The TH Interview: Vinay Gupta on Opensource Disaster Relief and Pod Ambiance

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At first it's hard to get a handle on what exactly Vinay Gupta does. Well, even after getting to know him it's still hard to pinpoint. Half Indian, half Scottish, and residing in Iceland, Vinay is an engineer at heart. Whether its software, physical structures, or social structures, the man is a tinkerer at an advanced stage of development. He has developed the self-sufficient Hexayurt, presented mass evacuation strategies to the Red Cross, and worked on policy papers such as Winning the Oil Endgame. Gandhi and Buckminster Fuller are two of Vinay's heroes. But the real magic is in combining Gandhi's political thought with Fuller's engineering, what Gupta calls a "curry and chips phenomenon." It's an odd mixture, but it sure seems to be working.

To listen to this interview, click here or right click to download. You can also find TreeHugger's podcast in iTunes.

Vinay and his Hexayurt recently won TreeHugger's Participate! design contest. Look for the Hexayurt in Black Rock City. TreeHugger: So, Vinay, you warned me that once we get going we could get lost in a sea of interconnected issues. So let's start out with the Hexayurt. This structure, on the surface, looks like reflective foam insulation panels taped together, but there's a lot more going on here. What's going on with the Hexayurt, and what are the elements we're dealing with?

Vinay Gupta: The Hexayurt refers to both the building itself and also to a package of services that surround it. The sort of notion here is that we're dealing with the concept of autonomous building, which is the idea of buildings which contain all of their services inside of them. So you hear things like homes which generate their own power when you've got solar panels on the roof. If you extend that to handle things like water purification, sewage disposal, and you start doing integrated heating and cooling systems. Buildings which are increasingly independent of their environment. The Hexayurt is an attempt to do a very low cost autonomous building which is perfect for refugees.

TH: The Hexayurt looks right at home out in the desert at Burning Man. Was that a proving ground for your design?

Vinay: Yes. I built the first Hexayurt at burning man in 2003.

TH: What did people think when they saw this?

Vinay: The basic reaction was "What's that shiny looking pod?" There was another outfit called Icosa Pod that were doing pods at Burning Man that year as well. So there was just this general sort of pod ambiance.

TH: Burning Man can definitely be characterized as having a pod ambiance, I think that's very well put.

Vinay: I was glad to contribute to it, yes.

TH: Part of what underlies this design approach is open source. People toss that around a lot. How does the Hexayurt represent an open source design approach?

Vinay: It's flat out public domain. We looked at using the GNU public license, but there are some transactional overheads which are basically that you have to have somebody from a large organization get permission from their lawyers before they can come and play. So what we did was we just put it into the public domain and told people if you contribute something to this project it's in the public domain. And people have contributed all kinds of really serious design innovations. Different ways of doing doors, different ways of doing modeling, alternative approaches to doing the infrastructure. There's all kinds of stuff which has just gotten kind of swept up into the project as we've gone forward.

TH: So it's a very bottom up approach, but now the Department of Defense and the Red Cross are interested in this. Where did they pick up on this idea and what are they hoping to do with it?

Vinay: Well, the bridge is an event called Strong Angel. Strong Angel was a series of demonstrations organized by Eric Rasmussen of the U.S. Navy. It was an attempt to really get intensely serious examinations of refugee issues and humanitarian issues. Also to examine private/public partnerships and how people can work together more effectively in these kind of situations. So my work came to the attention of Eric through "Design Like You Give A Damn" from Architecture for Humanity. They invited me to participate in Strong Angel. And Strong Angel did what it was supposed to do, which is it brought interesting ideas into a wider community of practice.
TH: Red Cross and Department of Defense, they're interested in refugee situations. Was that what you had in mind with the design of the Hexayurt?

Vinay: From my perspective, there's a sort of continuity of problems in the world. Refugees are a real kind of sharp end. They're the people who are in, by and large, the worst situations. But there are only about 10 million refugees on the planet total. Then you've got a hundred times that many who are living in absolute poverty, below a dollar a day or two dollars a day. Then you've got another billion, maybe two billion people who live in conditions where they've got very, very poor infrastructure. So there's this sort of extreme need at one end of the spectrum and then it kind of fans out to this much broader spectrum of deprivation. I think that we can really begin to address that in some new ways because our coping technologies have improved so much in the last 30 years, but our models of what to do with it haven't kept pace with the technology.

