Solar Mosaic Fires a Shot at Banking

I’m in Berkeley, and my old friend Dan Rosen has been gracious enough to show me around a bit. Dan is the CEO of Solar Mosaic – a young solar company on an interesting journey.

The development of Solar Mosaic is an example of what happens when passion and commitment lead the show. The company grew from a desire on the part of its co-founders – Rosen and Billy Parish – to enable and encourage solar in whatever ways they could.

A stack of Parish's new book in front of a picture of the community funded solar on top of the Asian Resource Center.

At first, they crowd sourced no-interest loans for community solar projects. They put 28.8kW of solar panels on top of The Asian Resource Center in Oakland, and continued to do the same in a small handful of other community projects. As they waded into the field, they started to sense a larger opportunity – distributed investment.

They’re about to launch a platform that will allow anybody to invest in solar projects at a respectable rate of return. The solar developers will get loans for their projects at rates below what they can get from the bank. Solar Mosaic takes a modest fee, and everyone is happy – except the banks.

The Entrepreneur Access to Capital Act that is making its way through Congress points to similar ideas – crowd-venture funding and community-owned businesses. Although they’d love to see the law pass, Solar Mosaic isn’t putting all their eggs in that basket – their investment instruments will be approved by the SEC under current laws.

What’s beautiful about what happening here is that the company’s commitment to making a difference led them into a space that they didn’t imagine they would enter. They’ll be enabling development of solar infrastructure, as they originally hoped, but they’ll be doing much more – creating a disruptive funding model that cuts out the middle-man and promises to change the way we build.

In Austin, Food is Free

When John VanDeusen moved in across the street from his friend Christian Bradley on Joe Sayers avenue in Austin, the block looked like any other low-density urban block – a street, driveways, grass on the lawns, nothing to mark it as unusual.  A few short months later, Joe Sayers avenue is anything but usual.

The First Wicking Bed

The First Wicking Bed

They call it Food is Free and the idea couldn’t be simpler: Grow your own food.  Already, two thirds of the houses on the block have garden beds out front, and words is spreading quick.  Beds are showing up in neighboring blocks, and “Food is Free” bumper stickers are being seen all over the city.

For water-scarce Austin, the key is the wicking bed.  Instead of planting the seeds right in the earth, where they’d have to be watered nearly every day, they’re creating beds with simple water reservoirs underneath the soil.  It sounds tricky, but it really couldn’t be easier.  Put a layer of crushed glass underneath the soil and you have a water reservoir.  The water stays cool, doesn’t evaporate, and the beds only have to be watered once every two weeks.

One of the beautiful things about the whole project is that it’s turning waste streams into food.  The beds are built out of used wooden pallets and post-consumer crushed glass.  John has 6 compost piles on his lawn, and anyone is welcome to throw their organic waste on the pile. Wood chips are leftovers from a local tree removal service.  One of the wicking beds was made from leftover political signs. Says John – “This has to be the best use of a political sign, ever.”

Gardens along Joe Sayers Avenue

Gardens along Joe Sayers Avenue

To start out, John and Christian built one wicking bed, and put a white board up next to it.  They wrote a short manifesto, let a lot of open space, and by the end of the week, the whiteboard was filled with email addresses.  A street full of food gardens in urban America is cool, but what’s really turning people on are the side effects.  Everyone on this block knows each others names, there’s a friendliness to it, and a feeling of shared mission.  People are starting to think about their food systems.  A quizzical look leads to a hello, a hello to a question, and a question soon leads to a new garden bed.

“We’re learning how to retrofit neighborhoods”, says Christian, looking out over an urban block that is growing into something worth talking about.

[ed: John dropped me a note, pointing out a mistake in my chronology.  Here’s what he writes: “Christian moved in after me, I’ve lived on the block for almost 3 years. He moved here in August and this project got kicked off in January. Having support on the block definitely gave the project momentum when I decided to take the plunge with the idea.”  Here’s to the support of friends!]

From the Road: Building Toward the Heart

I’m on the road now, exploring and investigating how we, as a species, are building this planet. From urban fabric to paving stones, I’ll be writing about what I find. First stop: Austin, Texas. How come no one told me that SXSW was happening here? Well – there’s music on every corner. My first stop, though, is a bit off the beaten path – a network of food gardens that’s transforming an otherwise unremarkable street. Stay tuned…

Non-Renewable Resources

Information Is Beautiful ran a visualization contest to show how many years of resources we have left at current utilization levels (or at current rates of increase.)  There are some beautiful submissions that made the short list and that won.

A friend helped me do a bit more research to document how much of the original supply we have already used, and I leaned on the Google chart toolkit to put up pretty charts of who is doing the most extracting for each of the resources listed.  Click on through to see my entry – Non-Renewable. (Note: It looks the way it should in Firefox, Chrome, and Safari. Sorry Internet Explorer users.)

