17 March 2010

Complementary currencies

Filed under: Economics, sustainability, vision, Zeitgeist — David Wood @ 11:49 pm

Recently, I mused about a world economy without money.

Two replies – from Peter Jackson and from Marios Gerogiokas – independently drew my attention to a different notion: complementary currencies.

In brief:

  • Rather than seeking to fix our current economic and social dilemmas by reducing the number of monetary systems from one to zero – as proposed by the Zeitgeist Movement – this alternative idea proposes increasing the number of monetary systems, from one to more-than-one.

Marios drew my attention to a TEDxBerlin talk by Belgian economist Bernard Lietaer, “Why this crisis? And what to do about it?“:

The talk takes a bit of time to get going, but it makes an increasingly interesting series of points:

  • We need resilience in our economic structures, as well as efficiency;
  • One way to achieve resilience is to avoid mono-culture;
  • Having “complementary” currency systems running in parallel is one way to avoid monetary mono-culture;
  • Without adoption of complementary currencies, we risk repetitions of the recent economic crash.

Here’s one quote that struck me:

Complementary currencies are now where open source software and microfinance were 10 years ago.

And another:

It would be crazy to believe that we’re going into the information age, and the most important information system – our money – will not change.

Personally, I see it as much more likely that our monetary system will evolve and improve rather than it will be removed altogether.

Of course, there are risks in any such evolution (just as there are risks with the status quo).  Some of the reasons for the recent economic crash, after all, were the innovative financial systems (with an alphabet soup of acronym names) that turned out to be insufficiently understood.

Footnote: There’s more about the concept of complementary currency on Wikipedia.

27 February 2010

Achieving a 130-fold improvement in 40 years

Filed under: books, Economics, green, Kurzweil, RSA, solar energy, sustainability — David Wood @ 3:23 pm

One reason I like London so much is the quality of debate and discussion that takes place, at least three times most weeks, at the RSA.

The full name of this organisation is “the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce“.  It’s been holding meetings since 1754.  Early participants included Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Johnson, and Richard Arkwright.

Recently, there have been several RSA meetings addressing the need for significant reform of how the global economy operates.  Otherwise, these speakers imply, the future will be much bleaker than the present.

On Wednesday, Professor Tim Jackson of the University of Surrey led a debate on the question “Is Prosperity Without Growth Possible?”  Professor Jackson recently authored the book “Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet“.  The book contains an extended version of his remarks at the debate.

I find myself in agreement a great deal of what the book says:

  • Continuous economic growth is a shallow and, by itself, dangerous goal;
  • Beyond an initial level, greater wealth has only a weak correlation with greater prosperity;
  • Greater affluence can bring malaise – especially in countries with significant internal inequalities;
  • Consumers frequently find themselves spending money they don’t have, to buy new goods they don’t really need;
  • The recent economic crisis provides us with an important opportunity to reflect on the operation of economics;
  • “Business as usual” is not a sustainable answer;
  • There is an imperative to consider whether society can operate without its existing commitment to regular GDP growth.

What makes this book stand out is its recognition of the enormous practical problems in stopping growth.  Both growth and de-growth face significant perils.  As the start of chapter 12 of the book states:

Society is faced with a profound dilemma.  To resist growth is to risk economic and social collapse.  To pursue it relentlessly is to endanger the ecosystems on which we depend for long-term survival.

For the most part, this dilemma goes unrecognised in mainstream policy…  When reality begins to impinge on the collective consciousness, the best suggestion to hand is that we can somehow ‘decouple‘ growth from its material impacts…

The sheer scale of this task is rarely acknowledged.  In a world of 9 billion people all aspiring to western lifestyles, the carbon intensity of every dollar of output must be at least 130 times lower in 2050 than it it today…

Never mind that no-one knows what such an economy looks like.  Never mind that decoupling isn’t happening on anything like that scale.  Never mind that all our institutions and incentive structures continually point in the wrong direction.  The dilemma, once recognised, looms so dangerously over our future that we are desperate to believe in miracles.  Technology will save us.  Capitalism is good at technology…

This delusional strategy has reached its limits.  Simplistic assumptions that capitalism’s propensity for efficiency will stabilise the climate and solve the problem of resource scarcity are almost literally bankrupt.  We now stand in urgent need of a clearer vision, braver policy-making, something more robust in the way of a strategy with which to confront the dilemma of growth.

