The Produce Box: Local Foods in the NC Triangle Region

The trend toward local foods is one of the movements that makes tremendous sense to me in the current emerging economic environment. Here in the Triangle region (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA), a local startup, The Produce Box, has been been making weekly deliveries of local foods for the past couple of years.

Boxing produce at the Lee family farmEach week during the harvest season, we receive a box of produce picked the previous day ($22 for a smaller box, $38 for a larger box) delivered automatically and paid online by credit card.

The foods we receive aren’t flawless, and there’s no promise that they are 100% legally organic. But they’re fresh and delicious and local. The Lee Farm, the main farm that supplies The Produce Box, doubled its acreage under cultivation from 50 to 100 acres in just the past year because of this venture.

Each week the box includes a newsletter from Produce Box owner Courtney Tellefsen. This week she included some interesting insights into how the Lees grown their produce:

Because of the unique nature of this new food system, where they are growing FOR US, they don’t feel the pressure to produce a completely unblemished, beautiful product. They know that we would much rather see a small blemish we can cut away than have our food saturated with pesticides. So they use less pesticides and incorporate such farming practices as growing in black plastic for weed control and irrigation, using a closed water source (no open wells, ponds, etc.) to reduce contamination possibilities and applying insectisoaps rather than pesticides when they can.

They are “thoughtful” about the way that they farm, and the way that they pack your fresh veggies. The produce that comes to you in the morning was picked the day before and packed that previous afternoon at the farm by the Lee’s and their helpers.

She also included this useful chart showing which foods are in season when in North Carolina throughout the year — click on the image to download a full-size PDF version:

Produce: What's in season in North Carolina

AB — 19 May 2010

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How Can Local Economies Transition to a Petroleum-Scarce World?

Today I read an interview in New Scientist with Rob Hopkins, a key figure in the Transition Towns movement — see “Rob Hopkins: Getting over oil, one town at a time.” He writes about how communities can transition to a more sustainable economy at Transition Culture.

Hopkins describes the Transition Towns concept as follows:

A Transition Town is formed when a group of individuals gets together to ask how their community can mitigate the effects of a potential reduction in oil and drastically reduce their carbon emissions to offset climate change. The scheme has become so successful we now have 250 official Transition Towns and Cities worldwide, with many more interested in becoming involved.

One of the strategies being used to help communities transition to a petroleum-scarce economy is EDAP (Energy Descent Action Plan). Here’s a Slideshare presentation that explains how this process is working for some communities:

AB — 7 February 2010

Disaster Housing: Solutions Conceived by the Hexayurt Project

Vinay Gupta of the Hexayurt Project has done much work in the area of emergency housing, something I have explored in some postings here at Bubbleconomics — see “MSF’s ‘Plug and Play Hospital’ in Haiti,” “Haiti Disaster: Housing for When the Bubble Pops,” and “Where will people live after the Big Bubble pops?

Gupta articulates the need for inexpensive, rapidly-deployable solutions for housing in emergencies in his article “Hexayurt Country.”

In an infographic called “Six Ways to Die,” he sketches out a map of the infrastructures that keep us all alive and illustrates how lives are threatened when those infrastructures fail or are disrupted.

Built around that “Six Ways to Die” framework is a presentation called “Dealing in Security: Understanding Vital Services and How They Keep You Safe.”

The Hexayurt is a sheltering solution made from flat panels that can be quickly and cheaply constructed but are much more durable than emergency tents. Here is a very useful video, “Ending Poverty With Open Hardware,” in which Gupta explains some important concepts about how to prevent loss of life using open technology.

AB — 23 January 2010

MSF’s ‘Plug and Play Hospital’ in Haiti

Yesterday I was discussing the potential value of rapidly-deployable emergency housing in disasters — see “Haiti Disaster: Housing for When the Bubble Pops.”

