Massimo Menichinelli: Open P2P Design as enabling Open P2P Systems

01. Design and Open P2P collaborative activities for Open Innovation

In the last years the “Design” word has become widely acknowledged outside the community of designers and as everyone agrees on its importance it is now used more than the word “project“. This has happened because a “project” cannot exist on its own, but it is the object of a “design methodology” applied in a “design process” that happens within a “design community“. Designers and all the stakeholders (the design community) that work together using a shared set of artefacts, roles and rules (the design methodology) in order to develop (the design process) a project.

“Design” is therefore not only product design, web design, graphic design, interior design, architectural design and so on, it is a wider term that overlaps disciplines and fields and refers to the collaborative construction of a project about the future. The “Design” word is so important because it tells us about a conscious construction, a social construction: the way we are planning the future or, better, the way we are organising ourselves to face the future. And this means that we can design the way we can change ourselves as a society, the way we can innovate and find sustainable solutions to our problems and needs. This is why Design is very important for the shift from an unsustainable society to an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable one.

Nowadays there is a common agreement about how our society needs to be able to change and adapt to the fast changes that happens in the economical, social and environmental dimensions. We are interested not in single and few changes, but in the ability to continuously introduce new ideas in our products, processes and organizations in order to maintain our conditions or improve them. We are interested in the ability to innovate our activities in what they do and how they do it.

If we think that the changes and innovation we need can be planned and should be developed as a collective project, then Design could be used as a strategic tool that we can adopt in order to generate them, as every project is about a change, applying ideas and mediating multiple interests. These characteristics become even more important right now, as the Innovation models are changing from a closed type to an open one, where new ideas and applications are to be found in the social network outside companies and institutions, and therefore there is such need for mediating multiple interests. Right now, Open Innovation is the most promising way to generate the changes we need using the distributed creativity and collective intelligence of the whole society, and designers can find more opportunities as long as they manage to valorize not their own creativity but the distributed one of the society.

This shift of perspective from a closed innovation to an open one comes from the realization that in the recent years the most promising way to innovate comes from the Free Software / Open Source / P2P movement. I usually prefer to refer to the dynamics, principles, processes and organizational forms that these phenomena generated as Open P2P rather than just Open, because Open and P2P are two different concepts that integrate each other and that we should not separate in order to fully appreciate the innovations they propose. Within the Free Software / Open Source / P2P (Open P2P) communities innovations are generated in an open and peer-to-peer way as the outcome of collaborative activities: it is a social system, a collective intelligence that develop changes and innovations through self-organization processes.

What is extremely interesting for us is that in the past decade the Open P2P principles and practices have been spreading from software development to many other fields: from Open Source Biology and Biotechnology, to Open Source Religion, P2P-based micro-credit, gold mining and Open/Free Beer for example. And the Web 2.0 services too come from the Open principles and practice, becoming a powerful vector for spreading even more interest in collaboration and sharing throughout society. Rather than a specific method for a specific field, Open Innovation and Open P2P organizational forms can be applied to all the disciplines and cases where we can gather a mass collaboration from the participation of users and citizens.

We are approaching a period where collective intelligence and mass collaboration gain importance in more and more activities in many different fields, and therefore we need tools and practitioners able to face such phenomenons and the complexity they show. Knowing that mass collaboration needs products, services, infrastructures and artefacts in order to work, we may say that there is a huge potential for designers if they become able to face such needs. Furthermore, as we can see open innovations, the activities of Open P2P communities, as social projects, there could be more opportunities for designers in such processes thanks to their experience in managing projects. But there could be also some risks for designer: as everyone can become a designer in a mass collaboration project or design initiative, they could lose some importance in the job marketplace.

But as these initiatives are about projects, designers still have more expertise on developing a project than other people, and should redefine their role in order to get more importance. Designers will be still relevant if they adapt to the changed landscape and find a new identity, redefining their knowledge and expertise; and this is what they are doing in the Open Design (and Open P2P Design) movement.

