Skip navigation

Tag Archives: sustainable development

“It’s hard to make things that don’t already exist,” Daniel Connell, the 32 year-old inventor of the SolarFlower told me one day as we were building the third ever prototype of his device, “It’ll be a while before I want to do it again.” He’s spent last two years developing this home-makeable parabolic solar energy collector from scrap materials in order to revolutionize energy production in the developing world.


Father and son: Daniel with the SolarFlower


Daniel is a professional 3D animator who normally works five or six weeks per year, though for the last two years he has chosen not to have a job. During this ample free time, he travels the world pursuing personal projects. This allows him plenty of time to invent things that don’t yet exist. The elegant functionality of his device is so brilliant in its simplicity that it’s hard to imagine it is the product of a long difficult design process.


completed SolarFlower number three at Riverside community in New Zealand, May 6


However, his toil hasn’t been in vain. In the process of making the SolarFlower, he has invented possibly the world’s simplest to construct heat engine, possibly the world’s most efficient water wheel, and a solar trough collector that is one of the easiest and cheapest to build in the world. All of this using things like an old bicycle, discarded aluminum sheets used to print newspapers, and energy drink cans. “A bicycle’s like a buffalo,” he says, “you can use every part.”


two of the mechanisms responsible for turning the unit as it tracks the sun


The key innovation is to automatically track the sun without the use of electronics or clockwork, through a simple mechanism that uses the sun to boil a small amount of ethanol and produce motion. This is constructed from materials such as a peanut butter jar, some bike parts, and aluminum foil.


wheel made from energy drink cans which turn the main collector when heated ethanol cycles through them


The SolarFlower collects sunlight in a parabolic trough, focusing it on a central fixed black copper pipe, heating a liquid which could be water or oil. This energy can then can be used for anything from water heating and purification, electrical generation, cooking, bio-char, heating, gasification, and so forth. Here is Daniel giving a basic rundown of how it works:



You can watch a time-lapse video of the SolarFlower tracking the sun here:



The device is open-source, which means opening up the design process from one of privacy for the purpose of profit to openness for the purpose of global collaborative innovation. The full 3D design and detailed instructions are available for free to everyone.


explaining it to the masses


Daniel says he accepts that no matter how simple the device, ninety-nine percent of people will likely not be willing or able to build one. But if one in every hundred produces enough for a hundred people, then that’s everyone. He encourages the development of small-scale manufacturing and installation companies to spread the device.


a community effort


The SolarFlower, along with the open source design approach and deployment it represents, marks the emergence of a new type of technology with a pioneering spirit of independence. The focus is on devices that can be built by normal people and employed in their lives now to achieve decentralization and resilience in the way that things are made and done. It is a perfect manifestation of an emerging movement called Open Source Ecology.


a resilient future powered by beams of light


The guys at Open Source Ecology are working to develop an entire array of devices like Daniel’s – not just renewable energy producing devices, but also tractors, steam engines, sawmills, laser cutters, and 46 other home-makeable machines designed to re-make civilization according to an open-source, decentralized, sustainable model.

This “Global Village Construction Set” can be seen as a life-size Lego-like building kit of “modular tools that can create entire economies, whether in rural Missouri, where the project was founded, in urban redevelopment, or in the heart of Africa.” Of course, the approach is much the same as the SolarFlower: open-source, low-cost, do-it-yourself, closed-loop manufacturing using scrap materials, distributed economics, and more (read the OSE crash course.)

Daniel and the Open Source Ecology guys are prime examples of what might be called “bioneers,” people who are among the first to research and develop truly sustainable solutions to our global problems. The Bioneers conference is a yearly gathering of such people – it’s similar to the popular TED talks, but purely for social and environmental sustainability innovators.

However, we can’t rely exclusively on bioneering people like Daniel and OSE – it’s a big world with lots of solution building and spreading to do. As the Bioneers conference organizers point out, “Today’s challenges are so huge and complex that they require collaboration and cooperation on large scales.” Open-source approaches to sustainability like SolarFlower and OSE are about intelligently doing the work of world-changing together as a world. That means stepping up and contributing your piece, whatever your skills, talents, and passions might be.

The point is this: we don’t have to wait for corporations to design the solutions we need and sell them to us at high cost; we don’t have to petition the government to do something about changing our energy sources. These institutions are too large, too slow, and too caught up in playing their own games to be able to achieve the changes that need to happen.

The most powerful institutions of our time are missing in action, but we don’t need them anyway. We can be the designers and implementers of a new world, solving the greatest problems of our time for ourselves right now. We can show them the way forward: “when the people lead, the leaders follow.”

this is a future I like


There are many ways to be a part of the movement for real solutions:

1) Spread the word about SolarFlower and Open Source Ecology by emailing, Facebooking, Twittering, etc.

2) Contribute financially to the movement, as both rely on what is called “crowd funding” or funding in small amounts by many people in order to do their work.

  • Open Source Ecology is supported primarily by its “TrueFans,” people who are essentially patrons of their work and allow its continuing development. They will also be kicking off crowd funding projects on Kickstarter this June to help meet their 2-year goal of developing all 50 Global Village machines by 2012 with $2.4 million.

