Thursday, February 28, 2008

Acorn's New Nut

Acorn Energy has adopted me.

About three weeks ago, my grandfather met John Moore, found out that John was about to travel to China, painted what couldn't have been anything other than a hugely inflated picture of the work I did while I was living over there, and told John he'd be crazy not to take me out to lunch sometime.

John and I ate the lunch, talked about China, talked about Acorn, talked about my project, kept in touch, and, next thing I knew, I found a letter on the doorstep asking me to become Acorn's Entrepreneur in Residence.

It's a mind-bogglingly unfair deal if you ask me. I get an office, a paycheck, an opportunity to learn about investing in clean energy technology, and most of my time to work on my own project. They get a long-haired, unshaven raving lunatic pacing the hallway, drawing on the whiteboard, and ferociously banging on the keyboard all day.

They dig the project, though, and they believe in me, and it feels great to know that. Huge thanks to John, Christy, and everyone else for making this happen. I'm honored to be a part of Acorn, and I look forward to reciprocating the generosity however I can.

I must say, however, that we've created a bit of an unlikely partnership. Acorn is a publicly traded holding company looking to convince hedge fund managers to mix micro cap energy into their portfolios. My project is a prototype-stage internet startup looking to build a core user community out of hippy ducksqueezers that believe in grassroots democratic economics.

But maybe it's perfect. I am, after all, excited to have discovered today that there does exist, surprising as it may seem, a school of thought believing that equally important to electromagnetically de-icing power transmission cables is rigging them with wind channeling devices and thus preventing them from swinging, twisting, and galloping.

Note: I still can't get over the Entrepreneur in Residence title. Fancy fancy fancy. I mean I would have been more than satisfied with Assistant to the Regional Manager.

Reining It In

I spent about 48 hours offline a couple of days ago. When I came back on, I opened Google Reader, saw a mountain of unread items, and had a moment of online existential crisis. I was afraid that I might have to give up my RSS feeds.

A few minutes later, the panic subsided, and I regained some perspective. Rather than swear off reading, I decided I'd try honing my instant filtering skills instead.

The honing has been going on for two nights now. I'm feeling good about my progress. I suggest that everyone hone their instant filtering skills every so often. And I've made a potentially useful observation about myself as a feed reader...

Long articles, unless they strike me immediately as exceptionally relevant or exciting, get skipped. Short articles, even if their relevance is questionable, not only get read but get their links clicked as well.

Maybe this has to do with my particularly acute aversion to scrolling down, but maybe this is perfectly normal feed reading behavior.

I subscribed to the More Perfect Market feed and had a look. Not good: I've written a lot of posts that are dangerously long.

So the plan is to rein it in a little bit. I'll still get fired up sometimes and need to empty my brain, so I won't promise to completely eliminate the long posts. In general, however, I'm going to keep things shorter and simpler.

I'll try not to get logically jumpy. I'll try not to assume unrealistic levels of audience savvy. Ideally, I'll think before I write, break complex thoughts into two or three segments, and post the thoughts over two or three days.

If this makes me harder to understand or less interesting, however, please let me know. I'm far from a perfect judge of my own work, so if this new short post plan erodes the quality on here, I might need someone to tell me that.

One of the reasons I started blogging was because it was scary that I was suddenly the "Managing Director" of a real live startup project and scary that I didn't have people keeping their eyes on me. I wanted to ask the blog reading regulars to manage me and steer me away from bad decisions.

Consider this is my first attempt to do that. I realize I haven't given all that much blow by blow on the startup process yet. It will come, though, and when it does, keep me in line. Whether it's about blogging style or revenue models or interface design (I'm overdue on screenshots, I know), please please please feel free to comment or email and tell me what you think.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Silly Season Rages On

I think I might be an Obama addict. I see that big O in a newspaper or on a magazine, and it's like a magnet: I drool a little bit; my body goes half slack; and my eyeballs yank me toward the headlines. It is a worry. I have psychoanalyzed myself, however, and I'm comfortable with the results:

A. As my ex-politician grandfather says, it's the Silly Season, and I'm a sucker for silly.

2. I like Obama, and I like him more and more. It's weird. I know. We are talking about a politician here: someone that gave up a perfectly prestigious and maybe even useful job teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago and decided instead to sell his soul to the ghost of Richard Daley and go into politics. The guy seems different, though. Maybe he has me fooled. Maybe the system is going to stifle him even if he doesn't have me fooled. But maybe he'll do something crazy. And maybe it'll be good.

D. I'm convinced that, one of these days, someone's going to rope a candidate or two into a meaningful discussion about the economics of our world's environmental situation. When that happens, I can't miss it.

...

I spent the day in Washington DC yesterday. The Washington Post was lying around. I saw an O on the editorial page. I read about it. And I think might have found a little preview of the discussion for which I've been waiting.

Sebastian Mallaby, a think tank economist and bi-weekly columnist, wrote a piece about Barack Obama and bad ideas.

In last Thursday's debate, Obama said: "Understand that what's lacking right now is not good ideas. The problem we have is that Washington has become a place where good ideas go to die."

Mallaby heard that and took issue. He thinks good ideas are exactly what we're lacking. And he thinks we have a particularly acute lack of ideas about how to address climate change. For example...

