Bull Session

Open Source Design

February 23, 2017          

Episode Summary

On The Digital Life this week, we chat about how open source design is being brought to bear on some of the most important problems of the 21st century, including creating new tools for urban agriculture, home building, and medicine. For instance, furniture retailer Ikea recently released open source designs for a garden sphere, an urban agriculture project that can feed a neighborhood. Open source design, the Maker movement and desktop / DIY manufacturing are converging in interesting ways. Join us as we discuss.
Resources:
Ikea Lab Releases Free Designs for a Garden Sphere That Feeds a Neighborhood
Open Source Ecology
A Open Source Toolkit for Building Your Own Home
3D Design Contest for Medical Tools in Africa

Jon:
Welcome to episode 195 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.

Dirk:
Greetings listeners.

Jon:
On this episode of the show, we’re going to discuss open source design which is being put to work on some pretty important tasks. I think this is a really under reported, under discussed story just about how being able to share designs across borders, across the world really, and up level the ability to generate all kinds of products, whether they’re digital or physical products. It’s just really a point of leverage that has come out of the knowledge economy and that is going to be really powerful piece of technology going forward. Let’s dig into some of these instances of open source design for good works.

I saw that just recently IKEA has an arm that explores open source design and is really looking to spread open source design across various industries, so they’re working on something they call “the garden sphere” which is an urban agriculture project and we’ve talked about urban agriculture a number of times on the podcast. This particular project enables people to download the designs for what amounts to this giant sphere made out of wood that you can more or less grow all kinds of vegetables within this sphere and supposedly, at least according to the PR for this project, you can feed your whole neighborhood with fresh produce from this sphere that the folks at one of IKEA labs has created this.

You can download the designs for free and it’s a CNC process for cutting the plywood pieces that you assemble and that provides you with this object that you then use for your urban farming. That’s one example that got me excited this week. Of course, there are many examples of this kind of design being offered for free in an open source context. There’s open source home building. Dirk, I don’t know if you’ve heard of this project before called “Open Source Ecology.” You can find them at OpenSourceEcology.org, and they’re all about creating a modular system for inexpensive home building that people can do themselves if they follow these plans that come with the kit and they even give you plans for creating the tools for construction of the home, so not just the modularity of the house but also open source tool sets like I think there’s an open source backhoe designs so you can go and create your own construction equipment.

Another great example there, and my final example of some cool open source design for good works, there’s a 3D design contest for medical tools in Africa and we’ll include the link in the transcript for the podcast but the basic idea is that you’re going to be 3D printing some basic medical tools for communities in Africa that may not have easy access to these particular tools and this is sort of an open call to do that. I’m finding this use of technology so … You have these fantastic resources but then you’re applying them locally, you’re giving local people the designs so they can do things on their own, build things on their own. I’m finding this to be a pretty amazing story and I think something that’s going to be built on and is really going to improve people’s lives.

Dirk, when you’ve heard about these stories, what’s your take on it? How do you see open source design playing a role in all of these things?

Dirk:
Well, you covered a lot of ground.

Jon:
I did, I did. I kept going. I couldn’t stop.

Dirk:
Yeah, I’m not sure where to snipe into it. You know, the open source build your own house, it sounds great in theory. I don’t really understand it in practice. Obviously to build a home, you’re going to have to have a large number of pieces printed, you’re going to have to have large pieces printed and so there’s a supply chain question about how you get from blueprint. Like, I can understand blueprint and I can understand DIY. I can’t understand where all of these many, many, many, many big, big, big pieces of material come from. Some of this feels very Pollyannaish to me. Like, at the fringes, sure, I’m sure it’s useful but in reality, not so much. It’s more of a futurist concept and then you’re able to do proof of concept at limited scale.

I mean, I’m not sure. The 3D printing of medical tools, I mean, that starts to get really interesting, particularly when you’re talking about smaller things because then you can … There’s a straight path. I mean, I know that there’s devices that can be bought for hundreds of dollars that can be filled for also small amounts of money that can print things that are at a scale, comparable with small, handheld medical devices. Now, are those particular models of machine, do they provide the tolerance and precision necessary to create a medical device that won’t do more harm than good? I’m not sure. That’s a whole other question, one of resolution and precision, but it all sounds nice.

