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Open design two notebooks.png
Open collaborative design involves applying principles from the remarkable free and open-source software movement that provides a powerful new way to design physical objects, machines and systems. All information involved in creating the object or system is made available on the Internet – such as text, drawings, photographs and 3D computer-aided design (CAD) models – so that other people can freely re-create it, or help contribute to its further evolution. It is essentially the same principle that is used to progress scientific knowledge, however in reality it is much more open and transparent than much of contemporary scientific research.

A core element of this development model is a principle called 'copyleft' 11px-Wikipedia_logo.jpg (symbol: Copyleft.png) which is a way of applying copyright to a creative work in a way that makes sure that anyone can freely use it or build upon it - and also that derivative works inherit the same terms, ensuring anything based on the original is freely available too. This principle means that 'copylefted' items – whether they are designs, text, artwork or computer code – are effectively gifted to humanity, adding to an ever increasing universal 'commons'. Because this principle is to the benefit of everyone, it completely changes the way that many people think about contributing their time and effort to this type of project. It already works very effectively with many high profile, successful software projects, so this is not merely wishful thinking.

Open collaborative design is a nascent field that has huge potential to radically alter the way we create goods, machines and systems – not only for personal items but all the way up to components of national or global infrastructure.

'Open source' applied to the physical world

Vertical axis wind turbine
There is no reason why open source development methods currently used with many software projects cannot be applied to machines and systems in the physical world. In fact physical objects are much more intuitive to understand than abstract computer code especially when viewed using 3D CAD that can show grouped sub-assemblies, exploded views, kinematics, cross-sections, supporting animations and notes. It is just that the freely available tools and infrastructure needed for this to be possible do not yet exist in a user-friendly and mature state needed for widespread adoption. All the technologies exist, they just need to be put together in the right way and refined.

The simplest method is to share information through a website on how to make things using text, diagrams and photographs. A more sophisticated way to collaborate on complex machinery and products would be to share CAD assemblies much like project teams do in engineering and product design companies, knitted together with supporting information in an open and freely structured environment, much like a wiki 11px-Wikipedia_logo.jpg.

There are certain barriers to overcome for open design when compared to software development where there are mature and widely used tools available, and the duplication and distribution of code cost next to nothing. Creating, testing and modifying physical designs is not quite as straightforward because of the effort and time required to create the physical artifact. However the physical world is catching up fast with the virtual world in this respect.

Why is this a good thing?

Open collaborative design, empowered by advanced open-source CAD software, allows anyone — not just designers and engineers — to easily create new designs of products. It provides a vast array of 'copylefted' modules and artefacts for people to make use of in their designs. This not only means that people can customise things for their own needs and tastes, but makes the design process much more efficient and helps avoid the huge duplication of effort that occurs in design and engineering currently.

These principles can apply to designing the simplest things that can be made by individuals, solutions for communities in the developing world, all the way up to complex large-scale systems of national or global infrastructure involving thousands of people. Because the designs are not closed or proprietary, people are encouraged to contribute knowing their involvement not only benefits themselves but anyone else might use the results of their efforts. It also means that designs will evolve far faster because of the huge amount of parallel development that is likely to occur.

Giving these designs physical form will become fast and easy due to emerging high-speed, flexible manufacturing techniques. As a result the open design ecosystem will effectively become an internet for physical items — and the impact on society is likely to be as great as the web has been with respect to information.

Economic realities discourage large corporations from being really innovative. Corporations are unlikely to risk spending money to develop anything for which there is not a proven market. However, enthusiasts and consumer/producers who make things for their own personal use are often highly innovative and willing to make very novel products. Music is a good example of this: corporate-produced pop music is repetitive and without imagination; innovative music only comes from amateurs who are doing it out of passion. Therefore an open collaborative economy allows faster and greater innovation than a profit-driven economy.

An open collaborative project is always a work in progress. Wikipedia, for example, is always being expanded, streamlined and improved. With a lot of different people contributing to it, it continually gets better and better in small increments. Multiple versions can be developed in parallel acting like an evolutionary system. Many experimental improvements may not turn out to be better, but those adopted with further iteration develop from promising or successful examples. The community of developers and users act as the selection mechanism.

What is the motivation to contribute?

20th century economics was driven by an assumption that people act exclusively out of self-interest. If you want to make people perform better, so the wisdom goes, you reward them with money and privileges, and if you want them to stop doing something, you threaten them with punishment. This is the almost unquestioned common-sense of the entire economic and corporate landscape, yet it is not well proven. In fact, there is abundant evidence from social and psychological research that this sort of extrinsic motivation 11px-Wikipedia_logo.jpg actually reduces performance and interest in creative tasks[1][2][3][4]. The belief that people can only be motivated by reward and punishment is based on an unrealistically pessimistic view of human nature. The fact of the matter is that humans are capable of creativity, curiosity, community and contribution.

These are some reasons why someone might want to contribute to the 'universal commons' of free and open designs:

  • The fun and challenge of working on an interesting project. Simple creative satisfaction (something rather lacking in this age of 'consumer culture'). It is very gratifying to work on a project that you are good at and thereby create something worthwhile (i.e. self-esteem in Maslow's theory of motivation illustrated below)
  • People give positive feedback and praise, and the creator(s) enjoy respect for their efforts. (i.e. the esteem of others in Maslow's theory of motivation)
  • The sense of community created by working together with like-minded people around the globe (i.e. belongingness in Maslow's theory)
  • Building upon existing components and assemblies from the universal commons allows people to create things of a complexity and scale that they would not be able to achieve alone. By calling upon the rest of humanity to collaborate with you, you can achieve things in a fraction of the time.
  • Products and machines can be individually customised to a high degree. Compared to traditional top-down economics, open collaboration makes a much less sharp distinction between consumers and producers; every consumer has the opportunity to participate in the design of the products they use, allowing them to get it just the way they like it. This can be seen, for example, in the FireFox web browser, which is much more customizable than any closed-source web browser.
  • Other people may evolve your design further, which could benefit you as they might improve it or make additions you hadn't thought of.
  • The concept of copyleft 11px-Wikipedia_logo.jpg and Creative Commons changes the way people think about contributing their effort and time to creative open projects, as the contributions are for the benefit of everyone and anyone. The sense of community around open-source projects brings out Man's altruism; we give willingly to others whom we consider to be part of the same tribe as ourselves. As anyone who's ever been to Burning Man knows, once you are immersed in a gift economy 11px-Wikipedia_logo.jpg for a little while, giving comes as easily as taking. A widely used design gives satisfaction to the creator knowing that many other people are getting practical use or joy from it, fulfilling another of the needs in Maslow's theory of motivation: that of self-transcendence, contributing beyond oneself.
  • Reciprocity has long been identified (by Robert Cialdini 11px-Wikipedia_logo.jpg and others) as one of the key ways to motivate anyone to do anything. People who benefit from open-source projects feel motivated to give back to the community.
  • Social momentum - when a large enough group of people collaborate on a project, it creates a bandwagon effect. We are easily motivated to do something when we see that a lot of other people are doing it.
  • Working on an open-project that may become a component of a wider technological ecosystem which moves modern society closer to being a truly advanced civilisation — rather than the compromised and highly unoptimised reality of the world today: one that is destroying the environment, not providing for the needs of the global population and with a significant percentage of people shackled to jobs and lifestyles they do not enjoy.
  • Ultimately the reasons that already motivate many hundreds of thousands of people to contribute to open-source software and similar collaborative endeavours world-wide will spread to other endeavours. The bottom line is, regardless of why people contribute to open projects, the fact of the matter is that they do contribute: over 100,000,000 hours of time and effort have gone into building Wikipedia, over 45,000 Kenyans contributed to Ushahidi

A relevant quote from Benjamin Franklin 11px-Wikipedia_logo.jpg that becomes more plausible in the age of the internet and Open Source:

... as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously.

That people would do work without being paid may be mystifying in an economic context of scarcity, but in a condition of abundance people become more willing to contribute to others. Open collaborative design therefore goes hand-in-hand with abundance; they feed off each other. This is shown in Maslow's pyramid below:

(Extended) version of Maslow's hierarchy of needs
(click to enlarge)

Abraham Maslow's well-respected theory of motivation 11px-Wikipedia_logo.jpg - contributing to open collaborative projects fulfils the human needs to belong, to be esteemed, to know and understand, to actualize one's potentials and abilities, and to transcend oneself by contributing to something greater.

It is interesting to note that scarcity-based economies focus on man's two lowest needs: security and physiological needs, while in a situation of Post-scarcity the lower needs are a non-issue, so the higher needs come into sharper focus.

It has been shown again and again and again in psychological studies that extrinsic carrot-and-stick motivation is effective only at tasks that require no insight or creativity i.e. mechanistic tasks. But our society is moving towards automating more and more of these tasks, so that the jobs left for people to do are the ones that require dealing with ambiguities, thinking laterally and finding creative, non-obvious solutions. For these tasks, only intrinsic motivation is effective, with extrinsic rewards and punishments usually leading to lower performance. This may be surprising (it certainly flies in the face of traditional notions of incentives) but it has been proven again and again [5][6][7].

Vast libraries of machines and components

With many people contributing to open design projects, as happens currently with software, a universal commons will emerge made up of vast libraries of designs for everything from components and sub-assemblies through to complete artefacts, machines and complex systems, available for anyone to download and incorporate into their own designs, or help evolve as part of a wider project.

As in software, it would be useful for components and assemblies to be as 're-usable' as possible in the sense of being able to be incorporated in many different machine designs. To aid this it should be possible to specify the vital dynamic functions of a component or assembly in the CAD software, so that it can easily be modified in shape and scale so it can be incorporated into a new design while ensuring it still works correctly.

This will enable a huge reduction in duplication of effort and allow people to focus their efforts on creating new machines of increasing complexity and building on the work of others.

One interesting side-effect of open collaboration is that it tends to lead to highly modular design. FireFox and Linux are examples of this. Modularity also leads to a high degree of reusability; someone designing a new piece of hardware or software can pick-and-mix parts of existing projects. This works well in software, but may have to be abstracted somewhat to work in physical systems where dimensions are obviously important to fit with other components.

Free and open-source computer-aided design

Renault rendered in Blender 3D modelling software

One of the core components necessary for open collaborative design to truly take flight is an advanced free and open-source computer-aided design (CAD) program to allow anyone to easily generate new designs or customise existing ones. The program should include a special browser to enable finding and importing open-source components and machines from the 'universal commons' as well as analytical tools and 'physics engine' 11px-Wikipedia_logo.jpg which allow a significant amount of simulation and testing to be done 'virtually', saving significant amounts of time when it comes to construction.

The availability of user-friendly open source CAD software will be essential to allow the widest number of people to engage in this creative activity, which should help create a more diverse ecosystem of objects, machines and solutions. There is no reason, with thoughtful implementation, why this software shouldn't be intuitive enough for children to use easily. It could explain mechanical and engineering principles along the way if the user wished, and also be a place to store detailed contextual development notes, wiki style, to help others understand the workings and decisions made.

The virtual nature of the designs mean that far-flung people via the internet can easily work together on the same design, either working individually on various sub-assemblies of the whole or collaborating directly on the same part. The restrictions of having to finding people local to yourself with similar interests and desires becomes much less of an issue. 35px-More_large.png

Virtual designs into physical objects

3D printed metal engine component
At some point virtual designs such as Computer-aided design (CAD) models, need to be turned into physical objects, which unfortunately isn't as straightforward as downloading software from a website. Building, testing and modifying physical designs requires effort, time and material cost, although with access to emerging flexible computer-controlled manufacturing (digital fabrication) this complexity and effort becomes drastically reduced and highly repeatable.

Some of the ways that collaborative designs created on a computer can be physically forged range from getting your hands dirty and crafting it yourself, to sending the design, or at least parts of it, as an electronic file to an increasing number of computer-controlled manufacturing systems such as rapid prototyping or advanced multi-axis CNC machines 11px-Wikipedia_logo.jpg that can accurately create parts in 3D in a variety of materials.

What is illustrated in this section is that the world of atoms is starting to catch up with the world of bits in terms of ease of control and duplication. We are entering the age of digital manufacturing. Objects and machines are boiled down to pure information which can be instantly transmitted around the world and recreated physically wherever these 'fabbers' exist. Here are some of the increasing number of methods available to bring virtual designs to life...35px-More_large.png

Free riders

So what about free riders? What happens when there are people who only take and never give anything back?

Well, nothing really. Contributors are not expecting a specific quid pro quo arrangement — they get plenty in return from using other things in the universal commons. This is the essence of a post-scarcity economy; when a resource is abundant, it can be given away without expecting anything in return. If it is trivial to duplicate the results of someone's efforts then the more people who are able to make use of it, the better. The situation is not zero-sum — people are not going without as a direct result of someone else having it.

A situation of abundance currently exists with regard to information on the Internet; it is free to replicate, I can give it to others without going without it myself, and as a result, people give it away freely and take it freely.

Consider free and open-source software where anyone with a computer and internet connection can download the Firefox web browser or OpenOffice office software for free. Most people will be consumers rather than contributors, but this is of no consequence.

After a while of enjoying the fruits of open-source, many people are only too happy to contribute in some way, giving back to the community that has provided for them. The fact that they are not required to do this, in many instances makes it more likely that people will do so, uncoerced. This is human nature.


There are many names that this embryonic movement might go by:

  • Open collaborative design
  • Open design
  • Free design
  • Free and open design
  • Open-source design
  • Open-source hardware
  • Open design and engineering
  • Open Peer-to-Peer Design

Others working within this field

  • The MIT group behind Thinkcycle (open-source design for underserved communities and the environment) and Instructables which is a website to share step-by-step instructions for building things
  • Adrian Bowyer - The RepRap project (an open-source rapid prototyping machine designed to be capable of self-replication), and in a similar vein, Hod Lipson with Fab@Home
  • Marcin Jakubowski and team - Open Source Ecology. Farmer scientists dedicated to building the world's first replicable, open source, modern off-grid global village. Many open-source physical hardware projects being tested in the field (both metaphorically and literally)
  • Terry Hancock - co-founder of Anansi Spaceworks that is attempting to use open source principles to develop space technology. His series of articles titled Towards a free matter economy make interesting reading. Parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
  • Massimo Menichinelli - developer of the Open Peer-to-Peer Design concept and design methodology. While Open Design focuses on opening a design project, Open P2P Design focuses on building a community or social system that follows Open P2P principles and organizational forms in order to put in practice a collaborative activity that generates Open Innovations.
  • The Foundation for P2P Alternatives, started by Michel Bauwens, which is a large resource on related topics and in his words "functions as a clearinghouse for open/free, participatory/p2p and commons-oriented initiatives"

...and there must be plenty more...

Isn't this design by committee?

It has been said that a camel is a horse designed by committee... Won't this development model just create a herd of camels?

No, because there is no single 'conclusion' that a design must arrive at (unlike a committee's decision). As with software, it might be that an original design is created by a single motivated individual, or a small group of people with a common purpose and shared vision, but beyond that the design can be evolved in multiple directions by other interested parties who might need a particular variation.

Many fine horses have been created within the open-source software world and it will be the same with design and engineering.

Free and open-source software

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Perhaps not counting the scientific community, free and open-source software is where the modern concept of commons-based peer production 11px-Wikipedia_logo.jpg really took flight. It is becoming very prominent in the world of software development with Linux, Firefox, Apache and OpenOffice being some high-profile examples.

Networks of people (both companies and individuals) collaborate via the internet to develop useful software that others can freely benefit from. Not only is the software free to use, but so is the human-readable blueprint of the software, known as the source code 11px-Wikipedia_logo.jpg. Anyone capable is free to customise or help improve open-source software, and making these changes available to others also encourages rapid development times, robustness and reduces duplication of effort.

People who doubt the viability of the principles outlined on this page in the real world only have to look to this sector to see amazing examples of what is being achieved already. 35px-More_large.png

See also

Wikipedia articles

The two articles above also list examples of existing open collaborative design projects. As this methodology becomes better known and the toolset more powerful then the projects undertaken in this manner will gradually increase in sophistication, capability and impact.

Other links and articles

Other related 'open' endeavours