Hailing biofuels as our saviors? Bad idea. Converting forests and wild grasslands to industrial corn or switchgrass farms emits a whole lot of greenhouse gases. So much, in fact, that sticking with petrol is a cleaner alternative.

Kyoto's manner of involving developing countries in its carbon economy? Bad idea. Apparently, "China has deliberately designed factories to release prodigious quantities of greenhouse gases, then pocketed billions for redesigning them."*

Cap and trade systems? Carbon taxes? More bad ideas. There's no way to get all countries involved in a unified global system, so "import loopholes" will throw the whole thing out of whack. (Sorry for the unimpressive explanation here. This is something I don't really understand. I first read about these loopholes yesterday, and it looks like I need to get more familiar.)

Mallaby not only thinks Obama is wrong about the existence of good ideas, he also thinks Obama sounds like an unoriginal, pseudo-optimistic, "anti-intellectual" Washington hack when he says we're not lacking them. He thinks Obama ought to be screaming for debates about ideas. If he wins the Democratic nomination, he'll kill McCain on ideas. McCain will try to turn the election into a foreign policy experience conversation, and Obama should counter right back with reasonable, nuanced, well-presented economic policies that creatively address tough problems like climate change. He should counter back with ideas.

I agree that Washington hasn't offered the world any groundbreaking climate change ideas. I agree that Kyoto isn't perfect. And I agree that, when the time comes, Obama should challenge McCain on ideas. But my feeling is that Obama would agree too.

I think Mallaby misunderstood and overreacted. Obama didn't mean to claim that corn-based ethanol was a good idea. He meant to remind us that even very good ideas DIE in Washington. Making fuel out of plant matter is a perfectly good idea, but politicians take good ideas, water them down, and spit out garbage like corn-based ethanol. I think Obama meant to remind us that he'll do his best to keep the good ideas alive.

That's a tall order, and I'll believe it when I see it, but I think it was a perfectly acceptable thing to say.

*Note: I'm not ready to believe this yet. There is a frightening get rich quick attitude permeating the Chinese economy, so I totally agree that we should be on the lookout for system gaming. About 6 months ago, however, I asked a Beijing-based British carbon trader if she had ever heard of a Chinese factory upping its carbon emissions pre-inspection to earn more retrofit credits. She reassured me that that kind of behavior simply wouldn't fly. Carbon buyers won't touch suspect situations. Inspectors can spot deliberately bad design from miles away, and buyers have no interest in the credibility loss that would come along with a purchase of artificially saved carbon.


Another note: I couldn't help it with the A, 2, D list. I've been resisting the urge on this blog for a while now, but, as soon as I wrote the word "drool" in the first paragraph, I knew I had to follow my heart. The second time I saw Home Alone was in college, and A, 2, and D have been haunting me ever since. Watch it again if you haven't seen it in a while. It's an awesome movie, and it gives you lots of awesome home brew booby trap ideas.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Comments, Corrections, and Community

Thanks so much to everyone that has left comments on this blog, and thanks so much to everyone that has emailed me thoughts and questions and criticisms about what I've written. Everything has been helpful. The first comment mentioned wild turkeys and led me to write about a pet turkey. And the most recent comment cautioned me not to get too excited about the one-lakh car and got my head spinning a bit about leapfrog technologies.

I would love for moreperfectmarket.com to evolve into as much of a conversation as possible. Blogs are to some extent tools designed for broadcasting. They're for quasi-journalists on soapboxes. But if the articles up here are my soapbox speeches, hopefully you'll use the comments function and the moreperfectmarket [at] gmail [dot] com address as rotten tomatoes, suggestion boxes, and backstage passes to talk to the band after the show.

A few days ago, Will, a Beijing-based journalist friend of mine, appropriately took issue with one of my posts. He wrote:

The idea of "enlightenment" you support so fervently in your blog seems to be directly at odds with your plan to leave out the negative on the section of your site that most people will see and hopefully take into consideration. How can you enlighten yourself and others without providing all the information you can get your hands on?

Will's right. I need to be much more careful with the word enlightenment.

When we launch our website, we don't want to highlight the horrible things companies do. We want to allow our users to bring them up and debate and discuss them. But, for our part, as moderators of the discussion and organizers of information, we don't think we should try to go the full enlightenment route right away. We want to approach it bit by bit and shoot for curiosity piquing partial enlightenment now. We want to build a community, earn its trust, and, as we do that, push enlightenment farther and farther.

Here's an attempted explanation:

Companies could see us as a potential friend, an opportunity, a way to learn what their customers want, an information exchange in which they can participate. Or they could see us as threat, an enemy, a target to be discredited and destroyed.

Ideally, obviously, the companies will see the opportunity. They'll want to participate in the discussion on our site. They'll want to contribute. And they'll want to learn which processes they can change and which investments they can make that will help them forge stronger bonds with their customers.

We'll definitely try our best to show companies that opportunity, but they'll still approach us with their hackles up. We are, after all, activists. We have an education agenda, a paradigm shift agenda. And, if we build and empower a community properly, we could cause big chunks of a lot of markets to start behaving quite differently.

And that could be seen as threatening.

