Monthly Archive for December, 2011

Cleaning up the horse manure of the 21st century

December emerged within a whirlwind of dialogue on global preparation for climate change. On November 30th, an MIT audience of hundreds listened to Steven Chu’s perspectives on “The role of science, technology and innovation in solving the energy challenge.” Well-poised and direct on Kresge’s stage, the Secretary of Energy first contextualized the clean energy challenge within a historical timeline. Chu recounted the turnover from horse-drawn carriages to automobiles, discussing how horse manure in city streets was a crucial impetus in the technological switch that revolutionized daily transportation. And returning to the modern nexus of wiggly hockey-stick diagrams, he provoked us to consider parallels between horse manure and greenhouse emissions.

Secretary Chu’s discussion occurred while much of global climate community was tuned into its latest conference in Durban, South Africa – COP17 – which convened from November 28 to December 9. As representatives carved out difficult paths to the Durban Platform, greenhouse mitigation and human adaptation comprised main demands, while concerns of technology sharing and intellectual property rights resonated among several Southern parties. As Chu’s audience considered the U.S. status on clean technology, a wider audience deliberated a wider definition of innovation.

In particular, COP17 witnessed remarkable innovations in the science-policy interface. As Nature highlighted, Climate Action Tracker played a notable role in delivering science to the political drawing board. A small group of specialized analysts, the organization translates policy decisions into environmental consequences through scientific models that couple together the Earth system and society’s choices. Their final analysis of the Durban Platform reported that the 2015 deadline for a new climate framework is too late, and given the continued decisions of governments, Earth’s climate will exceed current upper limits of a 2 °C temperature rise.

Perhaps Climate Action Tracker signals a new trend in the way both scientists and policy-makers think about climate models. Too often do the languages of scientific models and decision-makers just miss each other. Like Climate Action Tracker, Climate Interactive also endeavors to close this gap between models and policy here at MIT. In hopes of establishing a space for model sharing, the organization has released software that allows users of all backgrounds to design their own model experiments and understand the consequences of their own agendas.

Common to many complex struggles is the realization that problem-solving requires its different solvers to communicate on common ground in the first place. Thus, amidst conflicting dialogues on how the world should manage climate change, it is not surprising that the language of innovation increasingly alludes to the dialogue itself. Climate models, which have provided both impetus and points of contention for negotiators who want results but not the broad uncertainties of scientific predictions, are a growing demand for innovative communication.

An adventure in renewable energy and sustainability!

It’s one thing to learn about sustainability in the classroom, and it’s a completely different one to experience it first-hand in Costa Rica.  A program in its third year called Global Renewable Energy Education Network, or “GREEN,” provides an educational adventure for motivated students excited to explore renewable energy and sustainability.  Joelle Zerillo, the Director of University Outreach for GREEN, describes the program and encourages MIT students to attend.

1. What is GREEN?

GREEN is a 12-day program in Costa Rica for students from all different walks of life, from the U.S. and abroad, from business students to engineers, all bound by their interest in sustainability and renewable energy.  Students get an overview of five types of alternative energy, including hydropower, geothermal, wind, solar, and biomass, through site visits.  Through a rigorous curriculum and exclusive access to renewable energy technology, this program helps students of all majors to bridge the gap between typical book learning and accelerated career advancement.  Finally, students work together on a capstone project in which groups come up with an idea, either a business plan or an invention, to implement at their university or hometown.  It’s a great opportunity for students who don’t have a lot of time to study abroad but still want the hands-on educational experience.

2. Why Costa Rica?

Costa Rica is the epicenter of renewable energy, where the 5 types of renewable energy are within driving distance of each other, allowing them to power 80% of the country’s energy consumption.  Plus, who wouldn’t want to go to Costa Rica!

3. Who teaches the program?

GREEN’s course discussions are presented by industry experts in each respective type of renewable energy industry.  Facility tours are conducted by managers, lead engineers and operators of the plants.  For example, Frank Boyd Daniels is the Lead Plant Engineer at Marubeni Co Geothermal Plant.