Today, BoingBoing published a fascinating interview with Laurent Dedieu, logistics supervisor for Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF, aka Doctors Without Borders), about the inflatable hospital the organization has deployed in Haiti. (See “Haiti: HOWTO set up a plug-and-play hospital — Doctors Without Borders.”)

Just the fact that MSF has a job title “Logistics Supervisor” makes a statement about the character of the organization and the way it thinks about relief work. The group also has an R&D organization, which has developed the “plug and play hospital,” described by BoingBoing as “a series of inflatable tents with generators and sanitation equipment designed to be mostly independent from the water and power systems typically unavailable after a catastrophe.”

Follow this link for a gallery of photos showing how the hospital was set up.

In the interview, Dedieu describes the hospital:

The mobile field hospital is 9 tents, and each is about 100 square meters, so the total is about 900 square meters. The land we’re using is a former football field, so it’s the perfect space for this, nice and flat.

[The hospital consists of the] 9 tents, 100 beds, including hospitalization and ICU and recovery beds. A triage and emergency tent, and two operations theatres. The idea is that within the tent we have a complete kit we can deploy including energy supply, water supply, all the sanitation, and all medical equipment inside the tent. In Haiti, everything needed to run a hospital including beds and biomedical equipment is included.

We want to be as autonomous as possible with regard to energy. In this case we have one 30 KV generator and one 60 KV generator. Plus an electrical board, and equipment to ensure electrical safety. And then you have all the electrical wire you need to set up lights inside the ward, and set up plugs for the medical equipment.

Here he gives some insights into how MSF’s R&D and innovation processes work:

We are working with standard MSF equipment, we have R&D centers and storage in Europe, in Bordeaux and Brussels. When the equipment reaches the field, typically you have to face some technical issues, some small problems, but the big issues have been solved. One of the problems we had the first time we used this hospital in Pakistan in 2005 was that there was a big difference in temperature between day and night, at night the tents were deflating. The pressure inside the tent was not enough and was creating a problem. Now we have gauges that constantly measure the pressure and trigger compressors to re-inflate if it goes too low.

MSF’s solution speaks to the need for technologies that can be rapidly deployed in crisis situations to deal with medical needs. Previously I wrote out some thoughts about the need for solutions for post-bubble housing needs — see “Where will people live after the Big Bubble pops?” from June 2009 and “Haiti Disaster: Housing for When the Bubble Pops” from earlier this week, 20 January 2010.

What I’m trying to get at is that, if the Bubbleconomics premise is correct, then the world is going to see increasing needs for large-scale relief solutions, as the global situation worsens and economic bubbles pop at all levels. This emerging regime will call for innovative efforts on the parts of governments, NGOs, and businesses to create solutions that can be deployed rapidly at large scale to meet such needs as housing, medical care, and food.

AB — 21 January 2010

Haiti Disaster: Housing for When the Bubble Pops

Seeing the devastating effects on the lives of the people in Port au Prince, Haiti, in the wake of the recent earthquake emphasizes the potential value of emergency housing solutions for recovery.

In such a disaster, survivors are thrust into chaos and forced to live in unstable, unsanitary conditions, seeking out housing any way they can. It seems to me this suggests a need and opportunity for emergency housing solutions that can be quickly and massively deployed by governments or NGOs.

An article in Wired from October 2007 includes a gallery of interesting designs for such situations — see “Instant Housing and Designing for Disaster.”

Just having the housing technology, though, isn’t enough, as demonstrated by the difficulties of getting medical and food assistance to the people in Port au Prince. The problem isn’t necessarily getting relief resources in the first place, but in getting them implemented and distributed.

Deploying emergency housing for potentially hundreds of thousands of people would require a tremendous amount of advance expenditure and organizational infrastructure. So the solution that’s called for is more along the lines of an urban-planning project rather than just an architectural problem.

Suppose it were possible to manufacture in advance the components of a massive portable community that could be stored in advance and deployed rapidly anywhere in the world?

Just thinking out loud — see my previous article, “Where Will People Live After the Big Bubble Pops?

