THE BLOG
11/22/2012 08:00 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2013

Do We Want An Efficient Economy?

Watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

In 2008, I dropped my theoretical physicist's chalkboard and began developing the Global Village Construction Set (GVCS) -- an open source, collaborative project. The GVCS is a modular, DIY, low-cost, high-performance platform that allows for the easy fabrication of the 50 different industrial machines that it takes to build a small, sustainable civilization with modern comforts. Our tools are designed to be simple, modular and last a lifetime. We started from raw land six years ago and built a 4,000 square foot fabrication facility -- where we build tractors and compressed earth brick (CEB) presses, which we then used to build ourselves a 3,000 square foot house. (here is a short video of our story.)

Today, we continue to optimize production, such that even with an inexperienced team, we built a complete brick press in four days. In my 2011 TEDTalk I said, "... I've built a tractor in 6 days." Two years later, it appeared even better than that; our goal is to streamline production down to one day. This is extreme manufacturing, on a small scale.

Our work is about regenerating the world around us. It's about cleaning up our own economies so we are not forced to steal from others -- by producing locally, within our own communities. - Marcin Jakubowski

We are showing the results that come from having zero competitive waste. Our approach is collaborative. Our business model is helping others replicate our enterprise. So, we freely publish online all our machine designs so that anyone can learn and replicate our technologies, development methods, even our organizational model. This collaborative platform gives farmers, producers, social entrepreneurs -- anyone -- a chance to design, build, test, improvise, improve, document, teach, contribute, replicate and aggregate. The goal is to allow people to build while learning -- and sharing -- all the best practices.

One of the very early demonstrations of the power of the open collaborative model was the development of the Cornish Steam Engine. The fiercely enforced patent on Watt and Boulton's steam engine meant that not only the cost of licensing was too high for the Cornwall tin miners, but also that they could not improve nor adapt the design to their specific needs. For this reason, given that the original creators had no incentive to improve it and everyone else was prevented from doing so, innovation on this model stalled. Shortly after, Trevithick and Woolf introduced a new design that was not patented and allowed the community to freely install, adapt and improve it. Miners quickly began exchanging knowledge and collaboratively developing improvements. As a result, the Trevithick and Woolf steam engine became the industry's standard and the community of miners that gathered around it produced near continuous innovation for more than 30 years. It's worth noting that during this period, the rate of innovation was proven quantitatively to be inversely proportional to the rate of patenting.

Is it then useful that in the modern age, spending by Apple and Google on patents exceeds spending on research and development of new products? Imagine instead Google, Apple, Exxon, Caterpillar, JCB, and a flock of other corporations, sharing knowledge and spending the billions of dollars on positive work; each doing their part and cooperating without ego, to create an exquisite symphony like in Eric Whitacre's video? Imagine problems being solved faster than they are created, and the rate of innovation raised a hundred fold. Could we then as a society move on to concerns other than material survival?

As Eric Von Hippel, a leading open technology proponent, suggests, products are best designed and modified by those who actually use them, and user-centered innovation offers great advantages over the manufacturer-centric development systems that were the mainstay of the last century. Users who innovate cannot only develop exactly what they want but also benefit from innovations developed and freely shared by others. This open model ensures that the best technologies become the standard, through a process akin to natural selection. This propels innovation and ensures that the knowledge needed to build, repair and adapt hardware is available where and when it's needed.

The question is not whether open or proprietary will triumph. The real question is: do we want an efficient economy? I claim that collaboration is the route to such efficiency. And if this efficiency indeed holds true -- is it possible that cost of Open Source GVCS machines is on average five times lower compared to industry standards -- and if lifetime design is considered -- that they are 50 times more cost effective over their life-cycle? Our results indicate that this is so. To date, 62 prototypes from the GVCS have been built in four countries from open plans.

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History of GVCS prototyping starting in 2008. In 2011, the first ever replication took place, followed by 13 more in 2012.

James Slade, the first replicator, quit his IT job to build GVCS machines full time. Two high school students in LA, Daniel and Hayden, built the Lifetrac (tractor), to donate to a Farmers' Cooperative. And now, the CEB Press is being made in China. These are just a few of the ongoing success stories of everyday people -- with little to no training in metal fabrication or building -- taking on machine production, with the support of a growing community of users who freely contribute their expertise and learning online, in the spirit of true cooperation. They start off merely building machines, slowly but surely finding themselves regaining control of their communities and lives.

Our work is about regenerating the world around us. It's about cleaning up our own economies so we are not forced to steal from others -- by producing locally, within our own communities. We are working towards an efficient and ethical open economy that furthers innovation and creates a sustainable future, by giving as many people as possible access to know-how and the right tools, so they can convert their environment's abundant natural resources into personal good and freedom.

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