Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Online, a Community Gathers to Concoct A Neighborhood Eatery

Original Article

When Sharon Greenspan went on a cross-country trip last year, she made sure to take photos of the restaurants she liked and to keep the menus. It was the easiest way to remember that "lasagna" of zucchini, spinach and pine nuts she ate in Asheville and the creamy coconut shake she tasted in Sedona. Greenspan thinks both would be great for Elements, a new restaurant she is helping to open in Washington.

The 44-year-old North Bethesda resident desperately wants a restaurant here that caters to the raw food diet, which prescribes only fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and sprouts, none of which have been heated above 112 degrees Fahrenheit. Over the past year, she has dedicated as many as 10 hours each month to attending meetings, sharing her ideas on a community Web site and creating raw food treats such as oat-hemp balls to persuade others of the virtues of raw food.

One thing Greenspan hasn't had to contribute is cash, a key element in getting new restaurants up and running. That's because the model for Elements is unlike any other Washington restaurant, and, as far as the founders can say, unlike any other restaurant in the world. If it successfully opens, Elements will be the first "crowdsourced" restaurant, conceived and developed by an open community of experts and interested parties.

The term was coined by journalist Jeff Howe in a 2006 article in Wired magazine. It's essentially the application of open-source principles to fields beyond software. Instead of outsourcing a task to one person or expert, it is outsourced to a crowd. (Get it? Crowd. Sourcing.) The process uses the group's intelligence to come up with the best ideas, then distributes the tasks to people most suited to perform them. Crowdsourcing puts the wisdom of crowds to work.

So far, 386 Elements community members have helped develop the concept (a sustainable vegetarian/raw foods restaurant), the look (a comfortable gathering space with an open kitchen), the logo (a bouquet of colorful leaves) and even the name.

"Most businesses are started because you have a great idea, and you take it out to the public to see if they like it," says Linda Welch, 49, the Washington businesswoman who launched and is funding the Elements project. "This is the opposite. We're finding out what people want and doing it."

It sounds brilliant. But the restaurant business is notoriously tough. Even the most conservative studies say that 30 percent of independent restaurants fail in their first year, and some estimate that number is as high as 90 percent. The reasons for failure vary, but one is certainly that almost everyone thinks she knows about restaurants -- even if she doesn't.

Can what sounds like a late-1990s pie-in-the-sky Internet startup work for a new restaurant?

The experts, few that there are on such matters, are optimistic. "This makes it less possible to delude yourself about what people want," says New York-based restaurant consultant Clark Wolf. "It's the equivalent of a comment card before you open."

Howe, whose book "Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business" will be published next month, agrees that it sounds crazy but that it just might work: "Running a restaurant is hard. But if you build and really care about a community, that will go a long way."

The Elements project began in February 2007 when Welch, who owns area several businesses in the District, purchased the business and liquor licenses of nearby Sparky's, a coffee shop that had closed. Welch has helped launch 22 startups but has no restaurant experience. She didn't know exactly what she planned to do with the licenses, other than open a small cafe. Around that time, Neil Takemoto, 40, another local entrepreneur who had worked with Welch, stopped by to chat. When Welch told him about her plans, Takemoto suggested crowdsourcing the restaurant.

"I said, 'Great!' " Welch remembers. " 'What the hell is that?' "

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Residential Power Management

Finding and Fixing a Home’s Power Hogs

Original Article

Settings in the home for appliances, lighting and temperature can be customized through simple interfaces that help save energy. Product from Colorado vNet.

WHILE we all worry about where we’re going to get more energy in an increasingly energy-obsessed world, there’s also another alternative: Use less power. That may soon be simpler, thanks to the introduction of a bevy of inexpensive devices that let homeowners monitor how much energy appliances, TVs, PCs, and heating and cooling systems actually use.

Even energy-conscious people can go only so far in managing their home energy use. Sure, we can fiddle with our thermostats, shun incandescent light bulbs and bring in Energy Star appliances. Watching that new L.C.D. TV, however, might wipe out all those gains.

But we just don’t know.

