Introduction / Marleen Stikker

The pioneers of our time are not taking the world at face value, as a given from outside; rather, they see the world as something you can pry open, something you can tinker with.

Marleen Stikker

In his novel The Man Without Qualities, Austrian author Robert Musil describes two ways of thinking and interacting with the world.

“If you want to pass through open doors you have to respect the fact that they have a fixed frame: this principle is simply a prerequisite of reality. But if there is a sense of reality then there must also be something that you might call a sense of possibility. Someone who possesses this sense of possibility does not say for example: here this or that has happened, or it will happen or it must happen. Rather he invents: here this could or should happen. And if anybody explains to him that it is as it is, then he thinks: well, it probably could be otherwise.”  1.

Possibilitarians think in new possibilities, and get all excited when things get messy and life becomes disorderly. In disruption, possibilitarians see new opportunities, even if they do not know where they might lead. They believe, with Denis Gabor, that “the future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented” 2 .

Realitarians are operating within a given framework, according to the rules that are given, following to the powers there are. They accept the conditions and the institutions as given, and are fearful of disruption.

Whether a person is a possibilitarian or a realitarian has nothing to do with their creativity. People representing these frames of reference can be found in all professions: entrepreneurs, politicians, artists. In fact, art and design are not avant-garde by definition, and it would be overstating the matter to claim that innovation is an inherent quality in the arts – or science, for that matter.

It would equally be wrong to think that all realitarians are reactionary. There are many different kinds of realitarians. Some play with the given rules, finding better ways to use them, making them more efficient, increasing their moral justice and fairness. Others want to cover all eventualities, seeking to keep everything under control in neatly written scenarios that contain no surprises whatsoever.

When it comes to open design, possibilitarians are enticed and enthused by the new opportunities it could bring, even if they do not know exactly what open design will become, or where it might lead. ACTIVISM Possibilitarians see the disruption that open design brings to the design world, and respond by embracing the potential that is inherent in that disruption.

Possibilitarians engage in open design as a process, trusting their own abilities to guide that process. And as possibilitarians, they pursue strategies to be inclusive, to involve others, to build bridges between opposite positions: North-South, old-young, traditional-experimental. Possibilitarians represent a sharing SHARE culture which is at the core of open design. As such, they trust others to make their own contributions and to build upon what has been shared. Trust, responsibility and reciprocity are important ingredients in an open, sharing culture. These factors have been discussed at length in relation to software development; the debate has been revived in the context of the ongoing informatization of society. As with open data, open design will have to address these questions. And as with open data, open design will have to involve the actual end users, not organizations, panels or marketers. Design will have to identify the fundamental questions, which supersede the design assignments issued by mass-producers or governments. And design will have to develop a strategy of reciprocity, particularly when objects become ‘smart’ parts of an interconnected web of things, similar to the emergence of the internet.


Open design will have to develop its own language for trust. What are its design principles, its ethics, the responsibilities it entails? MANIFESTOS Although a clear answer to these questions is currently lacking, this absence does not prevent possibilitarians from engaging with open design. They know that this trend is not about a dream of the world as a better place, a dream which could too easily be stigmatized as naive and utopian. Possibilitarians also know that only by taking part in the process, by participating and by giving it a direction can those answers be found.


Realitarians, in contrast, respond to open design with fear and mistrust. When a fretwork artist recently realized that a laser cutter could achieve within hours what took her four months to cut, she was extremely disappointed and angry with the machine. The positive effect that the machine could have on her work only occurred to her later. This is the Luddite revived, the fear of the machine that might threaten a person’s livelihood, that could render irrelevant an individual craftsman’s contribution to culture and society.

Realitarians fear that all the energy it costs to create something might be wasted; that the time and effort it took e.g. to write a book would be pointless, that anyone could just go and copy it. Fundamentally, they fear that someone else could commercially utilize something that they have contributed to the public domain. Even Creative Commons CREATIVE COMMONS takes on a threatening aspect in this context, creating a concern that the author will no longer be able to control fair use. Or a designer might argue that open design could result in loads of ugly products, expressing a concern that if anyone can do it, amateurs AMATEURISSIMO willpollutethebeautifulworld of design. This is the realitarian speaking.

We’ve had this discussion in other domains, in other areas: it arose in relation to hacking, and we’ve experienced it over and over in media and journalism – in the 1960s with the pirate radio stations, in the late 1990s with the advent of blogging. Now it has emerged in the domain of design.

Open design can be viewed as the latest in a long line of similar developments, starting with the first PCs – the Ataris, Amigas, Commodores and Sinclairs – the arrival of the internet, of mobile communication. TREND:NETWORK SOCIETY It is often the same people who are involved in these initiatives again and again. These are the pioneers of our time, people with that hacker- artist-activist attitude. They are not taking the world at face value, a given from outside; rather, they see the world as something you can pry open, something you can tinker with.

