Tag Archives: Ethan Zuckerman

Three links: green revolution, scientific commons, and transition towns

1) Jeremy Cherfas writes on the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog about the history of the green revolution:

The standard litany against the Green Revolution is that it failed to banish hunger because the technologies it ushered in were no use to small peasant farmers. Farmers with access to cash and good land did well, but poorer farmers on marginal land got nothing out of the revolution, and if they did somehow buy into it (subsidies, handouts) they were worse off afterwards. That’s not to deny that the Green Revolution increased yields, especially of wheat and rice. Just to say that it did nothing for most smallholders.A wonderful paper by Jonathan Harwood, in Agricultural History, demonstrates that this wasn’t always so. In the early days of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Mexican Agricultural Program, starting in the 1940s, the target was “resource-poor farmers who could not afford to purchase new seed annually”. The MAP’s advisors put improving cultivation practices at the top of their list, with better varieties second. And the improved varieties were to come from “introduction, selection or breeding”.

2) Ethan Zuckerman writes about John Wilbanks on Science Commons, and generativity in science:

One way to think of the mission of Science Commons, Wilbanks tells us, is to spark generative effects in the scientific world much as we’ve seen them in the online world. He quotes Jonathan Zittrain’s definition of generativity, from “The Future of the Internet… and How to Stop It“: “Generativity is a system’s capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences”. This raises some provocative questions, when applied to the world of science: “What does spam look like in a patent system? What does griefing look like in the world of biological data?”

The truth is that the scientific world is far less generative than the digital space. He proposes three major obstacles to generativity: accessibility, ease of mastery, and tranferability. He points out that, as science has gotten more high tech, it’s far harder to master. The result is hyperspecialization: neuroanatomists don’t talk to neuroinformaticists… “and god help you if you cross species lines.” And so universities are making huge investments to try to encourage collaboration: MIT’s just build a $400 million building – the Cook Center – to force collaboration between cancer researchers… and predictably, researchers are fighting the mandate to move in and work together.

3) Judith D. Schwartz writes about the Transition Town movement in Learning About Transition Via Its Vocabulary in Miller-McCune Online Magazine.

Transition: In Hopkins’ words, “Transition” represents “the process of moving from a state of high fossil-fuel dependency and high vulnerability to a state of low fossil-fuel dependency and resilience.” Transition “is not the goal itself — it’s the journey,” he says. Specifically, it’s seeing this journey as an opportunity to embrace rather than a calamity to approach with dread.

“Transition” is predicated on the assumption that society cannot keep consuming energy and other resources at our current pace and that we’re better off accepting this reality and choosing how to adapt rather than letting ourselves get backed into a crisis. The idea is that the adaptation process can harness creative and even joyful possibilities that until now have laid dormant in our towns and cities. As Hopkins has been known to say, “It’s more like a party than a protest march.”

Resilience: A community’s ability to adapt and respond to changes, as well as to withstand shocks to the system, such as disruptions in food or energy supply chains. Resilience differs from “sustainability” in that the emphasis is on community survival as opposed to maintaining the structures and behavioral patterns that currently exist.

“Resilience is the new sustainability,” says Michael Brownlee, a member of the Transition U.S. board and co-founder of Transition Boulder County, the first Transition Initiative in North America. “It’s been co-opted by almost everybody. Everybody is sustainable these days.”

Marketing aside, Hopkins says the two are intertwined: “Sustainability only works if it has resilience embedded in it.”

Ethan Zuckerman’s Propositions for Successful Development Innovations

Ethan Zuckerman writes about innovation in developing countries in Innovating from constraint and suggests seven “rules” or propositions about how innovation proceeds in the developing world.  He writes:

I’d been asked by the organizers [of the seminar on the Information Society in Barcelona] to talk about how NGOs and social change organizations innovate, with the special challenge that I wasn’t supposed to celebrate innovative projects so much as I was to talk about the process of innovation. As I thought about this, I realized that I a) didn’t have much understanding of how social entrepreneurs innovate and b) didn’t have much confidence that social entrepreneurs generally did a good job of innovating with social media tools. Generally, I think that social entrepreneurs place far too much faith in social media tools and assume that they’ll be more popular, useful and powerful than they actually turn out to be.

So I offered a talk about some very different types of innovation – African innovations including the zeer pot, William Kamkwamba’s windmill, biomass charcoal, and endless examples of innovation using mobile phones. My argument was that innovation often comes from unusual and difficult circumstances – constraints – and that it’s often wiser to look for innovation in places where people are trying to solve difficult, concrete problems rather than where smart people are sketching ideas on blank canvases.

I offered seven rules that appear to help explain how (some) developing world innovation proceeds:

  • innovation (often) comes from constraint (If you’ve got very few resources, you’re forced to be very creative in using and reusing them.)
  • don’t fight culture (If people cook by stirring their stews, they’re not going to use a solar oven, no matter what you do to market it. Make them a better stove instead.)
  • embrace market mechanisms (Giving stuff away rarely works as well as selling it.)
  • innovate on existing platforms (We’ve got bicycles and mobile phones in Africa, plus lots of metal to weld. Innovate using that stuff, rather than bringing in completely new tech.)
  • problems are not always obvious from afar (You really have to live for a while in a society where no one has currency larger than a $1 bill to understand the importance of money via mobile phones.)
  • what you have matters more than what you lack (If you’ve got a bicycle, consider what you can build based on that, rather than worrying about not having a car, a truck, a metal shop.)
  • infrastructure can beget infrastructure (By building mobile phone infrastructure, we may be building power infrastructure for Africa – see my writings on incremental infrastructure.)

The most experimental part of a very experimental talk was applying these seven principles to three ICT4D experiments – One Laptop Per Child, Kiva and Global Voices. Ismael has a review of my talk including the scores I offer for each of the projects on these criteria.