AB — 19 January 2010

Where will people live after the Big Bubble pops?

If the Big Bubble proposition turns out to be true, the world could be faced with hundreds of millions or even billions of people homeless or under-housed. Where might people live if they lose their incomes and can’t pay rents and mortgages?

Some might have the ability to live off the land, join with relatives, or form intentional communities. But it’s easy to imagine large displaced populations lacking housing.

(Note: I don’t necessarily think the Big Bubble is going to pop inevitably. It’s entirely possible that those who are trying to keep the economy running will find ways to do so in spite of the human and environmental consequences. Bubbleconomics is in the way of an exploratory project, so the ideas presented here are tentative.)

When it comes to housing, I think it’s useful to look at alternatives that are emerging in various corners of the earth where people are already suffering from scarce resources. Interesting solutions often arise from such conditions.

Recently I learned about a housing solution being developed by Tata Group, a $62.5 billion Indian company that operates in multiple businesses, including IT, communications, energy, chemicals, and other industries. Tata is the company that has developed the Nano, an auto that sells for as low as US $2,800.

In that same spirit, Tata Housing is building a “nano-housing” complex consisting of very small units designed for affordability. The project, called Shubh Griha, is in Boisar, a suburb accessible to Mumbai. The living units advertised by Tata are 283 square feet, 360 square feet, and 465 square feet.

Here’s a link to a floor plan for the smallest unit:

From Tata’s price list, it looks as if the smallest unit would sell for about 400,000 rupees, or about US $8,500. Tata describes Shubh Griha as “an integrated township with all the basic amenities” and “a clean and green environment.” The development is planned with a footprint allowing 70 percent devoted to common area.

In the U.S., “tent cities” have received some press over the past year as increasing numbers of people become homeless. In some areas, such communities have received assistance from governmental and non-profit organizations — for example, see information here about tent cities in the Seattle, Wash., area. Dignity Village in Portland, Ore., is an example of a former tent city that has evolved into an established intentional community with its own administrative and security infrastructure.

Here’s a link to an image of one of Dignity Village’s common buildings:

The organization says it has five basic rules:

  1. No violence to yourself or others.
  2. No theft.
  3. No alcohol, illegal drugs or drug paraphernalia on the property or within a one block area.
  4. No continuous disruptive behavior.
  5. You must contribute to the maintenance and operation of the Village.

One of the scariest outcomes from lack of housing is the development of huge “shantytowns” around many large cities in the world. These communities are called favelas in Brazil, which lays claim to some of the best-known of such areas. Here is a link to an image of Favela de Rocinha in Rio de Janeiro:

A few years ago I read in Awake! magazine about the cage apartments in Hong Kong, where where over 53,000 people live, according to Christopher DeWolf writing on his blog UrbanPhoto — see his article “Life in a Cage.”

In Awake! (“A Day in My Life in Crowded Hong Kong,” Nov. 8, 1991), Kin Keung writes about

thousands who live in Mong Kok district and who rent “cage apartments,” stacked three high and measuring six feet [1.8 m] long by 30 inches [0.8 m] deep and 30 inches [0.8 m] high. They have space for a mattress and a few personal belongings. No furniture.

thousands who live in Mong Kok district and who rent “cage apartments,” stacked three high and measuring six feet [1.8 m] long by 30 inches [0.8 m] deep and 30 inches [0.8 m] high. They have space for a mattress and a few personal belongings. No furniture.

Here is a link to DeWolf’s photo of someone living in a cage apartment:

A non-profit organization called EDAR Inc. has developed a portable shelter for the homeless called the EDAR unit. Here is a link to a video that demonstrates how EDARs are used:

All of this is written not to scare the pants off of people, but to point to the issues that arise for individuals when their personal bubbles deflate, and what could happen to masses of people worldwide if the Big Bubble collapses.

