By Jonathan Fredrickson
You can never truly know where life will take you. If there is anything that I took away from my conversation with Mr. Vinay Gupta, it is that truth. On March 31, 2014, I spoke with Vinay Gupta from Institute for Security and Resilience Studies. We covered a broad range of topics including his professional history, his development into a “Resilience Guru”, the creation and growth of the Hexayurt, and his association with the TIDES project. Overall, it was a fascinating conversation and I extend my thanks to Vinay for setting aside his time to speak with me.
Our discussion began with resilience and how he became known as a Resilience Guru. Resilience as an important trait in disaster preparedness began on the internet, crediting the early conversations on the topic to Twitter. In his professional capacity, he prefers to define resilience through the perspective on an engineer, “the ability of an object to take a load and then return to their original condition.” However, he was quick to note that there is no standard definition in terms of disaster preparedness and that the best preparations are often the simplest in nature.
Vinay Gupta began his journey as a Resilience Guru in 1995, when he arrived in the U.S. as a graphics engineer. He was interested in experiencing the “Hippy” culture of the 1960s, and accomplished this by traveling to one of its last great refuges: The Farm. This commune, which served as a base for the green movement in Tennessee, turned his life upside down. During the early days, he met Albert Bates, World Watch Institute, and he “introduced me to this concept of the environment and how we are ruining our ability to live off of it.” He jokingly mentioned that this was the point where he knew his old life was ruined. Though Albert pushed him onto this new path towards conservation and sustainability, the time was not yet ripe for the hexayurt to rise.
In 2002, Vinay moved to Colorado, researching environmental conservation and sustainable practices at the Rocky Mountain Institute. At this time, Eric Rasmussen and Dave Warner, now longtime TIDES network members, were organizing a sustainable settlements conference. Here, Vinay was asked to design a sustainable refugee shelter that could be easily set up/broken down and use efficient materials. Always ready for a challenge, Vinay accepted and, with a pen and a napkin, gave it a shot. His first thought was to look for the “simplest thing that could possibly work: take a sheet of plywood, cut it in half, make a triangle. Now make some kind of convex shape out of those triangles. There is a six sided cone thing, and now let’s place some walls under that.” In that moment, he realized that he had created something important, but it was merely a design on a napkin. Though it would take the perfect location to test the eventual prototype, the hexayurt was born.
Enter Burning Man, 2003, Black Rock desert in Northern Nevada. For Vinay, it was the optimal testing ground. The first model built was tiny in comparison to the open-source models being built today, but it still demonstrated that he created what he believes is one of the most important technologies for refugee populations. This dawned on him on the morning of the 2nd or 3rd day of the festival, when he awoke to a powerful dust storm blowing through the camp. Upon shutting the door, he realizes that as “I closed the door, all the chaos on the outside went away because I was inside… I turned a cardboard box into a home. I changed the world.”
From that point on, he began doing all he could to spread the word about his hexayurt. According to Vinay, “Burning Man is doing fairly good progress”; futurists within the camp have been adopting it with open arms and hexayurts have been rapidly increasing each year. He stated with a smile, “there were 500 in 2010, 750 in 2011 and 1,000 last year. They do not have the data from the most recent one, but it is conceivable to imagine that there were over 1,500.” Though such numbers may appear discouraging when you realize that Burning Man draws over 60,000 participants, it is catching on quickly.
The role of the hexayurt is to function as one of many tools deployed to satisfy the SWEAT necessities of a population. SWEAT, which stands for shelter, water, electricity, agriculture (food), and trash collection are the constants that any population can expect from a stable government and nation. When a government is in flux and these necessities disappear, the population struggles and is more susceptible to radical tendencies. The important first step to countering this is to develop a strategy to deliver these components or tools to families in need, be they IDPs in Syria or refugees. A combination of the hexayurt with water purifiers, solar panels, and food drops could serve as the foundation of stabilization efforts at a fraction of the current cost that the UN spends daily. Of course, Vinay maintained that this would need to be tested, and it was not a panacea but a start.
After nearly an hour of conversation, we arrived at the final topic of the day: How did Vinay become associated with the STAR-TIDES project? Years ago, before STAR-TIDES was even a concept, the Strong Angel exhibitions were at the forefront of merging technical expertise with real-life practice. Essentially, Strong Angel was the grandfather of the Camp Roberts demonstrations that continue today. Vinay was invited and he attended the event by living in a Hexayurt for its duration as if he was a refugee.
Since then, Vinay has been a trusted advisor and sounding board for the TIDES team on a variety of subjects. For example, we have recently approached him to discuss his thoughts on how low cost sustainable technologies can support Syrian refugees and internally displaced people (IDP’s). We look forward to his insights and do not forget to keep a look out for the upcoming blog. TIDES and the STAR-TIDES network are grateful for this longtime friendship and collaboration
Jonathan Fredrickson is a TIDES Intern at the Center for Technology & National Security Policy.