The open source movement is fascinating because it’s one that it’s strictly better, open source is strictly better than hoarding information from the standpoint of accelerating innovation, from the standpoint of making people’s lives easier, allowing collaboration and riffing off each other’s work and that’s great. What’s less clear is the impact it has in our capitalist financial model. If you talk about artificial intelligence and robots for example, those are going to be taking away jobs, those are going to be disrupting in the capitalist system, however, they’re also going to be rewarding the people who deploy them. The rich owners deploy the robots, the robots take the jobs of the poor frontline workers, and at least makes sense in the crazy, broken system that we have of greed.

Open source is less clear because you really are, when you go into open source, you’re giving up competitive advantage, you are accelerating the group, the mass, but you are not necessarily benefiting your own financial interests, and yet, similar to robots and AI, you are inevitably taking jobs from people. I mean, there’s tasks that people would have to spend time on otherwise, but they no longer will have to spend time on because of the proliferation of open source resources. For me, open source is like this utopian thing that if we culturally didn’t believe in this capitalist beast, it’s like, “Duh, of course it makes sense,” but in the context of capitalism it’s a little head scratching. I’m happy for it as an anti-capitalist, but I’m skeptical of it in terms of its role in the system that we live in.

Jon:
Yeah. A lot of interesting things there that you just said. I think to talk about open source as an accelerant, at least from my perspective, as something that provides the underpinnings for work that provides leverage for the kind of more advanced work that you might not be able to do otherwise. For example, if you are creating a, I don’t know, say you’re creating a new IoT device and you need a casing for it and you need a certain circuit board patterns or what have you, and you can get those open source from the community, that gives you a lot more leverage as a individual or as a startup that has this idea that bringing it to reality.

You wouldn’t be able to do that work otherwise because you just don’t have the resources, so it gives you knowledge resources in abundance and sort of accelerates that process. Now, I take your point, there’s probably a chipboard designer and a industrial designer who could get work from you but if you don’t have those resources to begin with, I’m not sure if that’s too much to their detriment.

Dirk:
Well no, I mean, I know from working on Facio, the human personality startup that we did a number of years ago now, I know that there’s a straight line between available open source code and jobs where the head of engineering, there were two parts to this. Number one is he would frequently say, “Oh, yeah. I was able to shortcut that because I just grabbed this open source framework and I’m building on top of that,” and when we’re talking about scaling and staffing, literally the words of, “Now it’s so easy to do those things with open source. I don’t think we need that type of engineer.” On the software side, as well, I mean I think there’s a straight line to the availability of open source and potential jobs there.

Jon:
Yeah. I mean, at the same time, the group of you who did Facio were able to bring it that much farther along because you had those monetary resources to keep going that might have been …

Dirk:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. We benefit, but who pays, right? That’s the interesting difficult question.

Jon:
I think the pie just gets bigger, so I think maybe your engineering team could have been solving problems that, more basic problems, or hiring somebody to do those more basic problems, but instead you got accelerated by that code, the code pushed you along farther into the development process. With an equal number of resources, you wouldn’t have been able to solve the same amount of problems that you did with that startup.

Dirk:
For sure.

Jon:
Something else I wanted to touch on just based on your response to some of that open source building from OpenSourceEcology.org, I think some of their material sourcing, you were asking like, “Hey, where do you get all this stuff to build with and is it just really a utopian proof of concept?,” right? One of the things I found interesting, they actually had a brick press, so you can actually be going in and building your own bricks from whatever locally sourced materials or creating concrete forms from locally sourced materials. I take your point that not everybody is going to be a DIY kind of focused builder. I don’t see myself going and creating an open source house from scratch, but I would see the possibility of working with a builder and providing them with these blueprints, and saying, “Hey, if you can get some of these materials to go build me a barn or a garage,” or whatever, I could see doing some of that.

