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Don’t Rebuild the Wheel, Evolve, and Make Th...

Don’t Rebuild the Wheel, Evolve, and Make Things Better, Right?

Technology has spawned innovations in shared learning unimaginable less than a generation ago.

Wikipedia has transformed encyclopedias such as the World Book, making information available to anyone with Internet access.  YouTube tutorials, Moocs and online classes have placed shared learning at our fingertips.  Our entire educational system is being infused with new technologies that are replacing the old paradigm of the teacher standing at the front of the class, while students listen, take notes, then regurgitate the information presented.


Some of the new virtual destinations may be regarded as disruptive: Expedia and Travelocity putting bricks and mortar travel agencies out of business, Amazon causing the demise of what was once a robust urban retail industry. New technologies are stimulating new communities of shared learning that are emerging at such a rapid-fire rate, we often do not realize we stand in the midst of this huge paradigm upheaval.


So how do we make use of this new, shared learning paradigm? If you have a radical idea, where can you learn about best practices or about avoiding the mistakes of entrepreneurs and inventors who have gone before and not rely on trial and error?


Recently, I was introduced to a website called Appropedia.  Using the same platform as Wikipedia, this exciting new virtual destination aims to stimulate innovation where technology, poverty reduction and sustainability intersect. I interviewed Lonny Grafman, the founder and president of Appropedia, whose mandate is to build rich, sustainable lives. How does he do that? By creating a peer-learning site where everyone is welcome to add and edit the successes and failures of their projects. I spoke to Lonny to learn more.


Using Technology to Learn from Others’ Mistakes


Paul Shore: When did you start Appropedia and why did you start it?

Lonny Grafman: I started Appropedia in 2005.  But people have been starting things like Appropedia for tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of years. At first, it was just sharing with your neighbours. You’d be like, “hey how did you do that?”

But then by the time I was born, it was shared on physical bulletin boards and then it was on the internet on bulletin board systems…BBSs which you might remember. So before the internet there were lots of things like Appropedia, but they just didn’t work that well.

In 2006, I started Appropedia in its current form. In 2005, I totally messed up and tried to build it from scratch…the entire platform. And it was terrible. It took me a thousand hours to make but never had a thousand hours of visitors.


PS: Why didn’t you just find some sort of open source platform to use instead?


LG: Because I was just a fool at first!

I wasn’t following my own tenet, like the tenet of appropriate technology. One of them is not to re-build the wheel. The tenet of open source is to share so that we can keep evolving and make things better, right? And somehow I just totally spaced that for a second. And when I say a second, I mean 7 months!


PS: What stimulated your interest to create a place of shared learning where sustainability, poverty reduction and appropriate technologies intersect?


LG: Well, need. When I was poor and there wasn’t an Appropedia, and I was trying to build these technologies with friends, we had no idea what we were doing and we didn’t feel like there was anywhere to look. We were just experimenting.


PS: What would have helped at the time? Would it have been helpful to have had case studies of people who’ve tried to do similar things and why they failed?


LG: Yes! That’s what Appropedia is. It’s a bunch of case studies. And that would have helped.

Appropedia strongly encourages people to share their failures and we even have people who go check on projects years later to see what happened.

That combined with the fact that I had just started teaching at Humboldt State University, maybe a year and a half before that.  And I’d have my students turn in these projects making the same mistakes as previous students, turning in almost the same projects. They weren’t reaching the levels of success I wanted so I wanted to say, “come into my office and see the studies on my shelves from last year.”

It was just frustrating and demoralizing, so in part I wanted something for the world but also for my students and then Appropedia became the two of those things. I went back to the drawing board and did it the right way: I used the Wikipedia platform and just adapted it; within a couple of months, a bunch of people had already joined. Within 6 months or so, a few Wikis had already shut down and joined us. Well, not shut down but just merged with us within a year because our community was just more active. Then it just kept going.

Now we’ve had over a quarter million edits and over 60 million views. We have visitors from every country except for a few everyday.


PS: There’s some very innovative stuff you’re trying to share with people. What are some of the benefits of these new forms of shared learning and some of the drawbacks?


LG: Well, the biggest benefit is just the amazing speed and impact that everyone can have.

