Order Neil Peterson's
Embracing the Edge
on Amazon today.

Or buy it at the Edge Foundation. All profits from the sale of the book go to support the mission of the Edge Foundation.

View Neil's latest traveling blogs





Neil Peterson is an affiliate member of the National Speakers Association and frequently speaks to organizations on a variety of topics. Learn more

You may contact Neil about speaking engagements at:
(206) 910-7515

By Neil Peterson | August 12, 2009

It was an experiment that, according to the opinions of volunteer contributors and paid staffers alike, ended in glorious failure. Glorious, given the innumerable lessons learned about harnessing the power of the crowd to create viable content. And a failure due to the inability to actually create the amount of content originally planned for during the design of the project. Two years after its demise, Assignment Zero is a cautionary tale – a vital chapter in the ongoing push to make legitimate the efforts – and talents – of citizen journalists.

Assignment Zero (AZ) was the brainchild of Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University, in collaboration with WIRED magazine. The premise was to use the combined skills of a crowd, muzzled by the ethical regulations of professional journalism, to write a comprehensive report on the growth of crowdsourcing.

At the time of the project’s birth, crowdsourcing was still a new, mostly unproven concept. Jeff Howe (WIRED staffer, and Executive Editor of AZ) coined the term to describe the practice of engaging a large group of community members to complete a specific task. Much like open-source software development, users are given access to a pre-defined selection of data, in order to improve, modify, and distribute the finished content. It is meant to be collaboration at its finest – with the crowd choosing the most useful content, and removing that which is not.

The hope was to complete the project with 80 feature stories. And despite initial skepticism from traditional journalism outlets – including the New York Times – AZ was, in certain ways, a modest success. When the experiment was over, AZ had seven original essays and 80+ Q&A interviews to their credit. Not outstanding, but nothing to smirk at either.

Jeff Howe – Crowdsourcing

But the true lessons of the AZ experiment lie not in the output, but in the process. Wikipedia has shown that crowdsourcing – with editorial watch-dogs and contributor restrictions – can work. But they’ve had the good fortune of 8 years of testing their product. AZ was only open to the public for 12 weeks – during which technological glitches, staff resignations, and disorganized planning significantly hampered their ability to control the crowd.

So what are the take-away’s?  One of the strategic keys to crowdsourcing is the ability to mine the crowd for specialized knowledge. Newsrooms, by necessity, are closed systems. Reporters only have a specific mine of data – added to by sources and research – but given the time constraints, they can be significantly hindered in their ability to report all the facts. (An ideal example of this is the recent political unrest in Iran. As the Iranian government censored, and then shut down, outgoing international media feeds, reporters were limited in their ability to chronicle the ensuing protests and arrests. Using Twitter and YouTube, Iranians were able to tell the world of the events going on, despite otherwise closed avenues.)

Another valuable lesson was the overarching need for organization. With so many voices joining the fray, there needed to be a strong voice to guide the effort. A situation that was hindered in part by the frequently rotating roster of professional staff members. In addition, by deciding the subject matter prior to developing the community, AZ found that a lack of interest took a serious toll on the ability to find contributors. People just weren’t willing to invest their free time in writing about subjects they had little interest in. Crowdsourcing – especially for those forums in which contributors are not paid/awarded – feeds on passion.

Despite all of its shortcomings, the founders of Assignment Zero believe it was a landmark experiment in the ongoing development of this new concept. Not always perfect, in fact most often messy, AZ proved that it could be done – but not without tested parameters in place. The Internet is a chaotic, chatter-filled entity, but by learning the ways in which things will not work, we will find the keys that improve it.

‘It’s not easy being green.’ While this is an excellent motto for Kermit the Frog, it is also perhaps a source of confusion for current and potential homeowners in the push to embrace a philosophy of sustainability. Despite what you may have heard (i.e. increased construction costs, a scarcity of quality materials, creativity-impinging government regulations) reducing the environmental impact of your home – and improving its efficiency, doesn’t mean that you have to part with a lot of green (money, that is.) Whether you’re building from the ground up or re-fitting your existing house – there are a wide variety of options for every budget. And, given the growing popularity of sustainable building – you may just end up with money in the bank.

