Tristan Hume

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Idea: A Viral Industrial Charity

Deviating from the usual programming content of this blog I’d like to talk about an idea I’ve been thinking about recently. This week I went to a talk by Lewis Dartnell author of the most interesting non-fiction book I’ve ever read called The Knowledge. It’s a book that explores the essential science and technology necessary to build a modern society from the perspective of bootstrapping civilization after the apocalypse. The apocalypse is merely a convenient thought experiment though, its a fantastic read just to learn about all the hidden industrial processes and science that keeps the world working today.

Personally the book got me thinking about how this idea of bootstrapping might help in the modern world. I also learned about the fundamental behind the scenes industrial processes that keep the world running, like the Haber-Bosch Process and the production of fundamental chemicals like lime. It gave me huge respect for how incredible difficult it is to create an industrial civilization.

The most interesting idea I’ve thought of, and I’m sure this idea isn’t unique, is the possibility of a viral industrial charity. Suppose there exists a set of machinery, tools and knowledge which a group of people can use to produce a second set of machines in a reasonable time span like one year. The other criterion for these machines are that they can be used to productively ensure a decent standard of living for those working on reproducing them.

If funding could be found to build one set of these machines, they could be set up in a third-world country as a kind of employer. A group of 100 or so people would be trained to use the machines and they would work to produce a new set and be compensated with the right to use the machines to provide themselves with good housing, food and other useful things. The magic comes once they finish the second set of machines and can use it to establish another village. Now there are two villages producing new sets and exponential growth takes hold, with luck the charity could grow to create thousands of new industrialized villages per year. With the only infusion of charity capital being the initial set, some management and perhaps a small kit for each new village of very difficult to produce items like machine control computers.

This is by no means a perfect plan, there are many potential issues. Chief among them is that this set of machinery does not yet exist. Technology is awesome but it is also hard and highly interdependent. It is difficult to satisfy both of the dual criteria of having no external dependencies and being useful for sustaining an independent village. There is a project called the Global Village Construction Set that is trying to do just this but it is slow and difficult. They have some great ideas but designing all these machines is a lot of work and they have not solved the closed dependency problem despite trying very hard. Many of their machines require some external parts such as ball bearings and microcontrollers, which need very precise dedicated machinery to produce. It is likely that any set of reproducing machines might need a box of small precision parts like ball bearings and integrated circuits to close the cycle. However, if this box is cheap enough a charity could support the exponential growth without too much fund raising.

The other technological challenge is resources. For the village to be self-sufficient it would have to produce its own materials and food. Farming can be done in many locations especially with good tools, but natural resources are often very spread out. The solution to this is probably to make everything out of a minimal set of different materials that are produced from very common natural resources. One idea from the Global Village Construction Set is the possibility of electrolyzing aluminum from clay. Clay is very common, easy to extract and can be used to make bricks, ceramic objects and aluminum metal (with some difficulty). A village built near a clay deposit, a river and some fertile land for farming with some natural or planted woodland nearby might be able to produce all the resources it needs. The village may still need to do some trading perhaps of aluminum for scrap steel to produce high stress specialized parts though, steel mining and refining is likely beyond the capability of a small village yet steel is necessary for many useful machines.

The other thing to think about is the charity structure itself. It has the virtue of not being very dependent on the external economy and enabling self-sufficiency. However, it does require at least some managerial and government structure to ensure that the people living in the village continue producing new sets of machinery instead of just using them to satisfy their own needs. This should be possible in any country with a decent government, it could probably be set up legally as an employer, albeit an unconventional one. Villagers who stopped producing machinery would be breaking the law in the same way as factory employees would be if they started stealing the output of the factory and taking it home. And I’m sure the occupants/employees would at least feel content with the idea that the purpose of their hard work is to help lift others out of poverty. They would of course also be compensated with a standard of living higher than they were used to.

As long as no one has designed this theoretical village this plan remains just an idea. However, the Global Village Construction Set is doing a great job and it is possible that years in the future it will be polished enough that with some start up capital and planning this could be a real endeavour. For my part I might even try to help design some of the machines on their to-do list as a fun hobby and way of learning about machinery.

For anyone who found the content of this post interesting, I highly recommend you read The Knowledge and take a look at the wiki for the Global Village Construction Set. I just thought I’d put this idea out there to see if anyone else has comments on it, I by no means think this is a perfect plan and it likely would have many practical tripping points. However, if these problems could be solved its potential impact per dollar invested is amazing.