Why is Open Hardware Inherently Sustainable

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By Michel Bauwens, written in Florence, May 21, on the occasion of the Terra Futura festival:

Reflections on the role of Open Hardware and Peer Production in insuring a sustainable world

In this article, I want to list the reasons why I believe that the trend towards open and distributed manufacturing is a vital part of ensuring a sustainable society.

For those that are not familiar with it, open hardware is a practice where designs are shared through open licenses in a community, and those designs can then be used by manufacturers, who can make and sell the product, eventually making a profit, but they cannot rely on any rents deriving from intellectual property. We will see later why open design and free hardware are also linked to new modalities of production, i.e. open and distributed manufacturing

The first reason that open hardware is a sustainable practice is that innovation cannot be privatized and taken away from the benefit of collective humanity. This is of crucial importance in for example renewable energy research and production. Baby boomers will recall the thriving renewable energy sector in California in the 1970′s, the subsequent buy-back by oil companies, and the shelving of those innovation, which delayed more rapid progress for another 30 years. In an age of climate change, dwindling resources, and the post-oil-peak, this type of enclosures cannot be afford. Of course, IP advocates will claim that IP is needed to protect innovations, but a sufficient number of studies have shown that IP, in the forms of patents, actually slows down innovation. Anyone active in open source communities or in public domain science, also knows from experience that shared innovation is happening on a continuous basis in open communities. Shared licenses for hardware designs insure that any innovation produced anywhere in the world, benefits the whole humanity, and all the members of the open ecosystem in particular. Another counter-argument, which is I think a more serious concern, is that expensive research and initial production costs, won’t be undertaken without sufficient IP protection, so that the investment can be recouped. The answer here is to adapt the model of science, i.e. insure collective funding so that many enterprises can benefit from the advances.

The second reason that open hardware contributes to sustainability, and actually is “inherently” sustainable, lies in the motivation behind the research, innovation, and production. For profit companies that develop commodities for the market have a vested interest in creating non-sustainable products, and planned obsolescence is a general characteristic of industrial production under the present economic system. Indeed, such companies must maintain a scarcity in order to continue to operate in the market. (there are some exceptions, think about the government-subsidized aerospace industry). But participants in open design communities do not have any such incentive. Like their free software brethren, they develop shared designs for various reasons, including the famous ‘scratching an itch’, i.e. solving their own problems. Because of this lack of perverse incentive, they can and do strive for optimal designs, which are inherently more sustainable. This means that any business partner in such an open ecology, who used shared designs for producing services or make and sell products, has to use designs that are inherently more sustainable than anything that can be produced. Any commercial improvements that need to be made, will be based on this level playing field of an optimally sustainable design.

The third reason that shared design hardware contributes to sustainability lies in the design philosophy of production itself. Open design communities do not only think differently about the product or service they are working on, but they also think differently about the production process that is needed to produce those designs in the physical world. This is because designers are inherently interested in ‘designing-for-making’, and therefore they are interested in lowering the treshold of participation, minimising the capital requirements and level of centralisation that is required. In other words, open hardware design is linked with its cousin, open and distributed manufacturing. Think of how the Dutch Common car design aims for modular development as well as a biodegradable skin. It is not interested in making a car that is rapidly obsolete and needs to be replaced in full. Or think about the eCars model, which allows any mechanic to download a conversion design, and turn any car into a hybrid. In this new model, there is no need for the centralized manufacturing of millions of cars, but rather the model becomes one of localized distributed production, but linked to global open design communities.

Open hardware is related to the general trend of 3D printing, personal fabricators, and multimachines that generally lower the treshold of participation. Localized production holds the promise of many savings in transportation costs, while losing none of the benefits of scale, as they can count on open and global innovation and research communities. If you like, scale becomes scope. It’s the global scope of cooperation which allows for scaling of a relocalized manufacturing system as a global-local system.

The fourth argument is not related directly to shared designs, but on the use of networked technology in the development of shared infrastructures. We’re thinking here of how such infrastructures, and the radical diminishing of transaction and coordination costs that they entail, has led to the emergence of a very strong sharing economy. Used fractional ownership of cars for example, as in Zipcar carsharing, or real p2p sharing which allows for the optimal more collective use of privately owned cars, has a dramatic effect on the amount of physical production needed to insure a given amount of transportation. These shared infrastructures only become possible because of the availability of networked technologies, the same tech that is also at the basis of the emergence of open and shared design. Once we abandon the central requirement of the necessity of private property of the means of production, and change the focus on ownership for one on access and use, combined with more distributed forms of ownership of the common stock, we can envision the transformation of property-based economics to an economics of provisioning, as envisaged by Marvin Brown in “Civilising the Economy” or as a series of functions, or an “economy of functionalities” based on integrated product-service systems. This transformation, within the bounds of the present political economy, has been described by Rachel Cobcroft in “What’s Mine is Yours”, or Lisa Gansky’s “The Mesh”


There is however one serious challenge for moving from design to effective production.

The main issues center around the funding mechanism. Free knowledge and free software practices require only a minimal amount of specific project-related capital, since they rest on cooperation of bodyminds, with access to the generally available network infrastructrure, and the materialisation of the code still functions within the polarity of digital code. To put it in a rather simplistic fashion, it is sufficient to hit the execute button. None of this is true for open hardware, which is a much more materially embedded and embodied practice and which requires access to sometimes costly raw material if not machinery. There is a much greater gulf between the shared design and the actual ‘making’ or production of that design. Without an alliance with makers or producers, it is unlikely that the necessary capital for production can be found. There are some ways that this problem can be alleviated, by focusing on low-entry manufacturing for example, such as say the Arduino ‘motherboard’, which has successfully allied itself with an ecology of small businesses, but one can easily see that say “open source cars” may have much more of a burden to find the appropriate funding.

This difficulty is reinforced by the present structure of the political economy, in which the margins on actual physical production are razor-thin, and have migrated massively to low-labor-cost countries, and in which the real money is made through the control of intellectual-property based rents. Open hardware makers need therefore to accept to work with lower margins, but can nevertheless survive and thrive economically based on selling the finished product or associated product-service systems, as has already been proven in the world of free software. However it is possible that because of these constraints, though shared design has emerged within the advanced hacker communities of the West, the actual take up may instead happen in countries who are already forced to accept low-margin manufacturing. In the West itself, it may be necessary to invent new forms of property, funding, and enterpreneurship, such as mission-oriented entities that are specifically created to sustain a particular open design commons.

Ass Dmytri Kleiner has argued elswhere, it is necessary to move from a conception of peer production rooted in the digital world, to one that also embraces common stock, i.e. a commons of the means of production, not on a nation-wide nor based on state-ownership and centralized planning, but commons-specific ecologies that combine common code-design with common stock entities linked to the commoners active in that particular commons.

P2P equals Community-Supported Agriculture plus Arduino

Symbolically, we may consider Arduino, a computer motherboard based on shared design, as the quintessential technology of a p2p economy, since computer networks are at the heart of the new affordances that have enabled commons-based peer production and shared design practices. But because this potential can only be realized through new forms of property and social organization, the model of CSAs, i.e. community-supported agriculture, in which users/consumers co-invest in a farmer’s production, ensuring both their supply and farmer’s income on a sustainable basis, may be chosen as the representative symbol of social and economic organization. In other words, the true potential for open hardware and peer production, especially in the context of sustainability, will be realized if the necessary institutional adaptations co-evolve with it.