• Rebranding the Hexayurt Project

    by  • January 21, 2011 • Everything Else • 14 Comments

    I’ve made a mistake. I’ve made one of those “my god did I just waste a decade?” errors.

    I’ve branded the hexayurt as a tool for fighting poverty, and focused on explaining how bad poverty is to motivate action. This is a fundamental error, because:

    • Things have a nature
    • The nature of things interacting forms narrative
    • Situations arise within narratives which give rise to the energy and motivation to act
    • These actions change the layout of the props – the material stuff – of the world

    The narrative I was making around the physical prop of the hexayurt was a massive mistake. The story I was telling was not about the hexayurt. I was telling the story of the world, in all of its awful poverty and excess of gross consumption, and I was telling it well in increasingly accurate and brutally obvious terms.

    But the story of the world is not the story of the hexayurt.

    The story of the hexayurt is you can turn what you have* into what you need.

    (*or can get easily)

    To bring infrastructure, shelter, water, appropriate electrical power and so on down in cost to the point where the poor can afford them is not a story about poverty, it’s a story about wealth. The hexayurt is about making ten times as much shelter available, within whatever resource constraints exist, but is not itself about resource constraints.

    So I’m figuring out how to course-correct for this absolutely massive categorical error now.

    Thanks to Heike Langsdorf of Radical Hope (the curator of Burning Ice where the hexayurt village is) and Bembo Davies for creating an environment in which I could realize this. It took a perspective far from the numerical world of stats and engineering to separate the narrative level far enough from physical reality that I could shine the light through it and see its flaws.

    Now what? I do not know

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    Vinay Gupta is a consultant on disaster relief and risk management.


    14 Responses to Rebranding the Hexayurt Project

    1. January 21, 2011 at 2:34 pm

      You know, I think that insight is applicable to the whole environmentalism movement in the west: it’s not about ‘giving up’ our wealth or standard of living, but discovering the wealth that has been right under our noses the entire time and using that wisely. I agree, I think this insight is key to motivating real change.

      So hey, you’re not the only one to approach this thing in the wrong way. There are many who have been doing it for *decades* ;)

    2. January 21, 2011 at 2:39 pm

      Perhaps hexayurts are the real world’s dymaxion homes instead of the desperate man’s double-wide?

    3. Nathan Koren
      January 21, 2011 at 4:13 pm

      I think this is very true — I’ve had some vaguely similar thoughts about how to position hexayurts, although nothing that’s as grounded in the raw fundamentals as what you’ve just said.

      You’re absolutely right: if you make the story about poverty, rather than about the hexayurt itself, then the signal is drowned out by the noise. Poverty is something that has dimensions in terms of shelter, sanitation, education, healthcare, legal rights, governance, finance, etc. etc. etc… The hexayurt can address a few of those thing head-on; a few of them tangentially; and many of them not at all. The hexayurt is *a* tool for helping solve poverty, not *the* tool.

      In other areas it is often possible to sell a concept by packaging it with a whole gestalt — but it has to be an *attractive* gestalt, not one that most people (apart from weirdos like you and I) intuitively recoil from.

      So, yeah, the story of the hexayurt is about how you can easily make a simple thing into an incredibly useful thing. The important part is simply to *make it happen*; who makes it happen, or why, is immaterial. Trustafarians at Burning Man setting up a Hexayurt village are, frankly, a world apart from (say) flood victims in Pakistan. But every Trustafarian who builds a Hexayurt is disseminating the idea, expanding the awareness of the idea and expertise in execution. Turning it into a living meme. Expanding its potential for go viral and begin colonising its own niches, regardless of your intentions. If it’s as powerful a poverty-alleviation tool as we think it is, then it will thrive in that niche on its own.

      A tangential thought, however: have you looked into the actual availability of plywood throughout the world? In the west it’s as common as dirt, but I can say that I’ve virtually never seen it here in India — locally-made bricks seem to serve almost all the functions that plywood otherwise would. I don’t know what the plywood-availability situation is in the rest of the developing world, but it’s probably worth looking into. If material availability is a barrier, awareness won’t matter much.

      Another thought: where material availability *is* a barrier, how about pitching this to plywood manufacturers as a strategy for getting an early foothold in emerging markets?

    4. January 21, 2011 at 5:12 pm

      The Burning Man users verify that people with lots of options and a budget to afford a broad range of alternatives still prefer the hexayurt. It’s a simple test: in a situation where people have choices, a goodly number of them choose this. That is a sign the technology is delivering what people want!

      On plywood – generally speaking the building industry uses it for molds for poured concrete structures. Hence where there’s concrete, there’s usually plywood. However, worse case, a boat full of plywood is still going to come out much, much cheaper than tents, in the rare cases where it’s worth shipping it in.

      Standard model that I suggest is to create a futures contract for delivery of, say, 1m sheets of plywood in the event of a disaster, and pay something to the vendors to maintain the capacity to deliver on that scale. That kind of thinking requires government buy-in, of course, but it’s the probably a good strategy for risk-prone areas.