Sustainability modules in various topics including engineering, economics, policy, design, and implementation, are led by experienced sustainability practitioners such as Roberta Ward Smiley at the La Reserva Foundation and Jean Paul from B-Green Sustainable Homes.  Local culture and community sustainability tours are led by Luis Diego Murillo (Vice President of the Tilaran Cattle Association) and Don Bovillo (President of Parceles Water Committee).

4. What is the main motivation to attend GREEN?

Students say that the main motivation about GREEN is the process of pooling all of their knowledge into a culminating capstone project.  Students who attended this program in the past have cited it as “one of the best experiences of their life.”  Some have returned to Costa Rica for summer internships in the renewable energy sector. Others applied their experiences to succeed in internships and jobs in the United States at leading companies such as General Electric, Bechtel, the USDA, USPTO and others.  Finally, GREEN participants are graduated into an extensive alumni network of bright, like-minded individuals.

5. There are many programs at MIT that focus on or have aspects of renewable energy, such as D-Lab, Energy Ventures, IDEAS, and 100K. How does GREEN stand out?

As the only program that exposes students how Costa Rica “got sustainability right,” GREEN is the missing link for renewable energy education.  The country’s advances in renewable energy allow them to power 80% of the country with renewables.  They have designed the country in a way that will allow them to create a sustainable future, right down to the strategic placement of the man-made lake, Lake Arenal.

There is a saying in Costa Rica, “Pura Vida,” which literally means “a pure life”, but the GREEN students know that with a pure heart, an open mind and a little innovation, they can create a GREENer tomorrow.  As more MIT students participate in GREEN, the program directors will customize the trips to student preferences and interests. The applications are processed on a rolling basis so contact the program soon if you’re interested in being a campus ambassador for GREEN.

Good (Legal) News for Social Entrepreneurs

Good ideas are hard to come by; so, too, are funds for start-ups and investor-friendly regulations, especially in a struggling economy.

Luckily for budding entrepreneurs, two recent legislative developments might make it easier for you to get your innovative project off the ground.

Last month, the House passed the Entrepreneur Access to Capital Act, enabling entrepreneurs to crowd source online up to $1 million per year (or $2 million with the provision of audited financial statements).  The bill, which is backed by the White House, would cap shareholder investments at $10,000 or 10% of annual income, whichever is less.

So how exactly would a new law, if enacted, shake things up for social entrepreneurs?

Scott Edward Walker offers several enlightening FAQs on the VentureBeat blog, pointing out some key opportunities and potential risks involved with crowd-funding.

While the finer details are yet to be resolved, one thing is certain: the Act would lift current federal securities laws that prohibit solicitation for investments through crowd-funding websites or social networks like Facebook and Twitter (note that in some cases, e.g. Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, donations are allowed).

This is exciting news for projects that might benefit from local investing, or “locavesting” as coined by Amy Cortese in her popular book of the same name. In a recent interview, Cortese described her frustration with regulations that favor wealthy investors and hinder investments in local companies. The new legislation would effectively replace current SEC laws (which, believe it or not, have been in place since the 1930s), and may be the key to unlocking new funding possibilities for social innovators across the U.S. It will offer an alternative to venture capital and other sophisticated investment models, and may appeal particularly to those interested in empowering communities and building local businesses from the ground up.

Let’s hope that the companion legislation, now awaiting mark-up on the Senate floor, is promptly passed.

In a second interesting development, multiple bills have been introduced (and in some states, enacted) to authorize new legal structures that span across the spectrum from 501c3s to for-profit organizations. In a Wall Street Journal guest column, Kyle Westaway describes these models, including:

  • The low-profit limited liability company (L3C), which operates primarily to achieve a charitable purpose and secondarily for profit,
  • The benefit corporation, which creates a general benefit for society as well as its shareholders, and must report on its social and environmental performance, and
  • The flexible-purpose corporation, which strives to achieve a specifically-designated purpose in addition to profit.

