Eco-hacking a Fossil-Free, Collaborative Future

At the upcoming COP Summit in Paris (the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change), no one expects the world’s governments to make serious headway against global climate change. Neoliberal-obsessed governments are more concerned with propping up collapsing capitalist structures than in reducing carbon emissions (which have doubled over the past generation).  Corporations are more intent on preserving their market share and investors in preserving their net worth than in entertaining an environmentally benign economic paradigm shift.  We can be sure, following COP21, however, that world leaders will declare the event a success and let loose their own copious emissions of PR blather.

Let’s face it – we’re more or less on our own.  The impetus for change has to come from the bottom and the local. 

Which brings me to the inspirational work of POC21 – Proof of Concept 21 – which stands for “a proof of concept that the future we need can be built with our own hands.” For five weeks – August 15 to September 20 – more than 100 makers, designers, engineers, scientists and geeks converged on Château de Millemont, an ancient castle near Paris.  Their mission:  to work together in developing prototype machines that could radically reduce our dependence on carbon fuels.

The idea of POC21 is to invent inexpensive, modular household devices, farm tools, energy systems and other appropriate technologies that can be replicated cheaply, repaired easily and copied and shared by anyone. “Imagine a new breed of open source products available in your neighborhood,” POC organizers have announced. “This is our vision.”

Among the tools they have in mind:  portable solar power systems, low-waste self-filtering showers, DIY resource-sufficient homes, urban food production systems, affordable electric bicycles and human-powered agricultural machines.  From nearly 200 proposed projects, the POC21 organizers selected twelve prototypes to be developed during the innovation camp. 

Consider the Bicitractor project:

Regular tractors do not go well with organic farms. They are expensive and they pollute. They force farmers to take loans from banks and depend on big oil. Bicitractor on the other hand is a small pedal-powered tractor built so small and midsized farms can grow our food without polluting. Each tractor can use multiple modules with different tools for pronging, drilling, weeding. In addition to that, its open source, efficient, and really affordable to build.

Or consider Faircap, a portable antibacterial water filter that can screw on to the top of any plastic bottle, allowing people to safely drink from a stream or pond. Or Sunzilla, a diesel generator without the diesel, that uses solar photovoltaic and can be easily to installed by anyone. Another POC21 project is a $30 wind turbine that uses “upcycled” parts to generate electrical current at 1 kW in a 60 km/h wind.  Anyone can assemble it with a few common hand tools. 

The point of all these prototypes is to meet real needs in ways that get beyond the producer/consumer dualism and the unsustainable waste of current business models. The goal is to get beyond planned obsolescence and strict patents and copyrights that prevent people from improving and freely disseminating the tech. By producing things that are durable, versatile, inexpensive, locally sourceable and environmentally benign, the POC21 systems seeks to build basic tools for a new sort of economy.

Convened by Ouishare and Open State, POC21 fashioned itself as an “innovation camp” to make “open-source, sustainable products the new normal.” Here is a video trailer for POC21, “The World We Need.” And here is a story about the project in The Guardian, by Tristan Copley-Smith.

It’s heroic that eco-geeks are stepping up to pioneer new open-source hardware that, if replicated widely, could have enormous impact. But it’s also sad that prevailing institutions of government and business are so indifferent or hostile to exploring paradigm-shifting technologies. Planet-saving innovation devolves to hackers, dismissed as marginal until they're not. So COP21 delegates will broker the terms of continued planetary decine; POC21 will push forward some intriguing here-and-now solutions.