TH: So what can this sort of technology do to address this much larger group of people in need?

Vinay: I'll give you an example, which is energy efficient stoves. Something like six to maybe 10 million people a year die because the stoves that they're cooking over generate a great deal of smoke. In addition, you've got this very, very intense problem of how much of their time and energy goes into getting fuel to cook on. In places like Haiti, they mainly cook on charcoal, and it's something like 20 percent of the family income. They're paying essentially rent just for their charcoal.

Deforestation from cooking fires, and the level of respiratory ailments from people who have to cook over open fires everyday. It's really unbelievable. It's an enormous public health issue. So you start saying, "Well, how much does it cost to have a stove that burns fuel efficiently and what benefits come from that?" The answer is, it depends on your stove technology, it's somewhere between five and 20 dollars and the increase in inefficiency is between three and 10 times depending on the stove technology you're using. So if you were spending 20 percent of your income to buy fuel, now you're only spending three or four percent.

It's an enormous difference to your family income, to your household. Then you get this issue where you no longer have this terrible problem that you're breathing smoke all the time, your health improves, longevity increases. You get all of these secondary benefits, like children tend to be healthier if you're not cooking over open fires. There's just this huge spectrum of benefits from stoves, that cost a few dollars a piece. Then you look at the environmental benefits: you're using less wood which will slow down deforestation, you slow down deforestation to make the charcoal. You get all these secondary benefits, and it's because you're taking inefficiency out of the system.

TH: So is this the sort of technology that's integrated into this Hexayurt package?

Vinay: Yes. The stove that we picked is called a wood gasification stove. There are a couple designs out there, the one that we usually use is from a company called Spenton. Largely because it's just about the coolest stove we could find. They haven't got to mass production yet, it's available in limited quantities. It's a very, very advanced stove. So it fits nicely with our level of development. We really try to push the envelope of peoples' ideas of what are possible and we're happy with idea of specifying things which are not yet fully developed and fully marketable on a big scale. We're trying to show people this is what we can achieve, this is what the next round of the revolution looks like and this is what we have to work to get to.

TH: Of course, your work fits perfectly into the design like you give a damn category. Cameron Sinclair, of architecture for humanity, he talks about the idea that in affluent countries, environmentally friendly design is a challenge. It's thinking outside the box because we're not used to scarcity. But for poor communities, green design comes so easily because it's a necessity. It's the only option. Have you found this to be true in your work?

Vinay: Fifty percent of the world's population are organic farmers. They're organic farmers because they're too poor to buy fertilizer or pesticides. It just makes sense. You're dealing with people who are living in a largely pre-technological way, and most of the environmental problems that we have are the result of over dependence on energy intensive technologies.

I'm not suggesting this is some kind of back to nature thing, but there's a real mistake that we make in the environmental movement that we're somehow automatically going to find a way to make the first world lifestyle sustainable. That's not necessarily true. What we may discover is that we're going to gradually have to let go of a lot of this incredibly energy intensive stuff and go back to something that's much closer to this peasant lifestyle, which has been with us since the beginning of farming. These people are doing it in the way that we did 20 or 30 thousand years ago.

I think it's important to really understand that what we're talking about is trying to increase the standard of living of the sustainable portion of humanity. That's a really, really difficult way to see things at first, but once you let it settle all in it makes sense. This is the half of the population that lives without massive access to fossil fuels and chemicals. And ee're trying to increase their standard of living without necessarily pulling them into the mess that we're in, where their lifestyle rests on practices that have no future. We're just talking about making sustainability easier, we're not talking about making things which are unsustainable sustainable.

This is a complete inversion of the typical model. Most people are really, really clear that sustainability is something that has to happen. No, sustainability has already happened. What we're talking about is making sustainability pleasant, as one part of our agenda, and the other part is trying to make what's unsustainable sustainable. These are connected but independent processes.

TH: Let's get back to talking about refugees for a minute. The U.N. works with some 22 million refugees worldwide. Have you had experiences firsthand with refugee groups, or been through things yourself that invoke the refugee experience?

Vinay: Well, I rode freight trains for a while, but essentially no. Because of my immigration status I was basically trapped in America for 10 years. I had a choice between leaving and never being able to return or waiting and trying to resolve my immigration problems. So I found myself working with all of these issues without having the option of going and actually taking a look in the field and seeing how things were being done. It was kind of a strange paradox.

