Thoughts on Citizen Energy

The “right to the city” is described by David Harvey as:

The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.

Although it was a bit of a slog, I enjoyed the ideas presented in his book Rebel Cities, and have continued to think about how I as a citizen can play an active role in the shaping of my city’s development. Thus, I was very excited to welcome Kusunoki Masashi of Citizen Energy Ikoma to come and speak about how his group put solar panels on the rooves of public buildings. see previous post about the talk.

What Japan and Germany have been doing

Japan is particularly vulnerable when it comes to energy disruption since it needs to import more than 80% of its energy requirements (if you want to know more in excruciating detail, see my master’s thesis on the topic). But the 2011 Fukushima disaster was a massive blow. The 9.0 Tōhoku earthquake caused a tsunami which triggered the nuclear meltdown causing nearly 16,000 deaths and hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people. Five years later, Japan is still heavily engaged in the cleanup. In the wake of the disaster, all 50 of Japan’s nuclear reactors were shut down. Starting last year, despite much public protest, the Abe Administration has begun restarting nuclear power plants.

In the meantime there have been a number of citizen-led movements for safer, more resilient energy resources similar to Citizen Energy Ikoma. Many are inspired by the experience of Germany. As part of the Energiewende (“Energy Transition”), decentralizing and democratizing energy production has been a key effort. Municipalities and citizens have been taking back energy utilities and in 2012, one in sixty Germans was an energy producer. The number of energy coops has risen to over 1000 in 2015.


The Energiewende policy started in 2010, but after the Fukushima disaster in Japan, Germany set policy to shut off all its nuclear reactors by 2022. (The Energiewende is a very complex topic beyond the scope of this post. If you want an overview, check out this dispatch in FP and this National Geographic piece.)

Using our right to our city

Distributed energy supply, disaster-proofing resilient communities, and fighting climate change at the local level… it is all pretty inspiring stuff and makes me think about how this can be applied to my own city.

Kelowna gets about 305 days of sun a year, with 1950 hours of bright sunshine. Plus it gets very little snowfall: only about 5 days a year with more than 5cm, and 1.4 days with more than 10. (data) What this means is that we have a lot of flat rooves. All that flat area and all that sunshine makes for a good argument for putting solar panels everywhere.

Just this summer Kelowna City Hall replaced its roof. What if they had installed solar panels up there? Scratch that: what if we installed solar panels up there? How many other public buildings, schools and open areas could be used towards these ends? If the city does not have the capacity to do this, Ikoma and all the other cities in Japan and Germany prove that we as citizens can. They serve as examples of how to use our right to the city.

More people than bots?

In 1975, BusinessWeek magazine imagined the rise of the paperless office as computer use became more widespread. Of course, over the following two decades, consumption of paper doubled. A couple more decades on, we are finally seeing year-on-year decreases in office paper use, at least in North America and Europe.

One recent tech fascination is bots. Retailers are especially interested in bots which will allow consumers to ask unstructured questions about products and help them order pizza or whatever. Bots may be the latest advance in customer service automation, but, they aren’t quite up to scratch. There are still plenty of limits to overcome with machine-learning and natural language processing. It will not likely take four decades like the paperless office, but automated sales bots are still a ways off. In the meantime, what is likely to happen? To put it another way, how will the “paper double”?

Continue reading “More people than bots?”


Library of books I never read — Fired!

Closet full of clothes I never wear — Fired!

Old couch and coffee tables taking up space in the living room — Fired!

Living room — Fired!

Credit card debt — Fired!

We’ve been downsizing. Over the past couple of years we have been removing ourselves from the systems of debt and consumerism and working towards living more sustainably. This has proven to be a long process, where one must question every part of one’s life. We are not anywhere near done yet, but we have been building momentum.
Continue reading “Downsizing”

The Interest Stack and Attention Debt

Me in 2003, deep in thought watching the Cambodia jungle.
Me in 2003, deep in thought, watching the Cambodian jungle, back when life was simple.

