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Economic Sharing & Alternatives

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Global Collaboration, Local Production: Open Source Commons
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The open source movement is facilitating the creation of knowledge in a decentralized way that serves all, not only the person that creates it. If the intellectual commons becomes the best source of information in other realms such as agriculture, politics, economics and medicine, it will be a revolutionary tipping point, writes Urs Riggenbach.

14th January 2011 - Published by HumJournal

Wikipedia proves that global collaboration on a commons (a resource commonly owned) is possible. The amount and quality of open source software shows that this collaboration can be very productive. An example is Firefox, an application that is free to all users. Everyone with the skills to program is welcome to contribute to its development. Other examples are Linux, a fully featured operating system, and Apache, a software that powers 60% of the world's websites. These technologies are a commons whose use is not restricted; use is encouraged, and the more people use it and improve it, the more useful it becomes. This is what is so special about the intellectual commons.

We can take the idea of global collaboration on the commons further, and apply it to technologies other than software. An exciting example of commons technology is on the building plans of life: building machinery, houses and devices for everything that is essential to sustain our lives. This makes the information from which industrial goods are produced a commons. This is revolutionary because it empowers people to use free and open knowledge to produce for themselves, rather than being dependent upon the predominant capitalist economy that forces them into industrial consumption. Patent laws currently enable capitalists to exclude people from access to their information, giving them monopolistic power to produce the goods that people want. The open source or commons movement now is creating peer-to-peer networks that facilitate the creating of that knowledge in a decentralized way. this serves all, not only the person that creates it.  

The greatest example of this right now is what the people in the Factor E Farm are doing: they are creating the Global Village Construction Set.  It is a set of modular technologies that can be used primarily for farming and construction. The set is self-replicable, meaning that it includes the technologies that one needs to replicate any one tool part of the set. Factor E Farm has already developed a hydraulic farm-tractor powered by a modular power generation unit that can also power their compressed-earth-brick (CEB) press as well as other tools. Farms around the world can adapt their plans and start producing machinery that is 8-20 times cheaper than the commercial "competition." As the number of people using these technologies increase, some of them will share the modifications they have made to the technologies back with the user-community. Hence these technologies will be ever-evolving. 

There are other technologies similar to the Global Village Construction Set that enable a shift towards post-industrial, local, decentralized production.

One of them is a 3D printer: A printer that can print objects in 3D made from material such as plastic. It connects to a computer that supplies it with the 3D model, and then starts to print out layer by layer. At the same time as commercial variants come to the market, there are  already three open source 3D printers. That means that anything made from plastic (or silicon, or perhaps soon metal) can be produced by a printer that people can build themselves, and the printer can print large parts of what it takes to build the next one itself. People can build their own version at the cost of raw materials and the time spent learning to build and use it. This is empowering. This is how production should be. 

These are the 3D printers available today. Click the links for videos:

Since they are based on the ability to move a tool in all three directions of x, y and z, the tool for printing plastic can be replaced by a tool to weld, cut, spray, stir, etc, each time increasing the possibilities of things to produce. 

Building plans for life are empowering people to become less dependent on the industrial economy, as they can start to provide for themselves. They are in fact facilitating the movement of localizing economies, as communities with local economies can tap into this global commons and create their own market autonomy. Local/complementary currencies, farm-to-school programs, community-supported-agriculture, cooperatives and cooperative networks are also helping to localize economies; and making the information on how to create these a commons can facilitate the movement further.

Constructing hydraulic tractors or electronic technology needs skills, and so does using them. This is a problem, as today’s educational systems are built to supply graduates to the industrial workforce where only basic skills are needed. On the other hand, especially in higher education, students are taught a lot of knowledge that is not directly relevant to the creation of our day to day life. There is an interesting discussion about how much one needs to know in order to build, use and develop these machines at Global Guerrillas. 

I believe that this trend in open source technology actually helps in bringing about sustainability, since it empowers local production though global innovation. It can make communities more self-reliant and their markets more autonomous, since production can be localized. It makes technology accessible and empowering. In terms of economic development, the best aid is when people become able to help themselves. Open source commons lead to a complete transfer of knowledge, and creates no dependence on corporate input.

Nurturing the commons brings together a variety of people. Those who see economic inequalities caused by inequalities of access to knowledge come together with those who take part in a global, collaborative process to create software that helps local economies start up. Open source hackers find that they have something in common with farmers who produce from their own seeds. A commons---be it a seed or a software--- has to be maintained; otherwise it dies. It also has to be protected; otherwise it can get taken over by private firms and made intellectual property by patenting it. In the open source software world, software is protected by a license that makes it impossible to patent/restrict the knowledge. But many farmers are still dependent on a commons that is not protected. Large multinational corporations are buying up their seeds, patenting them in such a way that the farmers don't have the right to produce from their own seeds anymore. 

