restricted access Toward an Open Source Civilization: Innovations Case Narrative: Open Source Ecology
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Toward an Open Source Civilization
Innovations Case Narrative: Open Source Ecology

At Open Source Ecology (OSE), we design and manufacture, and help others design and manufacture, devices like tractors, bread ovens, and circuit makers. Much as Wikipedia has sought to democratize access to knowledge and the open source software movement has attempted to democratize computing, Open Source Ecology seeks to democratize human wellbeing and the industrial tools that help to create it. As Digital Democracy founder Mark Belinsky put it, we make “victory gardening tools for your victory garden.” We design our tools in a nontraditional way with nontraditional goals in mind, and we design them to work with each other.

We call our interconnected set of devices the Global Village Construction Set (GVCS), which, upon completion, will include 50 simple modular open source tools that are designed to provide modern comforts and basic material autonomy.1 The GVCS tools are designed simply so they can be used to replicate themselves and are easy to modify and customize. Much like the Erector Sets we used in our childhoods, the tools have interchangeable Lego-like modular components and quick-connect couplers. The open, collaborative nature of the GVCS project means that the toolset can, in principle, be independently adapted for the American farmer, the African technologist, or the pioneering lunar colonist.

If the plans for the iPhone were open sourced, the average consumer, innovator, or manufacturer would still be helpless to replicate one, let alone participate in its design, because to make an iPhone, everything has to fall in to place. Governments need to function effectively, ships must sail and trains need to leave the station on time, workers need to show up on the job, the weather needs to cooperate, and all the materials in the supply chain must be on hand. At that point, the highly proprietary equipment and manufacturing processes are put in motion. The robust image of our modern economy in fact depends on a small miracle taking place each day within our labyrinthine supply chain. In contrast to the iPhone’s [End Page 53] design—which uses African minerals that are assembled in China with parts from Japan—contributors all over the world have designed the GVCS so that its supply chain is no farther than the backyard and the local scrap heap. Its subcomponents range from basic manual manufacturing to highly automated, software-based precision tools. The GVCS represents the natural intersection of the open software and open hardware movements with basic human needs. Some of the tools are thus far only rough sketches, but a surprising number are real and in active development.

Figure 1. Simplicity brings many benefits, including cost savings
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Figure 1.

Simplicity brings many benefits, including cost savings

The Origins of Open Source Ecology

Open Source Ecology essentially began when Marcin Jakubowski’s tractor broke down in rural Missouri. A Polish immigrant who had experienced a crisis of meaning after completing a PhD program in fusion physics, Marcin had made the unlikely choice of farming as a profession. As a natural tinkerer, Marcin was frustrated by the fact that his tractor was unnecessarily difficult to fix and that he could not afford the expensive replacement parts. So, he designed a new tractor himself and put the design on a wiki. His decision to design a flexible, easy-to-fix tractor and then to open source it inspired a community of do-it-yourself (DIY) contributors to his wiki and the birth of a new collaborative movement.

Marcin explains his personal evolution this way:

Growing up in Poland and having a grandparent [who was] in the concentration camps, I was aware even at an early age what happens when [End Page 54] materials are scarce and when people fight over opportunity. It’s what drove me to identify the 50 machines, from cement mixers to 3D printers to moving vehicles, that will allow a working society to be created. My goal, and my daily life, is dedicated to open source these tools, so that anyone—from the remote villages in Third World countries to small enterprise in the developed world—can have access to these meaningful...