Levels of analysis is a way of studying a political problem from (generally) three different perspectives: individual, state, and the international system. Using this framework I started examining my interests — all of the things I keep tabs on and projects I am involved in outside of my day job. There are a lot, and I fear I might have to go on another information diet. This is simply an exercise in mapping all the directions my brain is being pulled in a at once. Once that is achieved, I can better apply the scalpel to gain back more time to think.

Lining my interests up by scale like some sort of technology stack I came up with the following categories:

  • Individual
  • Family
  • Community
  • Citizen
  • Global
  • Space

Here is a breakdown of each one:
Continue reading “The Interest Stack and Attention Debt”

Amateur academia

Despite the end of the “golden age of academia”, I yearn for an even earlier time: the time of 18th century coffee houses, or as they were known: penny universities. I have been out of academia for a few years (BA from UBC in ’02, MA from RMC in ’08) but I have maintained an interest in academic research. On my own I try to read, think and write with academic rigour. I would like to engage more with academia, and judging by number of meetups and plethora of platforms like Coursera, I think there are many “lifelong learners” that would love to continue to participate in expanding human knowledge in a part-time fashion. Thus, my proposal:

Universities and colleges should develop a bridge between their “professional” academics and “amateur” academics in the community. Astronomy has been able to benefit by organizing networks of amateur astronomers and citizen scientists, but those of us in the humanities and social sciences are locked out of participating and contributing to the academy.

Alumni events and public talks are great, but since they are aimed at the public, they are typically too general to be of interest to the engaged “amateur” academic. At his talk last week I asked Ron Deibert about how I can participate in Citizen Lab research. He didn’t have an answer for me. At the alumni event last night UBC was promoting their Aspire initiative, trying to crowdsource ways the university could interact with the community. I wrote my idea down and later saw that a few people +1’d it (talk about the blurred lines between online and offline!). I hope my alma mater UBC can explore this idea, and maybe develop a model to be used worldwide. It could be a small way to return academia to an earlier golden age of engagement, rather than merely the “diploma mill” it has become over the past generation.

Towards an information-centric political philosophy

It took about 100 years of the Industrial Age before Karl Marx introduced a revolutionary new political philosophy centered on the most important issue affecting citizens of the day: labour. One hundred and fifty years later, nearly a half century into the Information Age, we have yet to move on. The increasingly numerous knowledge-worker proletariat has not mobilized for a political philosophy centered around the most important commodity of our time: information. As Future Perfect author Steven Johnson put it of his own country: “The United States is still living with an operating system that was conceived and designed before railroads were invented.”

As I see it, there are two major facets of information that are critical for our society: manipulation and control.

The manipulation of information (ability to find, filter, analyze, etc) is key to being a productive citizen, and it is what we are trying to teach our children. More and more of our understanding in the fields of commerce, biology, climate science, sociology, etc. hinge on advancements in computing and networking capabilities. So many of our problems as a society are being recast as information problems. Having the skills to parse these problems is increasingly necessary.

Second, the control of information (transparency, privacy, surveillance, encryption, copyright, etc) is a critical question for our times. For the past 150 years Marxists have decried the exploitation of labour and encouraged citizens to value their labour and use it as a source of power. Today, whether it is the NSA or Facebook, it is information exploitation that needs to be brought to the attention of the general public. Institutions are learning to become more transparent and individuals are learning that they need to be better at controlling which of their information is public and private.

Thus, the engaged citizen of the 21st century must be information savvy (able to manipulate and control information) for both personal and economic reasons and deserves a political philosophy that reflects this reality. I am temporarily labeling such a philosophy “Information Politics”.

The alternatives

For the part of society that is already directly engaged in the manipulation and control of information (ie. the technology industry) there are typically four competing political movements available to choose from: libertarianism, crypto-anarchism, the Pirate movement and peer progressivism.

Whether or not libertarianism is rampant amongst the meritocratic digerati of Silicon Valley has been the subject of recent debate between New Yorker Columnist George Packer and author Steven Johnson. However, libertarian philosophy centers around personal liberty and private property. It is rooted in the anti-nobility movements of the 17th century. There are dozens of variations of libertarianism but what can be said is that “information” does not play a central role in the core political philosophy. It is the product of a different age.