3) Contribute your skills and expertise to the open source design of these devices. If you see a design flaw in the machine or have an idea of how it could be better, contribute to the forums. The online communities are crucial to the development and continual innovation of these mechanisms.

4) Build and install SolarFlower and the OSE machines for yourself and others! Not only will you be more self-sufficient, but you could make some money in the process if you wanted.

5) OSE has a comprehensive list of how to get involved.

6) Make your own world-changing solutions and share them widely with others!


Seven weeks have elapsed since I arrived at my first destination in Australia, so the time is ripe for the first update from my travel year. I’m now in Tasmania for a Permaculture practical course, having just been in Melbourne completing a two-week Permaculture Design Course (PDC). Before that, I spent five weeks in the rural Crystal Waters Permaculture village. For now, suffice it to say that Permaculture is a holistic design system that creates sustainable and abundant human settlements in harmony with nature. The idea and movement originated here in Australia in the early 1970’s from David Holmgren and Bill Mollison (who is now 84 years old, taught the first PDC in 1972, and was one of the two teachers of my course). Much needs to be said about Permaculture and the rural/urban contrasts in Permaculture living that I have been observing, but for now let me start at the beginning of my trip. Forgive me in advance for the length; the sprawling intro is meant to convey the enormity of the time and energy investment it took me to get here and the disorientation/re-orientation process I have been going through since my arrival Down Under.

On Friday, August 13, I packed my material life for the next year into one 85-liter, 48-pound backpack, another 51-liter, 34.5-pound backpack, and a Baby Taylor travel guitar into its hard black case and hopped in a car to catch my plane to Brisbane, Australia. 32 hours later, on Sunday, August 15 (Saturday the 14th didn’t exist for me because I crossed the international date line), I found myself in the paradisiacal Crystal Waters community, a Permaculture village of 83 residential lots located on 640 acres of bushland about two hours north of Brisbane.

Happy to be traveling

A car, three planes, two trains, and a bus took me as far as Maleny, a small inland town with a beach-town vibe about 25 minutes drive from Crystal Waters. From here, I was to find a ride by asking around at the local food co-op and adjoining restaurant. The workers were very friendly and accommodating, but no customers in either place seemed to be headed to Crystal Waters. The mutual suggestion from each place was to hitchhike, as it was a sunny Sunday and I was assured that someone was sure to pick me up on his/her way out of town into the country. The woman at the co-op helped me make a “Crystal Waters” sign with a black permanent marker on a brown folded paper bag and I headed towards the roadside.

The day was gorgeous, the town idyllic, and the people smiley; I thought the first car to pass would pick me up. The traffic was sparse and I held up my sign in between eating a bag of sweet potato chips and drinking a bottle of organic carrot-apple-ginger juice. After about 10 minutes of standing, eating, sign-raising and thumb-upping, and still no ride, I started to wonder if I looked suspect. I looked at my reflection in a shop window – tall lanky white dude with slightly tousled, slightly greasy curly blond hair from a long overnight, mostly sleepless plane ride, teal t-shirt, khaki shorts, hiking boots, and sunglasses – nope, nothing too alarming or out of the ordinary for this area. The southern hemisphere sun beat down on me and I contemplated pulling out my sunscreen. Patience, I told myself. The clock read 1:10. At 1:30, I told myself, you will return to the co-op and try to find someone there; failing that, call Christopher, my host-to-be in the community.

Eventually, a friendly-looking guy named Chris pulled over in a small Kia-like SUV. I loaded in my huge backpack, my smaller backpack, and my guitar, occupying the entirety of the remaining space in the cargo area. We got to talking as we drove through the winding narrow country roads, his friendly and frequent eye contact making me a bit nervous around the turns. Automatic small talk kicked in, though I was a bit disconnected from what I was saying. While my mouth moved, my eyes alternated between trying to take in the expansive landscape that was somewhat reminiscent of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia and making momentary eye contact with my benevolent chauffeur. I was approaching my 32nd consecutive hour of travel. The jet lag, the unfamiliar landscape and people, my lack of knowledge of where we were going, and the fact the steering wheel was on the right side of the car instead of the left and we were driving on the left side of the road instead of the right all contributed to a state of thorough disorientation.

Chris and I were amicable and our conversation was convivial, despite a barely detectable note of mutual suspicion. He informed me that I was only the second hitchhiker he had ever picked up. The first one he picked up had a guitar in tow; I found out that the reason he picked me up was because I was also carrying a guitar, which indicated to him that I must be at least somewhat of a good person. Kudos to my awesome Aunt Beth for insisting that I take a guitar with me and buying me a very nice travel guitar! It has proved to be a valuable travel companion, both practically and emotionally.

Chris told me as we wound through the scenic countryside that there were tons of kangaroos in the area and that I was bound to see many during my time there. I didn’t really believe him, as kangaroos were the stuff of Discovery channel shows that inspired me to want to travel to Australia as a kid. We entered Crystal Waters, not really sure where to go, neither of us having been before. All I had was a number – lot 65. As we carefully wound through the roads in the neighborhood, scanning for lot numbers and following them incrementally, we saw a tribe of kangaroos in an open field! He stopped at my request and I snapped a few photos in amazement. I knew that I was in a special place and kept my senses as open as they could be in my hazy dream-like state.

