[This Article is available in italian here on CheFuturo].
A few days ago, at the beginning of July, I was able to spend a beautiful and inspiring week in Barcelona.
I love Barcelona, and this is nothing new, but sometimes it even manages to surprise me: during the first week of July, in fact, the Catalan capital become the global center of culture of the new industrial revolution. The week of June 30 began with the first day of the beautiful, intimate and now classic, Open Design Shared Creativity conference now in its third edition.
Organized by Foment de les Arts i el Disseny (FAD), the conference is part of a great festival (the FADfest precisely) and is accompanied by a great show and many other events: the festival deals with all kind of design approaches and goes far beyond the industrial design that has always seen Barcelona as a protagonist on the international scene. I would say something like that is happening today in Milan, a city that in many ways is similar to Barcelona and supports its potential.
With much surprise, this year I had the honor of opening the second day with a keynote speech on the beyond openness topic. My week was then closed with the participation in Fab10, the tenth international conference that brought together the digital fabrication and Fablabs community. I had the great pleasure to close the festival with a short but interesting panel on Open Source Hardware with friends such as Giovanni Re (Roland DG), Massimo Banzi (Arduino) and Alastair Parvin (Wikihouse).
At Fab10 on stage – Photo by Giovanni Re
In these ten years, the Fablab idea – the lab where create almost everything, originally conceived by Neil Gershenfeld at MIT – and has evolved and grown dramatically.
Today there are more than 350 Fablab in the world and Italy is among the countries to do the lion’s share with 34 accredited laboratories on Fablab.io. The Bel Paese is now third in the world after the United States and France.
Fab10 conference was dedicated to the theme of the Fab Cities. The Fab City vision, according to Tomas Diez – one of the leaders of this movement and organizer of the Fab10 that I recently interviewed – “will turn Barcelona in a productive city in few years, bringing back productivity inside the city, to the citizens”, moreover FabCity will “promote local innovation connected to a global network, to re-industrialize the city” and will affect every single aspect of the life of people as part of global transition.
Diez will be just one of the many beautiful speaker that we were able to bring in Rome next October for Open Hardware Summit 2014. The event will be held September 30 and October 1 for the first time in Europe, as part of Rome’s Innovation Week: a sign of cultural awakening in my home city as 2014 European Maker Faire will be complemented by a number of other interesting initiatives.
Cities protagonists of today future/present policymaking: it is no coincidence, I think, that Barcelona has a place of honor. In Barcelona, in fact, the various actors in design, architecture and urban planning – a cornerstone of Catalan cultural heritage – learned to team up and make the most of the municipality support.
Thanks to the contribution of inspired thinkers like Vicente Guallart or the enlightened mayor Xavier Trias today Barcelona is on track to become the first real FabCity in the world by opening public Fablabs, accessible in every district of the city and beyond, experiencing up to resilience and self-production with the Green Fablab, at the edges of town.
As part of this post-industrial transformation, cities with long, strong traditions in design are those electively capable of leading this revolution. The future speaks about manufacturing processes that simplifies and decentralizes: the ability to design and build real solutions locally matters again, for growth, stability and prosperity.
And we’re not talking about more than a few 3D printed models of the Eiffel Tower: right at Fab10 a giants like HP supported the launch of a very ambitious project, that of Fabee. The Fabee is a Fab Car, a car that you can manufacture in a Fablab whose first experimentation was based on the – Italian – platform Tabby from OSVehicle. The project is expected to grow and continue after Fab10.
The movement for free knowledge
Although the potential of digital fabrication technologies, such as with 3D printing, CNC machines working all types of materials, increases and democratizes, even today we can not say that bits are like atoms: this is not also only a problem related to the maturity state of technologies. Industrial production – or better, post-industrial – has too many aspects that still differentiate it from the abundant, digital economy. Production impacts on resources and produces externalities of all kinds, environmental and social ones, as evidenced with no doubts by a strongly unstable worldwide situation.
A decidedly not secondary, but often overlooked, topic is also how to pursue a largely free access to the knowledge related to production of tangible artifacts that in turn may be involved with primary goods and rights such as food, shelter or mobility.
Although we often hear about opensource, the term has become a protagonist in such a number of fields today that there is a huge chance of getting confused about the subject. Only yesterday I noticed this self-proclaimed opensource shoe on Goteo but the world we already have open source planes, cars, robots and much more.
Certainly, if we look at software history, we can say that in this field, open source is a mature approach. A few days ago in a beautiful piece, Matt Asay (ThePros And Cons Of Open Sourcing Your Code)cleverly drew out how practical and proven are open source approaches today and, by citing the co-founder of Cloudera’s Mike Olson, remarked that:
“There’s been a stunning and irreversible trend in enterprise infrastructure. If you’re operating a data center, you’re almost certainly using an open source operating system, database, middleware and other plumbing. No dominant platform-level software infrastructure has emerged in the last ten years in closed-source, proprietary form.”
But if in the open source won in software, it did so by transforming the market.
