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ECO-INNOVATORS

In five weeks of hard work, about 100 creators developed an array of useful, eco-friendly prototypes that herald a new lifestyle.

On this Saturday, 19 September 2015, the train station of Garancière-la-Queue is bustling with activity as a bus is getting ready to depart, crammed with curious people of all ages. They are headed to the POC21 Open House at the castle of Millemont. POC21 stands for “Proof of Concept”, which basically means: Look everyone, it can be done! The acronym is also an obvious nod to COP21, the major climate conference which took place in nearby Paris that same fall. For five weeks, from August 15 until September 20, 2015, the estate, which is about 30 miles outside of Paris, hosted a gathering of about 100 visionary ‘eco hackers’. Students, engineers, investors, and representatives of other professions from around the world proposed twelve innovative, eco-friendly prototypes for products that are supposed to change the way we use resources. The results were presented under a white dome in the middle of the castle park.

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Photo via FuturePerfect

Among the showcased inventions was a filter that can render water of any quality potable at a cost of less than a cent per liter, portable solar panels as an alternative to smelly diesel generators, a shower that uses only ten liters of water for ten minutes under the cleansing drizzle, or a kitchen that keeps perishable foods fresh without a refrigerator. “This is an old trick from grandma: Back in the day, they used to pitch a blue net to keep the flies away from the tomatoes. Did you know that flies hate the color blue?” smirks Laurent, one of the volunteers at the event. The inventions are not only innovative, but also very special: They all are developed under a Creative Commons license, which means that their inventors waive all intellectual property rights and their works are not subject to any other copyright restrictions. The idea is to enable each and every one to appropriate them for their own use, modify and develop them, and share their own discoveries. This is why all plans and instructions for the inventions are freely accessible on the internet.

Photo via FuturePerfect

Photo via FuturePerfect

Two think-tanks are behind POC21: Shortly after the COP 21 conference on climate change was announced, OuiShare, a global community for collaborative economy, partnered with OpenState, a German open-source designers’ collective. This is how Benjamin Tincq, co-founder of OuiShare described this endeavor in the newspaper Libération: “We all still had a bad taste in our mouths from COP15 in 2009, which did not exactly yield any immediate results.” This is why Ouishare and OpenState took action on their own. To get their camp off the ground, they raised about 950.000 euros and garnered all kinds of other support from numerous partners.

Over its five-week lifespan, the project not only spawned new inventions, but also gave rise to a whole new, very different lifestyle: Posters around the castle park and the inventors themselves tell the story of their communal living during this time. Inès, a 35-year-old volunteer, tells us: “We had to rethink communication between different nationalities and adapt to various dietary requirements.” For among the 300 people in the castle were vegans, lactose- and gluten-intolerant residents, and more. The group also developed its own communication techniques: “If you need clarification in a debate, form a C with your hand. If you want to be left undisturbed, wear a wreath of leaves.”

A small society evolved, in which volunteers, organizers, project participants, staff, supporters and kitchen staff interacted with one another. Housekeeping chores were shared: Everyone had to take turns cooking, cleaning the showers, shopping, emptying the dry toilets once a day, or participate in a community activity. Laurent reports: “Not everyone wanted to take care of the dry toilets, but overall, everyone cooperated.” The underlying notion is that everyone can contribute to a community in their own way.

Dry toilet. (Photo via FuturePerfect)

Dry toilet. (Photo via FuturePerfect)

The result was a small society in which everything was shared, from tents and glass water bottles to toothpaste, organic soap or shampoo. The participants’ lifestyles began to change. “I work in the financial sector. I used to tinker with my invention on weekends, by myself. Here, I was able to dedicate several weeks to it and share ideas with like-minded people,” Johan explains. He is one of the masterminds behind a self-sustaining greenhouse. Thus developed a tight-knit community: “After three weeks, some participants went home or began to commute. The rest of us were a bit sad. It felt almost as if we had lost family members.”

The camp’s innovations inspire hope. Volunteer Inès believes: “You can’t just sit and wait without taking any action yourself. Thanks to POC21, we, the citizens, can solve problems ourselves. I came here looking for hope, and I found it.” Camille had the same experience. The 26-year old came to the Open House to explore the inventions. “POC21 is a grassroots effort, while the UN climate change conference tries to address the issue from the top down: This motivates people to take the initiative, because the problem has to be tackled from both angles.” Others have tasted blood, as well, like Youmes, a 48-year-old technology teacher, who left the castle with a radiant smile on his face: “I was most impressed with the water filter. It can save lives, prevent cholera outbreaks and make salt water safe to drink. I also liked the self-sustaining greenhouse and would love to build one with my students in order to get them to think and reflect.” He has one regret, though. “I wish I was 20 years younger, so I could get involved in such projects myself.”

Exhibition surprise. (Photo via FuturePerfect)

Exhibition surprise. (Photo via FuturePerfect)

Meanwhile, the twelve prototypes of POC21 can be admired in Parisian Fab Labs. And a follow-up project is already scheduled. ROC 21 – Refugee Open Cities – wants to turn the so-called “refugee crisis” into positive action – in a collaborative, open-source way, of course.

(This article originally appeared on FuturePerfect. It has been reprinted here with permission.)

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