The need for housing alternatives points to an area where innovation could benefit millions and where an opportunity exists for governmental agencies, non-governmental organizations, and entrepreneurs.

AB — 6 June 2009

The Value of Extremist Economics

An article by Justin Fox in the June 1, 2009, issue of Time called my attention to the economic commentary and libertarian views of Peter Schiff, president of brokerage firm Euro Pacific Capital. (Justin Fox writes the column “The Curious Capitalist” for Time. The article I’m referring to was called “Excluding the Extremist” in the print magazine but is called “Why We Should Listen to Peter Schiff’s Bad News” in the online version.)

While most other economic commentators were trying to prop up the smiley-face view of the economic prospects during 2006 and 2007, Schiff was warning that the economy was heading into a serious recession because of too much debt and a broken banking system, and that the stock market was due for a crash.

Commenting as part of a panel for Fox News on 18 Aug. 2007, Schiff said the following:

The worst is yet to come, the fundamentals are not sound, they’re awful. If the fundamentals were sound we wouldn’t be having these problems.

This to the derisive laughter of the other Fox panel members. In the following video you can see fascinating clips of Schiff during that period going up against the prevailing optimistic wisdom of the time:

Even now in 2009, says Fox, Schiff has not changed his tune:

He thinks the “phony economy” of the U.S. is headed for even harder times. He believes that the crisis-fighting measures coming out of Washington are merely delaying the inevitable, debasing the dollar and loading future taxpayers with huge debts.

Doomsday prophecies aside, though, one of the most interesting aspects of Fox’s column is what he has to say about the value of diversity of opinion, even extremist views. Fox refers to the work of University of Michigan Professor Scott E. Page, an expert in complex systems, political science, and economics.

Including a diversity of views in a set of people working on a problem, writes Page in his book The Difference, increases the possibility that a crucial “savant” will be included in the group and that that is the person who will contribute the nugget that solves the problem:

If we sample widely, we’re more likely to find the one person who can solve the problem or who can make the key breakthough. We did not get the theory of relativity from a crowd. We got it from a diverse, novel thinker in a patent office.

Page’s book explains the research that backs up this assertion.

Some of our research at the Institute for Innovation in Large Organizations (ILO) jibes with what Page is saying. In our 2007 report “Effective Cross-Functional Innovation Groups,” we cited research by Harvard business professor Lee Fleming, who studied 17,000 patents. Fleming encountered an interesting tendency when studying the diversity of innovation teams:

The financial value of the innovations resulting from such cross-pollination is lower, on average, than the value of those that come out of more conventional, siloed approaches. In other words, as the distance between the team members’ fields or disciplines increases, the overall quality of the innovations falls.
However, he adds a big but:
But my research also suggests that the breakthroughs that do arise from such multidisciplinary work, though extremely rare, are frequently of unusually high value—superior to the best innovations achieved by conventional approaches.

The financial value of the innovations resulting from such cross-pollination is lower, on average, than the value of those that come out of more conventional, siloed approaches. In other words, as the distance between the team members’ fields or disciplines increases, the overall quality of the innovations falls.

However, he adds a big “but”:

But my research also suggests that the breakthroughs that do arise from such multidisciplinary work, though extremely rare, are frequently of unusually high value — superior to the best innovations achieved by conventional approaches.

We wrote:

Fleming comments that “when members of a team are cut from the same cloth,” as with a group of all marketing professionals, “you don’t see many failures, but you don’t see many extraordinary breakthroughs either.”

As an example, Fleming says that economists and physicists seem to be able to “team up and innovate efficiently and produce many moderate-value innovations, because their fields are fairly well aligned,” sharing “the common foundational tools of mathematics.”

However, as team members’ fields begin to vary, “the average value of the team’s innovations falls while the variation in value around that average increases. You see more failures, but you also see occasional breakthroughs of unusually high value.”

To me, this emphasizes the value of giving more extreme views a place at the table when tackling complex problems, rather than just laughing them off.

AB — 1 June 2009