Renewables Where They’re Needed

Rational centralization was an organizing paradigm of the 20th century. Our age of innovation is all about decentralization. In our pockets we carry access to far more information than that contained at the Library of Congress. And phones (smart & dumb) now allow banking and ecommerce even for the poorest of the planet. Right now I’m blogging on my iPhone as I wait for a hot dog at a baseball game. Nowadays you can do everything anywhere.

For many, renewable energy is all about saving the planet, but for others it’s a way to get power to remote places that are off the grid. That’s much of the developing world. For example, the school and orphanage I help support in rural Kenya has several solar panels. This helps them charge computers and turn on some lights for evening study time, but its most important benefit is the recharging of cell phones, the great connectors and agents of positive change in places like Kenya, the rest of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Renewables get cheaper and cheaper, and thus more and more feasible for remote places in the developed world and remote and off-the-grid places in the developing world. Is getting on the grid impossible or prohibitively expensive? Install (increasingly cheaper) solar or wind power.

Check out this NYTimes article about the many benefits of renewables in remote places:

Better Government, Bit by Bit

“The United States government has historically been good at the big stuff, from fighting wars to breaking new scientific ground. It’s everything else that tends to present a problem.

David Leonhardt’s sweeping assessment of the performance of our government over the last 200+ years is, well, sweeping, but it captures the heart of the problem of big government: Even if well-meaning programs help people in need, these efforts are often slow, inefficient and not very effective.

Progressives deem government programs worthy ipso facto, while the far right wants to vivisect the government–the good and the bad.

A third way is to set ideological assumptions aside and put programs to the test via the gold standard: the randomized study.

Leonhardt, in today’s New York Times, reports on a small but growing trend in testing government programs:

“Less than 1 percent of government spending is backed by even the most basic evidence of cost-effectiveness,” writes Peter Schuck, a Yale law professor, in his new book, “Why Government Fails So Often,” a sweeping history of policy disappointments. As Mr. Schuck puts it, “the government has largely ignored the ‘moneyball’ revolution in which private-sector decisions are increasingly based on hard data.”

A solution? “The explosion of available data has made evaluating success – in the government and the private sector – easier and less expensive than it used to be. At the same time, a generation of data-savvy policy makers and researchers has entered government and begun pushing it to do better. They have built on earlier efforts by the Bush and Clinton administrations.

“The result is a flowering of experiments to figure out what works and what doesn’t.”

While I strongly doubt that this sensible approach will be taken up quickly given our current political environment, the trend bodes well.

Car Ownership Made Obsolete?

For many of us car ownership is onerous. Some people relish having their own “wheels,” but most folks I know consider their car a very, very expensive “necessity.” They’re not buying a cherished good; they’re buying convenient transportation that depreciates rapidly and will be replaced in a few years. Car ownership ends up being one of the biggest expenses in a household budget.

And while it brings freedom and convenience, the non-monetary price is steep, too: pollution, congestion and traffic injuries and fatalities, to name the most salient problems.

A recent article in The Guardian explains the Finnish government’s innovative program to deal with the car ownership conundrum in Helsinki. The city government “plans to transform its existing public transport network into a comprehensive, point-to-point ‘mobility on demand’ system by 2025 – one that, in theory, would be so good nobody would have any reason to own a car.

“Helsinki aims to transcend conventional public transport by allowing people to purchase mobility in real time, straight from their smartphones. The hope is to furnish riders with an array of options so cheap, flexible and well-coordinated that it becomes competitive with private car ownership not merely on cost, but on convenience and ease of use.

“Subscribers would specify an origin and a destination, and perhaps a few preferences. The app would then function as both journey planner and universal payment platform, knitting everything from driverless cars and nimble little buses to shared bikes and ferries into a single, supple mesh of mobility.”

I don’t know if this system will pan out, and I’m sure there will be kinks to work out along the way. But this kind of ingenious tinkering with our resource intensive transportation system is needed. Reducing money spent by citizens on transportation is an important public good. And if this thing works it will reduce air pollution and traffic as well.

I hope it does!

The Good Old Days…

I’m reading a terrific book titled, The Good Old Days–They Were Terrible! by Otto Bettmann (creator of the Bettmann Archives).