For those mission-driven organizations that are also interested in creating sustainable value (as, we know, all in the MIT IDEAS community are!), these innovative legal structures could offer some great options.

In Environmental Science, Tapping into New Pools of Creativity

One evening a month, a group of thinkers convenes on the Charles River to discuss the sounds of melting glaciers over pizza and beer. A diverse coalition of researchers, journalists, exhibitors, sculptors, advocators and students, they converge upon a common thread: the challenge of conveying climate change science to the public eye.

Eli Kintisch calls these meetings “Climate/Art Pizza”. On a one-year journalism fellowship at MIT, Eli is the primary creator and host of these monthly pizza dinners in his own apartment. He has taken leave from his journalism position at Science to explore the synthesis between art and climate science. “I’m concerned that traditional journalism forms on climate are reaching a narrower audience than they should given the severity of the problem,” Eli says. Thus, his meetings explore ways art may open up new pathways for communication.

Each meeting centers on a different theme in climate science. At the latest meeting on November 27, the theme was cycles. Within the environment, several elements move through circular pathways; in the water cycle, for example, rain circulates within a closed loop among the atmosphere, land, and ocean. At the meeting, Penny Chisholm from MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering shared her own perspectives on cycles, including a published picture book on environmental science.

Following Penny’s talk, the agenda was brainstorming: how can art convey the science of environmental cycles? What forms of media can be employed, which senses evoked, which learning opportunities delivered? More fundamentally, how can these efforts tie to those issues in climate change most relevant to the public?

While these questions circulated through a Bostonian meeting, one wonders whether they concurrently resonated around the globe. Several other projects have creatively fused art and environmental science. For example, this October, the Center for Biological Diversity announced the latest world census by releasing a colorful line of contraceptives, “endangered species condoms”. 5000 global volunteers disseminated 250,000 condoms (www.biologicaldiversity.org) to alert the world of its 7 billion population landmark, and relate this number to biodiversity loss.

An example of an “endangered species condom” released by the Center for Biological diversity. (Courtesy of www.endangeredspecies.com, the Center for Biological Diversity)

An example of an “endangered species condom” released by the Center for Biological diversity. (Courtesy of www.endangeredspecies.com, the Center for Biological Diversity)

Eli highlighted another public expression of environmental science in art: roadside pillars in Adair County, Iowa demonstrate the progressive degradation of topsoil due to industrial agriculture. This visually direct exhibition provokes viewers to think about the environmental sustainability of agriculture in Iowa.

Pillars exhibition in Iowa conveying a clear loss in topsoil since the onset of industrial agriculture in the state. (Courtesy of boingboing.net)

Pillars exhibition in Iowa conveying a clear loss in topsoil since the onset of industrial agriculture in the state. (Courtesy of boingboing.net)

Such examples only begin to tap into the great pool of creativity in expressing environmental concerns. In the long run, hopefully both science and the public circle will no longer need to search far and wide to find each other.

Classes during IAP

As the semester is wrapping up, we’re looking forward to MIT’s IAP (Independent Activities Period). Here is a list of some classes that current team members might be interested in checking out! They’re organized by the following topics:

1. Computers/Mobile Devices, 2. Biotech, 3. Energy, 4. Presentation Skills, 5. Hands-on Building, and 6. Health.

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COMPUTERS/MOBILE DEVICES

Mobile Virtualization: Smartphones with Multiple Personalities
- Introduction to Virtualization & ARM CPU Virtualization
- Mobile Devices and Application-Level Virtualization
There is a historic shift occurring today, where smartphones and tablets are overtaking PCs as the dominant end user computing platforms. Another key technology, virtualization, has achieved a huge impact on the industry over the past decade in data centers and desktops. This course will present an introduction to the essentials of virtualization technology from the perspective of VMware’s Mobile Virtualization Platform (MVP) group.
The course will cover the systems and architecture concepts behind virtualization in general and techniques for core and device virtualization on mobile platforms. A focus will be given to the ARM architecture, the platform behind billions of embedded and mobile devices. We will focus on the wider solution space and explore tradeoffs when developing virtualization techniques, while providing concrete examples from the MVP hypervisor.

