A fast-growing open hardware movement is creating ingenious versions of all sorts of technologies, and freely sharing them through social media.

CERN is home to some of the largest and most complex scientific equipment on the planet. Yet back in March, scientists gathered there for a conference about DIY laboratory tools. Scientists in poorly funded labs, particularly in the global south, have used DIY tools for many years. But well-resourced institutes are increasingly interested in the collaborative possibilities of open labware. Citizen scientists are also using it to build instruments for tasks like environmental monitoring, which can then be used to support community demands for justice from polluters.

It is not only scientists – citizen or professional – who are going DIY. An open hardware movement of hobbyists, activists, geeks, designers, engineers, students and social entrepreneurs is creating ingenious versions of all sorts of technologies, and freely sharing the know-how through social media. Open hardware is also encroaching upon centres of manufacturing. In August, for instance, the global gathering of FabLabs met in Shenzhen (already host to Maker Faires) to review how their network can help to decentralise design and manufacture.

The free software movement is cited as both an inspiration and a model for open hardware. Free software practices have transformed our culture by making it easier for people to become involved in producing things from magazines to music, movies to games, communities to services. With advances in digital fabrication making it easier to manipulate materials, some now anticipate an analogous opening up of manufacturing to mass participation.

One online community has been developing DIY book scanners. These enable you to build a machine for automatically photographing book pages; and then download free software to process the images into a file. Having digitized your books, you might go further by sharing the files online (taking care to post anonymously to a site relaxed about copyright law).

The list of open hardware available to people continues to grow. The Open Source Ecology group is even developing a Global Village Construction Kit of tools for self-sufficiency, from machine tools to housing to tractors and beyond. A ‘global commons’ of accessible tools is emerging.

Open hardware can be serious business too. Take RepRap: a 3D printer community whose open source practices enabled its rapid growth. Its evolution took a controversial turn when members of the Resistor hackerspace in New York decided to commercialize their version of the RepRap, and protected aspects of its design through intellectual property. Their Makerbot business was subsequently bought for $400 million by 3D printer manufacturer Stratosys; a move which provoked fierce criticism from open hardware advocates.

Hobbyists have always tinkered with technologies for their own purposes (in early personal computing, for example). And social activists have long advocated the power of giving tools to people. The Whole Earth Catalogue was an early proponent of the liberating potential of digital technology. Then there were the dog-eared Appropriate Technology manuals that a generation of aid workers carried into the developing world in the 1970s and 1980s. Other antecedents include Victor Papanek’s Nomadic Furniture and Walter Segal’s self-build housing. We can compare these with their digital heirs at Open Desk and WikiHouse. Open, community-based technology workshops are not so new either.

So is this just old wine in new bottles? We think not. Open hardware lowers the barriers to participation in rapid prototyping in ways that earlier activists would find astonishing. And with community-workshops popping up in many towns, and online sharing platforms proliferating, the possibilities for doing technology differently are genuinely exciting.

Nevertheless, older experiences hold important lessons for the new. Our research into grassroots innovation movements, old and new, brings insights that activists today would be wise to consider.

The immediacy and connectedness of open hardware does not nullify the need for real skills in technology development. There remains a craft element to even the fleetest of digitally enabled tools. Experienced designers, engineers and machinists know the importance in understanding not just the tools themselves, but also the materials they work with. Practices that respect materials across their whole life cycle become imperative. Sustainable open hardware shifts the focus to making sufficiently, design for repair and repurposing, upcycling objects, and valuing the craft therein. Just because we can make almost anything, doesn’t mean we should.

And the materials involved are not simply physical. They are social too. If open hardware is to be genuinely inclusive, then its practices must actively empower people to become involved. Notionally accessible tools need to become actually available, and people need to feel confident using them. This requires social skills in community participation, as well as technology skills.

FabLabs are fantastic at combining face-to-face developments with online networks. These hybrid spaces contribute important infrastructure for open hardware. But maintaining infrastructure needs investment. Existing institutions, such as schools, museums, local governments, universities, and corporations are helping fund open workshops.

These institutional links bring the political dilemmas of open hardware to the surface. Is it really transforming technology development, or simply a refreshing input for business as usual? Education institutions see cool ways to induct people into conventional science, technology and manufacturing jobs. Local governments get excited about the entrepreneurial possibilities. Corporations see a reservoir of design prototypes offered up by the free labour of enthusiasts.

It is important to keep sharp open hardware’s more transformational edges, on agendas such as dismantling intellectual property and releasing investment for alternative business models. Only through a mix of craft, politics, and the support of social movements, will open hardware fully realise its potential to democratise technology.

Adrian Smith is professor of technology and society at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) and a member of the ESRC STEPS Centre (Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability) at the University of Sussex. Dr Mariano Fressoli is a researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET, Argentina) and STEPS Latin America. Their new book, Grassroots Innovation Movements, includes chapters on social technology, fablabs, hackerspaces and makerspaces.

Originally published on theguardian.com

Photo by LarsZi

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