02.The rise of Open Design and of Open Peer-to-Peer Design

Since the year 2000, the design discipline has been learning how to become more open and based on peer-to-peer dynamics, from just few pioneers in the beginning to the constitution of a larger community right now. The first example of Open Design was Thinkcycle, a project that started on March 2000 by a group of graduate students in the MIT Media Lab (Ravi Pappu, Saul Griffith, Nitin Sawhney, Yael Maguire, Wendy Plesniak, and Ben Vigoda). Their idea was to create a database, accessible over the Web, that would enable “open source” problem solving among design university students and communities in the developing world. One of the motivations behind ThinkCycle was to work on problems in communities not being well served by new technologies. To get at these problems, ThinkCycle asked non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other stakeholders related to underserved communities to submit worthwhile challenges for the students. It was very ambitious, complex and promising, even more for being the first working Open Design experimentation; it grew in a collaborative network of design courses at universities in Kenya, Brazil, Costa Rica, Portugal, and India, and then ended few years later. Some of the people behind it gave birth then on August 2005 to Instructables, a web-based documentation platform where passionate people share their projects or product hackings, and learn from and collaborate with others. From the first Open Design experimentation (Thinkcycle) to the first Web 2.0 Design Community (Instructables).

In May 2005 an Israeli designer, Ronen Kadushin, put some of his projects online under a Creative Commons license, becoming therefore famous as the first Open Designer.

Another very important experiment was Open Health, one of the first example of P2P-inspired Design, led by Hilary Cottam and Charles Leadbeater within the RED design unit of the British Design Council during the years 2004-2006. Within this project they proposed a new approach to public services, that must be co-created with end-users in communities of co-creation, where users and professionals work using all the resources already existing with peer-to-peer dynamics, based on a common platform that makes possible the activity of many participants. This project is very important because it propose a whole different strategy: they were not interested in publishing a project in an open way, in order to foster a community around it; they were interested in building open communities of citizens with peer-to-peer relationships. We have therefore an Open Design (the design of an open project), and a P2P Design (the design of a peer-to-peer system): it was not about designing an open source-like project, it was about designing open source-like communities.

At the beginning of 2005 those were the first important experiments about Open Design, early and almost isolated pioneers of an Open Design scene that still did not exist yet. But it was already possible to start to study the issues of Open Design looking at the different perspectives each one of these experiments proposed: not-for-profit Open Design (Thinkcycle), Web 2.0 Collaborative Design (Instructables), individual Open Design (Ronen Kadushin), P2P Service Design (Open Health). And this was the Open Design scene when I started my research in March 2005, when I tried to study how Design could be used to improve the sustainability of localities, as in the years before the relationship between Design and Locality started as an interesting research subject in Europe (the Spark! initiative) and Italy (ME.Design, a complex initiative I participated in some months earlier).

The idea, at the beginning, was to study how to develop a design project with/for a community, as a locality is always linked to its social systems (I prefer to talk about a Community/Locality or Local/Social Systems), and at that time the Open Source and Free Software communities were already acknowledged for their community-based organizational form as a promising way to study how to organize projects in a community. That initial idea then became the Open P2P Design methodology I proposed in my master’s degree thesis in April 2006; I started some months later the project, as an effort to further research the Open P2P Design application, build a networkaround it and experiment it.

What has happened since then? Thanks to Open Source and Web 2.0 the Open P2P principles are spreading and being more acknowledged, while the idea of an Open Design or an Open P2P Design is changing from just an experimentation or an hypothesis into a real experience, a viable business, and a social opportunity.
Starting from initiatives like Arduino, we can see now how the Open Hardware movement is rising and becoming the second wave of Open Source application after Open Source software. New projects, business activities and researches are building its development, and this is a very important step towards and Open Design, not just because hardware can be sometime used in design projects, but because with Open Hardware we are witnessing how Open Source can be applied to rival material goods and not just to non-rival informations.
With Openmoko, we have now the first open source product for the masses, that is open for its software, hardware and design: a smartphone that is completely open. And it’s not just an open product, it is an open tool that we can use and modify in order to design collaborative activities with Open P2P organizational forms and to help a community self-organize in a more proper way.

And now, with desktop manufacturing machine’ prices dropping, with the birth of open hardware 3d printing machine like RepRap and [email protected], with Web 2.0 manufacturing marketplaces like Ponoko and Shapeways, it’s easier for us to manufacture a product at home. We can compile a design into an object, in order to look for its bugs and use it. Therefore we are now ready to develop a project, to compile it and test it quite easily; we are ready to share it and to sell it at home and on the Web. We can now put in practice, open, collaborative and peer-to-peer business and projects based on rival goods at local and global scale, paving the way for building more sustainable distributed economic ecosystems that can use, save and valorize local material and energetic resources while improving the local social networks at the same time.