jQuery Mobile: The Easy Peasy Mobile Development Framework
Overview of jQuery Mobile development framework and how it can help UX professionals and developers quickly prototype mobile sites and apps. What are the tools and skills needed to get up and running? What are the pros and cons? I’ll share that information and a brief demo of a desktop web app created for mobile — and last, but not least, links to further reading, resources, and tips!

Kinected Experiences: Workshops and Competition
Kinect + Windows Phone + Windows 8 development via C# and HTML5. What else can you ask for?
Participate in one or more workshops to prepare yourselves for an IAP competition that challenges you to combine your technical skills and creativity to create the next best product or app, potentially leading to a startup, or some great PR.
These workshops can also be used as a stepping stone towards a few larger competitions with a focus on socially responsible themes, including: iCampus Student Prize, IDEAS Global Challenge or the Imagine Cup.
See also: http://globalchallenge.mit.edu/events/view/203

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BIOTECH

Biotech Business Information for Engineers and Scientists
It’s not Brain Surgery…it’s Market Research. This session will introduce scientists and engineers to information resources that cover biotechnology industries and markets. We will use realistic examples and hands-on exercises with key resources to demonstrate how to match your ideas and discoveries with the opportunities and realities of the marketplace.

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ENERGY

Momentum (Formerly Second Summer)
This year students will work on designing Portable Windmills for Electricity Generation in Remote Areas.
This short course offers students an interdisciplinary perspective on solving some of the world’s biggest challenges to date. These issues span topics covered in a wide variety of fields, such as business, engineering and the social sciences. How will MIT develop the best technologies? Scientists must delve into the area of interest and understand the need of the people; they must assess environmental and social impacts; and they must ensure feasibility – scientifically and economically – so that the technology can be produced.

Introduction to Wind Energy
- Wind Energy 101 – An introduction to wind power technology
- Wind Energy 102 – An introduction to wind physics and resource assessment
About the speaker: Alex Kalmikov is a PhD candidate in Mechanical and Ocean Engineering at the MIT-WHOI Joint Program. He is the co-chair of the MIT Wind Energy Club and leads the MIT Wind Energy Projects in Action (WEPA) student team.

Energy Information: Industries and Statistics
Interested in researching or working in the field of energy? Want to find out how your energy project fits into the landscape of various industries? This session will give you the skills to research the business and statistical information on energy to find industry overviews, market research, news and data.

MIT Clean Energy Prize Founder’s Panel Discussion – From PhD to Clean Energy Venture
Are you a grad student with a clean energy technology that you think could be turned into a product? Are you passionate about clean energy and are wondering how you can maximize your impact? Want to know what it’s like to start a new cleantech venture? If any of these describe you, then come check out the Founder’s Panel Discussion sponsored by the MIT Clean Energy Prize. Several previous-MIT PhDs, now-clean energy entrepreneurs, will share with you their motivations behind their career choice, their challenges and successes in their journey from academia to entrepreneurship and answer questions you may have about taking an idea and building a successful business around it. While targeted towards current graduate students, this event is also open to undergraduate students with a passion for clean energy entrepreneurship.

Cool Shorts: Climate Change on Web Video
This class, cosponsored by Knight Science Journalism at MIT, focuses on the production of several short videos about climate change, meant for web distribution. The goal will be to explore, visualize or enliven topics around climate science with visual/dramatic originality, surprise, suspense or humor. Reaching a broad audience is the intent.