Crypto-anarchism — with the rallying cry of “freedom through encryption!” — is considered a subcategory of libertarianism. It makes privacy a central tenet, as well as control of information through its advocacy of encryption technologies. Although I think it was an important contribution in the 1990s, there is not enough depth for a revolutionary political philosophy.

The Pirate Party movement rose out of the anti-copyright internet culture. The founder, Rick Falkvinge, thinks that “self-empowerment of the identity” is the “core” of their philosophy. The Pirate Wheel is his attempt to flesh out the niche pirate theme of copyright into a wider political philosophy. Like the internet, the Pirate movement is borderless. Yet, I find it interesting that even though the organizational operations of the Pirate Party reflect the internet, the method of action has been to participate in the staid domestic political systems based on Westphalian states, rather than taking a more disruptive approach.

Peer progressivism, as proposed by Steven Johnson in Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age (my review here) positions itself as an alternative to libertarianism. The philosophy is network-centric rather than information centric, but it has the advantage of being formed in an era with vast distributed communications networks, something the libertarian philosophers of the 17th century lacked. Future Perfect also impressed David Ronfeldt (of netwar fame). See his 4 part runthrough (1, 2, 3, 4)
of the book, comparing it to his own TIMN theoretical framework. Although I will not go into it here, I think peer progressivism shares many characteristics of the type of philosophy I am looking for, but the emphasis is slightly different.

In conclusion, of the four current alternatives, there seems to be no established fit for my ideal of Information Politics. I cannot seem to find an academic or thinker or philosopher attacking this problem of finding a political philosophy for the information age.

Questions going forward

In my search for Information Politics, I am left with a number of questions:

  • can Peer Progressivism turn into Information Politics? What about the Pirate movement?
  • or is Information Politics really just a subset of libertarianism? Could there be another classical root?
  • what does functional politics in IP look like? Liquid democracy? Participatory budgeting?
  • can this even fit into current (19th C) democratic political process?

Also, what kinds of questions need to be answered by a political philosophy in general?

  • economic theory
  • national security
  • international affairs (as a transnational movement, we might have the advantage of a ground up apolitical solution here)
  • native rights
  • climate change
  • justice

What are some core values of such a philosophy?

  • democratization
  • decentralization
  • access to information
  • transparency
  • freedom of information (copyright)
  • protection of privacy
  • shared innovation
  • meritocracy
  • the “network”
  • technology as a force for progress


I have been rolling this concept around in my mind for a few months now, and have built up many notes and articles. Unfortunately, I cannot dedicate enough time searching out resources. I expect there is an academic out there that has already gone over this ground. I would appreciate it if you all could suggest readings for me, or connect me to people who I could talk to to further develop my thinking on this problem. Heck, if you can come up with a snappier name, that’d be great! Please send me your feedback either by (encrypted) email or comment on Hacker News.

Embracing the Z-axis — OKDG after action report

“Technology changes society” is a truism but it is always worth asking “how?” At last night’s talk to the Okanagan Developer Group I used my trip to MakerHaus last February as a jumping off point to explore this question in light of recent advancements in the Maker Movement.

Me presenting at OKDG
Photos c/o @jvdwdesigns and @gunsinger. Yes, that is Lenin in the background.

MakerHaus (see my photos here) is a symbol of the democratization of manufacturing. Historically, putting the means of production into the hands of the people has wrought massive changes on society. Digital fabrication and personal manufacturing technologies like 3D printers, CNC machines and laser cutters are the latest iteration of this pattern. To paraphrase Chris Anderson, in the 1980s the Desktop Publishing revolution gave us the PRINT button and changed everything; in the 90s the internet revolution gave us the PUBLISH button and changed everything; now our computers are getting a MAKE button, and it will and change everything.