The starting point must be to unravel the forces that keep us in damaging denial.  Nature and structure conspire together here.  The profit motive stimulates a continual search for newer, better or cheaper products and services.  Our own relentless search for novelty and social status locks us into an iron cage of consumerism.  Affluence itself has betrayed us.

Affluence breeds – and indeed relies on – the continual production and reproduction of consumer novelty.  But relentless novelty reinforces anxiety and weakens our ability to protect long-term social goals.  In doing so it ends up undermining our own well-being and the well-being of those around us.  Somewhere along the way, we lose the shared prosperity we sought int he first place.

None of this is inevitable.  We can’t change ecological limits.  We can’t alter human nature.  But we can and do create and recreate the social world. Its norms are our norms.  Its visions are our visions.  Its structures and institutions shape and are shaped by those norms and visions.  This is where transformation is needed…

As I said, I find myself in agreement a great deal of what the book says.  The questions raised in the book deserve a wide hearing.  Society needs higher overarching goals than merely increasing our GDP.  Society needs to focus on new priorities, which take into account the finite nature of the resources available to us, and the risks of imminent additional ecological and economic disaster.

However, I confess to being one of the people who believe (with some caveats…) that “technology will save us“.  Let’s look again at this figure of a 130-fold descrease needed, between now and 2050.

The figure of 130 comes from a calculation in chapter 5 of the book.  I have no quibble with the figure.  It comes from the Paul Ehrlich equation

I = P * A * T


  • I is the impact on the environment resulting from consumption
  • P is the population
  • A is the consumption or income level per capita (affluence)
  • T is the technological intensity of economic output.

Jackson’s book considers various scenarios.  Scenario 4 assumes a global population of 9 billion by 2050, all enjoying a lifestyle equivalent to that of the average EU citizen, which has grown by the modest amount of only 2% per annum over the intervening 40 years.  To bring down today’s I level for carbon intensity of economic level, to that seen by the IPCC as required to avoid catastrophic climate change, will require a 130-fold reduction in T in the meantime.

How feasible is an improvement factor of 130 in technology, over the next 40 years?  How good is the track record of technology at solving this kind of problem?

Some of the other speakers at the RSA event were hesitant to make any predictions for a 40 year time period.  They noted that history has a habit of making this kind of prediction irrelevant.  Jackson’s answer is that since we have little confidence of making a significant change in T, we should look to ways to reduce A.  Jackson is also worried that recent talk of a ‘Green New Deal’:

  • Is still couched in language of economic growth, rather than improvement in prosperity;
  • Has seen little translation into action, since first raised during 2008-9.

My own answer is that 130 represents just over 7 doublings (2 raised to the 7th power is 128) and that at least some parts of technology have no problems in improving by seven doubling generations over 40 years.  Indeed, taking two years as the usual Moore’s Law doubling period, for improvements in semiconductor density, would require only 14 years for this kind of improvement, rather than 40.

To consider how Moore’s Law improvements could transform the energy business, radically reducing its carbon intensity, here are some remarks by futurist Ray Kurzweil, as reported by LiveScience Senior Editor Robin Lloyd:

Futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil is part of distinguished panel of engineers that says solar power will scale up to produce all the energy needs of Earth’s people in 20 years.

There is 10,000 times more sunlight than we need to meet 100 percent of our energy needs, he says, and the technology needed for collecting and storing it is about to emerge as the field of solar energy is going to advance exponentially in accordance with Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns. That law yields a doubling of price performance in information technologies every year.

