Tools To Not Die With: An Interview with Vinay Gupta, creator of the Hexayurt

Photo: Jay Springett

Vinay Gupta is a man between worlds, and he’s got a lot of arms. Born to Scottish and Indian parents, he was programming from a young age. But looking back on the advent of web-culture in the late 90s, he found that he wasn’t satisfied with the thought of sitting around on .com cash and helping to empower the same old corrupt systems of power and influence just because they’d now found homes online.

No, no. Vinay packed up and went west to the American desert. There he did work with the Rocky Mountain Institute (he was on the editorial team for Small is Profitable and Winning the Oil Endgame by Amory Lovins et.al.), spent years meditating and learning Nepalese magical practices, and found himself on the playa trying to live out of a cardboard box. That struggle with the box lead him to make observations about a sort of pixelated version of the yurt, that ancient and highly efficient house of the high Mongolian desert. Thereby: the hexayurt.

Now it’s been ten years of struggle for Vinay, and he’s shown his invention (and the many conclusions that follow from it) to .biz high-rollers, .mil doves, and .org worldchangers. He has become a worldchanger. We caught up by email in October.

Woody

Give us a quick history of the hexayurt.

Vinay

So the Hexayurt Project story starts on The Farm, the 70s era hippie commune linked to midwives, tofu and The Well. I visited The Farm pretty much as soon as I got to America in 1995, seeking understanding of what had happened in the 1960s. I don't know what I was expecting, exactly, some chance to bathe in the afterglow of the golden age perhaps.

Instead they ruined my life! Albert Bates of Worldwatch and Permaculture fame introduced me to environmentalism, and some of the guys on the farm asked me to fix a minor mathematical bug in one of their domes. I knew the math - I used to be a rendermonkey - but by the time it was fixed, the question which came to dominate the rest of my life had been asked: "how do we make a geodesic dome with less waste?"

Six years later, I was working a little on the Sustainable Settlements Charrette and something clicked in my head. "What's the simplest thing which could possibly work?" and fifteen minutes later I had a sketch of the firsthexayurt. SketchUp, before they were part of Google, donated us a license, and a very nice man, Mark Jacobson of Pactive, sent us some materials. We were in business!

Woody

You've written about shelter design in connection to Gandhi and Buckminster Fuller - why are they important figures for these concerns, and how are they connected?

Vinay

So the Hexayurt Project could have been simple. I could have incarnated the hexayurt as a company, or as a charity, and taken a conventional path through the world. But those things never seemed to deliver the worldchanging bang-for-the-buck that I craved, where as Free Software movement seemed, even in 2002, like it was going to deliver its particular brand of global good. So I decided to copy the Free Software model as closely as possible whenever possible, understanding that hardware would work a little differently. So far it has worked.

It's been hard. I've been putting this thing first in my life, in all kinds of obvious and subtle ways, since 2003. I knew when I was in the first hexayurt, in the middle of a dust storm on the playa, feeling completely safe and sheltered, that it was going to go all the way, and it's been like my kid ever since. I just keep it available, keep it moving forwards, and slowly the people who need it and want it pull it towards them. The deep model of change is actually Stallman, when you get right down to it, but the political analysis is pure Gandhi, with Fuller's core perspective. Let me explain.

From Stallman we take the Four Freedoms approach to owning your technology, but in this case, the non-patented commodities like screws and plywood give us an non-restrictive foundation to build on, unlike most computing equipment. But we have to run naked, without patent or copyright protection, because neither is suitable for hexayurts - patent is too expensive for us to use to defend the freedom of the hexayurt, so we use defensive publication to thwart attempts to patent the goodness!

From Gandhi comes the fundamental goal: everybody in the world gets a bowl of rice and a place to sleep, everybody in the world owns what they need to survive. At the deepest core: we accept poverty as a fact, but we insist on universal human dignity regardless of wealth. That means that everybody works and everybody eats, no exceptions. Gandhi's goals are much broader and subtler, but I'm a lump-hammer type of a guy, so I just took the simple stuff and started to do it with whatever meager capabilities I could bring to the table. I get by mostly on luck and persistence. Because of the meditation practice it's all personal to me: I feel like everybody's kids are my kids, like the whole world is crying out for some basic common sense, and I can't separate myself from what is happening to and in the world. And I have to live with that, every single day.

From Fuller comes the potential of engineering as a spiritual practice: build what is good, commit no evil, design the options we need to lift ourselves out of suffering and into safety, not in a transhumanist way, at least not at first, but in a simple housing-water-and-sanitation type way. I think that Bucky's techno-utopian political strategy is good, but without Gandhi's deep humanity and deep humility, I'm not sure any good was ever going to come of it.

So we get down to basics: Stallman's approach to human cooperation, Gandhi's goals, and Fuller's methods.

It's a potent combination.

Woody

The military keeps dabbing a toe into your work, doesn't it? What are they up to?

Vinay

There was a period around 2006 when, as far as I can tell, about half the money in appropriate technology research globally was coming from the US Department of Defense. My take on the DoD has always been that it's actually got a dual nature: the world's best technology development house on one hand, paired to an archaic war machine on the other. 5000 years from now they are going to remember three things about the 20th century: first nuclear bomb, first man on the moon, first computer networks. That's all the technology development side of the house.