“We have all the technology we want in our cellphones and plasma TVs and cars, but in electricity we’re still like our grandparents were,” says Ahmad Faruqui, an economist at the Brattle Group, a consultancy based in Cambridge, Mass.

Possibly coming to the rescue are home automation networks, which can help monitor all of our power-sucking devices (the typical American household has 27 that are always on, according to the Electric Power Research Institute, an energy research and consulting firm).

Some analysts expect so-called “smart metering” to boom nationwide. ABI Research, a technology firm, estimates that the market will jump to 52 million by 2013, from 560,000 this year — which would be more than a third of the nation’s meters.

Good home automation networks, which run all of the electronic and technologic gizmos in a home, have traditionally cost more than $30,000. Now, thanks in part to companies like Control4 and Colorado vNet, these systems can be had for as little as $5,000, says Sam Lucero, an ABI analyst.

Prices are expected to drop further. Will West, chief executive of Control4 in Salt Lake City, says that in October his firm will start selling a controller for $495, down from $695.

With such a network, “you can turn on your TV and see what your energy use has been like in the last few months, or compare your behavior to other people in your area,” Mr. West says. Consumers can also receive automated tips on how to save money on energy, based on their prior energy use and historical weather patterns. Then, by clicking a button on a screen — either the TV or a computer — they can act on those tips.

Power companies themselves also don’t know how much energy individual household devices use. But that information void is also poised to close, as inexpensive, standards-based technologies create a “smart” power grid that the companies — and consumers — can use to monitor home usage.

Among the technologies adding brainpower to the grid are nascent wireless protocols like ZigBee; Z-Wave from Zensys; and Echelon’s LonWorks, which tracks power use not only wirelessly but also over power lines.

ZigBee is on the verge of becoming the Wi-Fi of home power management, thanks to its inclusion in smart electric meters. But multiple wireless control technologies may coexist, as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth do. For both consumers and utilities, it’s like “going from an odometer to a speedometer,” says Paul De Martini, vice president of Edison SmartConnect, Southern California Edison’s next-generation metering project. It intends to introduce smart meters to its 5.3 million customers by 2012. This project is expected to help reduce peak power demand by 5 percent — about the output of an 1,100-megawatt power plant — and overall demand by 1 percent. That would cut carbon dioxide emissions as much as taking 79,000 cars off the road, Mr. De Martini says.

In 2005, when Southern California Edison developed a plan for smart meters, it would have lost a billion dollars on the project. Today, under a proposal on which the California Public Utilities Commission is expected to rule in August, Edison thinks it will at least break even on smart meters.

In power emergencies, such meters could allow the utility to automatically reduce energy demand to help avoid power failures.

Smart meters also would allow for tiered pricing, in which customers would pay more for power during high-use times and less during off-peak hours. Large companies have had such pricing for years.

Despite such momentum, utilities can’t just change direction the way many Internet companies do, cautions Bill Ablondi, director of home systems at Parks Associates, a market consultant based in Dallas. Mr. Ablondi doubts regulators and utilities will rapidly adopt smart grid technologies.

“The technology is here, but I think we’re looking at more like a 10-year horizon,” he says.

FOR a planet plagued by rising energy prices and rising temperatures, better energy management has gigantic potential. The McKinsey Global Institute, the economics research arm of McKinsey & Company, projects that aggressive investment in energy management could keep demand nearly flat between now and 2020.

But to depress growth in energy use on that scale would require more than just smart grids and smart homes. Governments would have to take steps like developing rate structures that reward efficiency, not power production, and eliminating write-offs for energy use. It will take a huge investment, too — McKinsey estimates $170 billion a year globally through 2020 (though it promises a 17 percent return on investment).

What smarter grids can do is help grease the rails of innovation for regulators and investors by showing just how much energy we waste, says Diana Farrell, director of the McKinsey Global Institute. The degree of waste, Ms. Farrell says, is so big that it makes investing in energy management look far more viable for fighting global warming than any alternative energy source. “The demand side is the answer, right now, with commercially available technologies that are scalable,” she says.

Michael Fitzgerald writes about business, technology and culture. E-mail: mfitz@nytimes.com.