Kurzweil, author of “The Singularity Is Near” and “The Age of Intelligent Machines,” worked on the solar energy solution with Google Co-Founder Larry Page as part of a panel of experts convened by the National Association of Engineers to address the 14 “grand challenges of the 21st century,” including making solar energy more economical. The panel’s findings were announced here last week at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Solar and wind power currently supply about 1 percent of the world’s energy needs, Kurzweil said, but advances in technology are about to expand with the introduction of nano-engineered materials for solar panels, making them far more efficient, lighter and easier to install. Google has invested substantially in companies pioneering these approaches.

Regardless of any one technology, members of the panel are “confident that we are not that far away from a tipping point where energy from solar will be [economically] competitive with fossil fuels,” Kurzweil said, adding that it could happen within five years.

The reason why solar energy technologies will advance exponentially, Kurzweil said, is because it is an “information technology” (one for which we can measure the information content), and thereby subject to the Law of Accelerating Returns.

“We also see an exponential progression in the use of solar energy,” he said. “It is doubling now every two years. Doubling every two years means multiplying by 1,000 in 20 years. At that rate we’ll meet 100 percent of our energy needs in 20 years.”

Other technologies that will help are solar concentrators made of parabolic mirrors that focus very large areas of sunlight onto a small collector or a small efficient steam turbine. The energy can be stored using nano-engineered fuel cells, Kurzweil said.

“You could, for example, create hydrogen or hydrogen-based fuels from the energy produced by solar panels and then use that to create fuel for fuel cells”, he said. “There are already nano-engineered fuel cells, microscopic in size, that can be scaled up to store huge quantities of energy”, he said…

To be clear, I don’t see any of this as inevitable.  The economy as a whole could falter again, jeopardising “Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns”.  Less dramatically, Moore’s Law could run out of steam, or it might prove harder than expected to apply silicon improvements in systems for generating, storing, and transporting energy.  I therefore share Professor Jackson’s warning that capitalism, by itself, cannot be trusted to get the best out of technology.  That’s why this debate is particularly important.

24 February 2010

Grants available for online social entrepreneurs

Filed under: grants, innovation, sustainability — David Wood @ 10:44 am

Are you a UK-based online social entrepreneur?

That is – to quote from the website of UnLtdare you someone with vision, drive, commitment and passion, who wants to use the Internet to change the world for the better?

If so, you could be eligible for one of more than 80 grants which UnLtd plan to distribute this year, as part of the “Better Net Awards” programme being managed by UnLtd and funded by the Nominet Trust.

I recently met with Analia Lemmo from UnLtd, who explained to me how the programme works.

Throughout 2010, the programme will be making awards, at two levels:

  • Level 1 is for awards of between £500 and £5,000 (expected average of £2,000) to startups;
  • Level 2 is for awards of up to £15,000, for people who have already put their idea into practice, and who now want to expand it.

The key criteria for people to receive one of these awards is that:

  • You must have a project in mind to use the Internet for social impact;
  • Your project must be sustainable, that is, the grant should enable you to move the project to a level where it won’t need additional grants to keep it running;
  • Your project should be run from the UK, and should have an impact on a community of people in the UK.

The process to apply for a grant is explained on the UnLtd website:

  • UnLtd run regular information sessions, at various locations around the UK;
  • After taking part in one of these sessions, you should decide whether to proceed to fill in an application form;
  • Candidates may then be interviewed to check details of the proposal;
  • The final decision is made by a board of trustees.

Projects should fall within the following range of areas:

  • Digital inclusion – encouraging and assisting more people to acquire an online presence;
  • Education about the Internet;
  • Improving the environment;
  • Improving healthcare;
  • Online safety for children.

In a press release, Nominet explained their goals in providing this funding:

Teaming up with UnLtd allows Nominet Trust to source often hard to reach entrepreneurial individuals and community groups around the UK, and support their efforts to create, develop and implement Internet-based projects that benefit society.

