Open Source Ecology

A couple of days ago, I caught a story on NPR about Open Source Ecology, an initiative begun by a young astrophysicist, Marcin Jakuboski.  As he explains in his TED Talk, he found himself, at the end of his twenties, book-smart and real-world useless.  Searching for something more tangible to do with his life, he tried to go back to the land, becoming a farmer in rural Missouri.  He found his plans stymied again by unreliable machinery.  As he tells it, Marcin was then inspired to build his own tractor, using a "simple X, Y, Z geometry" and an interchangeable, de-mountable hydraulic power plant.  

The LifeTrac, the first project in the Global Village Construction Set.
This led to a wiki, which led to global collaboration, which spiraled into a project that hopes to open-source fifty industrial machines essential to humanity.  Jakuboski calls it a "civilization starter kit."  As the idea snowballed, he became a TED fellow and has now turned his property, the Factor E Farm, into a laboratory for prototyping these machines.  As of this fall, employees and volunteers are hard at work building an compacted earth-brick and strawbale lab and dormitory where designers, engineers, and builders will live and work on the GVCS.  The structures on the farm are being built with the GVCS brick press, the soil pulverizer, and the LifeTrac tractor, directly testing prototypes as they are created.  

The Global Village Construction Set, via Wikipedia

Jakuboski elegantly explains both the motivation and the ultimate aims of the Open Source Ecology Project in his TED talk.  As with many charismatic visionaries, he is both intelligent and able to boil down his vision into bite-size pieces, peppered with clever lines and decent jokes.  He makes a compelling (though engineering-centric) case for technology's ability to improve life, health, and happiness.  

At the same time, he stints a little bit on the argument for open-sourcing that technology -- after all, for-profit corporations and governments have produced the vast majority of innovation throughout human history, and that has turned out pretty well so far.  The profit motive doesn't necessarily disqualify innovation, nor does it prevent that innovation from being widely adopted.  Obviously, given the title and intent of this blog, I am not the world's greatest cheerleader for corporations.  That said, I am talking about the scope of human history, and open-sourcing is a recent innovation that has produced modest results compared to historical precedents.  

Marcin Jakuboski's TED Talk, from the OSE YouTube channel.  

What open-sourcing does do, reasonably well, is aggregate the intelligence of the crowd.  To date, crowd-sourcing has largely been the province of virtual or knowledge-based systems -- Linux, Wikipedia, and dozens of smaller projects.  Jakuboski is bridging the gap to hardware, much as Instructables has done, albeit in a more haphazard fashion.  The masterstroke of Open Source Ecology is its comprehensiveness.  Unlike Wikipedia, Linux, or other open-ended projects, OSE is clearly defined -- fifty machines that are a LEGO kit for humanity.  

From the beginning, they have been designed and prototyped as a toolkit, together, sharing parts, an engine, and a meta-mission.  The interchangeable power cube, coupled with a reliance on hydraulic transmissions, is brilliant.  It allows for a "power-agnostic" energy source that could theoretically be coupled with any sort of motor -- electric, gas, diesel, or steam.  This power source also allows a farmer, say, to have one unit that can power his truck, his tractor, and his pelletizer, since these are all machines that he would rarely have to use at the same time.  This saves immense amounts of maintenance and complication.  It also makes a coherent case for resilient, post-scarcity economies, based on local means of production and robust, simple technology that is adaptive to multiple fuel sources and situations.

Practical Post Scarcity: Open Source Solutions, from the OSE YouTube channel.  

One of the more promising wikis on the OSE site has to do with steam power, which provides a lot of low-end torque and could run on any fuel, from diesel to methane to wood pellets.  The pelletizer could convert waste biomass -- wood chips and branches -- into a measurable, flowable, carbon-neutral fuel source for steam power.  Steam power, as a stationary power plant, also has the advantage of producing a lot of waste heat, which could be used in buildings and greenhouses.   OSE's experiments with steam seem to show a consciousness about moving past our oil-based energy systems and trying to find future alternatives.  

OSE is not without its critics.  The link to the NPR story has a long comment thread, with many pointing out that technology is not necessarily the way out of our problems -- it's what got us into those problems in the first place.  Global warming, peak oil, and aquifer depletion are all consequences of more efficient resource-extraction technology.   When I lived at Arcosanti, Paolo Soleri used to speak about a "better kind of wrongness" -- a hybrid car saves gas, but it's still a car, which contributes to wasteful land use patterns, gobbles up rubber and steel, etc.  We must be focused on resource-building technology, not merely better means of exploitation.  

Further criticism seems to be leveled mostly at Jakuboski's leadership and management style.  Many small non-profits have struggled with so-called founder's syndrome: the inability or unwillingness for an organization to move and grow beyond a single charismatic leader, leading to "a pattern of behavior on the part of the founder(s) of an organization that, over time, becomes maladaptive to the successful accomplishment of the organizational mission."  I have a lot of personal experience with this, having worked in a number of organizations -- Arcosanti being a good example -- where a visionary has come up with a powerful, disruptive idea, and relied on force of personality to execute that idea.  There is little thought given to the future, to succession, to accommodation of other views, or egalitarian leadership structure.  

The places I've worked that started this way -- Arcosanti, the Rural Studio -- have a hierarchy, be it academic or independent, that never made excuses for the power structure.    Jakuboski has painted himself into a corner by putting Open Source in the name of his organization, as it immediately puts the onus on him to prove it as such.  I do not know the man personally, and am not trying to call him out, merely attempting to present both sides of what surely is a complex story.  I hope, for the sake of Jakuboski's colleagues and all the people in the world that stand to benefit from this technology, that the OSE project takes on some sort of sustainable leadership structure that can outlast any single person.

I also want to build a sawmill.  And a tractor.  And a CNC mill.  And some other stuff.  

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