Which means we need to tread very carefully. We need to emphasize the imperfection of our information, emphasize our humility, and emphasize the fact that we're not out for anybody's blood.

We're going to do the best we can to collect the best information that's out there, but the reality of the situation is that it's not all going to be great. The expert organizations from which we'll collect information will make mistakes. Our research people will make mistakes. Our contributing users will make mistakes. And our rankings will, at times, reflect something less than reality.

We'll design into our system ways for users to check experts, check us, check each other, and fix mistakes. Even so, however, we are going to give some undeserved gold stars, and we are going to fail to give some gold stars when they are deserved.

If we were to build anti gold stars into our system, we would run the risk of making false accusations as well, and I simply don't feel comfortable doing that. Negative information cuts deep. It turns more heads than positive information. It's more newsworthy. And while that makes it more powerful, it also makes it more dangerous. Deep cuts take a long time to heal, even if you stitch them up right away.

I'm not ready to deal in negative information yet. I don't want to spread false rumors. And I don't want to threaten. I'd love to enlighten and enlighten completely. I'd love to get all the information out there to all people. But I don't trust that information yet. I want to start with positive information, see how our community responds, see how they filter through it. And I want to get the companies participating, bring them into the community, and see if they, like Will, can become valuable voices that call me out and keep me in line.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Great Green Home Show

Last Sunday, I was on the radio. My first time. WILM 1450 AM. Wilmington, Delaware.

Yep. Delaware. Exciting, right?

Not a whole lot going on in Wilmington. Corporate friendly tax laws. Credit cards. Senator Joe Biden. My family. Their friends. Friends' friends. And, of course, Paul and Doug, hosts of WILM's The Great Green Home Show.

We recorded last Thursday; it aired on Sunday; but I still haven't listened to the show. The station, you'll be able to tell from its website, is a little bit technically understaffed, and the audio files just went up online this afternoon.

I'm a little scared and a lot embarrassed, but, in the name of transparency, here's the link to The Great Green Home Show and its audio archives. February 17, 2008 segments 1, 2, 3, and 4. As I said, I haven't listened yet, but, if I remember correctly, I'm featured a tiny bit in segment 1, not at all in 2, and then prominently in 3 and 4.

The day we recorded, they led me into the studio, sat me down in between Paul and Doug, told me to keep my mouth close to the mic, and pushed the record button.

You'd think 8-10 minute segments would be heaps of time. Well they're not. I'm not convinced I finished a single coherent thought.

What's your connection to Wilmington? How did you get interested in saving the planet? What are you working on now? Why? How far along are you? Other than the site you're building, what are some other interesting green spaces online? How about China? What happens over there? Why were you there? What should we know about China that we don't? What's the environmental situation there? How are they going to fix it?

I tried to keep up with it, but I ramble, tell stories, pause dramatically, communicate with facial expressions, elaborate with my hands. Radio time doesn't wait for people like me.

Paul and Doug said it went beautifully. No second takes. No editing. Just pure, honest radio goodness. Have a listen and see what you think. Give me a couple of days, and I'll see if I can work up the courage to do the same.

Big thanks to Paul, Doug, and Brooke the producer. I think it's great that they are doing what they're doing. They have full time jobs and families and obligations, but, a few months ago, they decided to make the show happen. They wanted to give their community something simple, relevant, fun, and green.

It's local radio. It's got no budget. They find their guests by connecting through people like my uncle the farmer. And who knows if anyone's even listening yet. But they're on the air, figuring it out as they go, and having a good time doing it.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Umair and the Edgeconomy

Umair Haque is the man behind Bubblegeneration. He's blogging for Harvard Business School. And he's building the Havas Media Lab, an advisory firm specializing in "radical management, business model, and strategic innovation."

One word that constantly crops up in Umair's writing is edgeconomy, "an economy characterized by cheap, ubiquitous interaction." According to one of his fans, Umair "describes an emerging culture of business as an edgeconomy where light beats heavy; open beats closed; free beats paid; and, good beats evil."

In this HBS blog post and the two minute video that accompanies it, he talks about the future of brands. He thinks brands as they exist today are in decay: they are vestiges of a past economy in which information wasn't easily accessible.

We don't need to compress information about the expected value of goods and services into this tiny little logo and to a 30 second TV spot, because interaction is cheap, and information is cheap.

And he thinks companies need to start paying attention.

If consumers are talking to each other much more efficiently than you can carpet bomb them with stuff, start listening to them instead of just talking at them.

Now imagine an economy in which those consumers talk about which businesses are having what positive impacts on the world. And imagine when companies start listening. I don't know if Umair has written directly about consumer demand for sustainability or corporate social responsibility, but I'll keep my eyes out. The connection feels inevitable to me, and I'd love to hear what he has to say.

Note: In his Bubblegeneration post today, Umair is predicting an Obama assassination. I'm hoping he's wrong. Have a look at my ridiculous comment on Umair's post to find out why I think Obama's gonna make it.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Notes from a Vocab Lesson

Ludovic sent me an article today about the definition of social entrepreneurship.

To tell you the truth, I thought the article was a little long and sleepy, so please read at your own risk, but it was semantically enlightening, so I'll pass along what I learned.

First of all, it introduced me to the term "suboptimal equilibrium." This is what a change maker senses and attacks. It's a market or some combination of markets and policies and culture that has created a persistent bummer of a situation.

Naturally, it made me think about the suboptimal equilibrium we're trying to break with our brand comparison project. It's a big one: suboptimal to the extreme. It's an economy in which consumers don't demand that businesses operate cleanly, honestly, and humanely. Consumers are inadequately educated about our market options, and businesses are offered inadequate incentives to get sustainable. I have a visual image of the equilibrium as a thick swarm of spinning, whirring feedback loops levying the edges of a morphing blob of liquid trouble. Reminds me that we have to attack the thing from lots of angles at once.

Apparently, according to the article, attacking the equilibrium from the enlightenment, knowledge dissemination, and education angle makes me something other than a social entrepreneur.

The successful social entrepreneur takes direct action and generates a new and sustained equilibrium; the social activist influences others to generate a new and sustained equilibrium; and the social service provider takes direct action to improve the outcomes of the current equilibrium.

I'm an activist.

It's a bit funny for me to think of things that way, especially given the recent post in which I claimed that I can't be an activist. I see the logic in it nonetheless. What we're doing is making consumers aware of the suboptimal nature of the current equilibrium and helping them define a better one. Hopefully, by doing that, we'll make market entry easier and market domination more plausible for the real, semantically proper social entrepreneurs.

As long as I'm contributing on the disruptive side of things, I'm happy.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

By the Community, For the Community

A couple of weeks ago, I read about a French entrepreneur named Loic Le Meur and his online video conversation community startup called Seesmic. I went to the site, told it I'd be interested in participating in alpha testing, gave it my email address, and a couple of days later, I got an email telling me I was invited back to play.

Over the past couple of weeks, I've gone to the Seesmic site a bunch of times, told a story, told a joke, spoken some Chinese, and peeked in on some unusual video conversation threads. It's been fun. I've watched a silly group of people interact. I've had ideas about using Seesmic's technology to enable video commenting on some future version of the LanguageCalls learning community. And I'm excited about the fact that I'm using the alpha version of what I think could become a very popular web destination someday.

Since Seesmic has been such a positive experience, I've been following Loic as well. On Thursday, he announced the close of Seesmic's first round of funding and revealed all participating investors.

Loic's enthusiasm alone makes the video version of the announcement worth watching, but his thoughts about community are what caught my attention most.

He said that Seesmic's revenue model is to grow a community. They're going the LinkedIn route, the Skype route: don't focus on making money until you have millions of people working or playing on your site. Build the space; get people interacting; and, then, once everyone's so happy that they're doing all your user acquisition for you, find ways to make money without interrupting their enjoyment. It is a standard Web 2.0 strategy, but when you're me and you're building a community focused, user generated content reliant website, and you're asked every day how you plan to make money, it's really nice to hear that there are people out there that are just as crazy and optimistic as you.

Loic also talked about openness. He wants this project to become the community's project. He talks to users every day. He writes about them on his blog. He asks them for advice. People post videos with ideas, and Seesmic employees jump into the conversations.

I am far from an active video poster. I've given a grand total of one suggestion. But I feel like I'm helping out a little bit. I get the feeling that Seesmic is grateful. And that makes me root for them to succeed. I can honestly say that after two weeks of sporadic Seesmic use, I want this venture to be wildly successful. Pretty weird, eh?

...

This connects to my project in two ways.

1. I want to go about building my community the way Seesmic is going about it. I want users to feel like the site is theirs. I want them to want to make it better. And I want to be sure to let each and every one of them know how grateful I am for their time and thoughts and suggestions.

Obviously, a space in which people try to figure out which companies do the best things for the world is quite different from a space in which people record video clips and banter about anything and everything. Seesmic is hugely open ended and has the word FUN tattooed on its forehead. I'm working on an education project that will need the core chunk of its community to be made up of deeply concerned people with intense desire to save the world. That limits me, no question about it. But, then again, there could be community-creation power in the heaviness and urgency of my mission. So who knows. The user-created model might work beautifully.

2. I'd love to see Seesmic engage with its users on a social and environmental responsibility level. I realize it's way early, and I understand that it would be very strange for Seesmic to donate or greenspend away a chunk of their precious investment, but I wonder what would happen if they told their users that as soon as they can afford it, they are going to become a sustainable web business with a serious philanthropic lean.

I'm guessing the users would dig it.

And I'm guessing they'd dig it even more the second Seesmic decides to buy carbon credits for all their air travel. And even more when they decide to run their servers on renewable energy. They could drink Fair Trade coffee. They could work at desks made from sustainably harvested wood. They could volunteer. Anything.

If they announced to the community every time they started doing something good, I bet they'd accelerate their viral spread. I'm just one person obviously, but the second they showed me they were serious about becoming a role model business, I would transform from guy that writes emails while he watches the baseball game on TV to fanatical chest painted lunatic starting the wave in the upper deck.

And let's not forget that they're a web business with no labor or manufacturing. They make internet fun, not freezers or doorknobs, and that makes getting sustainable a lot less complicated.

...

