The global maker movement is known for creative hacks, as well as for getting people of all ages excited about technology and how the world works. At the intersection of maker communities and social activism, we find remarkable projects like Open Source Ecology, WikiHouse, and the topic of this article: Appropedia.
Appropedia is not a specific effort to use technology for good, but rather a global community documenting collaborative solutions for sustainability, appropriate technology, poverty reduction, and permaculture. You can think of it as a “Wikipedia for sustainability” and, indeed, it uses similar underlying mechanics: the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike License and the MediaWiki software, for starters.
Appropedia co-founder Lonny Grafman (sitting, right) at the Las Malvinas photovoltaic workshops, where participants become the teachers and install solar power for a public pharmacy. License: CC BY-SA
Lonny Grafman, an an instructor at Humboldt State University in Northern California, founded Appropedia in 2006. Today it has thousands of pages on topics as diverse as solar cookers, thermal curtains, and rainwater harvesting. It is available in eight languages, including the beginnings of a Kiswahili edition.
The wiki is a tool for communities of practice that are looking to achieve real-world impact. At Humboldt State, Grafman founded a program called Practivistas. “In the Practivistas program, we bring students from the US and other countries to live and work with students in another country, in communities of little resources,” Grafman explains.
Practivistas don’t approach communities with a predetermined problem or solution. Instead, projects like a classroom constructed using locally sourced materials and alternative building methods are planned and implemented together with local communities from start to finish. In this case, plastic bottles were used as one of the primary materials for the classroom walls.
Projects are documented in Appropedia so that other communities may benefit. Beyond Practivistas, students from courses at Humboldt and other universities contribute content to the wiki through what’s called service learning. Explains Grafman: “It’s this thing that sits between and hopefully a little bit above internship, which is about student learning, and volunteerism, which is about the target community getting needs met.”
Grafman argues that engaging students in building the commons is better for the students, too: “My experience is that students learn more. Even just by motivation. When you’re doing something real, that has real impacts, there’s just a lot more motivation to do it right.”
In addition to his work on Appropedia, Grafman is interested in ways to reduce humanity’s energy use. He co-founded a company, Nexi, which makes energy monitors for the home. It’s a for-profit, and parts of the tech will remain proprietary, while Nexi may contribute to a commons of open data about energy use: “The good news is that we really don’t have to be puritanical about anything as diverse solutions will actually build more resilience.”
Appropedia, meanwhile, is hiring an Executive Director, to make the sustainability commons itself sustainable in the long run. No matter what the future holds, as a repository of creative solutions for addressing the problems all around us, Appropedia has already demonstrated that an information commons can directly improve people’s lives.
Erik Moeller (@xirzon), PassionateVoices.org