“Horses and Thunder” – Meeting the Energy Needs and Oil Exploration and Production in the Deepwaters
How will we meet our growing energy needs in the future, especially for transportation, which is heavily dependent on oil? More and more oil is discovered and produced offshore, in deeper and deeper water. How do we know where to drill and how do you actually drill for oil? What are some of the enormous engineering challenges in working at 5000’ of water and below? How do we produce it efficiently, bring it to shore safely, and then go beyond? What are some of the recent developments in science and engineering that will take us further?
This short course will focus on gaining a better understanding of exploring, drilling, and producing oil and gas in the deepwaters, including:
Energy needs & role of offshore oil
Exploration – the idea phase
Drilling – the discovery & development phase
Production – the extraction phase
Transportation – getting it to market
Recent science & engineering developments

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PRESENTATION SKILLS

Making the Most of Your Presentation
Strong oral presentation skills are a key to success for engineers, scientists, and other professionals, yet many speakers are at a loss to tackle the task. Systematic as they otherwise can be in their work, they go at it intuitively, sometimes haphazardly, with much good will but seldom good results. Based on Dr. Doumont’s book “Trees, maps, and theorems” about “effective communication for rational minds” this lecture proposes a systematic way to prepare and deliver presentations. Among others, it covers structure, slides, and delivery, as well as stage fright.

Road Signs: Finding Your Way in the Visual World
In most countries, road signs are graphical: rather than words, they use shape, color, and a variety of icons to convey meaning. Still, are they truly visual? Are they, for example, interpreted faster than word signs? Are they more intuitive, more accessible, more universal?
Through observation of road signs in their natural ecosystem around the world, this session explores basic concepts of visual communication, applicable to a wide array of graphical representations.

How to Speak
You can improve your speaking ability in critical situations by observing a few heuristic rules. Professor Winston’s collection of rules is presented along with examples of their application not only in lectures, but also in job talks, thesis defenses, and oral examinations.

MIT Can Talk: Workshop Series
Many great thinkers of the past, the so called “Renaissance Men”, excelled in both Engineering/Science and Exposition/Rhetoric/Oration. There is no reason why the MIT engineers and scientists of today, the creative men and women who will be the leaders of tomorrow, cannot do so as well. “MIT Can Talk” promotes campus-wide awareness of good oral communication skills. It consists of: (1) a series of independent workshop sessions on public speaking/oral communication, followed by (2) a speaking competition. The workshops are open to the MIT community, but the contest is open only to MIT undergraduates and MEng students.

Effective Speaking
Have you always wondered why some people seem at ease with public speaking? Have others told you to speak up because you speak too softly, or perhaps you are self-conscious because of your accent? Well, this class is for you! You will learn the proper techniques for projecting your voice and delivering a talk. (Prerequisite – must be an MIT Student, Faculty, Staff or Affiliate to attend class.)

Leveraging the Internet and Social Media for Marketing
Social Media, Mobile Technology, and the web have changed how we interact, consume content, and interact with companies. How can businesses, startups or individuals leverage these new technologies and their effect on consumers to drive business goals? In this series we will examine how to create Epic Content, use social media channels, and mobile technology to drive customer action and build your brand.

Competitive Presenting
Strong presentation skills are a valuable asset for engineers and scientists, yet there are few possibilities to practice presenting independent of the subject matter. Competitive presenting, e.g. Science Slams, offers a great way to practice presenting and to try out new ideas or styles.
The first session will consist of an introduction and discussion of how to structure, prepare and deliver a good and interesting presentation. Participants will also be given a topic on which to prepare a presentation. The second session will require the participants to deliver their 5-minute presentations with the rest of the group providing feedback.

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HANDS-ON BUILDING

Build Your Own Electric Guitar
Students in the class will build their own solid-body, bolt-on neck electric guitar or bass using a system of router templates that are easy to use and give high-quality results.