Seesmic is an open, community-focused project that's been well executed so far. For that, I think they deserve a round of applause: they're a great inspiration to those of us that want to do things with community and user collaboration. If they want to take that round of applause and make it a standing ovation, however, I suggest they take steps toward sustainability. I'd be interested to know if the rest of the Seesmic community agrees.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Persuading for Enlightenment

I posted yesterday about Google.org, Al Gore, climate change, and the important distinction between enlightenment and strategic persuasion. Larry Brilliant, Executive Director of Google.org, believes that one way his organization can contribute to saving the world is by gathering and disseminating information (something for which Google has a special talent) and enlightening people about climate change. Al Gore, however, believes that enlightenment has lost the power it once had. The truth is now up against strategic persuasion campaigns, so the truth needs to strategically persuade back.

I ended the post wondering about my project and how it might fit into a world dominated by strategic persuasion. After continuing to wonder for a day, here's my attempt to condense my thoughts into something manageable...

Looking at the project from one angle, it's an intensely pure enlightenment initiative. We want to enlighten ourselves at the same time we're enlightening the people using our website. We want to help consumers identify the businesses most worthy of their support. Somewhat counterintuitively, however, we want to do that without claiming any authoritative knowledge about any individual business's worthiness. We want to gather information, organize it, present it, and participate in the ensuing discussion.

We're separating the world into consumer product categories. We're identifying the companies that do business in each category. We're collecting opinions from experts and consumers about which of those companies do things most responsibly (sustainably, humanely, transparently). And we're trying to make it easy for consumers to choose which products to buy based on which companies they want to support.

There's one very big reason I think it's essential that we operate this way...

In contrast to the climate change issue, there is no comprehensive scientific consensus on what it means to do business humanely and sustainably. The science and quantitative analysis is piecemeal. The information is disorganized and disputed. And opinions vary quite widely with the different angles from which an expert can look at a company: Company X might be managing their waste beautifully, for example, but they might be slack on vendor vetting and buy from suppliers that run sweatshops.

Everyone right now is to some extent unenlightened, so, as unenlightened people moderating an information exchange between unenlightened people, we have a responsibility be humble and agnostic. We have a responsibility not to strategically persuade.

All that said, however, there is persuasion inherent in the fact that we're building this website. We're not strategically persuading people to buy from Company X or Company Y, but we will, by virtue of existing, tell people that there is a meaningful difference between buying from Company X and buying from Company Y.

We are building this website because we think people need to know which businesses are more sustainable than their competitors. We don't think a capitalist economy works for the good of the people unless the values of the economy's businesses reflect the values of the economy's people, and we don't think those values match up right now. One reason they don't match up, we think, is that the businesses have insufficient incentives to follow their customers' moral lead. While people do consider values when they choose between family run bagel shops in their hometowns, they don't consider values when they choose between Pepsi and Coke, between McDonald's and Wendy's, between Nokia and Motorola. We think this is because they don't have an easy way to do it. So we want to try to help.

Basically, we think it's important that an enlightenment happens. Because that enlightenment hasn't happened yet, we're not enlightened, so we can't be activists: we can't strategically persuade. We do feel strongly, however, that we need an enlightenment, so, hopefully, building our website and inviting people to use it will be persuasive.

I could be wrong. Maybe the best way to approach this would be to fully enlighten ourselves first and then get cracking on grand persuasion strategy. I don't know. I fear that might take too much time. I wonder what Al Gore and Dr. Brilliant would have to say. Maybe I need to give Google.org a call.

Note: One more reminder to check out Sergey's pants.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Enlightenment and Strategic Persuasion

I'm going to start with a little disclaimer. I'm self-interestedly pro-Google. They develop useful tools and let me use them for free. They read my email. They know which RSS feeds I read. They know when and where I'm having a meeting tomorrow. But I'm ok with that. If they think they can make money by keeping track of what I do online, then they have my permission to try.

Anyway, now that you all know how I feel about Google.com, I want to lay down a train of thought that begins with Google.org (while turning Google.org into a hyperlink feels totally normal, I just can't bring myself to do it with Google.com; internet neuroses strike again).

I recently read an article by Larry Brilliant, Executive Director of Google.org, about how he and his colleagues determined his organization's points of philanthropic focus. According to Dr. Brilliant, there are three reasons Google.org chose the five initiatives on which it is now working. One, Dr. Brilliant and his colleagues feel that each initiative has high potential to do meaningful things for the very weakest and very poorest people in the world. Two, they consider each initiative an idea big, scalable, and multi-faceted enough for Google's ambitious tastes. And, three, they think the initiatives are the kinds that will benefit especially well from support from Google technology, Google expertise, and Google people.

Thinking about this again now, I realize that there's nothing particularly unusual about those reasons. Perhaps simply because of my aforementioned affinity for Google, however, Dr. Brilliant's article intrigued me enough to pull me to the Google.org website.

I browsed around what is a very straightforward and non-frilly site. I read about each of the five initiatives. I linked for the first time to Hans Rosling's YouTube channel. I had a look at the Google.org blog. And I found some footage from the World Economic Forum in Davos a few weeks ago...

