Episode 4: Lonny Grafman

The main focus of this interview with Lonny Grafman is the appropriate technology movement and specifically Appropedia. The interview transcript has been edited for clarity, with some additions and explanations in square brackets. Since the connection quality was only so-so, we’ve opted to include selected video excerpts rather than the whole video. The interview content is under the CC-0 license.

Lonny Grafman is an instructor at Humboldt State University in Northern California. He is also the Chief Product Officer of Canary Instruments [now Nexi], a startup company, and he is the founder of Appropedia, an encyclopedia of appropriate technology. Welcome to Passionate voices, welcome Lonny!

Thank you, Erik. Great to be here.

Lonny, what’s your passion?

My passion is making great stuff with awesome people that makes the world a better place, now and in the future. It’s really working with diverse groups of people that have different opinions on how we should get to a better world, but are focused on doing that, and then just making stuff.


An example of appropriate tech: an earthen solar cooker made from salvaged materials. [CC-BY-SA, Appropedia]

In the context of your work at Humboldt State University, you founded a project called Practivistas. Can you talk a little bit about that, and what that’s about?

Yeah, in the Practivistas program, we bring students from the US and other countries to live and work with students in another country, in communities of little resources. Usually it’s mostly students from the US. We were in northern Mexico, then southern Mexico, now we’re in Dominican Republic. We started about 14 years ago. In Dominican Republic, we have US students living with mostly middle class families, one student in each family, and they’re studying at a very wealthy university called UNIBE. And then together with students from UNIBE, they’re working in communities of little financial resources to tackle real problems with existing resources in the area.

The phrase “appropriate technology” comes up a lot, and I think to a lot of people this might not be something they’ve heard before. Why do we need a new phrase — why don’t we just say “technology”?

There’s a lot of different definitions. It was coined 40 years ago by E.F. Schumacher. He called it “technology with a human face”. But in general, the consensus point is, they’re technologies that can be maintained, used, repaired, operated, retrofitted by the actual stakeholders. For me, it also means it’s a technology that’s not just designed for but it’s designed with the stakeholders.


Practivistas participating in the construction of a classroom made from local materials, including plastic bottles. [CC-BY-SA, Appropedia]

And that is core to the Practivistas program, right? You’re working with students from say, the US, but you’re working with people on the ground in, say, Santa Domingo, and you’re figuring out, hey, you guys want to build a new school, or a new rainwater catchment, or some other technology that helps your village, what’s the best way to do that?

Absolutely. We land with zero idea of what we’re doing. We don’t know what type of project we’re working on, and also many of us might not have the skills that apply to whichever project gets picked. Then we run series of community meetings where we assess the most pressing needs. And those are just loud, chaotic, really fun events where we list a lot of needs, and then we prioritize them right there together. And then we start looking at the resources. Both in that community, and with us as students.

So, there’s things that my students bring that a lot of the time is less available in the community, and we look for how those synergies can make even better projects. A typical example would be testing equipment. We don’t bring projects from the US and parachute them down in the community. We try to build things together. But we have access to a rich university that has machines that can test strength of materials, that can test for smoke pollution, they can test stuff. And that’s an example of one of the things that the students can bring. And then everybody brings stuff.  Maybe I can lead you through a couple of example projects.

Video excerpt: Lonny  Grafman discussing the Arroyo Norte project

Yeah, that would be cool. In your TEDX talk you mentioned a couple of interesting ones. You built a school out of plastic bottles, or you found a way to make more lightweight and cost-effective concrete by mixing it with rice hulls, which was the result of extensive trial and error. Is there anything you did more recently that would be interesting to talk about?

Yeah, a ton! Even on those projects, we keep iterating. It’s not a one-time thing. Those blocks, for instance. Now we’ve made three thousand of them and built a pharmacy out of them. But just to pick something completely different. We work in a community called Arroyo Norte. They’re a community that lives next to the dump.

They’re right on the side of the dump, so all the materials from Santo Domingo, one of the major cities in the Dominican Republic, go through this community. So the resource meeting was really exciting, because when we asked, “Okay, what kind of resources are available?”, they’re like: “Anything, anything you want we can get!” Because there’s so much stuff.

