Sustainability Commons

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Cat Johnson:

"A growing movement that combines open source design with sustainability is creating an exciting alternative to profit-driven, proprietary sustainability products. As we face urgent issues like climate change, the ability of open source communities to quickly and inexpensively create solutions makes increasing sense.

One project that clearly recognizes this big opportunity for impact is POC21, an international innovation network whose participants create open-source, sustainability-related products like the 30$ Wind Turbine, Aker (open source urban gardening infrastructure), and Faircap (open source portable water filter). Co-organized by Ouishare co-founder Benjamin Tincq, POC21 has brought together hundreds of designers, makers and organizers to “prototype the fossil free, zero waste society.” (


From an interview of Benjamin Tincq, conducted by Cat Johnson of Shareable:

  • Q: Why is open source design essential for sustainability? How can open sourcing designs and projects help address global warming, inequality and other priority issues?

A: Benjamin Tincq:

I think there are at least four layers of why we need an open approach to solving the wicked problems of our times, including energy and climate, zero waste, biodiversity, democracy, etc.

1. We need the biggest team possible to create the solutions for wicked problems in very little time, which means not having everyone reinventing the wheel every time, but instead sharing knowledge and inventions into a common pool for humanity that everybody can build upon. This superior innovation capability is basically what the whole FLOSS (free / libre / open source) community has demonstrated in software.

2. Open design and open hardware can be seen as the ultimate "anti-planned obsolescence strategy," or a "zero waste design" principle, if you prefer. Documenting the fabrication processes, materials and tools—ideally using standards as much as possible—will enable a longer product longevity, and easier repair. This is something that the OSCE Days (Open Source Circular Economy Days) is bringing awareness about.

3. The re-localization of manufacturing that goes along with distributed fabrication will save tons of carbon through shorter and local supply chains instead of shipping parts and products all over the globe in large containers. This long-term evolution is clearly articulated by the Fab City Network instigated by Tomas Diez, which grew out of the experiment in Barcelona aiming to re-localize at least 50% of fabrication in the next 40 years in urban centres.

4. This new production model can eventually drive a shift from the consumer mindset to the prosumer mindset, which enables citizens to better understand how products are made, lets them meet the producers in their city, and maybe even contribute to the design and production process themselves. This way, people are less likely to just buy, use and dispose of their things, but will instead care about what they use and make."

  • Q: I’ve heard this space referred to as the sustainability commons. Do you use that phrase? Is there a better one that's being used to define this intersection?

This is the first time I’ve heard the term "sustainability commons.” It sounds good but I am not sure it will speak to everyone since the "commons" concept is still not very mainstream, but used more by academics and experts.

What you are refering to is the intersection of distributed fabrication (local production and open source designs) and sustainable product design that will ideally translate into social enterprises aiming to tackle sustainability challenges with open technology. I would call that "open sustainable production," but that's not super sexy.

* Q: What are the key challenges the sustainability commons movement faces? How are they best addressed?

Looking back at the 12 prototypes that have been developed at POC21, which are all great ideas, none of them has really moved into the scaling phase yet. The most advanced of them is probably Faircap, the open source portable water filter, which recently raised funds from the U.N. Innovation Fund and has found manufacturing partners.

I think for open hardware sustainability to scale and become a serious alternative in the cleantech scene, we need to address two main issues in parallel:

The first one is providing better access to capital investment that cares about the impact more than the profit. I believe there are many interesting models to look at in the Impact Investing scene, such as longer fund lifetimes, capped returns, or revenue participation instead of equity (avoiding the "exit imperative" in which investors put money in startups with the only goal to sell their shares for a much higher price).

I am currently working on creating such a fund that would be focused on open and decentralized technologies for social and environmental impact. It will also be able to mentor the social entrepreneurs on finding the right, viable business model for their sustainable tech.

The second one is raising the bar in terms of "dealflow quality," to speak like an investor. This means developing more polished and finished products, with user experience in mind—something we called "sexy like Apple, open like Wikipedia" in our vision for POC21—and a clear development/scaling strategy. We are working together with the Open State team, OuiShare's partner in crime for POC21, on a project that aims to help in this area as well, but the concept is still too early-stage at this moment so I cannot say more.

* Q: What are some of your favorite sustainability commons projects?

Well as a start, all the POC21 projects were great. I'm really looking forward to how Faircap (a water filter), SunZilla (a portable solar generator), Solar OSE (a solar concentrator for steam generation), AKER (snap together garden kits), Bicitractor (a bicycle tractor), Open Energy Monitor (energy monitoring tools) and Showerloop (a real-time water filter for showers) will develop in the future.

Others include OSVehicle , a modular, open source, electric car platform; L'Increvable, an open source washing machine made to last 50 years; Smart Citizen Kit, an open source technology for political participation; Fairphone (though it's not exactly open yet), a modular, ethically-made, open smartphone; Wikihouse, an open source building system." (