When we become each other’s research and development, there’s a lot of ideas and resources and no individual one of us may have a million dollars to throw in to R&D, but there’s a hundred thousand of us that have 10 bucks worth of time to throw in to it.

When we become each other’s research and development, we see things… rainwater catchment systems.

I was in Nicaragua looking at a rainwater catchment system and it actually had a first flush which is a part on the system you don’t know you need until a few years in and you still might not know it. It gets rid of the first 10 minutes of rain, 90% of the dirtiness of rain, but it’s not an obvious thing you need.  I was like “Where did you learn to do that?” and he said, “Appropedia!”  I was overjoyed.


PS: That’s amazing!


LG: Yeah, that’s the coolest thing ever! But here’s the thing: If all of us build a rainwater catchment system based on knowing you can catch rainfall, all of us are going to have defective rainwater catchment systems. But if we share our knowledge and case studies and we keep iterating, we can learn from other peoples past failures. Then we know things like -”Oh, put in a first flush”, – things that aren’t immediately obvious.

Once you start doing that, you can have better and better systems and these systems can compete on any level. To me that’s one of the strong advantages.

A disadvantage is the mess you end up with. If you have examples of 25 rainwater catchment systems to look at, then are you looking at all of them? So one of the things we would like to have is a rating system, to give people a sense of which ones are the most cost-appropriate.


PS: As a person who was an early adopter of technology- based innovations in shared learning, and as a teacher in a University class environment, what are you seeing?


LG: I blend them. I see the benefit of teacher as oracle, as incubator but it’s not the model I follow most of the time.

I follow the model of teacher is the facilitator of the learning process. I see myself as just facilitating the learning and Appropedia makes that easier because the students’ textbook wasn’t written by me; it was written by their peers from previous years.

You’re learning about rainwater catchment from some experts, but also from a lot of previous students. So you realize you are a creator of learning…themselves.

The cool thing about it is that I end up learning so much every semester because I am a student with them.


PS: You’re a peer! You’re learning while you’re teaching…


LG: Ultimately I have to do the grading because I am at a grading University that sets up a power dynamic, but I just try to be really transparent about it and not only transparent, we create the curriculum together, so people have a say in how much percentage things are gonna be worth….But the downside of it is that it takes a lot more work. The curriculum has to change every year to an extent because every year it’s a different project.


PS: And there are new technologies and innovations that have to be incorporated into the learning, right?


LG: Absolutely. For one class, I probably used 7 different project management suites!


About Lonny Grafman

Lonny Grafman is an Instructor of Environmental Resources Engineering and Appropriate Technology at Humboldt State University in California. He is the Founder of the Practivistas Summer Abroad, a full immersion, Spanish language and resilient community technology program in Dominican Republic. He is also the CEO of Propelsion, a design and creativity incubator in Humboldt County.

Lonny has taught courses at universities in four countries and facilitated interactive workshops in dozens of locations. He has worked, and led teams, on hundreds of domestic and international projects across a broad spectrum of sustainability – from solar power to improved cookstoves, from micro-hydro power to rainwater catchment, from earthen construction to plastic bottle schoolrooms. Throughout all of these technology implementations, he has found that the most vital component is community.

Watch Lonny’s Ted Talk


E-180 | Labs‘ mission is to transform events, spaces and organisations into peer-learning hubs, through what we call Brain Dates. Learn how here!

Paul Shore

Paul Shore is a Montreal-based social entrepreneur and videojournalist. In 2000, Paul started to work as Canada Bureau Chief for the start-up Guerrilla News Network (GNN), a later critically acclaimed alternative news network that spawned a community of millions before Youtube and Facebook. As Shore recalls, “GNN was one of the internet’s first open source news networks, and was an early example of a virtual platform where strangers could congregate and share their knowledge and articles. We could not have predicted that so many viewers were longing to communicate and share their ideas and passions with others.” In 2004, Shore co-founded a Canadian non-profit called Apathy Is Boring. What started out as a sarcastic publicity campaign and website to get young people to vote, has since evolved to become a serious access point for young Canadians to learn about our political system. Apathy Is Boring spawned a community of learning that its founders hadn’t even anticipated. His current project Quelque Show is a bilingual speaker’s corner for Montrealers, an attempt to bridge the growing divide between everyday citizens and our political leaders. Paul’s work can be found at: