architecture / art / design

Opensourcing

If the 19th century Industrial Revolution is about inventing new technologies, the 21st century is the digital and informative age, then the future of our society is shifting towards collectively sharing our resources. We have come to realize that we build, make, and consume way too many things for our needs. Does each family have to own a screwdriver which has an average use of 30 minutes per lifetime? Do we need to own a car if we live in a city or if we seldom drive? Should apartments have one kitchen, one washing & drying machine each or is co-housing and collective living a better and more affordable solution? We stop considering such questions when globalization makes things cheaper and production easier, but not necessarily more sustainable. 

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Figure 1: A WeWork office in London

“Sharing” / Collective consumption has been the core principles for some of the most successful technology and startup companies. Uber and Lyft are the two “taxis of the new century”, yet they don’t own any cars. They believe that a better, smarter way of providing transportation services is not car-based but about linkage. There are already cars on the street and people driving to places. Why don’t we connect people wanting to go to point A with car drivers who are on their way to point A as well. This will not only reduce the number of cars on the street, but also provide monetary benefit for both parties, the customer getting a cheaper price than a normal taxi services, and the driver earn some cash on the side. Other car sharing services such as Zipcar, Carnextdoor allow people who don’t drive often to lease their cars, or renting one from others for occasional use. They don’t own any cars either. Airbnb is another example of adding value to existing resources (i.e houses) while at the same time meeting certain market demand. The company is an accommodation provider who more or less own no properties. They connect the people who want to rent out their houses to those who are willing to trade the privacy and convenience of a hotel room with a more social experience. Couchsurfing is another model of sharing accommodation whose benefit is not financial (it’s free) but social and experiential. At a smaller scale, NeighborGoods is where you can borrow or lend household items such as bike, drill, moving van, etc. for people in your area to use. As a community, people can collectively own less but have access to more tools, while making new friends and bonding with old ones. Another trend on the rise is co-working space with companies like WeWork provide an alternative for freelancers and people working from home to not only share spaces within an office environment but also share resources, equipment, networks and other perks that comes with being a members – such as workshops, free meals, discounted boardroom hire, etc. “The ‘90s and early 2000s were the ‘I’ decade – iPhone, the iPod – everything was about me. Look where that got us? In a terrible recession. The next decade is the ‘We’ decade, where collaboration is the future of innovation.” said WeWork CEO Adam Neumann. 

Figure 2-4 (clockwise): Products from AtFab and Opendesk; menu at the “Instructables restaurant”; Opendesk chair template

Product design industry has been rapidly changing by the advent of new technologies, machinery and especially the Creative Common license. By definition, CC license protect the designers’ rights to the products while at the same time permit the design to be freely shared, distributed and modified, sometime even for commercial purposes. There are now more than a dozen online platforms advocating for ‘opensourcing’ in design and making. AtFab, MakeMe, Opendesk are 3 of many websites that allow user to use, customize and download existing furniture designs and get them made locally. Ponoko, Instructables and DIWAMS (short for ‘Do It With Already Made Stuff’) also tap into the concept of sharing knowledge and localize the manufacturing, with users posting instructions of their own DIY designs. There is also an Instructables Restaurant, the world’s first open source restaurant, where customer can ask for the recipe of the dishes they like, or the chair’s how-to-made instruction, etc. What ‘opensourcing’ does is allowing the wider public to access a library of intellectual designs and, with the help of machinery like 3D printers, CNC, laser cutters, and reproduce by themselves. As counter-intuitive as it might sound to share your creations and ideas online, there are certain logic behind the ‘maker’ movement, as explained by Gary Rohrbacher & Anne Filson – the brains behind AtFab: “The manufacturer exploit labor, and they source things from all over the world. Then they sell your item to consumers for several thousand dollars, you as a designer get around 99c per piece” Joris Laarman, a Duct designer and advisor for MakeMe, concurs by saying that designer gets around 3% of what an item is worth straight out of the factory – after which the brand adds 300%, and the shop doubles it again. Of course the concept is not the perfect solution to the issue, and many doubt that it will devalue intellectual property the way internet did to music and journalism. These companies have been testing micro-payments and royalties for commercial use to make sure designers does not get rip off. MakeMe plans to give a percentage commission to designers on the price of each download whereas AtFab envisages a 99c fee for each of its blueprints.

Figure 5-6: Alejandro Aravena’s award-winning design made available for download; A Wikihouse project built from online design-ready template

As architects, like it or not, we have always built for the richest 1% of society. Our 20th century cities are built by that 1% of walthy individuals, large institutions & corporations, i.e parks, bridges, apartments building, office buildings, shopping malls, universities, etc. Today most people lives in urban areas, so it’s only seem logical that they should be responsible for building their own cities. Part of our job as architects is not only to build for the 99%, but to build with them. And opensourcing in design is a small answer to this big question. The Wikihouse initiative by Alastair Pavin has built a library of 3D building model library that everyone can access and download, generate them into cutting files, get them made by CNC machine and build themselves. This approach radically reduces time, cost and skill level requirement and as a result, the work is localized, factory is everywhere and designer is everyone. Architects can also open source their design to other architects, as this year Pritzker Prize laureate Alejandro Aravena did to his award-winning design for social housing (you can download the CAD drawings here). Another example is ‘the Common development model’ in Australia advocating for more affordable and sustainable apartments, which can be used by any architects if they adhere to the model’s smart designs, collective livings & ethical development principles. “If the great design project in the 20th century is the democratization of consumption (i.e Henry Ford, Levittown, IKEA, CocaCola), then the 21st century great project is the democratization of production” – said Wikihouse founder Alastair Pavin.

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