John Thackara portrays openness in general as a matter of survival to overcome the legacy of an industrial economy obsessed with control, and open design in particular as a new way to make, use and look after things. He calls upon open designers to take this responsibility seriously.

John Thackara

In 1909, Peter Kropotkin was asked whether it was possible to learn a trade as difficult as gardening from books. “Yes, it is possible,” he replied, “but a necessary condition of success, in work on the land, is communicativeness – continual friendly intercourse with your neighbours.”

Although a book can offer good general advice, Kropotkin explained, every acre of land is unique. Each plot is shaped by the soil, its topography and biodiversity, the wind and water systems of the locality, and so on. “Growing in these unique circumstances can only be learned by local residents over many seasons,” the aristocratic anarchist concluded. “The knowledge which has developed in a given locality, that is necessary for survival, is the result of collective experience.” 1

The biosphere, our only home, is itself a kind of garden – and we have not looked after it well. On the contrary, we have damaged many of the food and water systems that keep us alive, and wasted vast amounts of non-renewable resources.  TREND: SCARCITY OF RESOURCES One of the main reasons we’ve damaged our own life-support system is that we under-value the kinds of socially created knowledge Kropotkin wrote about. Ongoing attempts to privatize nature, and the over-specialization of knowledge in our universities, continue to render us blind to the consequences of our own actions.

Openness, in short, is more than a commercial and cultural issue. It’s a matter of survival. Systemic challenges such as climate change, or resource depletion – these ‘problems of moral bankruptcy’ – cannot be solved using the same techniques that caused them in the first place. Open research, open governance and open design are preconditions for the continuous, collaborative, social mode of enquiry and action that are needed.

For centuries, the pursuit of knowledge  KNOWLEDGE was undertaken in open and collaborative processes. Science, for example, developed as a result of peer review in an open and connected global community. Software, too, has flourished as a result of social creativity in what Yochai Benckler has named ‘commons-based peer production’. 2 These approaches stand in stark contrast to the legacy left by the industrial economy – from cars to power stations – which depends on a command-and-control business model and militant copyright protection. The internet may have made it easier, technically, to share ideas and knowledge – but an immense global army of rights owners and attendant lawyers works tirelessly to protect this closed system of production.

Openness, in short, is more than a commercial and cultural issue. It’s a matter of survival.

The open design experiments you will read about in this book – such as the 60 Fab Labs in operation as we go to press – are nodes within an alternative industrial system that is now emerging. These are the “small, open, local and connected” experiments that environmental designer Ezio Manzini views as defining features of a sustainable economy. 3

Open design is more than just a new way to create products. As a process, and as a culture, open design also changes relationships among the people who make, use and look after things. Unlike proprietary or branded products, open solutions tend to be easy to maintain and  TREND: GLOBALIZATION repair locally. They are the opposite of the short-lived, use-and-discard, two-wash-two-wear model of mainstream consumer products. As you will read in the pages that follow, “nobody with a MakerBot will ever have to buy shower curtain rings again”. 4

Another open source manifesto states, “Don’t judge an object for what it is, but imagine what it could become.” This clarion call is welcome – but it does not promise an easy ride for open design. Our world is littered with the unintended outcomes of design actions, and open design is unlikely to be an exception. For example, 90% of the resources taken out of the ground today become waste within three months – and it’s not axiomatic that open design will improve that situation.  RECYCLING On the contrary, it’s logically possible that a network of Fab Labs could produce the open source equivalent of a gas-guzzling SUV. The long-term value of open design will depend on the questions it is asked to address.

An important priority for open source design, therefore, is to develop decision-making processes to identify and prioritize those questions. What, in other words, should open designers design? All our design decisions, from here on, need to take into account our natural, industrial and cultural systems – and the interactions between them – as the context for our creative efforts. We need to consider the sustainability of material and energy flows in all the systems and artefacts we design. In reading the articles and case studies that follow in this book, I am confident that these caveats will be embraced by the smart and fascinating pioneers of open design who are doing such fascinating work. Crowds may be wise – but they still need designers.

  1. Kropotkin, P, ‘Foreword’, in Smith, T, French Gardening, London: Joseph Fels, 1909, p. vii-viii. Available online at , accessed on 17 January 2011.
  2. Benkler, Y, Coase’s Penguin, or, Linux and the Nature of the Firm. Yale Law Journal, Vol. , Vol. 112, 3, pages 369-446.
  3. As discussed in Manzini, E, ‘Design research for sustainable social innovation’. Available online at , accessed on 17 January 2011.
  4. See page 82 of this book.
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