UnLtd will provide hands-on support and resources alongside awards of funding to individuals and small groups who are creating new projects that reflect the objectives of Nominet Trust. The projects will focus on the safe use of the Internet for social benefit purposes such as education and inclusion. All awards in the partnership programme will be jointly approved by Nominet Trust and UnLtd.

Cliff Prior, chief executive at UnLtd, says: “UnLtd has a history of finding fantastic people with talent and a passion to transform the world in which they live, and supporting them to become successful social entrepreneurs – over 16,000 people to date. The Nominet Trust awards programme will enable UnLtd to build on this success by helping a new wave of people create social benefit through the Internet.”

Examples of previous winners of UnLtd awards are highlighted on the UnLtd website, and include:

  • Action for Sustainable Living, which supports people to live more sustainably in the context of their local community, so that local sustainability issues and priorities are tackled and resolved locally;
  • MOTIV – which works with primary and secondary schools to improve attendance and raise children’s aspirations;
  • The Big Green Idea – a charity dedicated to showing people how sustainable living can be easy, healthy, inexpensive and fun;
  • BabyGROE – the first free UK-wide magazine to inform new parents on ways to raise children which save money and protect the environment;
  • The Calma project – which provides support and training to individuals, families and carers who are affected by the challenging behaviour associated with autism, Asperger syndrome, learning difficulties, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and related conditions.

In contrast to the general awards available from UnLtd, the Better Net Awards programme will have a special emphasis on Internet-based solutions.  If you think you could qualify – or if you think you could be a useful partner who can help UnLtd to identify potential award winners – then please follow the contact links on UnLtd’s site.

19 January 2010

Mobile phones and sustainability

Filed under: Energy, GreenTouch, Mobile Monday, sensors, sustainability — David Wood @ 1:55 am

What role can mobile phones play in reducing energy usage worldwide and assisting the transformation to a sustainable economy?  More widely, what role can the mobile phone industry play in this whole process?

That topic was addressed at yesterday’s Mobile Monday London event, held (unusually) in Brighton.  One of the organisers, Jo Rabin, commented:

As any Londoner knows, Brighton is one of the further suburbs, and like the rest of South London, not on the tube. That said, a modest 50 minutes and £10 return advance booking gets you there in comfort from London’s convenient Victoria station (and others)

The event was entitled “Mobile Application Sustainability” and featured:

One striking claim from near the beginning of the event was when Galit Zadok described the mobile phone as “the least sustainable item of consumer electronics, ever” – on account of the very high numbers of mobile phones which are replaced every year.  To quote from the Green Switch paper (PDF):

an average replacement rate of 18 months, accounting for 500 million handsets replaced last year in Europe alone, … makes the mobile phone the consumer electronic device with the highest replacement rate in history

Galit noted some positive developments too, mainly over phone chargers.  Again quoting from the Green Switch paper:

Regulation is encouraging manufacturers to make reductions in no-load energy demands, and handset manufacturers are responding.  By 2008 Sony Ericsson reduced the average no-load power consumption by more than 90%, whilst Nokia has achieved 80% reduction.

To further spur the industry into action, in October 2009, the ITU has given its stamp of approval to an energy-efficient one-charger-fits-all new mobile phone solution. The new Universal Charging Solution (UCS) enables the same charger to be used for all future handsets, regardless of make and model. In addition to dramatically cutting the number of chargers produced, shipped and subsequently discarded as new models become available, the new standard will reduce the energy consumed by the charger. The new UCS standard was based on input from the GSMA, which predicts elimination of 51,000 tonnes of redundant chargers, and a subsequent reduction of 13.6 million tonnes in greenhouse gas emissions each year.

I was less convinced when listening to the claims of the Green Switch speakers that:

  • The power consumption of the handsets themselves amounts to a significant proportion of overall human energy usage;
  • The handset power consumption problem becomes worse, with more and more applications included on the device;
  • Therefore people should be encouraged to use simpler devices – or to run their devices in a “green” mode in which fewer applications are enabled.