A Sustainable Approach to Residential Housing

So, from the ground up – your guide to a ‘Home Green Home’.

The Ground

One of the main tenets of this newly-grown philosophy is the consideration of the environmental impact of your home – from the construction site to the landscaping. Make sure to do your homework – is your new home going to be located near protected land? Will your construction have ANY impact on that ecosystem? If so, what are your options?

Barring natural disaster – or human error – your home is going to outlast you. By factoring in the long-term impact, you may gain a better understanding of how your home fits in the surrounding community. Also, by adding drought-tolerant foliage to your existing landscaping, you will reduce your outdoor water use – lowering your utility bills and keeping your market value up.

The Materials

Going green doesn’t mean embracing a ‘shipping container’ aesthetic. Recycled materials, like the aforementioned containers, are currently in vogue, but sustainable materials such as bamboo and seagrass are also popular options for their strength and durability. If you choose to use lumber, make sure the wood comes from a forest that has been certified as sustainably managed. Additionally, there are numerous salvage companies doing big business through re-selling materials legally stripped from buildings doomed to the wrecking ball.

The Interior

For both new construction and existing homes, efficiency is key. It’s not so much what you’re using, as much as HOW you’re using. Replace old light bulbs with energy-efficient bulbs. Install appliances that are ‘Energy Star‘ approved – which will reduce your everyday energy consumption. (And will potentially make you eligible for a tax credit.) For those in extreme weather climates, make sure your insulation is draught-proof. The minimal cost of hiring a professional will ensure that you’re not heating or cooling the neighborhood – and paying for it.

The Roof

Considering how common they are, roofs are sorely underutilized. By installing solar panels, you can harness the sun’s rays to power your home – with enough left over to store in case of power outages or to sell back to the utility company. (Dependent on your state or local government’s restrictions.) Or, plant a roof garden and irrigate with collected rain water.

Sustainable building doesn’t have to be expensive – whether you’re starting from the ground up, or adding new materials to an existing structure. In fact, the industry average price for ‘green building’ is only 5% greater than conventional methods. By viewing your home as an addition to an eco-system, and making the necessary improvements, you will not only increase your home’s resale value, but ensure that future residents will enjoy the same cost-effective solutions you set in motion today.

Your home is your castle – make it an eco-friendly one.

It is the question with a multi-billion dollar answer. Forget the X prize – the expanding field of neuroeconomics is where the money’s at – literally. Our wholesale embrace of capitalism has meant, among other things, that businesses are willing to shell out big bucks to get you to buy their products. This is advertising. Sometimes advertising hits the nail on the head – witness Apple, Coca Cola, Ford. These brands deliver a good product, but you know about the product because of the serious/creative action taking place behind-the-scenes. That advertising is a worthy investment should go without saying, but what if you could make that advertising even more effective?

The new science of neuroeconomics might be the answer. Economists have long been stymied about why we – as (mostly) sentient beings – continue to make decisions regarding our financial choices that are more often based on seemingly irrational or misguided information. Asked a series of questions about our purchases, we are more likely than not to give reasons that make little to no sense. For fans of logic, this is a nightmare. Psychologists have been stymied by this same dilemma. There has just been no feasible way to view the ‘brain on decision making’.

Until now. Brain imaging scans have long been at use in the medical field, mostly in regards to diagnoses and disease-prevention. The technology isn’t new, although scientists are learning improved methods for reading the results, but has only recently been applied to viewing active areas in the brain in response to specific stimuli. By watching the brain in response to targeted questions regarding financial decisions – stock trading, consumer actions, choosing one mortgage over another – scientists are learning much more about the things that make us say ‘Yes.’ And for anyone who has spent money on a creative campaign, only to see no return on investment, this could be big business.