The realms for application of open source principles are all-inclusive because production always depends on knowledge. Software, agriculture, architecture, technology, politics, economics, medicine and science are all realms for the application of open source principles.

Medicine, Science and Biotechnology

Governments should have an interest in their people's health. Some governments are corrupted by the corporations they serve, but nevertheless governments that are publicly funding research should be interested in the open source approach for two reasons. 1) In order to bring the maximum benefit to a people's health, the research result should be available to the whole industry freely. Hence research results should be released as a commons, using for example the creative commons license. 2) One government has only a limited amount of funding, and by working together with other governments they can advance more in their research and develop more and and better medicine to serve their people. Governments might be interested in creating common research pools that increase the health of their citizens and those of other countries.  

Many research teams are starting to cross-pollinate and collaborate, and there are 50 open source medicine projects, from software to actual projects that create accessible research data. As in open-source building plans for life, open source projects can not only focus on the building plan for a product, but also on the building plan for the machine (capital) that is used to produce that good, or open source capital. If open source medicine takes off, I imagine that there will be medical capital developed, such as a machine that can synthesize medicines on a small scale. It could connect to the Internet, where it could tap into a global database of medical building plans and research. 

Biotechnology and the sciences in general would benefit from more collaborative approaches too. Cambia, an international non-profit focused on democratizing innovation, has launched and supports Open Innovation projects.


"Open source governance is a political philosophy which advocates the application of the philosophies of the open source and open content movements to democratic principles in order to enable any interested citizen to add to the creation of policy, as with a Wiki document. Legislation is democratically opened to the general citizenry in this way, allowing policy development to benefit from the collected wisdom of the people as a whole" (from Wikipedia, 6. Dec, 2011).

In terms of an architectural commons, the OpenArchitecture Network shows the way. The agency builds houses for communities in need through a collaborative process with the locals, and then opensources the plans on their Website.

How do architects get their ideas? They probably look at houses. Imagine if an architect can take the plan of any house and adapt it. No need to reinvent the same four walls over and over again. Someone may now take the plan for a school in Nairobi, make that building flood-resistant and use it in Haiti. The world then is blessed with two plans for different locations.

Economic development and local currency

An example for economic development is the organization called STRO. To improve living conditions, the organization focuses on strengthening local economies through local currencies and local production. Just like the OpenArchitecture Network, they are not able to work with every community; but they potentially help them by releasing their building tools as a commons. In the case of STRO, it is a software used to manage local currencies: Cyclos. The system allows people to have their own accounts and trade in local/complementary currency.

It is not a coincidence that institutions focused on localizing and autonomizing economies nurture the commons, as the examples of STRO and Cyclos show. In fact, localizing economies are both dependent and supportive of a global commons. As we localize economies, they become less competitive between each other, and more focused on providing what is needed locally. It also becomes easier to tell what is needed locally, as a smaller economy is easier to understand. They become more autonomous, as people start to control their own means of production, and more sustainable, as people are able to understand the effects of their production, while they have the power to directly affect how things are produced. With knowledge comes power, with power comes responsibility, and all of this leads to wiser decisions. But these communities all face the same problem: How to produce as much as possible locally. As firms produce locally, the need for global patents decreases, enabling a rise in collaboration. Hence the wheel does not need to be reinvented in every community; they build upon each other's efforts. In the examples provided, I see a global network of collaboration on sustainable living and local economies emerging.

These networks are fueled by farmer-scientists, private people, development institutions and local businesses. They are not fueled by corporations nor capitalist firms, even though the open source paradigm does not oppose profit maximization. It opposes the other basic principle of capitalism: exclusion. In capitalism, and hence in industry, goods are produced from knowledge that is proprietary; and keeping this knowledge restricted (a non-commons) gives them their competitive edge. It is in this principle, that commons oppose capitalism. 

As time passes, these intellectual commons may reach critical mass and become the best source of information for production, just like Wikipedia has become the best source for generally everything else. That will be a revolutionary tipping point. Imagine that the commons for cancer medicine has been developed through a collaborative process between three countries, and it has become the leading knowledge in the market. That means that even capitalist firms will tap into it; but as they do so, they will be required to share their modifications of the knowledge back to the public. That creates a truly "perfect market" in which profit maximization through exclusion is impossible.

Once part of our cultural evolution, the knowledge to produce for ourselves has been stripped away from us, leaving us dependent on the industrial economy. As this knowledge finds its way back into protected open source commons and the public domain, we are experiencing a revolutionary change, an empowerment like never before. Personally, I move forward by nurturing the commons; and I know many brothers and sisters who are working for the same causes of local welfare, solidarity, autonomy and sustainability.

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