To be clear, I’m all in favour of reducing the power used by mobile phone applications, since this will lead to longer periods between battery charging, and will therefore improve user experience.  Short battery life is a long-standing deeply difficult issue for manufacturers of smart mobile handsets.  I’ve also long recognised the problems that are posed as the amount of software included on a device increases.  For example, here’s an excerpt of an “Insight” piece that I wrote for the symbian.com website in November 2006 (copy available here):

Standing in opposition to the potential for swift continuing increase in mobile technology, however, we face a series of major challenges.  I call them “horsemen of the apocalypse”.  They include fire, flood, plague, and warfare.

Fire” is the challenge of coping with the heat generated by batteries running ever faster.  Alas, batteries don’t follow Moore’s Law.  As users demand more work from their smartphones, their battery lifetimes will tend to plummet.  The solution involves close inter-working of new hardware technology (including multi-core processors) and highly sophisticated low-level software.  Together, this can reduce the voltage required by the hardware, and the device can avoid catching fire (or otherwise drawing too much power) as it performs its incredible calculations.

Flood” is the challenge of coping with enormous quantities of additional software.  Each individual chunk of new software adds value, but when they coalesce in large quantities, chaos breaks loose: software projects delay almost indefinitely in their integration phase (think of Windows Longhorn), and users struggle to find their favourite functionality in amongst seething masses of menu options.  As summarised in Brooks’ Law (which ought to be as famous as Moore’s), “Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later”.  In other words, too many cooks spoil the broth.  Like the problem of fire, flood requires more than just money or people to solve.  It requires the right core software architecture, which allows add-on software to co-exist harmoniously…

So I care about the problems of power usage on mobile phones, and about the problems arising from an abundance of software on these devices.  However, I think it’s misleading to characterise these problems as problems of sustainability.

Here, my thinking follows the lead of David Mackay, Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, as spelt out in his book “Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air” and in other writing:

Turning phone chargers off when they are not in use is a feeble gesture, like bailing the Titanic with a teaspoon.

The widespread inclusion of “switching off phone chargers” in lists of “10 things you can do” is a bad thing, because it distracts attention from more effective actions that people could be taking.

(For some more details, page 70 of David Mackay’s book compares power consumption for different household items.)

Nevertheless, despite this quibble, I strongly agree that there’s a great deal that the mobile phone industry should be doing, to reduce energy usage worldwide and assist the transformation to a sustainable economy:

  1. As various speakers noted, applications mobile phones can collect (via various sensors) useful information about a person’s overall energy usage, and present this information back to the user.  Here, rather than being part of the problem, the mobile phone can be part of the solution;
  2. Mobile phones can also help communicate ideas about alternative energy solutions to users – solutions that are relevant to what the user is currently doing;
  3. Improved recycling of mobile phones will help too: making more phones software upgradable will be a step forward;
  4. There’s considerable scope for reducing the energy consumption on the server side of mobile phone networks (where it matters most).

A press release from yesterday highlights an example of the final point.  The press release is entitled “M1 looks at 35% reduction in carbon footprint in Singapore“.  Here’s an excerpt:

MobileOne (M1), the leading mobile operator in Singapore, expects to achieve up to 35% reduction of its telecommunications networks carbon footprint by early 2011. This is made possible by Nokia Siemens Networks Flexi Multiradio base stations. The vendor is currently modernizing M1’s 2G network to prepare it for a smooth transition to Long Term Evolution (LTE).

In addition, M1 is set to start an LTE trial in February 2010. Undertaken in collaboration with Nokia Siemens Networks, the trial will last two months and marks another step in M1’s commitment to deliver an energy efficient, high-speed mobile broadband service to its subscribers.

The LTE trial includes Nokia Siemens Networks’ Flexi Multiradio Base Stations that enhance network coverage and capacity, while lowering site power consumption significantly. This forms part of its end to end Energy Solutions portfolio, which is a clear commitment from Nokia Siemens Networks to drive innovative solutions for energy efficiency…

(Thanks to Stefan Constantinescu, for drawing attention to this particular press release.)