The warfighting side is, frankly, a bit useless these days: it was configured to defeat the Soviets, built from the ground up over generations for that task, and its Failure To Adapt is largely responsible for the financial collapse which seems to be all around us: they needed to either stay at peace, or win quickly and efficiently, but this long, drawn-out, expensive, inconclusive war has burned the financial surplus of the world for nothing but pain and sorrow. Real power in the 21st century is tech power, not killing power, and I don't mean nanotech robots, I mean algal turf scrubber biobutanol factories are worth 500,000 tanks.

So the DoD saw the hexayurt and said "that's neat, how much?" and I said "Free!" and, at that point, they don't see many well-intentioned, non-hostile faces who aren't trying to make a buck from them or the people they're trying to help on the humanitarian / protector side. They think in really large terms, about huge needs, so the "as much as you could ever need" availability of plywood hexayurts suited some of their contingency thinking rather well. It was just an easy piece of capability to pick up, and it's slowly diffusing through the organization as needed. I think that if the DoD had been more involved in sheltering in Haiti there is a good chance we could have seen hexayurts deployed there. It might still happen, in fact.

More broadly, and this is fundamentally important, it's worth remembering that nobody winds up in very senior positions of power inside the services if they don't treat their peers and subordinates well. They have a pretty refined promotion process which seems to produce very high quality leadership, often real philosopher-kings, unlike many other branches of government. So I think there's a basic level of "well, this makes sense, it's not exactly our core business, but we're well-intentioned towards it" and that's about where it stands, really. Maybe there'll be a humanitarian crisis the DoD encounters one day that needs hexayurts, and maybe there won't.

They do build them every year in the garden in the middle of the Pentagon every year, though, as part of the STAR-TIDES program, though.

Woody

Is it fair to see the hexayurt as just another tool in a larger set? I mean, you've got CheapID, you link up with the Appropedia crowd... What would you call the whole package of these solutions?

Vinay

I wrote a short story a few years ago called TheUnplugged. It's really all about that. We need a lifestyle which works for nine billion people.

Let me break that down: you take the sustainable harvest of the earth, and you take the share of that we're allocating to humans, and then you divide by nine billion. So much carbon, so much steel, so much bamboo. It's not quite that simple: some places are cold, other places rain a lot, but the basic framework is that we have to share the inputs the world generates nine billion ways. Right now we're sharing them so badly that a billion of us are regularly hungry to the point where they get hunger diseases. Really that's not OK. I know we all have our struggles, but this is not OK. So we have to fix this: design a good lifestyle which uses that amount of resources, and then adopt it.

Sounds simple, I know, right? But there's no way around this: we're at four times consumption in Europe, and something like eight times consumption in America. Can you imagine us cutting our consumption, on average, by 80%? That's what we need to do. Maybe we'll get the Hail Mary pass on Nanosolar or Konarka, I think there's a very good chance we're going to get to the Cheap Energy, Cheap Information future, but even then, it's still going to be about a nine billion person split. I think we can produce a very good hexayurt out of about 100 lbs of paper and thick aluminium foil, all recycled and recyclable. I think the biosand filter and the rocket stove are pretty much ready for prime time technologies for our basic human needs, and the toilets are only a little further behind. And that's a standard of living, that and a cheap Android tablet that's been engineered to last for three decades, that's a standard of living which you can make sense of at nine billion, which is our likely peak population. We're going to hit seven billion right around the time this piece is published, and it's important to think about it in these big number terms, because that's the world we really live in.

So the future I see works like this. We make cheap things - a house for villagers who want something a bit more solid than woven grass over sticks, say. They could save for a decade for concrete, or take paper-and-foil today, bought cash. They could wait for plumbing, or make a biosand filter. They skip hypercapitalism completely, go directly to local production plus sophisticated-but-simple technologies, STAY SUSTAINABLE, right where they are, as organic farmers on land their ancestors have tilled for centuries, and that's a world which seems to measure up numerically. I can't make those sums work for any variant of the way we live in the West: either we're going to fix it through as-yet-unknown technologies, or we're going to be the caboose, the last part of the human race to live in a sustainable way. We're the last, not the first, and we have to face the fact that our lack of sustainability is a crimeand a shame, a black mark on our nations and our own lives.

So that's my vision: get the poor to a comfortable sustainability with sophisticated-but-simple technologies, so that the people who are actually sustainable get a much better standard of living, and as that standard of living rises, as Gandhi envisaged, perhaps we can adopt it by degrees, one by one as the occasion allows, and eventually fix the planet that way.

It may not seem like much of a hope now, but after a really major economic collapse comes through, we might not be able to afford to live at this incredibly unsustainable fossil fueled burn rate. How many of America's homeless would rather be smallholding farmers with access to first world medical care? We need to start thinking about what's next, because this is going away. In fact, for many of us, for the fifty million Americans on food stamps, it has already gone.


Vinay Gupta’s current work includes a collaborative e-book, The Future We Deserve, and related talks (beginning November 1st @ Hub Westminster, London). There have been up to 500 hexyaurts at Burning Man (including innovations such as these nearodesic polyhedrons), and his work to promote the technology continues.

Woody Evans is a librarian living on the south side of Dubai. He’s written for American Libraries, H+ Magazine, Juked, Public Scrutiny, Library Journal, Rain Taxi Review of Books, 971 Menu, ACCELER8OR, and others.