Can open source save the planet?

Can open source save the planet?

We take a look at the Open Source Ecology project and how it works

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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."

A "civilisation starter kit"

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.

Closed-loop manufacturing

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.



  • Seth Approximately how many farmers are using GVCS technology How wide is the adaption Is that possible to find out
  • Ivan Lezhnjov IV I disagree as well We clearly have very different ideas about collectivism In my reality collectivism faceless bureaucracy and failure to be responsibleWhen I talk about a collective Im pointing out that no single person makes a decision unilaterally and has a power to make everyone agree with it a dictatorshipIn an open source project theres always a captain of the ship think Linus steering linux and a crew thousands of enthusiasts around the worldWhile Linus maintains power to a certain degree no one is forced to agree with him they can always forkHowever to think that Linus remains unaffected by the pressures from the community is failure to recognize an important matter of the fact that the crew affects significantly the capatains decisionsSo really its a synergistic process and collective lack of responsibility etc
  • Justen Robertson I disagree in that the onus is always on the individual There is no group responsibility no faceless bureaucracies no unilateral mandates no central authority It is certainly participatory and that may seem a matter of semantics but it is not when you consider the difference no subsumation to a group identity - they key notion of collectivismFor instance Linux is a shared project but it is not maintained by Linux Inc TM its maintained by Linus Torvalds If you have a problem its your problem You dont call Linux customer support you report to mailing lists and bug trackers Nobody has to fix this for you If you can you fix it yourself and submit a patch There is no vertically integrated process for getting your patches included Linus reviews and approves them himself or he blows you off If he blows you off he doesnt chew out his CTO who chews out a VP who chews out a manager who chews you out He chews you out himself on the mailing list If you really cant stand the way it works you fork it and then you become the individual owner and maintainer of your own project not a wholly owned subsidiary or a subcommittee or a bureau Thats how an open source project with thousands of participants is managed Its larger than the vast majority of corporations on the planet and larger than some governments It scales nearly infinitely because it is cellular rather than conglomerate horizontal rather than hierarchical Perhaps some wouldnt see it the way I do but it appears plain to me The collective model in contrast with its bureaucracies and committees and executives and reactionary management and an utter lack of individual responsibility for anything attributed to the group identity sucks
  • Ivan Lezhnjov IV Its both individualistic and collective There are two sides to this
  • Ivan Lezhnjov IV No one specifically and yet everyone really More importantly meeting a need is quite a utopia in and of itself Think about it youre talking about a final frontier a certain point in time when the hardware created solves all the needs Thats just impossible The world is changing so fast theres no way for us to adjust so as there are no needs to meet
  • brianfryer Im grateful I read v ms comment I too was just about to bounce but reconsidered based on his responseGlad I did
  • brianfryer Who gets to decide when a need has been met Utopia only works on paper
  • magahugu Open Source Ecology is one of many projects that are trying to put technology back into the users hands People like farmers who figure out technologies and have no interest in developing multinational corporations supplying that technology decide to make their knowledge open soruce -- ultimately benefitting themselves by profiting from improved building plansMy project is along those lines Check out OpenPower Nepal athttpwwwmayauniverseacademyOpenPower Nepal is developing an open source framework for electricity generation that focuses on the two key points of local assembly and maintenance It will be built beginning 2012 at the Maya Universe Academy a school providing free education in rural Nepal
  • v m Honestly I see open and I flee like its the plagueThe word has been as bastardized as green has been with even the petrol industry cashing in on the trendIm a big FLOSS supporter and even contribute to a free software project but when I see the SXSW pimping poseurs come out in favour of open it usually is exactly what I suspect jumping on the new in terminologySo I must admit I came into this article with all preconceptions at attentionAnd I was wrongThe ideas behind the project are laudable and could be deal breakers for farmers both here and abroad It will face just like the One Laptop projecta slew of interference by parties with a vested interest in the status quo and I presume that the manufacturing process will offer its own challenges but 20-25 yrs ago when I first read about the attempts at a GNU dekstop I also was elated by the very concept of it even though skeptical at its success I am once again elated by the power of collaboration and the fact that 20 some members of my families run Linux now makes me more confident in the succcess of this enterpriseTouch screens Toys Smartphones Luxury toysAffordable farming equipment on a planet where millions die of hungerTruly priceless NECESSITYAnd the best part this open project is as green as anything out there Two buzzwords instead of oneHow can it failKeep an eye on this
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