Build Your Own Loudspeakers
This is a hands-on introduction to the engineering and art of speaker design. How speakers work, the acoustics of enclosure design, baffle layout and crossover electronics will all be covered. We also examine the frequency response and distortion behavior of individual drivers and see how these are influenced by the design. Students will make enclosure parts as a team then assemble and finish their own pair of speakers.

Design for Manufacturing
“Design for Manufacturing” is a weeklong course that discusses the link between machine design and selection of manufacturing processes, with a focus on technologies available to MIT students. The course will examine strengths, limitations, and dimensional capabilities of processing techniques like machining, 2D processes (laser / waterjet), and 3d printing. The link between design and manufacturing will be discussed in terms of design manufacturability and the ability of a particular manufacturing process to meet component form, fit, and function. Best practices for engineering drawings will be presented so that design intent can be effectively communicated to machine shops. Advance registration is preferred; no enrollment limit.

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HEALTH
Mobile Health in Developing Countries: Sana and OpenMRS
The interactive sessions will focus on the Sana Android client and our extensions to OpenMRS, a widely used open source medical records system. Sana is currently looking to expand and refine the available features we provide in both of areas.

MIT Media Lab – Health and Wellness Innovation 2012 – Come hack to save healthcare
The MIT Media Lab is proud to announce that the Health and Wellness Innovation event is back for its third year! Researchers, hackers, physicians, and industry experts, in one location, creating disruptive healthcare technologies today.
Join us for two weeks from January 17th – January 27th, 2012. Together we are going to build the next generation of technologies to engage and empower patients and save healthcare.

Low-cost energy storage devices for developing countries

The race to create low-cost energy storage devices has spurred many start-up companies like Ballast Energy, a company founded by MIT graduates Bryan Ho (PhD, 2011) and Bryan Ng (SM, 2008) earlier this year.  I had the opportunity to pick their brains about the challenges and potential impact of energy storage devices, their technology, and their experience as entrepreneurs.

1. What are the main problems with the electrical grid now?

Currently there is very little energy storage on the grid in the U.S.  Fundamentally, that means that electricity must be consumed immediately as it’s being generated.  This leads to a lot of synchronization problems and results in a very inefficient grid.  The U.S. has even built additional power plants to account for the occasional spike in energy use during peak hours.  These expansive power plants are needed very infrequently and are very expensive to fire up.

Developing countries face the same problem, but the challenges are exacerbated because their electrical grids are not as robust as those in the U.S., and there are many issues associated with local grid access, particularly in remote villages.  Furthermore, there often are not enough generators to provide energy during peak hours, so the power just goes out when energy demand is high.

2. What is an energy storage device and how does it help?

The purpose of an energy storage device is to provide a layer of buffering between energy generation and consumption, allowing people to use electricity in a manner that is much more efficient.  For the U.S., this means that we don’t need to continue building power plants that are rarely used and expensive to fire up.  Furthermore, electricity can be cheaper because it can be stored during low-demand times to be used during times of peak demand.  The development of energy storage devices is also critical alongside the ongoing development of renewable energy sources, since energy storage can smooth out intermittencies in solar and wind generation.  In developing countries, energy storage devices mean fewer power outages where there is a grid, and more efficient power usage in remote villages that can generate their own electricity through renewable energy.

3. What kinds of technologies are used for energy storage devices and how does your technology fit in?

Energy storage devices can be categorized by their energy storage mechanisms.  There are pumped hydro devices that pump water to be run through a turbine when energy is needed.  It requires a lot of space and there hasn’t been a new installation in decades. Secondly, there are compressed air devices, which can operate both below and above ground.  The concept is similar to that of pumped hydro but it’s done with air instead of water.  Third, there are electrochemical batteries, which can be divided into static and flow batteries, including lead-acid, Li-ion, Na-ion, liquid metal, etc.  There are many more, including devices based on gravity, flywheels, and capacitors.