The major need there is employment. Some type of work. So we’ve been working with the community for a couple of years now to come up with a product from the waste material. Last year, we came up with this really gorgeous product, where we were taking plastic bottles out of the waste stream, HDPE-2 plastic, we were hand-shredding them, and then we were melting them using a tortilla press into these really gorgeous tiles. And they look fantastic.

But when we went and tested them, we realized we needed about 9 or 10 pounds [of pressure] per square inch, and over the course of the year we realized with the new research that we had done on the materials, that to scale it up was just not really going to work. The amount of pressure we needed just wasn’t really available.

So we came back to the drawing board, asked the same question, same resources, same materials, but now with this new knowledge. And what we came up with this last summer, a few months ago, is a process where we’re extruding strips. Kind of like an old Play-Doh machine. So, we’re melting the strips in the same way that you can make filament for a 3D printer, except we’re making them into flat strips that can be woven together with traditional weaving techniques.

And it’s been going fantastically because it doesn’t need any more pressure than is readily available, and the technology of weaving already exists. And so they’re experimenting with beach baskets. The only local farmer’s market has inquired about making food baskets that they can buy and that their customers can use for shopping or to take home.


A beach basket created from waste as part of the Arroyo Norte waste plastic innovation project [CC-BY-SA, Appropedia]

I’d like to take a moment for a sad part of that project. One of the main leaders of that project, Luis, just passed away. He was attending a biomimicry convention and was in a car accident. So that project has met with heartbreak. But some people, including some strangers, have stepped up to try to fill his incredibly big shoes.

And when you find these solutions, do you then put them on Appropedia, and document them for future users?

There’s different ways to spread impact. You can have a lot of impact on a very small population, like a population of one or two. But by putting it on Appropedia you can virally spread that impact.

As Practivistas, we built maybe 30 rainwater catchment systems. But I know about at least 50 rainwater catchment systems that were built using instructions from Appropedia, that were educated by these projects. And so we’re able to become each other’s research and development.

Even though we’re not a big corporation and don’t have a lot of money for R&D, if we’re each doing these projects and we’re not sharing just our success, but also what went wrong, then we really can keep moving forward at an accelerated rate.

Video created by the Practivistas Dominican Republic

When you say that you go in without any knowledge, into a particular country, do you contrast that with the approach that some nongovernment organizations (NGOs) and nonprofits take when they go into a developing country and want to help?

There’s a whole spectrum, and I definitely have a strong take on what I think a better approach is. On one end of the continuum is coming in, donating a bunch of stuff that wasn’t asked for and leaving quickly afterwards — into a non-emergency situation. And that’s often not a sound approach. And there are examples where you displace local labor by bringing in a large donation of materials.

I think if that was your approach, if you thought that this community really needed, let’s pick something that isn’t so heated, let’s say t-shirts. I think that the right approach is to ask who is already making clothes in that community and to help them scale up their processes.

Another thing that I feel strongly about in this area is, if you’re solving a problem from afar and then delivering that solution, you’re not going to fix that problem. I mean, I’m speaking to myself, I’ve done that multiple times! I’ve made that mistake, where I’ve designed something, thinking I knew what needed to be designed, but because I didn’t have stakeholders designing it with me, it wasn’t really solving the problem. And it’s not building capacity.

So I think it’s incumbent upon us, especially in a non-emergency situation, to always be building capacity, while we’re addressing these problems. In an emergency, for example if there’s a natural event, a tragedy at a large scale, that’s a different story. But when it comes to building community, I think capacity always has to be always at least tantamount, if not paramount.

In one of your talks you said that the moment that people started to understand that you’re not in fact there to just give them a pre-made solution, that’s when they started to actually take you more seriously in a way, and started engaging with you more.

Like, there was almost that expectation that you just wanted to drop by and solve all their problems, and probably fail in doing so. That’s what it sounded like. That there was some pre-existing cynicism that you encountered?

Yeah, I actually get really excited when I meet that cynicism. It’s usually in areas that already have had a history [of development work]. So when I’m working in areas that there haven’t been many NGOs, then that cynicism hasn’t been built. But in a lot of areas, especially Dominican Republic, what I found is some very international development savvy communities that don’t just want to be someone’s backdrop.

And it’s not that they’re going to turn away free stuff. If it was stuff, they’d often rather just have cash.

And it’s not that a community is going to turn away free stuff. But if it doesn’t build their community stronger, then it’s not enough. And if it was stuff, they’d often rather just have cash. In Dominican Republic, I work in four communities there, in each of them, if you’re just going to drop off stuff, community leaders feel that the only thing that would make their community stronger is money.

I’m speaking for them, because I’ve had these conversations with them, so it might not be true for the next set of community leaders.

With the exception of Arroyo Norte who’ve also requested a few specific prescription drugs. That’s another thing they would love. They’re like, “Yeah, if someone wanted to drop that off, that’d be cool, too.”

But otherwise, they want to build businesses, they want to build jobs, they want to build skills, they want to build education. They want to build a future for their kids. And again, just to be clear, I’m just repeating their words, I don’t mean to speak for especially whatever next group of leaders come into these communities.

Video excerpt: Lonny Grafman talking about changes in technology, and how they have impacted his work

So when it comes to engaging around technology and making that sustainable, you’ve been at this game for a long time now. What’s changed in the last decade? What’s changed in the availability of technologies, the abundance of specific kinds of technologies? What costs have come down, what thresholds have been crossed? Where do you see the new potentials?

The most obvious example is solar. When I started pushing solar power, I was mostly called names. Like, “pipe dream”, “hippie”, “communist”, which I always thought was funny, I’m not sure what the connection was. Those were the responses 20 years ago to solar power. And in part because solar power was well over 8 dollars a watt.

Even if you don’t know what a watt is, doesn’t matter, just remember, 8 dollars a unit. So it was over 8 dollars a unit. At that price, the payback time was decades. Well, now, that 8 dollars is now less than a dollar a unit. So what was once over 8 dollars a unit when I first started teaching, now it’s under a dollar for that same unit.


That’s really changed a lot. For instance, we used to do some wind projects. Up until about five years ago in one of the communities, we were doing small scale wind projects as well. And we’ve just stopped. It just doesn’t end up working out price-wise. If you go large scale, that’s a different story. At the small scale, with solar under a dollar a watt, it just becomes a no-brainer.

So there’s that. There’s all types of new rapid prototyping technology, low cost. Santa Domingo even has a makerspace called the Hub, where you can go and get access to 3D printers and laser cutters.

And then of course the connectivity. The Internet has been around a long time, but now, through smartphones, the penetration is just really high. It’s spread out in the market a lot. So, for instance, for Appropedia, a lot of times we used to focus on how to get onto thumb drives and CDs and on the WikiReader. But a lot of communities now have somebody who can access the Internet. And so, that’s been another exciting technology for me to watch.

The good news is that we really don’t have to be puritanical about anything, and diverse solutions will actually build more resilience.

I think, with the problems facing the world, there’s no panacea. Which is bad news and good news. The good news is that we really don’t have to be puritanical about anything, and diverse solutions will actually build more resilience. We can just keep listing new technologies that are looking really promising. For me, though, the technology is almost the easy part. The hard part is getting people to work together. Getting people with different needs and different opinions to figure out how to make stuff together.

I call myself an appropriate technologist, and that’s what people pay me to come in and teach, but I often wear that just like a Trojan Horse for being a community activist. Or, a “community practivist” is probably the right word!

We just did a solar project, where we put solar power on that pharmacy in the Dominican Republic that we’d built the year before. And when I say “we”, this is what I mean: we ran a series of solar workshops, the first of which was run by mostly me and the US and Dominican students. The second of which was run by community participants and us. And then the third of which, the community designed and built the solar pharmacy in one day, and I couldn’t even get to the front.

There was a point where one of the guys, Bernardo, who was their electrician, he was quizzing everybody on what the different parts were doing. And I was trying to get to the front to hear the answers. This was in the community called Las Malvinas. It was so run by the people in Las Malvinas that we couldn’t even hear.

The solar was the easier part. We could have just designed and put up the solar, and now there’d be one solar pharmacy. And now, because it was through community engagement, and through building capacity first, the students brought what they know about solar panels, and the community brought what they knew about wiring, and now those people are going on to build other projects.

Video excerpt: Lonny Grafman discusses what made the Appropedia community successful

That totally makes sense. And I’m interested in digging a little bit into how the wiki works as a tool for you. I’ve obviously been involved with wikis for a long time, and I’ve seen many people build wiki communities, and a lot of them have failed. A lot of them just never get off the ground. The vast majority just never get anywhere.

When I look at Appropedia what I see is a pretty thriving community, and a lot of really high quality content. And I’m just curious what you’ve learned in building the community that actually works. Because it’s a pretty specialized topic. But I also know that you have access to a pretty unique “renewable resource”, i.e. students learning things.

I’m curious how your curriculum factors into the growth of Appropedia, and also just generally what you’ve learned about building the community.

So, when Appropedia started, I didn’t realize that there were a few other ones out there, and after we started, a few more came on board… wikis like Appropedia. Well, in fact, before Appropedia, I had with some students and some other people hand-built a wiki, and it was terrible. I spent a thousand hours building it, and after one year, there was less than a thousand hours of people having viewed it.

So it would have been a better use of my time to go door-to-door and just talk to people. And it was funny, because I totally forgot one of the tenets of appropriate technology, which is: don’t rebuild the wheel. So then, after a year of that, we’re like, okay, what is out there that already does the technology and has the community, and it was MediaWiki.

We built it on top of the MediaWiki platform, so we were able to leverage a community of people doing the coding. And that really freed us up. And then early on, we decided, we don’t have any money, so we’re going to focus on building the community instead of building the technology. So if you go to Appropedia right now, what you’ll find is that it’s pretty ugly, right? It’s not going to win any design awards. But it works. And it has a hundred contributions every day. It’s been edited over 340,000 times. 65 million visitors. I’m pretty proud of those things.

And I think it’s because we just always focus on community. Here was one of my early examples of success. I told myself a couple things. That I would drop out if I hadn’t hit a few milestones. So the first milestone was, within a year I needed there to be edits that I hated, that I just thought were terrible. And if I didn’t have that, then I was just [preaching to the choir], which is cool, but this isn’t what we were setting up to do.

Well before the two year mark we reached this point, where I definitely wasn’t the leader.

And early on, within a few months after Appropedia launched, Chris Watkins, Curt Beckmann, Cat Laine came on board; they’re also advocates of community engagement. I told everyone that after two years, if I couldn’t step back and it would live on without me, I would step back. Well before the two year mark we reached this point, where I definitely wasn’t the leader, I was part of a group of people who had the pleasure of getting to lead Appropedia. And so that was another mark of success for me. Very early on, you could no longer call it “my project”. It was a bunch of people’s project.

Those are the positive things I’ve learned. One of the things that I wish I would have learned earlier is that I gotta figure out how it can earn money, so that it can live on its own. And I’m stepping down as president as soon as we find somebody [for the Executive Director position].  You know, I’ve put in a lot of time in it, and I have a couple of other focuses. I’ll always want to be involved, but we’re actually looking for some more new leadership, which I think also makes sense for it as a project, to get new life and new vision thrown into it.

Let me just cycle back on one of the other points you mentioned. We also brought in a service learning element, and that’s been really great at keeping an infusion of quality content. What we’ve done is, we’ve set up relationships with teachers where students at the undergraduate and graduate level are adding very specialized, very specific high-detail content that then the teacher becomes the trainer of. So, they’re making sure that that stuff is quality.


The Arcata Marsh wastewater treatment project [CC-BY-SA, Appropedia]

It’s harder work for the teacher, but the value add is so big for them, because you’re no longer reading the same paper over and over again. Those students have to go do new things. Even at the freshman level. So an example of a freshman project would be, in Northern California in Humboldt there’s a marsh, called the Arcata Marsh. It’s the wastewater treatment center for Arcata.

15,000 people’s waste is treated in what looks like the most beautiful park that you could imagine on flat land. It’s really pretty.

15,000 people’s waste is treated in what looks like the most beautiful park that you could imagine on flat land. It’s really pretty. But it’s our wastewater treatment. If you had searched that 8 years ago, alternative methods for wastewater treatment using natural plants, you wouldn’t have found anything on that site.

But what this 100 level [first year] class did is, they had 80 students go out and research each aspect of the marsh, and then write about it with photos in detail. And then the teacher helped to collate and curate all that. So now, every week there’s visitors to Arcata Marsh that want to replicate it in their city or their country.

And then at the graduate level course, you’re making projects and you’re documenting those and sharing them with the public.

So, service learning is an older concept that predates wiki by a very, very long time, right? And this is a pretty novel application of this idea of service learning to the creation of free content. What were the original examples of service learning before this kind of thing?

An example from way before this would be in the social services sector, where you have students in the US working with populations in need, and those populations in need are getting services while the students are learning. And there’s somebody that’s making sure that it’s all being done in a way that’s respectful and value add to everyone.

It’s this thing that sits between and hopefully a little bit above internship, which is about student learning, and volunteerism, which is about the target community getting needs met. And it kind of combines those to hopefully get this synergistic effect, where needs get met better than they would have been, and students learn more than they would have.

My experience is that students learn more. Even just by motivation. When you’re doing something real, that has real impacts, it’s just a lot more motivation to do it right.

Yeah, it was back in 2003, 2004 when we found out about the first professors doing this kind of thing with Wikipedia. They assigned editing to a bunch of students as a course projects and improved articles through that process. And since then, an organization has been created called the Wiki Education Foundation that just does this kind of thing with Wikipedia, and gives these assignments in partnership with professors in universities across the US.

Hundreds of students have gone through this. Appropedia may be like WikiEducator and only a couple of others that I can think of that actually uses that same principle to create content that isn’t encyclopedia-type content but that’s very different. Nonetheless you create freely licensed content as one of the outputs of the learning process, which I think is super exciting.

Do the students then become part of the community, or do they just move on at some point?

The majority move on. A small few become really core. And then some middle amount become come-and-go. Right now I’m living in San Francisco for the first time, I’m on unofficial sabbatical from Humboldt, and it’s really fun to run into people who know past students of mine and who have heard about Appropedia just through that spread. So even though they’re not editing, they’re still like, “Oh, for this project, you should look at Appropedia”. So, even when they don’t become editing members in the future, they often become part of that community of outreach.

In the areas of success in appropriate tech, the people that are doing the best work are usually the people least likely to document and share that work, because they’re so deeply enmeshed in it. Having students who need to be able to learn how to translate information, and who need to be able to write for multiple audiences from a technical standpoint but also from a social standpoint, it’s just kind of a no-brainer, it just really fits together.

And have you been able to grow Appropedia beyond the English language version yet, or is it mostly an English language project at this point?

It’s predominantly in English, but there’s definitely content in Spanish, Portuguese, French, Kiswahili — we have a really fantastic Kiswahili editor. And we’re in the process of merging Ekopedia into Appropedia. But we’re having technical difficulties. So I’ll use this platform: If you have mad skills, in database and wiki, we could use help in bringing those together!

What other kinds of things can people do who really want to dive into the appropriate technology community and the movement? Obviously Practivistas is not going to be for everyone; are there other easy ways for people to get involved?

Yeah, in every community, there’s cool stuff happening. There’s appropriate technology in every single community. So, a first step that also uses Appropedia is to look on Appropedia and see if there’s anything documented in your area. And if there isn’t, go document it! Just start there, and by doing that, you get to see two or three appropriate tech organizations, and see if you even want to maybe work with them.

My suggestion would be if you’re listening and you wanna make an appropriate tech organization, because there’s all this great stuff that needs to be done, first see who’s doing stuff in your community and get involved with them first. Because they’re probably out there, and they need people.

I think that the impact of doing appropriate tech is much higher in your own community.

I think that the impact of doing appropriate tech is much higher in your own community. I do 10% of my work outside of the US, because I absolutely love language, culture, and dance from other countries. I’m doing it for me. But our own communities have just as much need. And then if the international appropriate tech stuff interests you, cool, you have first built your experience in your own community to do it.

Alternatively, get involved with an organization that’s doing work somewhere outside your community. A lot of them don’t  necessarily have pathways in, but for instance, Practical Action is a great group that does excellent Appropriate Technology work in many countries.

Yeah, that to me is one of the interesting aspects, that it’s always also a local thing. It’s easy to think of the types of projects that we talked about, oh, you built a school out of plastic bottles, and to just think of this as, this is how we can help people. That’s just not the right way to think about it, right? It’s about thinking about waste, thinking about how we make the best use of the things we have, and reuse, and keep using things in a sustainable manner rather than just throwing things away.

But yes, poverty exists everywhere. It doesn’t just exist in developing countries, it exists in every single country in every single city on this planet. So, it’s a universal set of patterns with local variations, rather than just something that is built for developing countries.

You’re working on another part of the problem around sustainable development through your startup, Canary. Do you want to talk a little bit about what you’re up to with that?

Yeah, I’d love to. Canary Instruments is in the middle of a rebranding. [It has since been rebranded to Nexi.] We’ve created an energy monitor that lives in people’s homes, that shows them how much energy they’re using instantly and daily. But it does it without numbers and without units and without all this stuff that makes it “work” [to pay attention to it].

Instead, it focuses on beauty, simplicity and intuition. One part of it changes instantly. You turn on devices in your home, and it goes from green to yellow for more energy, to orange for a little bit more, to fuchsia for just a whole bunch of energy… and that you’re just burning the world down!

And then another part of it changes throughout the day. So by the end of the day, if it’s still orange, you’re doing good, your bill is going to be about the same that it usually is. But if by 7PM it’s fuchsia, it’s going to be really high.

What it does, it ties you back to your resources. We used to load the wood into the fire, so we knew how much energy we’re using. We want to bring that awareness back. And the studies have shown that this saves about 10% of energy use. But that’s not just 10%. That 10% is the dirtiest 10%.

Because energy efficiency competes with the dirtiest energy. It takes the top 10% off generation, which are the dirtiest power plants that get turned on.  So your impacts on CO2, from a climate change perspective, and your impacts on local pollution from an asthma and local health perspective, is even higher than that 10%.

We recently got into the Highway1 accelerator program, which is helping us figure how to scale. We’re in 275 homes right now, and we want to be in millions of homes. And so we’re learning about all these processes, and that’s part of what’s spawned this rebranding, and we’re also changing the way it looks and doing lots of studies on how to get the most impact in people’s homes and on energy.

And this is more of a classically commercial endeavor, right. Everything we’ve talked about so far, the work on Practivistas, the work in Appropedia, it’s very transparent and open and public and following the open source paradigm in terms of sharing under open licenses. Which of that are you taking into some of the more commercial work that you’re doing?

Thanks, I love that question, and I’m sure I’m going to piss off some of my friends with the answers! It kind of ties back to what we talked about earlier. Since there is no panacea, I don’t think that we need to be puritanical, and we need to take different approaches. With Appropedia, what we tried to do is to work with almost no money, build a cool project and then share it with other people, so they can work with almost no money to make it better.

With Canary [now Nexi], what we’re trying to do is raise enough money where we can make the perfect product for our customer. And a lot of the same processes, where we bring together a group of people that we consider part of our stakeholder base and ask them, what are your needs. And then we show them, okay, what if it worked like this, what if it worked like this?

So we’re getting a lot of those same feedback loops. But the big difference is, now we have some intellectual property rights, some patent applications and some patents, which is kind of in stark contrast to the open source philosophy. We need those in part because we need to raise money, and you just can’t without those.

But the way we balance it, we continue to support the open source communities in the issues that matter. The idea of energy monitoring, we just want to help. We’re sharing as much as we can about what we learn about energy monitoring. What we learn about manufacturing, in general. We’re trying to blog about that and share that, so other people can learn about our recent trip to Shenzhen, and what we learned there.

And then also, our data. Our data is in fully open source format, and not only is it an open source format, but now we’re developing the open APIs, so we can tie into anyone’s ecosystem. People want to hack this thing, we want to help them hack it. But also, any other products that want to work together, we want to work with them.

So what we’ve done, we’ve taken this one specific piece that we want to patent that in no way takes away from the creativity of the world, focused on that so that we have this thing we can protect, so that we can bring in money and there’ll be a return on that money. And then everything else around it, we’re open sourcing.

Some of my friends strongly disagree with that approach and think that we should just open source everything. If we did that, I don’t think that the investors we’re talking to would talk with us. Maybe that’s a bigger systemic issue, but here’s the thing: what we do doesn’t distract from other people’s ability to make products. It only encourages them to make more.

And then we can save 10%, and we can get that into millions of homes, that aggregated impact on climate change and carbon will be more than every solar building I’ve ever taken off the grid.

I mean, every ten of these units we put in, it’s like taking one house off the grid. For me, that’s worth it. With this project, I’m trying to make a relatively small impact — 10% — but with really wide distribution. But I’m not going to stop Appropedia, Practivistas, those other directions. I think we just need to attack the problems facing the world. We got to attack them from as many directions as possible.

It makes sense, and I think that a lot of folks see patents as a sort of protection against others invading your market, and in some industries increasingly folks are coming to the realization, maybe making those patent pools available, or making them available under some terms, benefits their entire sector of the industry, like Elon Musk with Tesla’s patents.

So I think there’s a continuum of options when it comes to patents and how to manage them, just as there’s always been a continuum of options when it comes to licensing of content and software. But you’re still at the early stage now of product development, even just raising the funds and building the thing. It’s not even going to be an issue yet that anyone wants to use the technology, you’re still at the very beginning now, right?

Yeah, we have 275 installed in the US, we have 1 installed in the Dominican Republic, so we’re right at the infancy. As a company, we have five criteria that every decision is made upon. And they are, does it make us money, make us time, passion, and is great for people and the planet. So it has to do all those things.

It frames these conversations that I know eventually will come, like how do we share this. For instance, there are some really excellent Creative Commons licenses that could apply, the Developing Country License, things like that, or just other licensing agreements. There’s groups out there that have some interesting success with that, and we’re looking forward to learning from them.

Yeah, I think Creative Commons retired that Developing Country License eventually, because they thought it was too difficult to actually define the boundaries in a consistent way and make sure it doesn’t get misused in some fashion. But there’s other ways to just say, under certain conditions we will do X, or we will release our patents royalty-free to projects that don’t pursue commercial gain, things like that.

Have you read about the new public benefit corporation model that’s coming into view a little bit?

The old model of corporations is something that we couldn’t fit into.

That’s what our company will switch to. In this rebranding I think we’ll have to wait another six months for the Beneficial Corp license. But we love it. The old model of corporations is something that we couldn’t fit into. Because we have these five criteria. We wouldn’t be allowed to have those five criteria. We’d only be allowed to have one criterion.

In a typical corporation, if you don’t raise money for your shareholders, they can sue. So what we’ve done is, we’ve added four more criteria to that list. As a beneficial corporation what we’re going to be able to do is make a decision based on all five of these. And because it’s part of our charter, we can’t be sued by our shareholders.

It’s interesting, right, when you try to scale by using the market, you’re subject to the forces of the market to an extent, but it also doesn’t stop you from being thoughtful about how you balance these competing interests if you want to. And it’s clear that you are being thoughtful about it.

I mean, you still need to make money. That’s one of the reasons that we’re doing this, to sustain it, to be able to multiply those impacts you have to have that. But we don’t want that to be at the cost of people.

That makes sense. Thank you so much, Lonny, for sharing your passions with us today, and I encourage everyone who’s been listening in to check out Appropedia.org. For me personally, when I go to Appropedia, I always get a little kick of inspiration because all these uses of technology people come up are just bizarre, crazy, imaginative, wonderful, and sometimes beautiful. It’s just lovely to browse around and check out.

The appropriate technology movement, as Lonny has said, is a local movement you can be involved in, in your city, in your community, and it also is an opportunity to get to know other culture. Hopefully this has been a small window into a very interesting and unique global community. Thank you so much, Lonny!

Thank you — really appreciate it!

2 thoughts on “Episode 4: Lonny Grafman

  1. I love this, “I’m just repeating their words, I don’t mean to speak for especially whatever next group of leaders come into these communities.” So few people use the right words to acknowledge and respect and be the voice of…


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