Open Re:Source Design
visualizing COMPLETE material flows

Soenke Zehle

In an era of algorithmic cultures, designers willing to take on the challenges of sustainability must be prepared to deal with complex eco-politics. At the same time, any mapping of possible sites of aesthetic intervention must begin by visualizing complete material flows.

Aided by the research of non-governmental organizations and a wave of liberal celebrity journalism, users know that mobile media use here is linked to resource conflicts  TREND: SCARCITY OF RECOURSES somewhere else. The call to shift to renewables has triggered a new type of resource conflict, less about the conditions of extraction than about the terms of transnational trade, giving rise to a new geopolitics of resource access. In the race to create independent supply chains for these essential materials, industry and political leaders in Europe and the US now regret having placed potential mining areas under environmental protection and are likely to reopen extraction in the name of resource autonomy.

Any such efforts may not go unnoticed, however; electronics activists  ACTIVISM are already using free mapping tools to visualize global supply chains and demonstrate that transparency in the area of resource extraction is in fact possible. Above and beyond corporate social responsibility initiatives that may or may not amount to more than a greenwashing of largely unchanged production processes, such maps call on corporations to take responsibility for what is happening across their supply chains rather than delegating such monitoring to their suppliers. Complex data visualizations challenge claims that brand management is the only corporate responsibility in the age of intellectual property, ensuring that designers creating new gadgets and user experience strategies are placed adjacent to indigenous communities struggling to protect the integrity of local environments or local militias fighting over the revenue streams of a local.

New environmental governance regimes and regulatory frameworks (WEED, RohS) offer designers access to vast material databases that list toxicity, as well as use and disposal hazards, although corporate participation is not yet required by law. Moreover, these lists of declarable substances only cover materials present in the final product, failing to address job health and safety or the workers’ right to know what they are handling. The design (and scope) of such databases have become an eco-political terrain, giving rise to a new brand of design-related data activism to expand the collection and integration of supply chain data.

Open Source Design

The effective management of environmental standards across transnational supply chains and production networks requires some acknowledgment of worker demands to know the substances they work with, potentially raising health and safety standards for workers and consumers across industries. Even so, consumer choice in the notoriously fragmented world of electronics manufacturing, for example, does not yet extend to devices that are truly sustainable. As corporate sustainability reports show, electronics companies have no idea how to monitor, let alone control complete supply and disposal chains, lagging far behind their peers in the automotive industries.

Consumers interested in fair production are allies of designers no longer interested in ‘designing for the dump’, 1 RECYCLING but consumer-designer alliances are rare, despite the enthusiasm over user-generated content and the emergence of ‘produsers’. Activist networks (like Bricolabs) lead the way in applying the principle of openness to hardware design – encouraging users to extend their desire to create and participate to the design and production of the very technologies of creation and participation. This pursuit of ‘open re:source design’ is aided by the wave of open educational resources (OER) available to designers. Material available online ranges from online syllabi on design and environmental topics 2 to free software design tools and corresponding handbooks for self-study. 3

These developments place designers at the core of a new series of ethico-aesthetic conflicts, giving them a key role to play in the negotiation of competing futures, perspectives, and timescales of sustainability. In theory, they are well-positioned to play a pivotal role. At the same time, they are engulfed by a tentacular creative industries framework that lauds creative autonomy without providing much more than precarity compensation, while short product cycles and the volatile attention economy of real-time communications networks limit the potentially disruptive force of the call for sustainability. But ‘open’ re:source design means, above all, to raise the stakes of these questions.

  1.  Annie Leonard, The Story of Electronics. Available online at: , accessed 15 January 2011.
  2.  Such as MIT OpenCourseWare (, OER Commons ( and others.
  3. Such as Floss Manuals (
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