Kangaroos in the field

Kangaroo with Joey in tow

Soon, we found lot 65 and pulled in. No cars were in the driveway. We got out of the car and walked around the property. I called out to see if Christopher was home, but the whole place was quiet. I was unsure if I was in the right place, never having been there before and not really knowing what to look for, but somehow the yoga mats on the porch, the construction tools in the garage, and the Aum symbol painted on the glass door indicated to me that I was in the right place, based on what I had seen on his website. I assured Chris that I was in the right place and bid him farewell.

pulling into the driveway

I set all of my accoutrements on the porch, pulled out my camera, and walked around the property, beginning to process my new surroundings through the lens of photography. This was necessary as somewhat of a defense mechanism against the overwhelming lushness of my new surroundings.

view from the road

view of front of Christopher's house

Having sufficiently surveyed the property, I was unsure of what exactly to do next. I set out with a blank agenda and walked further along the road. Walking along the hillside, I looked across the valley over the scenic dam and observed several interesting homes. As I wound along the road which carefully followed the contours of the land, I was greeted by a host of foreign yet pleasant sights and smells and sounds: unusual human dwellings of all shapes, all of which had solar panels and solar hot water heaters, sweet scents of eucalyptus and gum trees, and all kinds of birds singing the strangest songs I’ve heard. The day was pristine and the feel of the landscape was Edenic. No cars or people could be seen, smelled, or heard.

After quite a long walk in the blazing sun, I saw a white van pass me on the road. I couldn’t quite see the person who waved at me, or read the writing on the side of the van, but I was fairly certain it was Christopher. I turned around and walked back to the house, greeted and met him, and moved into an awesome loft space in the cabin he had lived in while building his house.

Crystal Waters is an ecologically designed subdivision – an “eco-suburb,” if you will. There are 83 privately-owned lots and two commonly-owned lots, which occupy about 20% of the total 640 acres, while the rest of the land is held in common for organic agriculture and conservation purposes. The developers spent nine months observing and even camping on the land to observe all aspects of the environment in order to determine what kind of development would be best for the land, including microclimates, rainfall and drainage patterns, soil profiles, existing plant and animal communities, and so forth. Buffer zones were established along the river and creeks and ponds to prevent runoff. The areas with the best soil were set aside for common use including agriculture and grazing. The most ecologically unique and sensitive areas were established as conservation zones. Wildlife corridors were established to allow broad roaming for the local fauna.

Only after this process was complete were the lots for human structures selected. This is quite the opposite approach to conventional development, which is solely focused on human use and develops land by bulldozing everything and then imposing a grid pattern. Located on formerly degraded dairy pasture, the land is now covered in trees and ponds established by the developers, which created a panoply of new habitats for humans and a host of other animals.

There are over 175 different species of birds, most of which have arrived after the 1988 inception of the development. There are dozens of frog species, both tree frogs and ground frogs – their sounds are almost deafening at night in certain parts. After it rains, one has to watch out because the ground becomes alive with all kinds of frogs and toads, as if they sprout out of the soil. One also sees salamanders skittering around, another species which is having a hard time in conventionally developed parts of the world. Both of these amphibians are indicators of ecosystem health – when they are thriving, the ecosystem is thriving, and when they are absent or declining (as is the case in most other parts of the world), the ecosystem is faltering. I saw (and often worked outside next to) kangaroos and wallabies every day! There are platypuses and eels in the creeks. Bandicoots, wild bush turkeys, and echidnas (little hedgehog-like fellows) hop, meander, burrow, or scratch in the shrubs.

The ecosystems, most of which were created or encouraged by the development (rather than debilitated or destroyed), are INCREDIBLY alive, right down to snails and centipedes and grubs and worms and spiders and ants in the soil. The land is so rich that the development is actually a government-designated Wildlife Reserve. The magic of the place makes me want to see subdivisions designed like this all over the world. Development doesn’t have to be ugly and detrimental; it can be beautiful and ecologically beneficial. I can only imagine what the development behind my home in Mt. Airy would be like if it had been designed by ecologically-minded developers.

I loved life in Crystal Waters. I met many fascinating people, participated in a host of great conversations, and richly engaged in diverse experiences, observations, and thoughts that I will document in greater detail in a separate report. I am working on an assessment of the holistic sustainability of the community – not only environmental sustainability, but also social, economic, and psychological/spiritual sustainability. For now, I’ve got to keep having new experiences in new places with new people.

In a way, my Watson project is an extension of my thesis: I am exploring in 3D whether and how humans can live sustainably on Earth. Crystal Waters is a shining example of a central assertion that my thesis relied upon: not only can humans and nature live in harmony, but also the human presence can actually increase the species richness of an area, as it has done on the village land. It is inspiring to see examples of people building healthy lives for themselves and the land and to be a part of these solutions.