      But all of this still rests on the fundamental deployment model of “build a couple of dozen test units a year until you find a design that works, and if it just doesn’t work locally for some reason, don’t use it!”

    5. Nathan Koren
      January 21, 2011 at 7:36 pm

      Yeah, the Burning man usage really gives the concept a very nice level of validation — that was really inspiring to see. Will be fun to see how it evolves in future years. Could become quite a laboratory for hexayurt innovation.

      The trouble I see with a futures contract for delivery of plywood etc. in the event of a disaster is that this doesn’t allow the technology to become at all indigenous / vernacular prior to the disaster. (Of course the same can be said about tents, but the *real* competition in disaster relief, in my opinion, doesn’t come from tents but rather from mass centralised incompetency). The best option (in my opinion) would be to have a market for the materials at least semi-readily at hand, and to have hexayurts get established in niche applications. Then, when disaster strikes, there will be a pre-existing base of local people who already understand the solution, and can agitate for those 1M plywood sheets to be shipped in if the local sources have been exhausted.

      As an analogy, thanks to the experience gained at Burning Man, I now suspect that after the next ARkStorm hits California (http://urbanearth.gps.caltech.edu/winter-storm/) you’ll see far more Hexayurts popping up of their own accord. What a disaster will do is greatly expand the niche for Hexayurts, but that niche will be vastly easier to colonise if it overlaps with pre-existing, pre-colonised niches.

      Or perhaps I’m just overly fond of emergent phenomena, but I do think that it should be possible to sow seeds in such a way that this becomes one.

    6. January 21, 2011 at 9:05 pm

      Options have to be in people’s minds first.

      Whose minds? In poverty-refugee situations, this would be
      - local people,
      - external people who come around (organisers, volunteers who surfed the web before going there, etc),
      - and external people who stay behind but even so have a say (maybe because they/we crowdfund specific efforts a la akvo.org but for disasters).

      How does the meme travel? Sometimes slowly, sometimes explosively. My guess is at some point it will make the news.

      It can get there through poverty or through abundance. Whichever gets there first. Just like points in space can be crossed by any number of lines, this (retrospectively) simple hexayurt, together with the emerging infrastructure package, just belongs in many places at once, not either or.

      Maybe poverty is closer to some people’s heart but abundancy is more effective? So be it.

      In any case, some people are already trying to _build the news_. How do we join/help them?

    7. January 21, 2011 at 9:14 pm

      Part of the above, including my own comment, is about _strategy for the hexayurt_.

      The “you can turn what you have into what you need” bit is _itself a key concept_, and has many examples, some more visible than others.

      If we want to be explicit about the process, there are a three questions in sequence:
      - what do we need?
      - what do we have?
      - how do we get what we need with what we have?

      I guess even students can have a go at those questions.

      We can do that in a rush if there’s an emergency. Or we can do it pervasively to develop sustainability. Or we can do it just because we can.

      I’d be curious as to how many instances others can find. Thank you.

    8. January 23, 2011 at 3:14 pm

      Expand Your Space With LuxoYurt!

      The cheap, eco-friendly, easy to build alternative for your garden, allotment, playhouse, conservatory, wilderness adventure and more!

      And why not join our Buy One / Give One scheme to have one sent to your home while we send the other to homeless victims of recent floods in Pakistan (and Australia).

    9. January 23, 2011 at 3:19 pm

      One attempt at answering your question of “now what?” may be the Homeless No More Initiative we are preparing to launch! The developments of this project can be found at http://www.NoWastedTime.com

      Pioneering a healthier world together!

    10. January 25, 2011 at 2:54 pm

      Luxoyurt. Christ that’s a good idea, a bogoyurt… yes!

    11. February 4, 2011 at 8:24 pm

      Yeah, I think Phil’s idea is bloody good too.

      In fact, I even looked into making a LuxoYurt myself using what they call in Spain “sandwich board”, y’know that stuff that is nice pine panneling on inside, insulation in the middle and treated board on the outside, all ready made.

      I looked into the prices of such stuff while I was out there a while ago – if I remember right its was much cheaper to buy the different parts seperately and stick it together and either way wasn’t particularly cheap – but then it is a LuxoYurt (and I think still A LOT cheaper than a brand new yurt). The whole Cool Camping/ Glamourous Camping market is massive and growing too… methinks this is defo an idea to re-visit..

    12. Pamela McLean
      February 21, 2011 at 8:20 pm

      And after the playhouse – the adult sized playhouse for the boomerang generation.

      I read somewhere about young couples (who couldn’t afford their own place and didn’t want to be under the same roof as their parents) putting “log-cabin/summerhouse” kind of “mini-starter-homes” for themselves in their parents gardens – within the “no need for planning permission” limits.

      Could be a suburban myth – or smart marketing idea for some garden shed people – or the germ of a good idea for hexayurts.

    13. Pingback: The story of the hexayurt is you can turn what you have into what you need. Vinay Gupta’s hexayurt rebranding article |

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