So they started to experiment. GRASSROOTS INVENTION The first computers gave them a feeling of autarchy. 17 Suddenly, they were able to use desktop publishing; they produced their own newspapers, they were typesetters, they took responsibility – they got organized and put their opinion out there. This was the first DIY DIY movement that was a parallel campaign. In contrast to the Parallel aktion in Musil’s novel, it happened beyond the confines of discussion circles: squatting became a parallel movement to the housing market, and they established their own, alternative media infrastructure. In all likelihood, the dynamic of the internet helped it happen. Indeed, in the Netherlands, the first opportunity to experience the internet was created by a possibilitarian movement – De Digitale Stad (the digital city) in Amsterdam. Commercial internet access became available much later.

Open design is rooted in information and communication technology, giving us all the instruments to become the one-man factory, the world player operating from a small back room. Despite this semblance of easy access, many of these resources require the user to be extremely tech-savvy. In addition, purposeful and effective utilization of these resources requires considerable social skills and expertise in social engineering. This combination of technical and social skills is extremely interesting and very rare. Tech-savvy usually carries the connotation of nerdy, socially handicapped and awkward at communication, while the socially adept are generally assumed to lack technical skills.

A similar schism is strikingly evident in education. As a media student, you might finish your degree without ever having made anything yourself, or being responsible for a product. You may have spent your time studying games made by other people, instead of learning to make good games. As a vocational student learning a trade, you might end up sitting at old machines the whole time, never getting to see a 3D printer, or only encountering these relevantly recent developments at the end of your education, or in an external module instead of in the core programme.

In fact, it may be argued that there is a fundamental dichotomy in society, an essential separation between the field of making and the field of science. There is too little science in making, and too little making in 18 science; these two fields are far too disconnected.

Examples of the opposite are emerging, and the connection between modern technology and craft traditions is sometimes aptly named hyper-craft. The implications for education are huge, and hyper-craft broadens the perspectives in education – not only for design, but for all crafts. Hyper-craft as a practice of open design is not primarily concerned with the objects that are being made. Its focus is on the process of making itself and the responsibilities that makers take – for the monsters they may be creating, for the process of creating, and for the ingredients used. PRINTING

Recently, a vocational school in the Dutch province of Brabant took the idea of the Instructables Restaurant and used it as a blueprint for a cross-over programme that combined elements of their hotel and catering education and their design education. Together, they realized an Instructables Restaurant for the CultuurNacht event – students created furniture based onblueprints BLUEPRINTS theyhaddownloadedand cooked meals prepared according to online recipes. The restaurant served 1500 people that night. The school made a smart addition to the very classical trade of cooking, adding more dimensions, more layers, and creating their first open curriculum.

The agenda of open design – increasing transparency in the production chain, talking about responsibility – is certainly a political agenda. Open design is part of today’s possibilitarian movements, such as open data provided by governments seeking greater transparency. The potentially extreme effects of open information initiatives like Wikileaks are becoming apparent in the enormous backlash affecting the people involved. This is a manifestation of the clash between two worlds: the people operating within the bounds of ‘reality’ fighting back against the challenge to their system.


Open design may appear less extreme: designing is seen as more friendly, more creative, more playful. Much of the unfairness in the field of open design is ‘petty injustice’. These incidents include small production runs that are impossible or prohibitively expensive in a mass-production environment – or manufacturers accustomed to mass marketing who decide what will be included in their collection.

These forms of petty injustice are certainly not the only problems in open design, however; there are also profit-driven corporations limiting technical and design solutions, preventing new possibilities from being put to good use. This immediately invokes the global dimension of open design. When international trade agreements become a guise for Western corporations to privatize indigenous knowledge, activists ACTIVISM and librarians deploy open design strategies, documenting and codifying this knowledge and developing protection mechanisms such as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Library and Archive Protocols in Australia.

When sustainable solutions are locked away in patents, initiatives such as the GreenXchange started by Creative Commons and Nike facilitate easy licensing schemes. When academic knowledge started to disappear behind the paywalls of large publishers, the Open Access movement created new ways to make it accessible again for everybody.

When transnational supply chains blur the provenance of raw materials and the labour conditions of mining, harvesting and manufacturing, fair trade campaigns advocate transparency and propose alternatives, for example the Max Havelaar product range or the Fairphone project.

Disrupting these macro-political movements that privatize the commons or control access to the public domain is the major challenge for open design. An effective response to that challenge starts with understanding and reflecting on what we are doing when we make things.

  1. Musil, R, The Man without Qualities. 1933. Trans. S. Wilkins. London: Picador, 1997, p. 16
  2. Gabor, D, Inventing the Future. London: Secker & Warburg, 1963. p. 207
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