If a 35% carbon footprint reduction sounds impressive, here’s an even larger figure to consider. The newly formed Green Touch consortium announced a bold vision as part of their launch activities last week:

We aim to reduce energy consumption in worldwide ICT networks by a factor of 1000.

This is reiterated in the Green Touch description of “challenges and opportunities“:

The goal of this new consortium is to create the technologies needed to make communications networks 1000 times more energy efficient than they are today.

A thousand-fold reduction is roughly equivalent to being able to power the world’s communications networks, including the Internet, for three years using the same amount of energy that it currently takes to run them for a single day.

An early goal for this initiative is to deliver, within five years, a reference architecture, specifications, technology development roadmap and demonstrations of key components needed to realize a fundamental re-design of networks (including the introduction of entirely new technologies) that can reduce energy consumption – both by individuals and in aggregate – by 1000 times as compared to current levels.

Through a focused and collaborative cross-industry initiative, we intend to define the challenge, conduct breakthrough research, and deliver innovative new technologies and sustainable solutions that can be applied across ICT and beyond — for a greener and more sustainable communications future and for the benefit of all.

Their webpage “ICT Industry Combats Climate Change” provides more details:

Research from Bell Labs determined that today’s ICT networks have the potential to be 10,000 times (four orders of magnitude) more efficient then they are today. This conclusion comes out of Bell Labs’ fundamental analysis of the underlying components of ICT networks and technologies (optical, wireless, electronics, processing, routing, architecture, etc.) and studying their physical limits by applying established formulas such as Shannon’s Law, ‘father of information theory’.

Achieving even one-tenth of Shannon’s lower limit would cut network energy consumption by a factor of 1,000. A thousand-fold reduction in energy consumption is roughly equivalent to being able to power the world’s communications networks, including the Internet, for three years using the same amount of energy that it currently takes to run them for a single day.

These huge gains can only be achieved by rethinking the way telecom networks are designed in terms of low energy processing. Today’s networks are designed for optimal capacity, not efficient energy use. What is needed is a major breakthrough, a radical re-design of networks, and that can only be achieved through the contributions of all essential participants, from basic and applied researchers and component suppliers to network operators, equipment and system suppliers and governments.

While these re-designed networks would dramatically decrease direct ICT energy consumption, the energy savings would be overshadowed by the indirect effects. Because ICT constitutes what the World Economic Forum describes as “our collective nervous system,” touching nearly every industry sector2 a shift in the magnitude of ICT energy usage would reverberate throughout the global economy. By further enabling energy efficiencies across the energy-hungry portions of human enterprise, the ICT sector holds the potential to substantially contribute to the fight against climate change on a global scale…

What kind of people are behind this consortium?  It’s an impressive list:

Service Providers: AT&T, China Mobile, Portugal Telecom, Swisscom, Telefonica

Academic Research Labs: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Research Laboratory for Electronics (RLE), Stanford University’s Wireless Systems Lab (WSL), the University of Melbourne’s Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society (IBES)

Government and Nonprofit Research Institutions: The CEA-LETI Applied Research Institute for Microelectronics (Grenoble, France), The Foundation for Mobile Communications (Portugal), imec (Headquarters: Leuven, Belgium), The French National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control (INRIA)

Industrial Labs: Bell Labs, Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology (SAIT), Freescale Semiconductor.

The press release also contains endorsements from:

  • Dr. Steven Chu, US Secretary of Energy
  • Ed Miliband, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, UK
  • Christian Estrosi, Minister for Industry, France
  • Jong-Soo Yoon, Director General, Ministry of Environment, South Korea
  • Paulo Campos, Secretary of State for Public Works and Communications, Portugal

Next time MoMo London looks at the topic of mobile sustainability, I hope there will be time to include an update on progress from the Green Touch team!

Footnote: Here’s a ten minute video summary of last week’s press conference launching Green Touch:

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