The Filter Bubble’s Filter

Just came across a link to a TED talk by Eli Pariser in support of his new book – The Filter Bubble.

From watching the video, the argument is interesting.  In short, he claims that the big gateway sites – Google, Facebook, etc. are increasingly using algorithms to tailor information to their viewers, only showing them what they want to see and ‘hiding’ from them all other information, be it boring or unpleasant or disquieting or what-have-you.  Ultimately, he claims, this threatens the dream of the Internet as the great connector.  These algorithms, he claims, are in the same seat as the Newspaper editors of the 20’s, and need to be programmed to include the lessons learned from those times – editorial balance, etc.

From this short presentation, though, it looks to me like he does a lot of his own filtering of facts in order to set up this equivalence between the newspaper editors of the ’20s and the algorithms of today.  The biggest difference is that in the 20s, most people saw exactly 1 newspaper, and that’s how they got their picture of the world.  On the web, you choose your sources of info.  Most people have many, and everyone can have as many as they like.

The Internet is an information marketplace and a filter marketplace.  There are any number of different kinds of filters – each person decides which ones they use, and the market as a whole decides which ones become popular.  Moreover – even the big ‘fitlerers’ that he fingers – Google and Facebook – don’t block out any information.  You want to see what your conservative friends are up to?  Click on their pages.  Facebook’s response?  It’ll show you more about them.  Want to learn about any topic at all in Google?  Search for it.  Nothing’s hidden.

The argument here boils down to a claim that lazy people who aren’t interested should be given a default mix that has broader boundaries.  Yet, there’s no reason to claim that once a particular website / filter / presentation of information becomes popular it suddenly has to change it’s magic-mix that made it popular in order to make sure people get a a balanced picture.  If people want a balanced picture there is no barrier to them getting it, besides habit.  Why does any particular website have to be paternalistic about what info it shows its users?  “They want Justin Beiber, but we’ll give them Greek Philosophy.”  It’s silly.

Should a website make it’s filter explicit and adjustable?  If people want it, then there will be websites that do.  All the rules of open markets apply.

You don’t have to be a fanboy…

Pretty much every time I read Seth Godin, I get a good reminder to step outside of my narrow thinking and look broader.  It happened this time as well, but there’s one point I need to take issue with in his post on Senior Management.

It’s the Steve Jobs assessment that doesn’t sit well with me. You just don’t grab dominant market share in areas where you didn’t even have a footprint without having a deep understanding of how the market currently works.  It’s also misleading to claim the Apple has no significant online or social media presence.  iTunes doesn’t obey the rules of the open web, but it is certainly both an online and social destination.  By any metric you’d like to use, it’s one of the top destinations of the Internet.

Flickr Shows us How to Change

Flickr changed their photo page.  I haven’t even interacted with the new page yet, and I already like it.  Why?  The way they introduced it to me.   From the initial ‘want to see the future’ to the 5 step quick tour, to the surprise guest.

Go check it out.  I’ll wait.

I don’t know about you, but after seeing this, I immediately thought of Facebook.  Every time Facebook changes anything, all streams are a-flutter with people forswearing the new, pining for the old.

What did Flickr do right?

  1. They didn’t force change on me, they let me choose it.  They even tempted me in and stimulated a desire for the new.
  2. Once I jumped over, they helped me understand how to operate in the new environment.
  3. They worked hard to put a smile on my face when it was all done.

Well done.

Conway’s Law – Once Again

When I first heard of Conway’s law, I though it was a geek joke.  After years of seeing it play out again and again, I’m realizing that it actually communicates a deep truth about how the world works.

Conway’s law (in my words):
Any organization that creates something is doomed/destined to create something that is a mirror image of its own organizational structure.

I’m doing some consulting work for a small organization that is spread out over two continents.  Two continents, about 10 computers, and probably no official full time employees.  The fellow who runs it does so out of love, and he hires people to handle issues as they come up.  There have to be at least 4 or 5 technical folks with their hands on these machines.  Maybe more.  Truth is – I don’t know how many there are, because I’ve never met them.  I don’t even know most of their names.  One fellow I can catch on skype, but I don’t have his phone number.

And the systems of this organization look exactly the same way – a scattering of programs and computers that are cobbled together by a mess of scripts that either don’t interface with each other, or do so in a totally unique and unpredictable way.  When something breaks, it’s an archeology exercise to figure out how it was built and what went wrong.

The organization wants to fix the problem by finding ‘a better computer person’ to add to the group.  Meanwhile, the rest of the bunch still have their fingers in their part of the mix.  If they really wanted to get things shaped up, they’d either hire a serious full time person to take on the whole picture, or at least insist that all the people involved have a regular conference call.  Without that, Conway’s law is going to keep us all poking away at a scattered bunch of misaligned things that don’t come together into anything cohesive.