I first came across Vinay Gupta through his article on the State of the Art in Appropriate Technology (2007), where he states bluntly that

“The reason that the developing world is not using these technologies is because almost none of them actually work in practice in field conditions well enough to spread like the cell phone did. The model here isn’t sifting through piles, it’s picking three or four things, making sure they’re well tested and accredited, and then getting them **finished** – polished, tested, refined and then rolled out. Nearly nothing **actually** makes the grade – we’re looking at things which are *close* and hoping for future refinements.”

I was looking for information on taxonomies, about which he had this to say:

“I do not believe that anybody alive understands the actual network of interconnections well enough to produce a useful taxonomy of appropriate technology solutions at this point – for example, the Sustainable Settlements Charrette neither produced nor used such a taxonomy. RMI doesn’t regularly use a taxonomy for infrastructure that I’m aware of.

“Taxonomies are incredibly difficult and require profound thinking on the fundamental questions, and that thinking has not been done yet. It’s the work of years.”

This led me to accept that the best taxonomy, at least for now, is whatever works for the problem at hand. There’s never going to be a complete list of appropriate solutions, or even a complete classification of them; but simply putting them into lists of categories helps to identify what’s relevant and what’s missing.

More broadly, however, I started to get drawn into Vinay’s world, which is frequently mind-blowing. To begin with, most of his writings are collected under the heading of “The Bucky-Gandhi Design Institution: Free science and engineering in the global public interest,” and posted at http://vinay.howtolivewiki.com/blog/. Here’s how he defines the big picture:

Getting Started

If you’re just getting oriented to The Big Problem, here are four basic facts and some useful resources.

  • Every year 60 million people die – all causes, all countries, all classes in total. One third – about 20 million – will die before their time because of poverty.
  • Nearly all of those poverty deaths can be prevented by basic infrastructure like biosand filters, rocket stoves, composting toilets and so on.
  • We have less than 100 years of forest left, never mind global warming, increasing pollution and hyper-consumption. Supporting 1.5 billion middle class people is nearly killing the planet, never mind trying to find the resources for 7 billion. This gap is culturally forbidden to discuss.
  • The west is bankrupt because as the rest of the world recovers from colonial oppression, they flex their muscles, increase political pressure, and push for a more equal world – making us poorer. Rather than getting poorer gracefully, we have been borrowing at a national and individual level to make up the gap. We are running out of people to borrow from.

Resources you might find useful.

There’s an enormous body of work here, which you might call “open-source thinking,” and which has me thinking about an open-source approach to building the alternative economy. More on this to come. In the mean time, here are some of the more specifically relevant of Gupta’s pieces:

I went to the same school as Julian Assange, but we learned different lessons (Dec 2011)

Armed with Science… and Magic (Nov 2011)

A quick life update… (Nov 2011)

Monetizing the ecosystem services of a forest (May 2009)



  • Vinay Gupta says:

    Thank you for the kind words. Any questions?

  • Yes, a great many, though I feel I should familiarize myself better with more of your writings before I start raising questions or making suggestions. My feelings right now are that (a) we are rapidly running out of time to reverse course in many areas, yet (b) most of us do not have the time to fully grasp the problems, let alone the solutions, or to craft a vehicle through which we can effectively work together to address these issues. It’s great that, as Paul Hawken claims, there are more than two million groups working to promote a more sustainable future; but how do we collaborate or even communicate what’s going on, what’s critical, and what will make a difference?

    Just to give a few of today’s examples: 1. I just circulated Burkhard Bilger’s recent New Yorker piece on reforestation in Africa (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/12/19/111219fa_fact_bilger) to a group of colleagues with whom I’m working on a series of “social enterprise catalyst” projects, along with 2. a draft paper on commercializing bamboo in Haiti; 3. signed on to to the Partners Worldwide initiative to create “100,000 Jobs in Haiti”; 4. agreed to attend some local events on food and locavesting; 5. downloaded and skimmed IFG’s “Outing the Oligarchy” report (http://www.ifg.org/) on those who benefit by resisting climate change; etc. etc. — while also trying to pursue a number of local projects (e.g., http://morristownecocenter.com/) and do some client work (including work for startups who can’t yet afford to pay). I get more done than most folks my age (67) and have a wider range of interests; but at the end of the day still feel I’m struggling to keep up rather than driving the bus.

    This site is one of several I’m working on concurrently but have not yet decided how best to make public. Another is http://altonomy.com, where I’m trying to construct (at least in principle) a blueprint for an alternative economy that actually works — that takes into account and corrects the errors and injustices of the existing system, offers the unemployed and underemployed an alternative means of making a living, recognizes the reality of localized scarcity within the context of universal (but not necessarily always accessible) abundance, values nature correctly, uses the market where appropriate and compensates for it automatically where it isn’t. I would welcome collaboration in this, but do not yet see how to structure it so that it is (a) manageable, (b) just, fair, and inclusive, and (c) efficient enough to get to practical realization sometime within my current lifetime. (Suggestions welcome.)

    So this is right now my fundamental question: how do we best organize ourselves to effect societal change? Your thoughts on this? Thanks

  • P.S. I haven’t yet had a chance to study the Hexayurts, or to look into the resources you list (other than the SCIMs) or “The Future We Deserve” initiative… all of which sound relevant to the question, and which I intend to dig into further… Thanks

  • Vinay Gupta says:

    I think there’s two basic strategies for that social organization:

    1> Benign Dictator: namely, me. I’m incorruptible, and very cuddly.

    2> Markets with proper incentives: tax what’s bad, let time and greed do their things.

    Yeah, that’s about it. Not optimistic: I think we need a breakthrough, but right now there’s no indication of what it might be.

  • Hi Vinay: Happy to play along.

    Might be an interesting exercise to imagine the world if we were its benign dictator (“I decree happiness all around”)—this could be one of several possible tools for creating utopian scenarios.

    With regard to markets, I absolutely think we need to have them and need to make them work. The question is, how do we create the proper (and evolving) distribution of incentives. Imagine a “natural currency” based on the value of ecosystems services, or on therms or calories but taking into account all externalities, etc. In my view this would be a breakthrough.

  • Vinay Gupta says:

    I love the idea of the Dictator Game – I wonder if it could actually be turned into a game a bit like Mafia or Warewolf which actually crystallizes out the essence of the feeling of being in charge…

    Bernard Lietaer’s TERRA is a credible first cut at a resource currency like that – he’s one of the designers of the European Convergence Mechanisms which was the foundation of the Euro, so he’s rather credible in central banking circles. That’s a very good sign.

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