Two videos. The first is a panel discussion. Tom Friedman moderates Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Larry Brilliant as they talk about Google.org and climate change. The second is the Q&A session that followed the discussion. Al Gore, Van Jones, John Doerr, and others ask some very intense questions. And, in my opinion, Larry, Sergey, and Dr. Brilliant all sound both surprisingly candid and impressively knowledgeable.

I think you'll enjoy watching every minute of both videos, but I understand that asking people to watch nearly an hour and a half of discussion and Q&A is a bit much, so I'll give my highest recommendation to minutes 23-34 of the Q&A video.

At the center of those 11 minutes is Al Gore "gently" taking issue with the Google.org approach,"gently" taking issue with Larry Brilliant's faith in what Al calls the "enlightenment model:" the belief that when people have access to all the information, most of them will do the right thing. Al thinks the world used to work that way, but he thinks it doesn't work that way anymore. In his opinion, the rules of the game changed when the tobacco companies realized that they could use "strategic persuasion campaigns" to give everyone the impression that there existed a real scientific debate about whether or not there were health risks associated with tobacco. Cold, hard, well-disseminated truth alone doesn't do the job anymore. Exxon Mobil funds 40 front groups to "reposition global warming as theory rather than fact," and, according to Al, the truth can only win if it actively resists that repositioning, if it launches strategic persuasion campaigns of its own.

Have a look, and decide for yourselves, but I think Dr. Brilliant responds well. He's appropriately realistic. He says that Google.org wants to participate in solving the world's problems by contributing Google's core competency, and he reminds us that Google's core competency is information filtering and truth search much more than it is persuasion.

It's a fascinating discussion, and, of course, I can't help but wonder how my responsible consumption brand comparison project fits in. Am I about to launch an enlightenment model project in a world of strategic persuasion? Yikes. But there's enough going on in this post already, and it won't hurt me to spend another day thinking about it, so I'll stop here for now. Hopefully I'll have some grand revelations for you tomorrow.

Note: One more plug for the videos: Sergey Brin is not afraid to wear pants that are way too short for him.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Yum

If you all haven't read it yet, please read this article from yesterday's New York Times Magazine. It's short enough that it won't take more than five minutes to read, and it's a potential life changer.

It's about eating bugs, and I am both thoroughly amused and genuinely curious.

Apparently insects are nutritious: they "compare favorably to traditional livestock in available protein and fatty acids." Apparently they're safe to eat: while they "carry an abundance of microbial flora, they do not regularly harbor human pathogens like salmonella and E. coli." And, apparently, they "meet the test of environmental sustainability: they create far more edible protein per pound of feed than cattle."

David Gracer, writing teacher by day, insect chef by night, and the hero of the story, puts it nice and succinctly: “Insects can feed the world. Cows and pigs are the S.U.V.’s; bugs are the bicycles.”

I appreciate the power of the metaphor: we need sustainable food production just as badly as we need sustainable transportation. And I'm totally open to the possibility that insects are part of the solution. But questions have started swarming around my head. Like gnats.

...

Where exactly will we raise the insects? Initially as secondary commodities on already existing farms? Flies on cattle ranches? Worms under tomatoes?

Will we need special spaces or enclosures? Or will the beehive model suffice?

How will we harvest them? Nets?

How are animal rights activists going to react? Will Peter Singer* weigh in?

What about our historical tendency toward factory farming? What would insect production run rampant look like? Waste management crises? Energy crises? Ecosystem interruptions? Plagues of feral locusts?

Yikes.

I wonder what E.O. Wilson will have to say.

...

I guess there's nothing wrong with a head swarming with ridiculous questions. As I said, I am thoroughly amused. If anyone has any answers, please let me know.

*Note: I first tuned in to the connection between food and sustainability in 2002 when I read an article by Michael Pollan about Peter Singer. In his book, Animal Liberation, Singer puts forth a surprising but persuasive philosophical argument hoping to convince us not to eat or otherwise oppress animals. Pollan gives Singer's argument a friendly but thorough critique (thorough for a magazine article anyway) and then justifiably complicates things by introducing a medium-scale, diversified, sustainable livestock production project, contrasting it with factory farming, and wondering if there's a way for people to be responsible omnivores. This article will take you significantly longer than five minutes to read, but I reckon it's still relevant more than five years later.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Everything To Gain

After watching Frans Lanting the other day and wondering what kind of accent he had, my sister told me it was the Majora Carter TED Talk and especially Majora's last line that had inspired her the most. At the end of her talk, Majora called on the TED audience to use its influence to fight for environmental and economic justice. She asked that everyone demand comprehensive sustainable change and participate in bringing it about. And then, to make sure everything she said stuck, she gave a little reminder:

By working together, we can become one of those small, rapidly growing groups of individuals, who actually have the audacity and courage to believe that we actually can change the world. We might have come to this conference from very, very different stages in life, but, believe me, we all share one incredibly powerful thing: we have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Nothing to lose.

Talking about Majora's pleas and watching her again made me think of the moment I first realized that I was about to start a business and build a website...

In late February 2007, Ludovic got in touch about a fellowship. He had an inside tie to a foundation, and they were looking to send a few people on two year world tours studying and writing about social ventures and their impacts. He wondered if I might I be interested.

