Seeing New Possibilities in Existing Technologies: An Interview with April Allderdice of MicroEnergy Credits

This interview is with April Allderdice, CEO and cofounder of MicroEnergy Credits. MicroEnergy Credits has developed a mechanism using microfinance institutions and GPS cell phones to allow carbon credits to reach small households in the developing world. Until now the relatively high transaction costs involved in set up and verification of a carbon trade has made the market available only to large companies.

During our interview I was reminded of another fantastic idea with similar characteristics. Simon Berry, CEO of ruralnet UK, proposes “that Coca-Cola use their distribution channels (which are amazing in developing countries) to distribute oral rehydration salts. Maybe by dedicating one compartment in every 10 crates as ‘the life saving’ compartment.” (join the Facebook group here to pressure Coca Cola) Once you plug into Coca Cola’s already-existing distribution channels the cost of delivering small amounts of vital medicines to remote parts of the world drops precipitously.

The genius of both of these ideas is that they are using something “old” to do something very new.

If you know any other examples of innovations that use existing technology to get things done – please put them in the comments.

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  • http://mike.teczno.com Michal Migurski

    Instead of pressuring coca-cola, why not directly pay for space in their distribution network? I’m sure they have the costs of that network dialed in so tightly that they know exactly what the value of a given compartment (and the logistical effort required to fill, track, and route it) would be to be to a commensal distributor. I’m not sure if the FB group addresses this or not… it might be worth putting it on the actual internet instead.

  • http://kotare.typepad.com/ Kotare

    Interesting post.

    Re. “examples of innovations that use existing technology to get things done”…

    Turbo expanders – these are small turbines positioned inside natural gas distribution networks to tap released pressure and generate electricity (each turbine generates 1MW of electricity).

    A firm in the UK is rolling this technology out in the London gas network. There’s apparently a couple of bonuses. Combined heat and power engines can be added, generating electricity and heat. And releasing gas pressure causes a sudden drop in temperature, which could be harnessed to replace refrigeration units and air conditioning.

  • http://www.abouttechnocracy.wordpress.com Ryan Lanham

    Yeah, this is great stuff. This is very along lines some of us see as a new technocracy agenda. Well done.

  • Tim Jones

    Last thing poor people in Africa care about are carbon offsets to massage from white liberal’s guilt about the environment.

    It’s a shame we are pretending this chick is some sort of entrepreneur. This is just tax-farming, brought back in new form. Finding a new, efficient, way to tax people is not entrepreneurship as we usually mean it.

    Her company only has a market because of government strong arming on energy using companies/entities.

  • http://basiscraft.com Thomas Lord

    This is “tax-farming,” as Tim Jones puts it. We don’t have and we shouldn’t expect to ever have any “carbon credit” accounting system that makes any scientific sense. Credits, in practical terms, are just going to amount to an oligarchy that monopolizes industrial activities in some markets. It’s a sham.

    April’s project does do an interesting and graceful dance that amounts to skimming from the corrupt credits market to perform redistribution. There is something admirable about that in the same way that there is something admirable when someone devises a scheme to skim from organized crime to better a neighborhood with small hand-outs: but it’s nothing new under the sun and unlikely to amount to a serious impact on climate change.

    There’s also some “late to the party” reasoning about the amazing (so-called) discovery that the Coca-Cola distribution pipeline can be usurped for emergency needs such as medicine delivery. Let me fill you in:

    The big industrial food services (McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, etc.) have been in that business for a long time from the US governmental perspective. They are very much, already, and for a long time part of the “military industrial complex”.

    There is an open source point of reference that many people have probably seen: How many times have you seen Coke or one of the other firms respond to this or that natural disaster – a disaster that creates a temporary water shortage – by turning over a bottling factory temporarily to bottling drinking water which is then trucked into the scene of the disaster?

    That “hack” is old news and, strictly speaking, we aren’t talking about a “new use for old things” we’re talking about a power shift:

    What’s new, currently, is an increase in the notion that maybe that supply chain should have a third master. You’ve got the private corporation master that operates it most of the time. You’ve got governmental emergency response efforts into which it is sometimes dragged. The new notion is that perhaps private NGO’s can gain leverage enough to be a second quasi-boss to these firms, along the lines of what governmental orgs already do.

    Who has more power: FEMA or Google/Larry Brilliant? – so to speak.

    For really meaningful, long-lasting change I think we need to stop using under-developed regions as test tubes and make a higher priority of cleaning our own house. We need much more by way of lifestyle changes domestically and, yes, redistributive changes domestically to reform and re-solidify our native capacity for real production in sustainable form. Achieving that we will generate surpluses of both capital and knowledge from which we can better “meddle” in the affairs of others, ideally with less need for “B.S.” interventions like carbon credit imaginary systems.