Good Old Days Terrible

The final paragraph from his introduction explains the book’s purpose:

“Even if we cast but a cursory glance at the not so good old days and bring them into alignment with our own, we will find much to be grateful for. We are going forward, if but slowly. This fact should move us to view the future in less cataclysmic terms–the future that will see man, in Faulkner’s words, ‘not only endure but prevail.'”

I’m impressed with Bettmann’s rosy view of the human condition in 1974–the year the book was published–which seems like quite a leap of faith given the news of the day. This was a time when the US was finally extricating itself from Vietnam, and Watergate rocked America’s faith in the presidency.

Later on I’ll share more gleanings as I read. Here’s one for now: pollution. Many people seem to think that pollution started with automobiles in the 20th century. Ironically, cars reduced a significant form of pollution: horse feces. With millions of horses in the streets and roads across America, millions of tons of horse excrement littered the ground. You think cars emitting CO2’s a problem? How ’bout horse shit everywhere?

The Skeptics Were Wrong: Millennium Development Goals


When I first learned about the Millennium Development Goals, I was pretty skeptical. Even Jesus said “You will always have the poor among you.” How would these high-minded and undoubtedly myopic set of goals do what many other development goals had not done: succeed?

Here are the goals:

  1. To eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  2. To achieve universal primary education
  3. To promote gender equality and empower women
  4. To reduce child mortality
  5. To improv maternal health
  6. To combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
  7. To ensure environmental sustainability
  8. To develop a global partnership for development

But it turns out that the MDGs are the most successful anti-poverty program in human history. In the coming posts I’ll talk more about each one, and remarkable progress that has been made because of the MDGs.

Watching Progress Before Your Eyes!

While browsing TED Talks on my iPhone app I discovered the Swedish scientist Hans Rosling.

He and two colleagues have created Gapminder, a beautiful, informative, and elegant web platform for showing global development statistics. You must check this out as it shows how major indicators of development–health, GDP, infant mortality, etc.–change over time.

Now of course not all of the data sets point toward progress, but most do. The increase in CO2 over the decades is ominous and disturbing. But trends in most other areas leave much reason for hope.

Check it out!

Leaps and Bounds

Today I read two great articles, one from the Next Billion website, via a Twitter link, and the other in the May 2014 print edition of Smithsonian.

Next Billion is a website and blog bringing together the community of business leaders, social entrepreneurs, NGOs, policy makers and academics who want to explore the connection between development and enterprise.” ( The article I read today discussed how cell phone technology skipped so many steps, especially a vast (and expensive) phone lines infrastructure:

“Few land lines were ever built in the rural parts of less-developed countries. There were no protracted deregulation battles. But there were, suddenly, cell phones, and their use mushroomed at a pace unmatched in the history of technology, leaving billions of people connected, their lives changed forever.” (

The breathtaking pace of change in the 21st century means skipping steps we’ve come to believe are necessary. Not long ago folks thought a country needed a national telephone system (and a decent national airline!) to call itself developed. Cell penetration in Africa and Asia shows that developing countries can skip the rural phone lines, to their great benefit (especially cost). Nowadays, innovators–entrepreneurs, tinkerers, do-gooders, NGOs, faith-based organizations, etc.–have so much technology at their fingertips that once daunting start-up costs for complex enterprises can now be managed with very little, even just a smart phone and a few staff. (If you think people in the US and Europe have their heads glued to their smart phones, go to the developing world and follow an entrepreneur through her day.)

The smart-phone-turned-diagnostic-Swiss-Army-Knife was the theme of the Smithsonian article I read. If you’re a Baby Boomer or Gen Xer from the States, you probably can recall the slumpy shouldered Dr. McCoy from Star Trek breaking out his Tricorder, an all-in-one diagnostic device. Today tech tinkerers are trying to get as many diagnostic tools onto smart phones as they can. The article, “Inventing the Real McCoy,” describes the efforts of Aydogan Ozcan and others to get smart phones to detect mercury, allergens, bacteria and viruses. Ozcan has been lauded for promising work that may lead to cheap phone attachments that can test blood for HIV and malaria, and water for pathogens like E. Coli.

I hope that in ten years every small clinic on the planet has the diagnostic capabilities that few doctors offices in the developed world possessed in 2000. The efforts of Ozcan and others–as well as the explosive changes cell phones hath wrought–bode well.