One major problem with large-scale energy storage devices is the cost.  Current options for large-scale lithium-ion batteries involve stringing together a tractor-trailer full of smaller batteries to construct one large battery.  These methods are inefficient and expensive due to packing material costs.  Ballast Energy is looking into redesigning and reengineering electrochemical batteries specifically for the grid.

4.  What criteria do energy storage devices have to have to be used in the U.S. and in developing countries?

Depending on the application and mission of for the storage, the criteria for energy storage devices may vary.  Furthermore, commercial applications in urban areas have many of the same criteria as anything we’d purchase in the U.S.  Often what people have in mind when thinking of “applications in the developing world,” are off-grid applications in slums or rural areas.  In that case, the batteries need to be stable (doesn’t need a lot of maintenance and are more tolerant to less strictly controlled environments), inexpensive, distributable, and ideally have a long lifetime.

5. Can you put “low-cost” in context?

It depends on the type of application because not all types of power or energy usages are priced equally.  For the market that we’re targeting, which is energy or bulk storage where the charge/discharge rate is 1-6 hours, batteries currently cost $600+ per kilowatt-hour (kWh).  The price will go down over time, but Ballast is targeting $200-$250 kWh immediately.

6. Do you have any advice for aspiring MIT entrepreneurs?

MIT has a tremendous amount of resources, including intelligent and passionate people, competitions like the $100K or IDEAS, equipment, and programs/classes/clubs like iTeams, VMS, Ventureships, and Energy Ventures.  There are many opportunities for students to get involved with start-up companies and ventures, and vice versa.  Take advantage of these resources and don’t be afraid to ask questions or ask for help.

Brilliant ideas should be shared

Two weeks ago Eric Schmidt visited MIT, and talked about the incredible potential of technology to create a collective intelligence, a “global mind,” that can solve the world’s biggest problems.

And while modern technology giants have their proponents and detractors, last weekend’s Farm Hack epitomized this ideal of a collective intelligence that can improve our lives in a concrete, measurable way.

On November 17th, 25 farmers, scientists, designers, and agriculture enthusiasts gathered on Dorn Cox’s organic farm in New Hampshire for a design charrette. According to the wiki dictionary:

A design charrette is a method of organizing thoughts from experts and the public into a structured medium that is unrestricted and conducive to the creativity and the development of a myriad of scenarios.

We spent all day Saturday looking at the innovations Dorn had rigged on his farm, and thinking about how we could all get more creative about small-scale agriculture. Dorn had rigged a tractor to automatically install fencing; he set up a backyard biodiesel processor, so his equipment could run sustainably; he used radishes to reinvigorate his soil, avoiding the need to fertilize or over-till his fields. I watched, enthralled, as Farm Hack attendees dug into Dorn’s inventions, asking questions and “reverse engineering” his equipment so they could recreate it on their own farms.

We also discussed some high-tech innovations that could revolutionize smallholder farming. One Farm Hack attendee has been working on GardenBot, which is open-source software for, well, a robot that uses a tiny computer (called an Arduino) to help you monitor what’s happening in your garden. It can even automate your cooling and watering systems.

Farm Hack participants brainstorm new tools for small farmers, including a forum for idea- and invention-sharing

Farm Hack participants brainstorm new tools for small farmers, including a forum for idea- and invention-sharing

But this design charrette wasn’t limited to practical tips from one farmer to another. Small-scale farmers encounter obstacles every day, and often struggle to connect with a larger community that may have already solved that day’s challenge. So Farm Hack’s ultimate goal is to build a forum where farmers can access one another’s innovation in a lasting, scalable way.

In this vein, Sunday we brainstormed what farmers need to be wildly successful in their work, and how we can create a virtual community to support that. The National Young Farmers’ Coalition is now starting an open source forum where agriculture practitioners and researchers can share blueprints and inventions, or seek help and guidance for everyday challenges. This forum will help farmers build off the momentum and brains of their colleagues – down the street, or across the planet.

I think this is exactly the good stuff Eric Schmidt was talking about.