    In 2009, let’s fix Oakland, Pittsburgh, and Detroit. Learn lessons there and then expand the program.

    -t

  • http://radar.oreilly.com Joshua-Michéle

    Michal – I agree with the idea that “renting” space might be far more effective…. Supply Chain syndication.

    Kotare – I love the idea of Turbo Expanders and will try to follow up on that — unless you want to give me a link to more follow up material…

    Thomas,
    “We need much more by way of lifestyle changes domestically and, yes, redistributive changes domestically to reform and re-solidify our native capacity for real production in sustainable form”
    Amen to that. On other points you make…
    Beyond the irony of a Berkeley resident(you I believe) telling an Oakland resident (me) that Oakland needs to get fixed before Berkeley…(Really?) I agree with you that the “hack” as you call it isn’t new – but the results of piggybacking on already-existing infrastructure could be profound. Are you actually suggesting no one should take up the cause of getting Coke to distribute oral rehydration salts to people who need them? Seriously? Or are you arguing from a purely philosophical point of view that Coca Cola as a multinational must die – and anything less is collaboration with a corrupt group?
    As to Cap and Trade Markets — you may not hold the Environmental Defense Fund in high regard but here is a study on the success of markets in reducing pollution: http://www.edf.org/page.cfm?tagID=1085

  • http://basiscraft.com Thomas Lord

    Joshua-Michéle

    If you want to start in Berkeley rather than Oakland, I’m game. Oakland seems a more interesting case to me – Berkeley seems effete and well-funded enough that I think the problems are less interesting. But I’m happy to start in Berkeley if you want.

    On coke distributing rehydration salts? I think it’s pretty bogus, yes. Think of what you are saying with that plan: You are saying that Coke Co. should be sovereign, collect a tax, and provide social services subject to its internal governance. In place of democracy, you’ll substitute the amount of sunlight that the press can manage to shed on their efforts. No thanks.

    On cap and trade: yes, there will be many studies that display superficially encouraging and equally irrelevant graphs.

    -t

  • http://mike.teczno.com Michal Migurski

    Thomas, I’m impressed by the “third master” idea in your criticism of the coca-cola suggestion. In particular, I think the concept of relying on businesses for this kind of relief or social work is an absolute dead-end, because there isn’t an alignment of interests that keeps a committed business on-target any longer than the PR benefit. As you say, there’s insufficient press insight and insufficient public oversight. What happens when Google’s ad revenue declines by 20% in 2009 and they sharply downscale google.org? At least when you rent space in a supply chain, the exchange of value is clear. FWIW, this is why I’m much more comfortable paying for Amazon’s web services than using Google’s for free. It’s also worth noting that Amazon does have a fulfillment business.

    And speaking as a resident of Oakland, I’m all for directing a little energy and insight here. We at Stamen have been excited about the atmosphere of a New New Deal, and would like to see some civic & commercial effort expended on behalf of our own urban problems.

  • http://dannyman.toldme.com/ Daniel Howard

    Why did they go to all the trouble of keying the conversation into a walk blue-screened onto an urban sidewalk? That is very distracting, and the poor quality of the overlay makes it feel like this is some really amateur production, and detracts from the serious conversation taking place.

    Serious conversations don’t need distracting gimmicks to be engaging. In fact, I find it hard to take the conversation seriously because I’m tripping on the weird faked-up “street walking” thing.

    Cheers,
    -danny

  • http://dannyman.toldme.com/ Daniel Howard

    Ah, so it actually was done on the street, you just had to splice in some footage of the interviewer nodding while the black guy passed through the frame. But man, even so, the question of why do they have to walk two blocks down the street while the interviewer holds a coffee cup in his hand just presents more mysteries than I care to fathom.

    Cheers,
    -danny

  • http://radar.oreilly.com Joshua-Michéle

    Hi Danny,
    Yes – the coffee cup was a mistake… We run these interviews as fairly spontaneous conversations. I simply forgot to put the cup down.
    As to the splice – the man you refer to stepped in front of the camera and gave the cameraman the finger for a few seconds… thus the splice.

  • http://kotare.typepad.com/ Kotare

    Hi Joshua-Michéle

    Here’s the link to the article about turbo expanders.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/jan/06/gas-energy-pressure

  • http://dannyman.toldme.com/ Daniel Howard

    Oh, I’d give you guys extra points for the finger. :)

    -d

  • http://samirbharadwaj.com/blog/ Samir Bharadwaj

    Wait, you mean the semi-incestual online social quagmire of technologies whose only purpose thus far seems to have been a continuing boost of low self worth through a sustained campaign of assuring social relevance actually can be put to a positive and effective use? Astonishment is my only reaction.

