Friday, December 15, 2006

My Alternative Technology Christmas Wish-List

Did you know that the true cost of Christmas in the United States if based on the song “The 12 Days of Christmas” is $18,920 in 2006, which is a 3.1 percent increase from the year before? The PFA blog wrote about the 22-year tradition of the PNC financial services group in cheekily calculating the US economy during the year based on their “Christmas Price Index”. If the verses are repeated and the 364 items, including labor hired, are bought, the total cost would be $75,122. The figures this year show increased inflation, higher skilled labor costs, and surprisingly, more expensive items if one surfed the internet instead of visiting a store/vendor. Spare change for our politicians and the rich. If I had that money though, the following would be my alternative technology Christmas wish list:

For those living in cities, especially in high-rise apartments, wouldn’t it be nice to grow your own organic vegetables, herbs, or even plants? Using hydroponics (without soil) and aeroponic (fine mist) growing technology in smaller personalized units make this possible. AeroGarden markets a $150 unit that lets you harvest herbs in two-three weeks with hardly any effort and water. Of course, cheaper and do-it-yourself kits are available. Kitchen wastes and even paper can be turned into compost by using more modern and easy to use auto-composting bins such as the NatureMill, which is still a bit pricey at $400.

What would happen if every child had a computer, even the poorest of the poor, and could connect to the Internet? What would the possibilities be for economic productivity, education, and personal/community growth? The One Laptop Per Child is an ambitious initiative to develop a $100 laptop that will be attractive, energy efficient, durable, and Internet-capable. Some organizations, such as are teaming up with sponsors, and aim to give brand new units for free to the poor. Computers can connect through the internet cheaply through a grid of “self-healing nodes” and can be solar-powered as proposed by the Green Wi-Fi group. According to GrameenPhone founder and MIT entrepreneur guru Iqbal Qadir, information and communication technologies (ICTs) such as computers, the Internet, and telephones enable the poor and vulnerable in three ways: connect the village to the world, create business opportunities, and generate a culture of entrepreneurship. GrameenPhone, in ten years, has garnered 10 million subscribers. For Qadir “connectivity is productivity”. Of course, functional but old computers can still be used and can even connect to the Internet using open source software and other recycled equipment.

Another critical issue is the lack of water supply infrastructure in poverty-stricken rural areas. Without funds for a municipal wide system, households need to provide for their own potable water supply. Communal deepwells with pumps may be located quite a distance from the home. One innovative way of transporting water is through a hand-driven pump such as the $90 Lehmans hand-powered transfer pump, which can transfer 25-30 gallons per minute. For community-wide projects, a firm helped design and install the AquaMeter™ system, which they claim is the “world’s first solar powered, pre-paid municipal water distribution system in Ronda, Cebu, the Philippines.” Rainwater harvesting, water impoundment, and water pumping can be powered by the sun’s energy. The technology has been used worldwide, including in Tawi-Tawi, Philippines and can be made affordable.

The other side of supplying water is conserving it. One piece of equipment that needs improvement is the urinal. Why flush it with potable water, when you can go waterless? Improvements in materials, biodegradable cleansers, no moving parts, and savings of 1.5-3 gallons per flush are some of the clear benefits of waterless urinals. Plus, it’s safer because, in the absence of flushing, microbes, bacteria, and viruses cannot thrive in the dry areas. Check out the Waterless and Waterless Urinals websites.

The World Bank reports that 1.1 billion people live on $1 a day, while 2.7 billion live on $2 a day. Obviously, this doesn’t leave much for basic needs, one of which is transportation. In depressed rural areas, public transport is sporadic and costly. Bad roads exacerbate the difficulties. Bicycles can help fill in this gap. Manufacturing them can also be a source of livelihood. WorldBike is one example of NGOs working on making the bicycle not only a means of transport but also a tool for economic productivity.

For those in urban areas, bikes, if more portable, can encourage the use of mass transit systems. A light, foldable bike makes this possible. Some of these bikes do exist, such as the expensive Brompton Folding Bicycle (over $600). Other folding bike models are half the price according to Larry Lagarde of

Solar power is one feasible technology applicable to areas with many sunny days as the American Southwest and much of Asia including the Philippines. It has many applications from backpacks with photovoltaic cells to recharge your various gadgets to solar electric bikes. One very important and needed application of solar energy is in refrigeration especially of vaccines and medicines for rural, powerless, and disaster-afflicted areas. The SolarChill is designed to be “environmentally sound, battery free, technologically reliable, affordable and multi-source powered” and is expected to cost from $1500-2000. They are looking for manufacturers.

As solar power generation scales up, I was fascinated to stumble upon one company that actually commits to sell to American households solar power at a fixed and guaranteed price. Citizenrē now has over a thousand customers and will be attractive to those seeking a more sustainable lifestyle that, at the very least, is carbon-neutral. For those planning to build their dream home with wood as part of the construction material, you may want to explore wood plastic composites (WPC) that use wood wastes and plastic. JER Environtech, established by Fil-Canadians, developed alternative panel boards and raw material composites that have better mechanical properties, are cost-effective, environment friendly, and non-toxic. They have joint venture companies or manufacturing plants in Canada, the United States, Philippines, Malaysia, and the UAE. It looks like a good stock investment and is listed on the Toronto Venture Exchange (TSX.V) under “JER”.

These are but some of the alternative technologies that the country could use if made affordable and culturally appropriate. That is the task of the Pinoy Innovator.

Despite the challenges we face, the Philippines is number 17 in terms of human well-being and environmental impact. The indicators are life expectancy (70.4 vs. reasonable ideal of 82 years), life satisfaction (6.4 vs. 8.2), and ecological footprint or use of natural resources (1.2 vs. 1.5), all of which account for the country’s happy planet index (59.2 vs. 83.5). Vanuatu was number 1. . The United States was in 150th place. Its life satisfaction (7.4) and life expectancy (77.4 years) were good, but its ecological footprint (9.5) and HPI (28.8) were horrible. You can calculate your own HPI at

Lastly, in this age of recycling and re-use, it’s ok to recycle gifts, and be like what Elaine of Seinfeld called the re-gifter. :-)

I hope you and your family have the very best of Christmas. Don't forget the Christ in Christmas!