Can you live in the modern world, and still make everything you need to survive yourself?
For Marcin Jakubowski, founder of the the nonprofit Open Source Ecology (OSE), it’s not really a choice; it’s the only way. Jakubowski’s answer is the Global Village Construction Set (GVCS), a crowd-sourced manufacturing system for the world to build, more or less at home, all the tools for a modern society.
After completing his PhD in fusion physics, Jakubowski grappled with a lack of "any practical skills to solve society’s most pressing problems." Starting from scratch on a farm, he soon found himself broke, relying on others to fix and maintain his tractor and other equipment. So he started repairing—and then manufacturing—the equipment himself, posting the plans on the Web as open-source blueprints.
"People think the economy is extremely powerful and efficient, but I say it’s quite the opposite," says Jakubowski. "By open sourcing the economy, we can increase innovation tremendously."
Jakubowski has now distilled his system into about 50 machines—from a baker’s oven and a backhoe to circuit makers and robotic arms—that he says can produce all the comforts and benefits of modern life. All of them, he says, are open-source, modular machines people can build and maintain themselves with local materials and scrap metal. Eight of the machines have been built, and several appear in the the GVCS "Civilization Starter Kit," assembled by the growing community of engineers, makers, and enthusiasts through the OSE Wiki.
Yet machinery is only the prelude to his true ambition: the blueprints for open-source capitalism. At a time when even our basic needs are manufactured with trade secrets in factories oceans away, Jakubowski thinks we can give away the plans of how to make things, collaborate on improving them, and shrink the scale of modern civilization back to something far more appropriate (for most things anyways). OSE is an early attempt.
"We are reducing the cost of business, reducing the barriers to entry, the cost of production, and opening up information flows," say Jakubowski. "I would argue a small facility today can do what whole factories could do yesterday."
The secret sauce is information. The Internet makes building open-source hardware similar to coding open-source software. Once know-how about how to build essential tools are free, the systems become accessible to everyone. As their manufacture becomes cheaper, it becomes more effective to build customized goods in your own community. "Distributed enterprise" can empower communities to rebuild themselves (literally) and create a sense of ownership over their own economies and politics.
Ultimately, Jakubowski believes this model can achieve a modern standard of living where each person must only contribute about two hours of labor per day using local resources. The rest of the time can be devoted to higher pursuits (rather than material acquisition)— a promise that modern civilization has yet to deliver.
A pipe dream? Jakubowski estimates the price of local manufacturing with open-source intellectual property will drop by a factor of 10. His proof of concept is OSE’s success building a durable earth compacting machine (creating pressed earth bricks) for about $5,000 in materials, and sold for $9,000. That compares to the (more complex and manufacturer-guaranteed) commercial machines priced around $45,000, although some models from China were priced as low as $8,500 before delivery.
That sound you hear is probably traditional economists’ howling objections to almost every part of OSE’s proposal. For one thing, markets can be remarkably efficient at distributing cheap goods (even if the sale price doesn’t include repairs or social and environmental costs). Economies of scale may also prove unbeatable for some applications. With highly technical items made in billion-dollar fabs, (microchips and computers) or even cheap mass-produced goods, distribution may just make more sense. Finally, convincing anyone in the developed (or developing) world to build distributed manufacturing systems when it’s quicker to just buy a used item, or pony up for a new one, will take some radical persuasion.
But Jakubowski isn’t selling a product; he’s selling a transformation in the way we live. And he’s thinking long term: open-source manufacturing, he predicts, will only account for 2% of all global production by 2018, but even 2% may profoundly alter the way we relate to each other.
"In a more localized economy, you get into more sound governance and more sound relations between people when [they] are not driven by material scarcity as a fundamental force, but pursuit of a higher purpose," he says.