I told him I'd quit my job and start tomorrow if they wanted.

Ludo was going to be back in Beijing in early March, so we set up a time to have dinner.

The time came. We went to the restaurant. And Ludo started interviewing me, which was weird. I was expecting dinner with a friend, not an interview. But I couldn't run away. I'd taken my coat off. We'd ordered. And I was hungry. So I went with it.

He asked me about my goals and long term orientation. I sputtered something about "the environment" and sustainable business. I mentioned Ray Anderson and Paul Hawken. And I said I wanted to work on harnessing greed, angling it in new directions, and seeing if we could get it to drag us off toward a happy, equitable, sustainable world.

Ludo seemed intrigued and asked me if I had any business ideas of my own. The next Interface maybe? The next Smith & Hawken?

Well, not exactly, I said, but there is this website I've been thinking about. It's all about choice. Real choice. Educated choice. Meaningful choice. Democratic economics. I want to be rooting for certain businesses to succeed and actively supporting them every time I buy something. But I don't know for whom I should be rooting. So I want a quick, easy website on which I can compare brands and make purchasing decisions.

Ludo asked why I wasn't building the website.

I went on a little rave about lacking skills and experience and needing to learn more and work for more great people. And then I gave him the real kicker and reminded him that I was only 25.

He told me I was making excuses. There's nothing wrong with being young and inexperienced, he said. The younger you are, the less likely you'll let conventional wisdom limit you. The younger you are, the more likely you'll listen to good advice. And, the younger you are, the less distance you'll have to fall if things don't work out.

Apparently, it seems, I've listened to Ludovic. We're building the website. We're building the business. And I'm not afraid of falling.

Part of my courage comes from the fact that I don't have any track record or reputation to protect. Part of it comes from knowing that there will be other projects, other jobs, and other academic opportunities. Part of it comes from my belief that, succeed or fail, there will be a whole lot of learning I can do in the process. But most of my courage comes from agreeing with Majora. I agree that, not only do I have nothing to lose, but WE, in a very big sense, have nothing to lose.

Our world doesn't have environmental and economic justice. We haven't made comprehensive sustainable change. There are amazing things about the world we've created (and shockingly amazing things about the natural world that created us), but that's no reason to get comfortable or complacent or inflexibly conservative. There remains so much room for improvement. There's so much we haven't yet achieved. To lose the world we have now is to lose an incomplete and inequitable success. We don't need to be ashamed of that success, but we shouldn't be satisfied either. We have better tools now, minds that are better connected, a better understanding of history. We can and should make a better world.

I think I've found a way, by building that website and providing a tool that consumers can use to figure out which businesses are worthy of their support, to actively participate in making it better right now. So I'm trying. I think Majora would appreciate the effort if nothing else.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Inspiration and Evolution

I had two great conversations yesterday and another today. New people. Connections through friends and friends of friends. People willing to take a little time, listen to me rave on about building a website to help people consume more responsibly, engage, and offer advice.

As usual, I walked away from each conversation a little more inspired, a little more excited to keep pushing this thing forward. It's amazing what a tiny new idea can do. What a little naysaying can do. What a little encouragement can do. What the thought that I have one more person wondering if I'm actually going to make the website happen can do.

It's really nice, as a young person trying to tackle a big problem, to know that there are people out there willing to throw a little wisdom at me. I appreciate it.

So I'm fired up about the project. And I'm fired up about inspiration. Might as well try and pass a little on...

TED Talks? Frans Lanting, maybe? A Lyrical View of Life on Earth. Photography, evolution, and a dude with very cool delivery.

"There are many ways to be a mammal."

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Unreasonably Great

I just read the Economist's review of The Power of Unreasonable People by John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan. It's actually more of an editorial than a review, but I love the Economist for that. Not afraid to speak their minds, and not afraid to let everyone know they're not afraid to speak their minds.

Anyway, the book is about what main stream businesspeople and policymakers have to learn from social entrepreneurs. The authors argue that it will be social entrepreneurs and their commitment to the unreasonable that will usher in the dawn of a new world economy. The Economist counters by dropping some facts and scientific data (sorry; couldn't help it) and reminding us that social enterprise hasn't made it anywhere close to big.

The review ends with this paragraph:

The greatest agents for sustainable change are unlikely to be the well-intentioned folk described in this book, interesting though they are. They are much more likely to be the entirely reasonable people, often working for large companies, who see ways to create better products or reach new markets, and have the resources to do so. Ratan Tata, with his one-lakh car, may improve more lives than any social entrepreneur has done. And he might even make money from doing so.

Fine. But someone's got to build the NGOs, start the green businesses, write the Congresspeople, change the consumer outlooks, and thus prime the markets. Someone's got to make the small changes that create the new opportunities that attract the attention of the Ratan Tatas of the world.

Does laying that groundwork make social entrepreneurs "the greatest agents for sustainable change?" It doesn't matter who we consider the "greatest" of the agents. What's important is that more and more of us participate, unreasonably or not, in making the change.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Blue Is the New Green

On Friday, I went to Brooklyn in search of Blue Marble Ice Cream, the story behind the creation of a small, sustainable business, and some recycling dioramas.