In the last 15 years, the software market turned into an a mostly abundant economy. Any developer or company has access to a huge pool of cooperatively developed components that one can use to create any solutions.It is a common good, a shared platform for innovation.
It’s also because of this that the web today is like we know it: a context still able to generate liberal innovations, anarchists visions and ingenious inventions.
The Open Source Hardware (and the Open Source Economy)
But what is open source hardware then? This is simple but complex question for which we only have partial answers.
Early attempts to define it date back to 1997, starting from the same experiences of people who, at the time, were involved in the birth and growth of Open Source Initiative (which dealt with software). But it is in the mid-2000s that the interest on the open hardware approach is reborn – with momentous impact projects such as Rep Rap.
In 2010, we arrive at the first stable version of the “Open Source Hardware (OSHW) Definition” (who is interested to few more details on the story can be read details here). Today, after a few years, this tradition has largely converged in Open Source Hardware Association and the Open Hardware Summit – the annual conference where the community meets – will be in Rome this year as mentioned.
As with software, open hardware has been able to generate interesting and new innovation dynamics over the years, in more and more popular fields also since linked to the now ubiquitous makers. In fact, the majority of desktop 3D printers today are open source as open are most of the boards for prosumer Internet of Things with Arduino leading the way and interesting newcomers – such as Spark.io – coming up. Today, however, the application of open in hardware is going beyond way beyond these boundaries.
Despite being one of the youngest shoots in open hardware ecosystem there’s a clear example that can help you understand the potential that open hardware has in more industrialized markets than the makers/DIY scene. This example is Facebook’s Open Compute.
Open Compute,was launched by Facebook in 2011, and today enables several major companies around the world to collaborate, share and use reference designs, to produce servers, network equipment and data standardized centers, on which a small army of “Solution Provider” is offering independent solutions.
The project has contributed to the costs reduction for production and maintenance of large data centers around the world. This interesting interview of Mark Roenigk, CEO of RackSpace, explains how these “vanity free, stripped-down” systems beyond having smaller procurement costs are generaly prone to generate fewer breakdowns.
“Fewer components in a server, from an engineering perspective, would equate to fewer failures”
Beyond IT Hardware, as anticipated before, the fields of application of Open Source Hardware abund: we have open source cars like those of OSVehicle or Local Motors, we Robot Open Source Robots like InMoov, we have open source homes as those that one can build using Wikihouse framework and we have a whole GlobalVillage Construction Set (a set of 50 industrial opensource machines) that Open Source Ecology is designing, testing and building one after another in Factor E Farm, where now manufacturing workshops are coming up with a faster and faster pace.
The debate today
No doubts, the most accepted definition today is that of OSHWA but there is no unanimity, however, and many choose and use the “open source” term referring to other definitions, or just rather different understandings.
However, OSHWA definition is rather strict: in recent weeks we had the opportunity to debate on the subject in several contexts and, quite often, rather than discuss the actual project quality, its innovative aspects, you end up discussing the licensing and its “compatibility” with one or another definition or interpretation.
But do not get me wrong: I am the first to believe that using the right and recognizable terms it’s important not to confuse ideas. People like me who follow the world of open and collaborative models for some time now, know that one of the longest disputes – still going – is that about comparing opensource software as defined by the Open Source Initiative with Stallman’s FreeSoftware, too often confused with each other despite very different. As once Richard Stallman said: “Open source is a development methodology. Free software is a social movement”
“Open source is a development methodology. Free Software is a social movement”
But coming back to hardware, I’ll try to explain briefly what are now the major issues under discussion today, starting from an important premise.
In the first instance we must acknowledge an important fact: we use licensing schemes (many of you will be familiar with Creative Commons) that only cover one aspect of intellectual property, namely, copyright. These licenses help the holder of rights (copyright) to distribute access to information through a license that, in fact, is always called a “copyleft” license (encouraging circulation of knowledge).
The problem is right here: copyright applies only to “information” and is therefore perfect to prevent copying and distribute a text (a book) however, the same is completely inadequate to protect a piece of furniture or an electronic card. Technical solutions are in fact protected by patents, in most of the laws and cultures, and are just partially patentable: you can not patent the wheel, of course.
In short: if I were to apply a “copyleft” license to an artifact, the one to which the license would apply would not be the product itself, but only the design (pretty obviously). In this way anyone could do what she wants with the product: replicate it, edit it and sell it, with no major problems. She should instead comply with the terms of the license (such as the attribution and commercialization) just for what concern the projects.
Today we are aware of the limitations – certainly not all of us – but the practice is to consider that choosing a license, although theoretically applicable only to designs, points out to the community what is the original author will on her creation.
Commercial vs Non-Commercial
Nowadays the discussion is primarily focused on whether an open source license should prohibit commercial purposes on derived works: projects that adopt this type of license (commonly said non-commercial) are not considered “open source” because they discriminate in scope mirroring the approach followed by OSI to define the open source “software”.
For some time, however, someone is trying new ways that are not unconditional open as per the common definitions.
