Open Source Ecology: Can open source save the planet?

Source: Rohan Pearce (Techworld Australia)

Ambitious open source projects are nothing new. After all, the free software movement started with the GNU project — the creation of free tools to build a free operating system — which at one point many would have considered an impossible dream.

However, the participants in the Open Source Ecology project take ambition to new heights. The project takes the principles that were developed originally by the open source software movement and later the experiments with open source hardware, and applies them to developing an environmentally friendly society by creating open source tools capable of building sustainable communities — pretty much from scratch, using recycled and scrap materials.

The ultimate goal, spokesperson Nikolay Georgiev told Techworld Australia, is to “create an open society, where everybody’s needs are met, and where everybody has access to information, material productivity, and just governance systems — such that human creativity is unleashed, for all people.”

Open Source Ecology was founded by Marcin Jakubowski, a Polish emigrant in the US. Jakubowski started the project in 2003, after completing a PhD in fusion energy at the University of Wisconsin. In a TED Talk in February, Jakubowski explained that after he finished his PhD, “I discovered I was useless”. “I had no practical skills… So I started a farm in Missouri and learned about the economics of farming.

“I bought a tractor then it broke. I paid to get it repaired, then it broke again. And pretty soon I was broke too. I realised that the truly appropriate low cost tools that I needed to start a sustainable farm and settlement just didn’t exist yet.

“I needed tools that were robust, modular highly efficient and optimised, low cost, made from local and recycled materials that would last a life time. Not designed for obsolescence. I found that I would have to build them myself so I did just that.”

This was the genesis of the Open Source Ecology project and its sole project so far: The design and prototyping ‘Global Village Construction Set’ (GVCS). The GVCS, Georgiev explains, is a “modular, DIY, low-cost, high-performance platform” that enables the creation of 50 different industrial machines “that it takes to build a small, sustainable civilization with modern comforts”.

Jakubowski published his 3D designs, schematics and how-to videos and budgets for the construction of the GVCS tools using an online wiki. “Then contributors from all over the world began showing up prototyping new machines… so far we have prototyped eight of the 50 machines and now the project is beginning to grow on its own.”

The eight machines currently in the prototype phase are a bulldozer, rototiller, ‘microtractor’, backhoe, universal rotor, drill press, a multi-purpose ‘ironworker’ (comprising “a punching machine, a plate shear, a section shear, a punch and shear machine and a coper-notcher), and a CNC torch table for precision cutting of sheet metal.

“We know that open source has succeeded with tools for managing knowledge and creativity. And the same is starting to happen with hardware too. We’re focussing on hardware because it is hardware that can change people’s lives in such tangible, material ways. If we can lower the barriers to farming, building, manufacturing then we can unleash just massive amounts of human potential,” Jakubowski said in his talk.

The GVCS designs range from a bread oven, bulldozer, a press for creating bricks from compressed earth, to a 3D printer and CNC precision multimachine for computer controlled cutting and drilling.

“Our goal is a repository of published designs so clear so complete that a single burned DVD is effectively a civilisation starter kit,” Jakubowski explained.

Georgiev told Techworld Australia that what differentiates the tools of the GVCS from standard, off-the-shelf equipment are the ‘core values’ set out in the Open Source Ecology wiki. The most important of these, Georgiev says, are that the GVCS designs are open source; cheap to construct; modular; possible for the end user to create; high performing; “flexible fabrication” (the use of flexible general purpose machines instead of highly specialised ones); and supportive of open business models.

The other important core value is “closed-loop manufacturing”, described by the wiki as: “Any product should never be a waste, but a feedstock for another process. Our project relies on recycling metal into virgin feedstock for producing further GVCS technologies — thereby allowing for cradle-to-cradle manufacturing cycles.”

The designs and documentation are licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License, the rough equivalent of the GPL under which large amounts of free software is published, including the Linux kernel. Some parallels can also be seen between the project and the early days of the free software movement: The creation of tools to create other tools.

“The whole information about the lifecycle of a machine, or a tool, is share for free to everyone — where to find the resources to build it, how to build it, how to maintain, repair and recycle it,” Georgiev says.

There has been interest in the GVCS from NGOs in the US and Africa, as well as individuals from all around the world, according to Georgiev.

The project will open source four more prototypes before the end of the year, according to Georgiev. These are a tractor, a compressed earth brick press, a soil pulveriser and the power cube — a power unit intended for use in multiple GVCS designs. Next year Open Source Ecology intends to develop a number of prototypes in parallel: Eight designs at the project’s Factor e Farm in Missouri and eight at other locations.

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