    But, leaving behind my dramatics for a while, this was a thought provoking interview and quite rightly it has set off an interesting discussion here.

    I think ideas such as these are inspiring and broaden the definitions of “good business”, which is always a good thing in my book. Do I actually think carbon points and geo-arbitrage of sustainability is going to save the environment? Hell no! But this is the mess we’ve built, and if someone wants to make a buck playing the stupid system while also possibly helping out vast numbers of people in the process, I say go forth and live the delusion for all it’s worth.

    On the interesting topic of co-opting the Coca Cola distribution network for the greater good, Michal Migurski makes a good point about the mis-alignment of interests. In this particular example I would go so far as to say things like this are unlikely to work because there is a blatant conflict of interest.

    You’re asking an organisation whose sole purpose is to encourage the sale, distribution and increased consumption of a clearly addictive, dehydration inducing, unhealthy liquid substance (excuse me if I don’t wait for the Surgeon General warnings to tell me a high-caffien, high-phosphoric acid solution of water, containing half a glass of refined sugar isn’t good for you), to distribute a health supplement (oral rehydration salts) in areas where a major part of the problem is the lack of potable drinking water to mix said salts in.

    Do we ask them to start carrying crates of mineral water into the badlands for us next? Why would they want to when their bottled acid slurry is possibly the only sterile liquid available in the area? We’re talking about a foisting a moral aggenda on a body that wasn’t designed to be moral. Might as well start petitioning tabacco companies to start replacing one cigarette in every packet with a vial of emphysema medicine.

    I’d sooner forsee the Coca Cola company introducing ‘Coke Hydro’, a new 1000 calorie, high electrolyte, “food drink” — for people who need their food to go. Maybe the entire Cola business can go back to their roots and start peddling it as a patent medicine again.

    There is something to be said for the idea of using existing technologies, systems, and methods to achive new and revolutionary objectives, but sometimes to achieve revolutionary objectives you simply have to come up with something more revolutionary. You can’t always coopt the symbols and symptoms a flawed system to right wrongs, any more than putting an electric motor into an inefficient gas guzzler and calling it a hybrid is going to save the baby seals.

    Samir

    P.S. I think the cup in the video was fine. It’s a reassuring sign that everything isn’t planned. Some chaos is a positive thing.

  • http://radar.oreilly.com Joshua-Michéle Ross

    Kotare – thanks for the link – this is a great example.
    Daniel – I seriously thought about leaving the finger in… but then thought I would need a waiver from the guy for highlighting him in the video :-)
    Thomas, Michal – I was kidding about Berkeley — I do believe that Oakland is an interesting case and would be up to participating in something if you have ideas (I volunteer in some areas right now). I thoroughly appreciate the third master argument, I am just not sure how I negotiate (as a matter of my own philosophy) between what I see as two poles; pragmatism (kids are dying w/out these meds – and they are dying from reasons that have little to do with Coke)and idealism (the system is hopelessly rigged and unsustainable so the sooner we bring it down the better) — You have both given eloquent voice to one side of a personal conflict that I have. Thanks.
    Samir – excellent comment and summary (and literary flourish). I think there is a definite issue here between triage- making things incrementally better- and paradigm shift. Also, thanks for the understanding on the coffee cup.

  • http://www.anstechglance.blogspot.com/ Akio Saito

    Joshua-MichéleI, This is excellent! Thank you for the great job.

    I embedded the video onto my blog post with brief comments in Japanese, i.e. “We’ve been in the so-called Web2.0 era since several years ago. The communications and network infrastructures have been developed and enhanced so fast, particularly in Japan and Korea in the far east region. Effectively and wisely using the infrastructure, we’d be able to invent and grow new business fields and new jobs accordingly. Continuous challenges to overcoming the environment issue of the earth, and creative and strategic thinking and actions taking the hi-tech infrastructure as a tool bring us not only to making some contributions to solve the environmental issue but to creating new business and employments on a global basis. This video program, Interview with Ms. April Allderdice, Co-founder of Micro Energy Credit is excellent and very stimulative. The interview, Joshua-Michéle does an superb job.

  • http://www.anstechglance.blogspot.com/ Akio Saito

    Hi Joshua-MichéleI,

    Here is the link to my Japanese blog post.

    http://ansnikki.blogspot.com/2009/01/blog-post_28.html

    Akio