Neuroeconomics is a branch of social neuroscience, the study of how our biology affects our social behavior, and how to use that knowledge to refine previous theories of how we interact with the world around us. These advancements are especially exciting when considering that as much as we know about our anatomy, the brain is still largely akin to the ocean – vastly complex and riddled with deep areas we know nothing about.

These imaging scans are able to show us – in graphic, anatomical detail – which areas in the brain respond to messaging and have been proven to predict consumer decisions. Pleasing imagery, brand familiarity and inspiring ad content can active the pleasure centers of the brain, urging us to buy the product and fill the now-apparent void. However, high price points have been shown to stimulate the insula, an area associated with painful stimuli. In addition, mistargeted messaging can also affect the regions of the brain connected to disappointment – especially if said product does not deliver as promised. It’s not you making the decisions, it’s your anatomy.

While this new field is promising for advertising, it is also a boon for economics and our own bank accounts. For example, scientists have shown that when given expert advice, certain regions of our brains show little to no action. Meaning that if Warren Buffet tells you to do something, you stop thinking for yourself. By acknowledging this biological treachery, you are able to take back control and make the decision based on sound, rational information (even if it comes from the Oracle of Omaha.) Neuroeconomics is still a relatively unknown field of study, relegated to the ‘small offices’ of academe, but once it starts delivering quantifiable results, the sky is the limit.

By Neil Peterson | July 27, 2009

“Current trends in energy supply and consumption are patently unsustainable.”
- International Energy Agency report, November 2008

In the final scene of 1985′s blockbuster hit, Back to the Future, Doc Brown arrives from the future in his silver DeLorean time machine, frantically filling his engine with household garbage. Garbage, at least in director Zemeckis’ cinematic 2015, is the fuel of the future. While we haven’t yet found a way to power our family car with used beer cans and banana peels, reality may be inching slightly closer to this science-fiction fantasy. Banana peels are out, biofuels are in. Or at least, a fledgling industry is hoping that will be the case.

Biofuel is the general term for any fuel derived from biological material – whether it be corn, sugar cane, soybean, or even wood-based – and their potential as a more sustainable energy source has only recently become a player in the struggle to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil. Despite being a key factor in the political arena since the Nixon administration, U.S. oil consumption has continued to climb – with some critics warning that this overwhelming need will be crippling not only to our environment, but our economy as well.

A likely contender for ‘the fuel of the future’ is ethanol – a corn-based liquid used in fuel and motor oil. In fact, Henry Ford predicted it’s dominance in the industry with the release of the Model T Ford, the first mass-produced vehicle designed to run entirely on 100% ethanol. Ford’s prediction was largely stalled however, as gasoline became more readily available and drivers were willing to pay the price. In addition, government mandates have restricted the use of ethanol as a gasoline additive – capping out at 10% – citing potential engine damage and an increase in corn prices.

How Ethanol is Made

While engine troubles and corn scarcity may seem like minor troubles, critics of ethanol say the dangerous implications of widespread adoption are far greater – and it’s not just oil industry lobbyists. Despite reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and utilizing crop waste that would otherwise be discarded, even environmental groups are joining in a debate that is becoming louder – and more confusing – by the minute.

At a time when the biofuel industry is enjoying stronger public support – and an unprecedented political push – there are still many questions to be answered. If ethanol replaces gasoline as our main fuel source, the rush to plant millions of acres of corn to supply the need could spell disaster for biodiversity, increase the pressure on our water supply, and lead to global food shortages. These potential problems will require solutions before our dependence on petroleum – both foreign and domestic – can be significantly hampered.

We haven’t yet found the ultimate answer for our rising energy needs – whether ethanol becomes the fuel of the future or not, the questions being asked today are a strong step forward. The switch to ethanol, or any other biofuel, will come at a cost, but if it is approached as only one of several solutions – in step with curbing our energy reliance, demanding better urban transportation, and adopting other alternative fuels, it will go a long way in furthering our need to be more ecologically responsible. From ‘clean-tech’ start-ups to the corn fields of southern Texas, the future is coming – though maybe not in a DeLorean.