It’s a warm spring night in the heart of San Luis Obispo, and cyclists have gathered in ranks to swarm the downtown scene with a carnivalesque circuit of Marsh and Higuera streets.
Rory Aronson joins the herd to cheers of his name: “Rory’s here!”
As the mob rolls on, flagrantly dressed riders maneuver in to briefly clutch him — as if to ensure the man, clad in a tight-fitting, pink flamingo costume, is no mirage.
Like the 5-foot-tall, green freak bike that hoists him high above the crowd, his reputation among these Bike Night revelers is the product of his own hands.
Rory is a builder.
He always has been — since he was a curious teen enrolled in ceramics, woodshop, metalshop and photography at Encinitas’ “arts-oriented” high school — until now, in the last quarter of an undergraduate career that has produced more art, more machines and more friendships than most do in a lifetime.
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Three worn-in sofas crowd the open-air porch. Rory reclines in one of them. A woodsy, almost-black glaze of beard frames his face. Each piece of clothing on his body seems plucked from a different decade: black-and-white striped swoop neck, fluorescent purple hoodie, maroon jeans.
“Whenever you do anything, you’re just caught up in your own mind, your own thought processes, especially if you work alone or with one group,” Rory says. “Until you actually start telling people about it, until you start trying to describe something concisely, you really don’t know what the hell you’re doing. You’re going with the flow.”
The previous night, Rory started telling people about his latest project when he applied for the San Luis Obispo Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship’s HotHouse Summer Accelerator Program. If chosen, Rory and his startup teammates would receive professional counseling, funding and office space to get their concept off the ground.
Their concept: a digital platform to make people do.
“That is something that I see a big problem with,” Rory says. “People are not engaged. People are not active. People are all talk, no show, no action.”
So the mechanical engineering senior and three recent Cal Poly graduates posed a question: How do you get people engaged?
Their answer was simple: positive reinforcement.
“Perhaps giving them a little bit of a push, with a little bit of incentive, will get people to take action and do cool things,” Rory says.
Rory and friends drew blueprints for a digital platform dubbed “Propelem.”
Propelem has two main components: a digital marketplace on the web to purchase goods for other people and a mobile app on which they can redeem said purchases after completing certain actions.
For example, a corporate manager could incentivise healthy living for employees by pre-purchasing Jamba Juice smoothies that only become available after checking in at the gym.
After satisfying the activity requirement, the giftee can present his or her smartphone to the retailer, and the mobile app will provide proof of purchase.
In addition to GPS location, the requirements could involve taking pictures, tweeting specific hashtags, scanning QR codes and other smartphone capabilities.
Or — if it’s someone’s birthday, say — there could be no requirement at all.
“But it would be more fun to give someone a gift and say, ‘Oh, but you gotta do something — check in at the beach,’ or make them do something fun or ridiculous,” Rory says.
The platform itself has been a call to action for the Propelem team, which consists of Rory, Aaron Rowley, Joseph White and Daniel Hall.
“It’s looking very promising that that could be a job after school,” Rory says. “The team definitely plans on working on it after school, regardless of whether we get into the Accelerator or not.”
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Rory gives a hypothetical application of Propelem: rewarding someone with coffee for biking to work.
This comes as no surprise, considering Rory’s lifestyle.
“I’ve always been a bike advocate,” he says.
Rory bikes everywhere he goes. He rarely misses a Bike Night. A bike is the only way he’s gotten to and from campus for five years. And he builds his own — some of them Frankensteinian hybrids.
Three summers ago, Rory biked alone from San Luis Obispo to his native town of San Diego (more than 300 miles). This past summer, he one-upped himself with a Seattle-to-San Francisco trip (more than 800 miles) with two roommates.
“There’s some people that bike tour and they stay at hotels and whatever,” Rory says. “But I’m the one who’s like, ‘Oh, I’ll just have a sleeping bag and jump in the bushes.’ So there’s always the worry of, ‘OK, where the hell am I going to sleep?’ I’ve definitely had some sketchy nights in parks, in the ice plant, on the beach, on these random cliffsides, kind of in people’s backyards, almost.”
On these extended journeys, Rory finds no greater joy than the “reward” that comes with cresting a tall hill — sometimes after an hourlong battle with the incline.
“You get to basically fly down this thing,” he says. “I mean, it really is flying. It’s the closest thing to flying under your own power, I’d say, where you can just lean forward and let your hands go and feel the wind.”
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The primary seedbed for Rory’s bicycle evangelism has been his house at 880 Upham St., which the residents affectionately call “The Upham House.”
Bike culture once defined The Upham House for anthropology and geography senior Donald Shin, who moved in this past fall to become Rory’s sixth roommate.
“It’s a big part of the bike community,” Shin says, crossed-legged on the living room couch. “Even when I was not living here, I just knew that this house was where it was for fixing bikes or making bikes.”
In every corner of the place, this is evident.
