Open Source Methods for Self-Sufficient Communities

Lisa Shoreland
Activist Post

After reading about the Open Source Ecology project, I decided to do a little research and see if there were any other groups out there trying to attempt the same thing. What I found is that the majority of the small-scale, self-sufficient community projects are being funded either by universities or government grants.

The problem I think that is inherent in these models is that the interests of big business and governments tend to be at odds with the interests of the developing world. Certainly multinational corporations have a history of exploiting the workers of developing nations, as well as their governments, all in the name of profit.

The open source model has proven to be a huge success in the computing world. Groups like the Free Software Foundation, spearheaded by Richard Stallman in 1985, have changed the application landscape in a completely unprecedented way. They have provided users with quality software often at little or no cost. The resulting explosion in wikis and blogs has fueled a global grassroots movement that has added a level of transparency to global affairs that has never existed before.

There is however a flaw in applying this model to a project such as the Global Village Construction Set currently being worked on at Open Source Ecology.

The popularity of computing, itself partially driven by the free software model, is highly desirable to a very large demographic and the effects are immediately apparent. In addition, the connectivity of the Internet has allowed these types of projects to become economically feasible, with tons of programmers offering their services for free in their spare time. In this article we explore some of the barriers to entry of open-source self-sufficient community projects and how they may successfully capitalize on their investment through non-corporate or governmental channels.

A former physicist, Marcin Jakubowski, has started a DIY effort known as Open Source Ecology with their primary project being the Global Village Construction Set. This network of farmers, engineers, and collaborators has a goal of creating an entire platform of open-source, self-sufficient technology with the capabilities of building an entire community with all the modern conveniences. Described as a “mad scientist” by The Atlantic, the project is certainly an ambitious one and probably the most inclusive of any sustainability project I’ve seen to date.

What sets this project apart from the others is its sheer scope, and the commitment to providing solutions using off-the-shelf parts that one can easily obtain at a local store. Not only are they designing and building all the machinery necessary to build a modern community, they are building all the production equipment necessary to build those machines. The equipment they’re producing certainly takes a bit more than a tack welder and some wrenches to build. The video below will show you what I mean.

It all looks really cool, but is their business model feasible?

From what I can gather from their website, it looks to me like most of their profits are coming from individual contributions and from selling their equipment. That can fuel the project into a business, but can it turn it into a globally distributed technology? Not under the current business model it can’t.

People in the developing world lack the resources to implement the technology. They don’t have a local Wal-Mart where they can buy the parts, and they most likely lack the finances to secure all but the very cheapest of technologies. This may make the Global Village Construction Set viable for small-scale projects in developed nations, but will do little to help the market that could use it the most. So is there a way to get this technology into the hands of the world’s poor?

I think in order for these types of projects to gain momentum they are going to have to partner with microfinancing companies like Grameen Bank in order to bring their product to the larger market.  Grameen Bank offers the low interest zero collateral loans needed in the developing world to secure the necessary parts to build these types of equipment. Financing from sales and individual contributions will likely be enough to finish the project, and the Internet certainly provides a cost-effective manner to distribute the equipment plans, but the currently available niche market will unlikely be enough to fuel the project into the future.

If Open Source Ecology is able to effectively market their project to microfinancing organizations, and get them to give out the necessary loans to help lift the impoverished out of their predicament, then a second revolution using the open source concept can be initiated, which will bring real wealth to these people, instead of exploitation at the hands of large corporations.

Lisa Shoreland is currently a resident blogger at Go College, where recently she’s been writing on preparing for college and sharing her favorite money saving tips for students. In her spare time, she enjoys creative writing, practicing martial arts, and taking weekend trips.

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