Goodbye, Treo. Hello, leapfrog adopter.

In June 2004 I acquired the Palm Treo 600, which I’m still using 7.5 years later. The Treo is an early smartphone that combined the features of a PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) with a cell phone, basic camera, rudimentary web browser, and the ability to install third-party applications. I’ve loved using my Treo. Even though I didn’t do any web browsing on it (which was at a painfully-slow dial-up speed), the Treo 600 still put a wealth of information in my pocket. I had access to my contacts and calendar, lists, notes, maps, transit schedules, a dictionary, and even the ability to edit documents. And when I first owned it, few other people had smartphones, so I had a certain (entirely self-perceived) coolness factor.

I consider myself to be an environmentalist. So my first few years of cell phone ownership didn’t fit my green values. (My first no-frills device was in fall 2001, I replaced it with a Treo 180 not even a year later, and the Treo 600 came along 21 months after that.) The problem with owning three cell phones in as many years is the environmental damage caused by their manufacture and disposal. Not only does it require mining a lot of stuff from the earth to make a cell phone — such as copper, gold, lead, nickel, zinc, beryllium, tantalum, coltan, and other metals — but it also takes fossil fuels to make the plastic components, and at the end of its lifespan the device contains toxic materials that need to be recycled or reused responsibly. (These include lead, mercury, brominated flame-retardants, heavy metals like cadmium, beryllium, hexavalent chromium, arsenic, and PVC plastic).

A protective case for the Treo.

A protective case for the Treo.

I decided to stick with my Treo instead of always getting the latest new phone and to make it last as long as I could. One thing that helped keep it running was a fantastic case. (I fell once while skating downhill at maybe 15-20 mph. My pants were shredded and the case was scratched, but the phone was just fine.) But time has marched on and if you could measure it in human years my phone must be in its eighties or nineties. The screen is damaged (it happened the one time that I used the phone without a case) and it’s failing in its ability to make calls — which is kind of the point of a cell phone.

In addition to the environmental reasons, I’ve held off on getting a current smartphone because the tradeoff to having internet access in your pocket is that you can end up spending too much time online, which is something I’m already guilty of. (Data plans aren’t cheap either. You can easily spend over $1000 a year in the United States for basic smartphone service.)

But my Treo is essentially on life support and the new Galaxy Nexus caught my eye even before it launched in December. I have my concerns about how successfully Google is avoiding being evil but Android (and especially the line of Android reference phones) is the most open cell phone operating system that I know of. And I’ll admit that my geeky side is seduced by the specs on this device, using my cell phone for social networking, and having a 1080p video camera in my pocket.

Perhaps I’ve been too enamored of early adopters — those who use a new technology long before anyone else. Early adoption can keep you on the cutting edge of technology, but for electronic gadgets there is an environmental dark side. But why do early adopters have to adopt everything early? Why not coin a new term: “leapfrog adopters.” Leapfrog adopters would apply to people who acquire the latest, greatest technology available…and then use it for as long as possible, before finally giving in and getting the next newest thing. Leapfrog adopters would balance their love of technology with their concern for the environment. Instead of bragging rights for owning the newest device, leapfrog adopters would earn hat tips for how long they’d been using their latest piece of technology. And by delaying their purchases they would also get more pleasure from the anticipation, as this PsyBlog article explains.

To be fair, it requires more creativity and patience to use technology that’s no longer actively supported or that outright isn’t capable of doing something that a newer device can (like connect to the internet). But the more of us that slow down our purchasing cycles, the better it will be for the environment. I can even imagine that companies which now try to sell us on buying more and more things ever more quickly, might someday compete on the durability and longevity of their products. Planned obsolescence is a relatively recent concept (historically speaking) and products used to last longer. Fortunately, I see a couple of hopeful signs that the older values might be returning. First, as Rachel Botsman writes about in What’s Mine is Yours, collaborative consumption, which shares objects among many users, will cause more wear-and-tear on heavily-shared objects and may create demand for more durable products. Second, Patagonia has begun to encourage its customers to buy less and to buy used.

As for me, I’m planning to hold off on the Galaxy Nexus until a GSM version is released in the U.S., which will fit my budget better. But in the meantime I’m going to start proudly calling myself a leapfrog adopter.

My experience with Airbnb

This weekend my wife and I made a brief trip to Vancouver, Canada and had a chance to use Airbnb. We stayed at a house in the suburbs with people we’d never met before and had a great time of it.

This never would have been possible without the internet and without these new sharing websites, such as Airbnb. Pre-sharing economy, the only options we would have explored would have been hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, and youth hostels. There simply wouldn’t have been a way for us to find someone who would want to rent a room in their house to us for the night.

