Can open design contribute to the world’s bigger problems, such as depletion and squandering of natural resources, population growth, consumerism and widespread poverty? In turn, can pooling knowledge and resources, re-evaluating the concept of time, and facilitating user participation help open design make a strong contribution to sustainability? Tommi Laitio investigates and reflects.

Tommi Laitio

In a world of material scarcity and competent people, the right question to ask when designing is not who knows best. Rather, we should be asking what is just and fair.

The world’s problems are rooted in moral bankruptcy that underlies all the systems in which we live and operate. Over 90% of the resources taken out of the ground today become waste within three months. 1

To avoid the catastrophic effects of climate change, we need to cut our carbon emissions to a tenth of the present level. Approximately 75% of the world’s population live in countries where national consumption exceeds the planet’s bio-capacity.2 Worse yet, the world’s population is expected to grow by 50% in the next forty years. That will make nine billion of us.

Consuming less will not be easy. In the developed world, the demand for new products, different lifestyles and more active forms of participation grows as people gain new skills, have more expendable time and money, and find themselves looking for meaning in their lives. Meanwhile, basic standards of living are far from being met in many parts of the world. While the developed countries are dealing with hedonistic angst, approximately 50,000 people die daily from poverty-related causes – most of them women and children. One billion people go to sleep hungry every day.

The world as it is, in all its flawed complexity,  TREND is the ultimate design challenge of today. The issues that need to be tackled do not have a clearly identifiable owner or one simple solution. We’ve entered an era of co-existing versions of truth that may not be fully compatible, even to the point of being mutually exclusive. The ultimate problems of this time are results of the way we eat, interact with others, exercise and consume. This is why they are also far too serious to be left entirely to professional designers.

This complex combination of problems calls for open design. So far, professional designers have dealt with material shortages by minimizing their negative impact on production and distribution. Classic approaches to market segmentation no longer function when factors like age or ethnicity no longer define ambitions and desires. Neither professional-led design nor classic approaches will be broad enough to solve pandemic problems like climate change and other worldwide anthropogenic issues, stemming from an absence of moral responsibility. The facts are clear: we need a full paradigm shift; minor tweaks to traditional methods will no longer suffice.  REVOLUTION

The challenge that we all share is to create design that actually solves problems.  SOCIAL DESIGN The questions to be answered become far clearer with this strategic focus. If design is to be used successfully in striving for a fairer place to live, a number of things will be needed, including more participatory tools for understanding the architecture of the problem, quicker ways to test alternative solutions, smarter methods of negotiation and selection, and flexibility in production and distribution.

A Tale of Two Worlds

For the first time in human history, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities. According to the UN, in 2020 half of these city-dwellers will live in slums. Aspirations for urban lifestyles are inevitably going to clash. It is harder to build communities when everyone feels they belong to a minority.

Urban freedoms need to be pursued in ways that do not limit other people’s freedoms. Strong local communities  COMMUNITY are fundamental in assisting people in planning their lives, sharing resources and knowledge, developing a sense of home, solving the problems they face, feeling safe, having room to laugh and play as well as building lasting relationships with the people around them. Community structures necessitate government investments as well as new inventions in affordable communication, food production, public transport and housing.

It is in cities that the world of tomorrow is being made, as they build resilience against global turmoil. Issues like local food production are being acknowledged in government programmes. However, in order to share their ideas and resources, people need to feel comfortable and safe. This poses a tremendous challenge, especially in societies where people are most affected by global injustice. When people are struggling to meet their most basic day-to-day needs, the motivation to search for solutions together is small. The same applies to marginalized groups, even in developed societies. When people consider themselves victims of circumstance, opening up to others takes several preparatory steps. Equality, good public spaces and education are fundamental preconditions for open design. The same applies to open design for public services – and equal societies are both happier and more cost-efficient.3

Open design is part of a shift from ‘wow design’ to ‘we design’.