A mutant vehicle, half grocery cart and half bicycle (Rory: “This is kind of my grocery-shopping-mobile”), stands parked in The Upham House’s narrow side yard. A little farther down, a double-decker BMX bike (Rory: “There’s really no purpose to a tall bike other than the fact that it’s fun.”) leans against the house. Farther still, four bike frames welded into a crescent (Rory: “The remains of the Bike Arch — it’s so sad.”) collect cobwebs on the ground.
The Bike Arch was once the grand entryway to this tinkerer’s paradise, but the landmark had to be dismantled following a complaint filed with the city.
Other two-wheelers-turned-sculptures remain in place, though.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” Rory says about the sphere dangling above his head. Constructed from shards of sawed-up bike wheel frames, the fitness ball-sized object resembles a metallic tangle of yarn. “I decided, ‘Hey, I have all this material, I have this tool (an angle grinder, he later clarifies matter-of-factly). Let me try and make something.’ It turned into this cool orb, and I just decided to hang it up.”
Add these creations to a long list of reasons why Rory’s life would not fit in an apartment.
He makes too many things, has too many friends, has too big of a personality.
He couldn’t be boxed in the typical college den, decorated with empty booze bottles, discount posters and other telltales of a temporary dwelling.
When Rory’s customary dorm-bound first year came to an end, he needed a home.
It was fortunate, then, that his sister Kendra had just graduated from Cal Poly and was vacating the house their parents purchased for her to live in during college.
In the four years since, Rory has built The Upham House into something akin to a commune. He attributes the house’s countless projects to “us” — never “me,” and says the steady flow of couchsurfers, bike tourists and other temporary residents “gives the house a life.”
Of all the things he’s built, Rory calls this community the most important.
“Rory’s just really good at connecting people,” Shin says. “Most of the people that come together at this house are through Rory, and a lot of friendships happen because of this.”
And The Upham House community extends beyond its four walls.
Anthropology and geography senior Georgia Suter casually struts up to the front of the house. She needs nails, she says, and knows who likely has some.
“Rory is the guy with all the stuff,” Suter explains. “If I need a knickknack or something, or I’m just looking for something random, it’s probably here.”
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Don’t ask to see all of Rory’s stuff without a clear schedule — it calls for an extensive tour.
In front of the house, there’s the Community Cabinet — a handmade, wooden box for local residents to freely trade things. According to Rory, word of mouth has so popularized the chest that he finds new items — including laptops, toys and, one time, a salad — inside it every day. The cabinet has also produced roughly half of Rory’s wardrobe.
At the core of The Upham House, a full bathroom houses one murmuring computer tower. The oddly placed device hosts every kilobyte of WikiSLO.org, a community-based information nexus that Rory created.
Beyond the back door, one finds an inelegant hose system protruding from the house’s backside. With this contraption installed, all gray water from The Upham House’s kitchen sink and dishwasher funnels into a French drain under the backyard.
A third of this backyard is a freshly tilled garden. Watermelons, beans, tomatoes and peppers silently take root below. Above the dirt, a length of twine suspends several compact discs with Sharpied labels such as “BEAT CD” and “Jazz Mix.” These silver rings ricochet daggers of light at would-be feathered thieves. The intermittent babble of chickens — four live in a small coup erected by Rory and company — obscures the notion that this house sits smack-dab in suburbia.
Many of these projects share an ultimate goal: sustainability. Rory, president of Cal Poly’s Zero Waste Club, strives to live off the grid. Though eggs from the chickens and homegrown produce account for a small percentage of the household’s diet, Rory wants to see that self-reliance grow.
These sustainability efforts have earned Rory the admiration of Peter Schwartz, an associate physics professor and admitted champion of efficient living.
“Rory’s one of the most creative people I’ve ever met — on every level: technologically, socially, what he’s doing with his house, with his friends,” Schwartz says.
The two met in 2011 on a study abroad trip to Guatemala.
The trip, led by Schwartz, took a team of students to the small mountain village of San Pablo with the mission of adapting technology to better the locals’ lives.
Rory’s group sought to harness the warmth of chimney exhaust (“The villagers have their stoves on constantly,” Schwartz explains) to heat water in the often-frigid, two-mile-high town.
“A (Guatemalan) guy from his group actually disassembled the machine when they were done and took it home,” Schwartz says. “So he’s got one of the only places in San Pablo where you can have a real good, hot shower.”
Now that Rory’s back in the United States — home, yet still building — Schwartz says San Luis Obispo is lucky to have him.
It might not for long, though.
Rory’s ready to go all-in on Propelem after he graduates this spring, and most of the team is already stationed in San Francisco.
A month after submitting to SLO HotHouse, Rory received a phone call telling him Propelem was shot down.
The same phone call, however, informed him the project was accepted by Kauffman Fasttrac, a similar program that Rory says offers everything SLO HotHouse does besides the money and office space.
The turn of events has done little to shake the maker’s confidence.
Rory’s always been a builder.
Constructive toys such as Legos and K’Nex occupied him as a young boy in fair-weathered San Diego.
And he’ll always be a builder, he believes — not because he feels a need to succeed, but because creating is his natural state.
“There’s always going to be this constant stream of ideas,” he says. “I think I will never lose the mindset of, ‘Hey, if you have an idea, go for it. Why not? It’ll be fun.’”