I think the intersection between this DIY maker movement and open source is really powerful because I think as much as we talk about having global supply chains, there’s also going to be a growing need for doing things locally and I think this just gives us so much technological power to get things done locally in a way that’s very sophisticated, might be more eco friendly, and could be the way that manufacturing and construction moves forward into the 21st century. I think that we’re so used to thinking about, we’re talking about bringing jobs back to America now, that’s on everybody’s mind. What if those jobs aren’t in big factories? What if they’re more like maker movement type jobs like constructing things locally?

I think if we reframe the way we think about some of these jobs, I bet you there’s a lot of work to be done that’s a little bit more specific, a little bit more specialized, and a little bit more local, that doesn’t necessarily need a big corporation to go and do it. I see all these pieces coming together, I don’t know how they all fit, but I’d say maker movement, local building, open source, more community based thinking, I think these are all really great points of leverage and are going to provide jobs in the future.

Dirk:
Yeah, I certainly think there are trends that way, and I mean as we look ahead to some form of global warming dystopia, shifting to more local and less global is going to be a byproduct of that. Certainly these things are inline with that notion of using technology to create frameworks and structure and then having local implementations.

Jon:
Yeah, that’s exactly it. We had a show at the beginning of the year where we were talking about trends for 2017 and one of those that we discussed was the desktop manufacturing movement, right? I think you’ll remember we talked about a form molding machine … Or sorry. A vacuum molding machine that you could basically have that technology on your desktop so you could vacuum form something and create something from a 3D object and more or less use a substrate and create this widget or whatever and do a one off where in the past you’d have to have a whole machine shop to go and do this. You can now do this at your desktop, and that’s just one sort of powerful desktop technology that’s coming.

I recall in our discussion, I was really over the top excited about this because now you’ve got these manufacturing tools that have been made into a laptop, right? It’s the laptopization of manufacturing tools. As I see these things come together, I get excited about it and I think the future of work and open source is going to be a little bit more interesting and a little bit more adventurous than we think.

Dirk:
Yeah. I think so. You know, there’s a lot of socioeconomic questions nestled in here as well. I mean, the sort of construction that we’re talking about, particularly on someone’s home, if the model is a redeployment of people who used to work in factories and corporations into the creation of homes at a local level basically, there’s an intimacy to that. If I’m bringing the DIY plans and I’m working with the builder and … Excuse me. There’s all of these lower income folks who have more of a history and then experience in a skill of doing this kind of work, that’s not necessarily a natural fit. I mean, how well would you and I fit into construction sites? If we go and hang out with the , people who are there, we’d probably stick out a little bit as the goofy guys, you know?

Jon:
Of course.

Dirk:
As we bring together the people who have been sitting in the offices and the people who have been toiling in the factories, to take the most extreme manifestation of these two things, and bringing us together in a shared workspace, in terms of how our culture is situated now and in terms of how these different types of people relate to each other as really you can see in recent politics and reaction to the presidential campaign. I mean, that’s a whole other layer that we’re not even talking about, but I think it’s an extraordinary one that would have impacts that we can’t even predict at the moment.

Jon:
Yeah. You know, from that perspective I think there’s a whole show there, right? But I do think when you’re working face to face with people, it’s a lot easier to be civil to one another when you have to show up at the same work site together. I think some of that might actually be good for everybody. Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to TheDigitaLife.com, that’s just one L in TheDigitaLife, and go to the page for this episode.

We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening. Or, afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, Player FM, and Google Play. And, if you want to follow us outside of the show you can follow me on Twitter, @JonFollett. That’s J-o-n-F-o-l-l-e-t-t. And, of course the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios which you can check out at GoInvo.com. That’s G-o-I-n-v-o.com. Dirk?

Dirk:
You can follow me on Twitter, @DKnemeyer. That’s @D-K-n-e-m-e-y-e-r, and thanks so much for listening.

Jon:
That’s it for episode 195 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.

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