Even if there are many developments that run parallel in developed and developing countries, there are also vast differences. Developing countries urgently need affordable, yet sustainable solutions using easy-access resources. Initiatives like the non-profit International Development Enterprises 4 in Nepal allow the local farmers to tap into global information without having to spend their limited resources on personal equipment. The cooperatives share phones so that they can check market prices and avoid being taken advantage of in negotiations.  SOCIAL DESIGN Combining local trust networks and striving for sustainability calls for other, better solutions than poor copies of the systems in the developed world. It also tackles one of the pitfalls that growing economies need to navigate: the risk of spending a disproportionate percentage of increased national revenues on technology instead of health and education. Systems like free text messaging, reliable communication networks and easy-to-build recharging systems become crucial.

The same logic was used in the development of the Open Source Washing Machine 5 using solar power, loudspeakers or bicycle tires. The design work started from the available materials and actual needs of the local communities. This approach to design would make it possible for developing countries to become frontrunners in smart recycling.

Smarter Crowds

The greatest potential in open design lies in building from incentives. According to Michel Bauwens, open and peer-to-peer processes have a built-in drive to seek the most sustainable solution. 6 When the entire process is a negotiation of the common good, there will be an automatic push to search for a solution that can be applied to various situations. As people twist and turn the matter, analysing it from many different angles, the true nature of the problem becomes clearer. A crowd of people will always be able to subject a problem to more thorough scrutiny than an army of corporate anthropologists.

In a climate of adaptation and rapid prototyping, PRINTING we can test the functionality of various alternatives in a faster pace. This reduces the risk of betting everything on the wrong horse, as is often done in the traditional process. Open design is part of a shift from ‘wow design’ to ‘we design’. Making that shift, however, requires broader access to places of experimentation and learning like Fab Labs.

The new dividing line is the underlying motives of the people involved: whether things are done for benefit (altruistic motives) or for profit (selfish motives). Legislation and education play a key role in the ongoing change. As Michel Bauwens has pointed out, true for-benefit design leaves room for new people. 7 New people notice undiscovered errors and contribute new resources and new ideas. A good example of design for benefit is Whirlwind, 8 which has in the last 30 years provided thousands and thousands of wheel-chairs to developing countries. Product development collaboration  CO-CREATION between developing and developed countries has guaranteed that the chairs can handle the rough circumstances. The drawings are protected by a Creative Commons license. The biggest success is the RoughRider wheelchair, produced by local manufacturers and already used by 25,000 disabled people in developing countries.

By pooling knowledge and resources, individuals can actually turn the supply chain around. Inspiring examples can be found in the field of architecture. Take Loppukiri, 9 a home for the elderly in Helsinki, Finland. Disappointed by the options for assisted living currently on the market, a group of pensioners pooled their funds and selected an architect to work with them on building residential facilities that would meet their specific needs. The Loppukiri cooperative did not limit their design process to their physical surroundings; they also designed structured activities and living arrangements in consultation with numerous professionals. The people in this community split domestic chores, cook lunch for each other and eat together. All in all, they have efficiently solved one of the greatest challenges of aging: loneliness and social isolation. The co-designed architecture of the building supports this community-based ethos and the members are keen to share their lessons with others.

As the example demonstrates, crowds do not make the professional irrelevant. The same approach could be adapted to other groups with special needs. The role of the designer would increasingly shift toward the roles of a trainer, translator and integrator. In order to tap into available resources and the in-depth knowledge held by the group, the designer needs to adapt to their needs and desires. Pooling a number of designers to tackle a bigger community challenge might be a way to win the trust of a new client. In a world where the crowds control the resources, the need for value-driven design grows. This clearly represents a potential growth market for design agencies functioning as a cooperative or a social enterprise.

Time Is Money

Open design requires a re-evaluation of the concept of time. People are willing to contribute more time to shared initiatives when they have a sense of the common good. True happiness comes from feeling needed, valuable, wanted, confident and competent. Open design at its best allows people with skills, experience, knowledge and enthusiasm to contribute their time and energy to building something together – and the desire is there. The recent economic turmoil and an increasingly well-educated population also add potential momentum  OPEN EVERYTHING to the open design movement.