03. Expanding Open Design with the Open P2P Design concept

Open Design is now a viable option, but there is a further step that can help us developing it and spreading it more, and it is my proposal as Open P2P Design. It is a slightly different concept, that integrate Open Design but extend it. I wrote before that the first Open Design pioneers showed us the possibility of an Open Design (the design of an open project), and the possibility of a P2P Design (the design of a peer-to-peer system): Open P2P Design integrates both possibilities under a common approach and further extend it to all the mass collaboration cases. While Open Design focuses on opening a design project, Open P2P Design focuses on building a community or social system that follows Open P2P principles and organizational forms in order to put in practice a collaborative activity that generates Open Innovations. With Open Design we offer a design project to an Open P2P social system; with Open P2P Design we co-design and enable an Open P2P social system. Not just open processes and open contents, but also peer-to-peer relationships.

What are the differences? First of all, while Open Design is about design projects, Open P2P Design is about mass collaboration-based activities or community-based activities: it could be applied in many fields, as long as there is a critical mass of participants who want to participate and collaborate. Open P2P Design is a way to generate Open Innovations through the Open P2P Communities and their collaborative activities it enables. Therefore Open P2P Design could be adopted in many fields, and Design is one of them: Open P2P Design can be adopted to build the Open P2P social system for Open Design projects or Open Source Biotechnology research as well.

Secondly, publishing alone is not enough in order to put in practice an Open Innovation or Open Design project, and now we are ready to think how to consciously build a social system interested in the publishing and further development of activities or projects. The social side of an Open P2P activity is so strong that it does not survive without strong social networks of participants: Open Design is not really open without a community or social system around it.

And thirdly, Open P2P Design is not about a project or an innovation, but it’s about how to organize the process and the tools that leads to a design project or an innovation. Therefore Open P2P Design belongs to a different dimension: we enter in the meta- dimension of meta-design and meta-innovation. Meta (from Greek: μετά = “after”, “beyond”, “with”, “adjacent”), is a prefix used in order to indicate a concept which is an abstraction from another concept, used to complete or add to the latter. In epistemology, the prefix meta- is used to mean about (its own category). For example, metadata are data about data (who has produced them, when, what format the data are in and so on).

Meta-design is therefore the design of the design process/tool, meta-innovation is innovating the way we innovate. The Open P2P Design methodology is intended as a tool to organize the development of collaborative activities project; more specifically, in Open P2P Design the Open P2P principles, practices and organizational forms are both a Design Methodology and a Design project or Design goal. We use Open P2P forms in the design process in order to co-create other Open P2P forms.

Open P2P Design does not refer to a project (intended as the outcome, the object of a design activity), but it refers instead to the design process and tools that can be used to develop that project; Open P2P Design does not refer to a specific innovation, but it refers to the way we can set up and facilitate collaborative processes that develop the innovations. With Open P2P Design, we don’t design the solutions, but the tools and processes a social system, a community, a collective intelligence can use in order to find its own proper solutions.

The idea of meta-design and meta-innovation comes from a reflection about the same Open P2P phenomenon in software and knowledge production. I think that the most important innovation of Free Software / Open Source / P2P movement is not a new kind of licenses, but the way a license can facilitate the emergence of a community. In a broader term, the Open P2P phenomenon is not really about publishing information under a certain license and through a specific software; the Open P2P phenomenon is about giving the right tools to a social system, a community, in order to enable it self-organize and build an evolution of the original information to solve its own problems and needs.

A Design discipline interested in enabling a community rather than designing an artefact is going to undergo a very important change: from artefacts to social systems, from objects to networks, from providing a solution to enabling a social system collaboratively produce a solution. This is a very interesting challenge for designers that have to face now the changes about copyright and IP brought by the digital revolution, and the rising of mass-collaboration-based creativity initiatives. It’s not only about opening their project to someone else, which is a big step too that is needed towards Open Design; it’s about shifting from a role of provider of their own creativity, to a role of enablers of the distributed creativity. From providers of a solution, to enablers of a social system who will eventually provide such a solution.

The designers that will be able to understand this change will have more opportunities in a marketplace and a society that give more and more importance on mass collaboration and sharing of information and knowledge rather than in proprietary creativity. Furthermore, they will be able to find a place in the very important social learning process that is trying to collectively and collaboratively develop complex solutions, changes and innovations to a more sustainable society in the economic, environmental and social dimensions.

5 Comments Massimo Menichinelli: Open P2P Design as enabling Open P2P Systems

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