fair bit of the book to the work that various towns and nations did to combat the air quality problems associated with the use of fossil fuels to varying degrees of success.

Concerns were not just constrained to air quality. Safety of steam engines, locomotives, and automobiles were a great concern of the time. As to cars, we have definitely come out on the wrong end of that technology with many US cities being designed for cars instead of people, but some of the concerns for trains seem amusing now as this quote Rhodes found shows.

“What can be more palpably absurd and ridiculous,” asked a reviewer for London’s Quarterly Review who favored a plan for a railway to Woolwich, “than the prospect held out of locomotives traveling twice as fast as stagecoaches! We should as soon expect the people of Woolwich to suffer themselves to be fired off upon one of Congreve’s… rockets, as trust themselves to the mercy of such a machine going at such a rate… We trust that Parliament will, in all railways it may sanction, limit the speed to eight or nine miles an hour, which… is as great as can be ventured on with safety.”

If you are firmly anti-nuclear, the end of the book will not be to your liking. As a cautiously optimistic person regarding nuclear energy, I feel the author may be a bit nuke-happy. Many of his points in favor of nuclear base loads are legitimate, however. Current nuclear generation technologies have been shown by IPCC and NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory) analysts to have a carbon footprint similar to wind and solar. With many cities and states looking at 100% renewable commitments, including nuclear as a base load to counter the intermittency of renewable sources seems reasonable in geologically stable areas. Unfortunately, when states set “renewable” goals for their energy goals, they sometimes include waste incineration, which is both gross and bad for local air quality.

Beside its overly-western focus, the other main shortcoming of the book is its relatively light treatment of renewable technologies. There was very little regarding solar, hydro, and wind, and I’m not sure if geothermal was mentioned at all. I suspect that this was due to a desire of the author to focus on the technologies that were the primary drivers of industrialization. Regardless, I think this is a good treatment of the subject of modern industrial energy sources and the people who brought them to fruition.

Do you have any recommendations for other books about energy generation or transmission? Let us know below!

Solarpunk Phones Part 4: Magic

woman reading a book

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[This is Part 4 of a series of posts. Here are links to Part 1: Repair, Part 2: Decentralize, and Part 3: Design.]

Despite marketing jargon, I don’t think that we’ve yet reached the point where our technology is “magical.” A cave person might feel differently, but smartphones, computers, and televisions are clearly tools in my eye. There are a few exceptions, but I want devices that more elegantly flow with our lives instead of us molding our behavior around the device.

In stories, magic feels more like an extension of the being wielding the power. Even when the power source isn’t from within the individual, magic is still channeled through the magic user, so they must be in tune with it, but not consumed by it.

Technology that “just works” is a step in the right direction, since few things are as un-magical as having to reinstall drivers. I think we can go farther though. For me, at least, it’s easy to get lost in the technology itself and lose sight of the end goal of the tech. To be truly magical, I think the device and interface need to melt away so we can focus on the real reason we’re using it. At their core, smartphones are devices for communication. How do we make meaningful communication with those we care about easier?

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Take the pencil. As long as it’s sharp, most people don’t spend a lot of time worrying about how much it weighs or how thin it is. It gets the job done and you don’t have to think much about the object itself. There are certainly applications like art where the hardness of the graphite is an important consideration, but for the majority of situations, the pencil is incidental to the outcome of wanting words or doodles on the page. The pencil is an extraordinary piece of technology because it works so well that we pay it barely any heed.

A few devices approach this simplicity: e-readers, Pebble smartwatches, smartpens, the Beeline bike navigator, the Typified weather poster, voice assistants, and most calculators. Maybe I just don’t have the headspace for multi-function gadgets, but for me, the more functionality you cram into a device, the more unwieldy it becomes. Perhaps some brilliant UI/UX designer will come up with a way to make the multi-function nature of the smartphone more seamless, but as of now, I find smartphones to be amazing but kludgy.

The people working on the Skychaser solarpunk comic are doing a great job of thinking of magical technologies. You should definitely check them out if this is something that appeals to you.

I don’t have the answers for finding the right balance of functionality and magic but wanted to explore some of the questions with you. Maybe you have some ideas of how to make technology a little more magical. If you do and want to share, please post something below!