But we really enjoyed this new option! We got to stay with and meet locals, one of whom had been raised just down the block and had seen the city transform from farmland to a bustling city. Not only were they kind and gracious hosts with a lovely house, but they had a wealth of tips and suggestions. Given that this was a last-minute trip with nearly no advance planning on our part, their advice was incredibly helpful. On top of that, we saved quite a bit of money compared to what we would have spent for a hotel or even a youth hostel and saw an area outside of Vancouver that we wouldn’t have otherwise visited but that had some unique cultural aspects, such a night market similar to Hong Kong’s.

Sites like Airbnb are making it possible for our hosts — and presumably tens of thousands of people like them — to run a small business out of their home that simply wouldn’t have been a viable business model before. It was an interesting experience to observe the sharing economy firsthand at the micro scale instead of simply thinking about it more abstractly.

Encouraging carsharing with smart parking policies

Shareable had a post yesterday about parking policies that can encourage carsharing. That blog post got me thinking and I came up with a couple of ideas of my own.

Set a bold vision
Setting a bold vision can be helpful for advocates who want these policy changes and for cities that want to reduce the amount of space dedicated to housing cars. The first sentence of the Shareable article suggests a great vision: carsharing on every block. Having a dedicated carsharing parking space on each block would enable much greater expansion of the carsharing network and would further increase the visibility of carsharing to passersby. According to the numbers in the Innovative Mobility study mentioned in the Shareable article (50,000 users in the SF Bay Area and 1,100 shared cars), each shared car supports an average of 45 users. And according to City CarShare CEO Rick Hutchinson interviewed in this Channel 7 news clip also mentioned in the article, two-thirds of CCS members report getting rid of a second car or not buying a car in the first place. Thus, in a best-case scenario, each carsharing vehicle on a block could keep as many as 30 cars from needing to be parked in or near that block. Establishing a bold vision of what we’re aiming for can help us decide how to get there — and maybe it’s not just one carshare parking space per block, maybe it’s one on each side of the block, or…

Set parking rates that are fair and efficient
Cities should think long-range and comprehensively when setting annual rates for on-street parking and base these prices on a vision of what they want to encourage and discourage. Not every city is like San Francisco, which has both a for-profit and a nonprofit carsharing organization. But even cities that don’t have two (or any!) carsharing organizations might want to start thinking now about how to structure parking rates, particularly since peer-to-peer carsharing has the potential to expand exponentially across the country and around the world.

I suggest that there could be different price tiers that range from low to high. At the lowest end of the spectrum would be bicycle parking which should be free, since bicycles take up the least space, don’t emit any air pollution, and help to keep the rider physically fit — the latter two of which reduce costs to society. As mentioned in the Shareable article, the highest price would be paid by private vehicle owners who aren’t sharing their vehicles. This price would be set as close as possible to the market rate.

In between these two extremes of free and market rate, I see three tiers of prices lying somewhere in the middle:

  • Nonprofit carsharing fleets (such as City CarShare in San Francisco, I-GO in Chicago, or eGo in Boulder and Denver Colorado) would pay the lowest price.
  • For-profit carsharing fleets (such as Zipcar) would pay a slightly higher rate because their profits are returned to investors, whereas any profits earned by nonprofits are returned to the organization to advance its mission.
  • Peer-to-peer carsharing participants, meaning owners of vehicles that are part of new startup companies like Getaround and RelayRides, would pay the highest price.

The rationale for charging peer-to-peer vehicles more than carsharing fleets, is that fleet operations — whether nonprofit like City CarShare or for-profit like Zipcar — will remove vehicles from their system that aren’t getting enough usage to cover the operating costs. Thus, it’s a safe assumption that a carshare vehicle in an on-street parking space that belongs to a carsharing fleet will get rented out at least enough hours per month to help reduce the number of cars on the street. In contrast, peer-to-peer vehicle owners can choose how many hours a day they wish to share their vehicles and can set that number very low, which wouldn’t do much to help reduce the number of cars on the street.

There are five great ideas in the Shareable article, so check it out.

Restaurants Where You Set Your Own Price

Shareable.net recently featured a blog post by Kelly McCartney about pay-what-you-can cafés. The concept is simple but profound: all guests who come through the door are welcome and entitled to enjoy a good, healthy meal, and those who are able to pay what they can afford. Most important, those who can’t pay anything are just as welcome as diners who pay more than the suggested prices. The concept isn’t new and there are a handful of small restaurants employing this model across the United States. However, the concept received a big boost from Panera Bread, which in 2010 began operating the first of three Panera Cares community café under its nonprofit foundation arm.

Kelly’s article lists tips that Panera’s founder, Ron Shaich, learned about how to successfully operate such a café. The first recommendation is to operate as a nonprofit:

With this set-up, customers get that whatever extra they pay goes back into the community to support those in need. It gives them not only a certain ease, but a sense of participation in the cycle of sharing.