Certainly important is the approach that is usually identified with the term “copyfarleft”. In this approach – identified for the first time by Dmitri Kleiner and today strongly supported by Michel Bauwens and its Peer Production License – the licensing model does provide for completely open access (as in “open source”) but restricts free access to a specific set of entities (sucha s cooperatives or non-profits) leaving it closed – or commercially licensed – to corporations.
Kleiner’s model – subsequently evolved into the concept of Venture Communism – goes to visualize the participation of the author/creator himself in a cooperative system that is the mediator between the community when it comes to investing capital, production and marketing.
Others are trying different ways. The Canadian Sensorica project is trying to achieve what they call an open value network meaning network of companies and entities using shared tools and processes trying to keep track of each contribution to the creation of an open artifact to be later able to equally distribute remunerations. In a sense Sensorica has the conviction that we should not restrict access to an abundant and non-exclusive resource as knowledge (the fact that I use it does not prevent you to use it) and that this “open economy” may actually become more competitive and efficient than closed, eventually winning in the marketplace.
OpenDesk, another ambitious project born from the charming OO studio in London (also home of previously mentioned Wikihouse and FabHub – a network of fabrication labs spreading around the world), aims to assist designers and creatives to produce and distribute their furniture projects (semi-open source, but let’s get back to this) to market their creations. The designer creates a project, the community helps him improve it and, once mature, users can pick it and request a local, sustainable, production. A similar approach to that of the Italian Slowd a in Modena that has made up her mind to network the beauty of Italian craftsmanship network putting design on top of it.
Although the vast majority of Open Desk designs is available under a Non-Commercial License (therefore not open source according to the definition) is interesting to note that the initiative makes available to designers a shared brand and a controlled channel for distribution. In this way is substantially protects the ability of these designers to generate income from royalties without asking them to structure a distribution and fabrications business.
OpenDesk itself recently closed an equity crowdfunding phase that placed 10% of its holdings (up to 150,000 Pounds)- in just 12 hours – bearing also witness to the intention of the founders to create a company whose ownership is not centralized but instead goes in the direction of the cooperation.
Open as a Market Strategy
In the meantime, if there is someone who demonstrated the ability to use openness (more or less in line with approaches dictated by definitions) to win in the market, those are corporations.
I certainly would like to mention Google, which buying Android – the open source operating system which now equips 90% of new smartphones – showed how through openness it is possible conquer markets and disorient historic players. The most infamous victim of Android and Google in mobile was just Nokia, a giant with more than a hundred years of history, that today is heading towards mobile oblivion.
The technique used by Google with Android is very clear, and is ralated to what’s called the “economy of complementary goods”. By lowering the cost of what is an enabling factor for your product or service you increase the distribution potential and demand for it (think of what cheaper fuel would do for cars).
It’s pretty easy and straightforward if you think about it: a standard and open source operating system has allowed an unprecedented penetration of smartphones in the world (so much so that Western countries are now saturated) because it has allowed many different phones brands to be created to fill every niche.
In turn, this enabled Google to attract more eyes on its advertising, real Big G’s core business.
Project Ara goes today in the same direction: to establish a “open monopoly” in the consumer electronics industry by dictating standard interfaces, monopolizing distribution channels: eventually by controlling the ecosystem.
An image from Project Ara Module Development Kit
Other companies are moving today to plans to use open as a strategic weapon to win the market. Crystalline attempts are that of Autodesk with the Spark: a project that wants to bring a semi-professional, cost effective, 3D printer to the market and release open source construction plans, together with open management software to be complemented with centralized open APIs.
The objective is to establish itself as a reference ecosystem as the independent Rep Rap community did for low cost, desktop printers: this time with an interest in distributing products and services to the community.
In a similar way we read today that Samsung wants to create with Simband a “reference implementation” through an “open design” in the world of electronics for wearable health, or with Tesla, promising free access to all of its patents (never talking about licenses) in the to accelerate the transition to electric mobility. A further reading perhaps, will help us understand that its batteries and charging infrastructure will be then compatible with other models, making a Tesla the potential (eco)system enabling a larget transition.
But we can rely on the intentions of Elon Musk to accelerate this needed change? Hope, but I do not think it’s going to be enough.
The background of severe economic and environmental insecurity and instability that characterizes today’s global society require major changes that must also occur quickly.
The promise of open source will not work in the economy of tangible products, organizations and processes if we don’t activate in first person in the creation of something radically new. If we do not experiment beyond licenses, beyond openness.
The revolution of distributed, sustainable and abundant production requires more inventive in social forms, brand management, financial models, involvement of local communities.
It’s important to open our eyes and raise the bar trying to create different supply chains based on fairer profit chains and enabling platforms able to enhance local production, made with locally sourced materials traveling as little as possible, and to create local jobs and opportunities during the entire product life cycle.
The opportunity is to build a strong local economy, nased on value, an economy that is light in resource demand and high in meaning. The only news is that we no longer have time nor alibis.
What to do? Well, someone is already trying.
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