My talk at the Okanagan Developer Group focused on three dynamics: better tools, better products and the evolution of manufacturing. “Making” is not new. Humans have 200,000 years of evolutionary history as makers. The difference this time round is the new community of makers: typically digital creatives. These people are good at manipulating bits, and now have the power to turn bits into atoms. 30 years of computing heritage is disrupting 200,000 years of traditional making. We are already seeing exaptations from the digital into the physical world. The new makers and their new tools will lead to better products. It is time to apply the Long Tail to manufacturing. Small batch manufacturing means more customization and niche products. Rapid prototyping means tighter iterations in physical product development and more innovation. Similar to the digital world “beta” physical products are now a possibility. We are also seeing the evolution of manufacturing returning to the time of the single craftsperson, able to design and create a complete physical from scratch. Yet this new craftsperson has the power of globalization at their fingertips.

In this new age of digital fabrication and personal manufacturing you can send physical objects over the internet. It will result in changes in patterns of consumption and new design techniques, which we touched on in our discussion last night. Some of the products I introduced included:

However, there will be unintended consequences, and social problems that will need to be solved as 3D printers become more mainstream. We talked about the copyright problem, and the printing of illicit materials such as guns, viruses and drugs. Pollution was another big topic, including the issue of space, and our already huge problem with plastic. Consider when every household has a device that can create stuff at the push of a button, and that overwhelmingly that stuff will be made of plastic.

I closed by encouraging the audience to get involved by learning and doing, for example at OK Makerspace. For those that don’t want to actually make things, there is a lot of opportunity to get involved in the new industrial revolution by thinking about creative solutions to the problems raised. Furthermore I implored the audience to involve their children. The generation before us had to foresight to give us computers. We must do the same for our children.

During the question period the topics of printing food, the advancement of materials science and how 3D printing might change our economic relationship to China came up. It lead to intriguing discussion and I even got to deploy my thinking on what 3D printing and future recycling techniques will mean for Plato’s Theory of Forms. Overall, everyone seemed engaged and the reaction afterwards and on Twitter was encouraging.

Below are some links to resources, products and services that I mentioned in the talk. As usual, feel free to hit me up to learn more, or if you want to discuss these issues.

Makers: The New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson (my review here)

New Disruptors interview with Ellie and Mike Kemery of Makerhaus

New Disruptors interview with Chris Anderson

Make Magazine

Software Tree of Life follow up

Whiteboard from #LeanCoffeeKL 74

I presented my idea of the Software Tree of Life at #LeanCoffeeKL #74. It was a pretty high concept session but I think it challenged everyone that attended. It certainly challenged me as the attendees brought up a number of interesting points I had not thought of. If you look at the full-sized whiteboard photo you will notice on the right a list of “Other Factors.” Other than the industry specific factors of which I alluded to in my last post, most of the points can be summed up into two considerations: 1) competition, and 2) capital.

I mentioned the red ocean of competition in my last post, but it was brought up that in the Regulated Enterprise Kingdom, there is are often very few competitors. The market is yours if you can get into it. If you already have an in, this will seriously impact your opportunity assessment calculus. Further to this, it was proposed that there is such a thing as a Regulated Consumer Kingdom, for example customer-facing software for banking or telecoms. An excellent point.

Capital wise, some branches of the tree take much more initial capital in order to enter. This could mean cash, physical capital and even knowledge capital. R & D costs to understand the domain before building a solution can be exorbitant for some industries. Having domain expertise on your team will be a must, and could be a high barrier to entry for you in these cases.

The final point that I would like to highlight from the session is something that I have talked about at length previously (eg. Getting customers in the enterprise) but did not make the connection with regards to the Tree of Life. It is the consumerization of the enterprise. This is a recent trend in technology and it is still far too early to determine whether or not will be all encompassing. However it is intriguing to consider the possibility of all of the top level branches of the Software Tree of Life merging into a single hybrid (note the green dotted lines on the whiteboard).

As entrepreneurs it is always beneficial to share stories and discuss the intricacies of daily startup operations. I maintain that it is also worth examining how the innovation ecosystem works as a whole from time to time. I think that is the part of being an expert in the field.