I understand this point. If a corporation was running the café I’d be less likely to pay my fair share than if a nonprofit is running it. It gives me more confidence that profits aren’t being funneled to far-away investors. But I’m also a bit saddened by this point, because my sense is that this is a limiting factor. My vision for the world that I want to live in is one where everyone has, at a minimum, the basic resources that they need to survive (and, even better, to thrive). By this standard, people shouldn’t go hungry. Period.

It’s important to understand the cause of a problem before jumping to solutions. While I’m not an expert on hunger, I do know that a couple of the contributing factors are food waste and the huge level of wealth inequality in this country. And although I’m confident that the solution to hunger is more complex than opening more pay-as-you-can cafés, there’s a definite appeal of providing more places where people who need to eat can be fed, regardless of their ability to pay.

Which brings me back to my initial point: I see the recommendation that pay-as-you-go eateries be established as nonprofits as a limiting factor. In a society where profit is often the motivation, there’s a different status that’s assigned by relegating these establishments to the do-gooder realm. I’d love to see kinds of enterprises proliferate, precisely because their payment schemes help advance a more just, caring, and socially equal society.

I’m curious to know whether these businesses simply can’t work as for-profits, or if they can’t work as for-profits if they’re owned by large corporations. (According to its website, Panera, a publicly-traded company, has 1,493 locations in the United States and Canada.) Like many people, I’d probably like to have a free lunch if it’s at the expense of some distant CEO who I don’t know and who I assume to be far wealthier than me.

But what if the owner of this pay-what-you-can business were someone who lives in my neighborhood, whose children attend the same school as my kids, and who I’ve chatted with in her restaurant? Would I be trying to score a free meal at her expense? Or might I willingly give what I could, understanding that my payment would be contributing to local economic vitality, strengthening a web of trust, and helping to build a gift economy that embraces a mindset of pay-it-forward instead of everyone-for-himself? And maybe, if I had some extra cash, I’d throw a bit extra in the donation box, knowing that I’d be subsidizing a meal for someone who couldn’t afford to eat at a conventional restaurant.

Maybe this is just utopian thinking on my part. I commend the Panera Bread Foundation for taking this bold step in creating successful pay-as-you-go cafés. And I’d love to see this expand far beyond the social responsibility initiatives of corporate foundations to a new model adopted by businesses everywhere.

Check out the full article on Shareable.net, which discusses the philosophy of these enterprises and some of their variations, and includes links to other pay-it-forward restaurants and videos.

Becoming Abundant

For much of my life I’ve been interested in how we can better live in harmony with the environment and people around us, and that will be a major theme of this blog.

I majored in environmental studies in college, have never owned a car, and worked for nine years on improving public transit and promoting walkable, bikeable communities at an advocacy organization. However, while I appreciate the resolve I’ve had and work I did, in recent years it had started to seem like my approaches had gotten stuck. I had a strong sense of this about a year ago when I discovered the No Impact Man blog. Sure, I’d successfully resisted owning a car long before I’d met others doing the same. I’d done it for reasons of principle, as driving is a major source of greenhouse gases and owning a car would encourage me to drive far more than I care to. Yet, here was someone (Colin Beavan) who was using nearly no electricity and consuming next to nothing right in the middle of Manhattan. I’m not aiming to repeat the No Impact Man experience for myself, but I was impressed by what he’d done and it seemed as if my efforts had lost the freshness and significance that I’d once associated with them.

Then, in the summer of 2009 I took an urban permaculture design course and my thinking shifted again as I saw a new way of looking at the world and of meeting human needs. I’m confident that I’ll have much more to say about permaculture in future blog posts, so I’m not going to to dive into an explanation of permaculture right now. Suffice it to say, however, that one of the many concepts that resonated with me from that course was the idea of abundance instead of scarcity.

How can we create more abundance in our lives, particularly those things that make life richer, and more full and enjoyable? How can we have abundant time and connection with people? How can we have abundant creativity and play? How can we have abundant (and nutritious) food and clean water? How can we have enough shelter and abundant energy for our needs? (And just to clarify a hopefully obvious point: I don’t mean gluttonously stuffing ourselves or recklessly consuming energy; rather, I mean having plenty for our real needs.)

I managed to register the unclaimed name ‘Becoming Abundant’ for this blog, which is congruent with these many ideas that I’m interested in exploring and writing about. In future posts I envision writing about sustainability and regeneration, and some of the many strategies in the permaculture toolbox to harvest water, food, and energy. I intend to use this blog as a place to capture what I learn, projects, that I participate in, and solutions that I hear about. Lately, I find myself coming across such a wide range of creative, ingenious solutions to the many problems we face in today’s world and I find it difficult (at best) to keep them in my head, so I especially want to have a place to share those gems of inspiration.

There’s a lot more I could say about what I plan to write but I’d rather leave it at that for now and see how the blog evolves over time.