Jennie, one of Blue Marble's founders, is my friend Michael's sister, and, a couple of weeks ago, Michael visited Jennie and spent some time at the shop. While he was there, Jennie explained to him a mis- recycling problem they'd been having and tasked him with the creation of 3-D recycling instructions. He stuck some spoons through a bowl, taped some cups to a plate, took the written instructions off the recycle bins, and hung the dioramas instead. People instantly stopped putting the wrong things in the wrong bins. The visuals did the trick. Hans Rosling would be proud.

I happened to be in NY last Friday, so I figured I'd go see for myself.

And I couldn't be happier that I did. The ice cream is delicious. The flavors are simple but unique: strawberry that doesn't hide the fruit's sweet-sour combination, green tea that begged me to turn it into a milkshake, a frozen yogurt called culture that's not afraid to taste like yogurt, and many more. And the business is pretty cool too. Wind and water power the freezer. Small farmers with big respect for land, water, and animals produce the dairy. And recycled and sustainably sourced materials build the walls and furniture.

Jennie and I talked about the concept, the future, the money, the satisfaction. And there is heaps I want to write.

I want to write more about the visuals, share more of Michael's observations. I want to write about biodegradable spoons and corn production in China. I want to write about substituting clay for paint. I want to write about the balance Blue Marble will always be trying to strike, the balance their vendors try to strike, the balance any small business striving to be more sustainable tries to strike: the balance between righteousness and practicality.

But I want to keep this post a reasonable length, so I won't write it all. I'll give you one thought for now and recommend that you all go see Blue Marble yourselves...

I'm fascinated by the entrepreneurs, Jennie and her co-founder Alexis. They're betting big on Blue Marble: they mortgaged their houses to seed the project. At the same time, they're playing for the love of the ice cream, not for the money. Despite the risk they've assumed, they are significantly more committed to doing things right than doing things profitably.

I'm simultaneously inspired and terrified.

Blue Marble is less than 4 months old. If it grows comfortably through the winter and early spring and catches on in a serious way come ice cream season, a lot of good things will happen. The shop will buy more dairy from the man in the Hudson Valley that does things commendably, if not perfectly organically. Taste-seeking customers will learn about the Blue Marble philosophy and realize that it's totally reasonable to demand both quality and eco-friendliness. And Jennie and Alexis will feel validated in their approach.

But what if things don't go smoothly? Will the shop just disappear? Will it live on but abandon commitment to sustainability? Will skeptics chalk it up as "yet another failed experiment in green business" and use it to discourage others from straying from proven, exploitative business models?

In my opinion, Blue Marble needs to succeed. And, in my opinion, its founders should be looking to go as big as they can possibly manage.

First of all, it seems to me that the Blue Marble business model is one that relies heavily on volume of sales. They care about keeping prices down, and they care about buying from as sustainable a group of farmers, bakers, and biodegradable cutlery distributors as they can, so they can't rely on huge margins to keep them afloat. It might be the case that Blue Marble simply can't operate at enough of a profit to responsibly manage risk unless they take advantage of economies of scale.

Equally importantly, a highly successful Blue Marble would be a hugely positive thing for a lot of people. The world needs case studies. We need role model small business entrepreneurs. We need to see Jennie's and Alexis's attitudes and practices succeed, for we need to see how profitable those attitudes and practices can be. A lot more people know they want to make money than know they want to contribute to creating an ecologically sustainable economy. But a lot of people will realize that they do want to contribute to creating an ecologically sustainable economy if they see more evidence that there's plenty of financial opportunity in it.

My sense is that, in order to take Blue Marble big, the founders will have to spend some time and money on marketing: educate their customers about their business and convince people to support them. Their mission, to build a profitable, sustainable business, is a mission I want them to wear on their sleeves. If they show their customers who they are, convince those customers that Blue Marble is the community's ice cream shop and that Blue Marble's success is the community's success, then I think they will take it big, and I think everybody stands to gain from that.

Jennie and Alexis are going to keep playing for the love. And they should. Sometimes, however, you can play for a lot more love if you keep the money in mind. This might be one of those times.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Why I Love The Governator

As I'm sure most of you have already heard, Arnold Schwarzenegger endorsed John McCain yesterday. Arnold says that he thinks McCain "has a great vision in protecting the environment and also protecting the economy."

I much appreciate that line, the proximity of those two words. One thing I like about both Hillary and Obama is that they intertwine their economic and environmental policies and, in doing so, tune in to the reality of the world. Maintaining healthy economies over the long term requires that we strive for environmental sustainability. The mindset that "the environment" is anything less than a core platform issue is irresponsible, exploitative, get rich quick thinking.

Hit and run economics? Think that one could catch on? Metaphors, baby. I love it.

Anyway, the point is: I think Arnold is a smart guy. I definitely question that conviction every time I remember that he spoke at the 2004 Republican Convention in support of George W. Bush. But I have seen Pumping Iron, and I have watched the bonus footage interviews about the making of Pumping Iron. Arnold is a natural born politician. He has an outrageously huge ego. He is one of a tiny minority of people that truly, sincerely approach bodybuilding as an art. And he is brilliant in his own ridiculous way. If you haven't seen Pumping Iron, I highly highly recommend it. It's fascinating.