Super-diversity makes it all the more difficult to apply clear distinctions between experts and amateurs. The strategy towards inclusion and trust often acts outside the global monetary world. It means valuing people’s contributions based on the assumption that every individual can have equal value. This is where innovations such as time banks 10 , the Design Quotient proposed by design agency IDEO, and hyperlocal currencies 11 come in. When people earn credits by participating in a design process,  CROWDSOURCING we give a useful and important reminder that citizens have both the right and the responsibility to take part in shaping their world. Structured participation can accelerate the positive cycle; for instance, each person’ contributions could be tracked in the form of hourly credits, which could then be traded for help from someone else. Systems that foster healthy co-dependency, such as time banks, remind us that everyone has something valuable to share: social skills, technical excellence, catering for a session, or translation. Tools like the School of Everything 12 – local social media for bringing people together to learn from each other – make it possible to provide a clearer impression of what a community actually can do.

Open design towards sustainable local happiness seems to take a major time investment. Luckily, time is something we have in abundance. The age of ‘useless people’ looks very different in different parts of the world. In Central Africa and the Middle East, the number of young people clearly outnumbers the number of elderly people; in sharp contrast, Japan has nearly five pensioners to every young person. Although many people from both groups will remain in or enter the labour market, the number of people who have nothing meaningful to do is still growing. Whether this time is directed into private endeavours or put to use for the common good is crucial to the well-being of our communities, as well as for the global resource potential. This means serious rethinking, especially in cultures where individual value has been closely linked to gainful employment.

Design for Better Living

Participation in the process is also a strong driver for sustainability. Taking part in the creative process associates the final result more strongly with an experience. Recent studies have shown without a doubt that product consumption has a lower impact on personal happiness than experiences. The sense of ownership generated by participation creates a stronger emotional bond, both between the object and its owner, and between the object and the people in the owner’s network. Objects with an experiential dimension transform into tangible memories, whereas pure objects are subject to material degradation and devaluation. In addition, if we assume shared ownership of the solution as well as the end product, we need more people to be involved in deciding how to handle disposal.

Design stemming from a desire to serve the common good is really about giving people tools to live fuller and better lives and creating objects with a longer shelf life. Inspiring examples of the potential already exist. For instance, Open Source Ecology 13 is a project of strengthening self-sufficiency in food production. Sharing the instructions on how to turn a Toyota Corolla into an eCorolla 14 allows people to improve something they already own.  REMIX The Open Prosthetics Project 15 shares the peer-to-peer learning curve with all the physically disabled people of the world. The Factor e Farm in Missouri 16 explores ways to create an off-grid community relying on scrap metal and labour. By putting the results out in the open for everyone to see and adapt for their own use, communities of people can learn from each other. Through copying, prototyping, improving and formatting, the common good can grow. Motives are crucial here: if a person’s intrinsic motives for participating are about solving problems in their own community, the right strategy for growth is sharing the methods openly.

It is difficult to say whether open design leads to better services and products. What it certainly does accomplish is building stronger communities. COMMUNITY It allows people to get to know the people around them while doing something meaningful. It builds bonds and healthy, reciprocal dependencies as people exchange services, equipment and time. As people join in, design is rooted in the DNA of their lives and they keep the end products longer. Open design also builds support for peer-to-peer politics.

Open design is a crucial tool for discovering ‘Us’ again. When successful, it challenges the traditional preconceptions about knowledge, professionalism and democracy. Open design shakes up the current balance of power. It will therefore not come as a surprise that many of the remarks warning against the purported dangers of open design – lower quality, poorer aesthetics, more junk, things that will not work – express the same complaints echoed in every democratization process in history, all the way back to the French Revolution.

The right question to ask is not which process will lead to the best design. The fundamental question is far simpler: what is right and just?

  1. Chapman, J, Emotionally Durable Design: Objects, Experiences and Empathy. Earthscan Ltd, 2005.
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