TH: Hurricane Katrina really gave people a taste of, not just the wrath of what a changing climate can do, but what the aftermath can be like. 15 or 20,000 people jammed into the Superdome in total chaos and filth. Then after that came the trailers for people whose homes were destroyed and a bureaucratic nightmare. In your mind, what were the most important things that went wrong with Katrina, with the way it was handled, and what if anything was done right?

Vinay: I think that the problem is that we identify Katrina as a point event—that Katrina happened and that was the story. Really, people had known that they're living below water line in New Orleans for a really long time. People knew that the dikes were probably not as strong as they needed to be for a really long time. Then suddenly, you have this kind of point crisis that shows that all of this stuff that we knew for a really long time is actually really important, and we should have done something. You see the same tendency during the clean up afterwards and the FEMA trailers and everything else. The idea that the U.S. might have to handle a city worth of refugees very suddenly shouldn't be a strange thing to anybody who's aware of the fact that there is some risk of terrorism on a mass scale.

An organization like FEMA really has the responsibility to be able to evacuate a city worth of Americans in 24 hours if they have to be able to do so. That capability had not been developed so it couldn't be deployed. A reasonable standard of expectation here is that FEMA should be able to evacuate San Francisco because of an earthquake immediately, and not put anybody through undue hardship in the process. That's a basic level for feeling like you've got a coordinated response arranged. Still, what we saw in Katrina was that everybody knows we need this kind of response capability and we just don't have it. Everybody knew that the dikes could go and one day they did. I think the problem is that we don't act on what we know.

TH: Sure. So if it's that foresight which is the really important thing, if Katrina was a disaster because of the lack of preparation, there must be other areas where we're also not prepared.

Vinay: Well, we're still not prepared for another Katrina. If you have to start evacuating coastal regions suddenly because of weather. If you have something like pandemic flu which is a risk that a lot of people take very seriously eventually, you're going to need to suddenly rearrange the lives of half a million or a million people more or less overnight because something happened. Even if we don't know exactly what, there's something that's still out there. There's this fact that the future is unpredictable and cities are fairly fragile to things like extreme weather. I don't think it's at all unreasonable to expect there to be another climate event that could either hit New Orleans again, or maybe cause enormous trouble if Florida. These things are not that unlikely. We should be prepared to live with them, to react with them and to deal with them.

TH: So you've actually devised evacuation plans and some of these involve the technology that you have engineered. In a nutshell, what does a successful urban evacuation look like?

Vinay: I think the mythology we have is that government is in some way magically able to take care of this stuff. We think of the federal government as being a large and very capable structure. And it is very large, and it is very capable, but the one thing that it's not is fast. Fundamentally, it was not designed to be fast and it isn't fast. It takes a really long time to get things done. But because of the relationship that as a population we've cultivated with government, we have this feeling that somehow it's their responsibility to take care of us and we get very disappointed and very angry when they don't. I think this is really the key to disaster response.

We have to start thinking about this as being something that communities are responsible for, rather than being something that we delegate to the government. A good example of this is actually the Mormons. The Mormons have this program where they stockpile a year or two years worth of food. That's actually fairly rational. In the event of something like a second great depression, it means the Mormon population are going to be in a much better position than the rest of the population. They're not living in a position where immediate access to food depends on the world financial system working the next day, because the food is in their basement.

Similarly, in the event of a really major crisis, the government's ability to get help to you is much lower than your ability to help yourself with the things that you already have. So I think there's a need for a shifted perception, from saying that disaster response is the government's problem to saying that disaster response is our problem. The government can help us and should help us, but it's not something that we can just offload responsibility for.

TH: Last question. Do you have somebody who you consider your biggest inspiration?

Vinay: I sort of alternate between Buckminster Fuller and Mahatma Gandhi. I feel like the core of my work right now is trying integrate Gandhi's political thought with Fuller's engineering. Because the two go together extremely well. You have this kind of personal independence as the heart of Gandhi's philosophy, and then Fuller's technology means that you can be largely self sufficient on a much smaller power budget. On a much smaller economic base. So it's kind of Gandhi's ends with Fuller's means. You put the two together and you get this kind of curry and chips phenomenon. I think there's a lot to that. I think one of the benefits of the globalization of thought is that it's becoming possible to assemble pieces from many different cultures into coherent wholes, and that's very powerful. I think it's going to turn out to be almost like an industrial revolution in its actual impact.