What is “The Sustainability Commons”?

Recently, Cat Johnson interviewed Benjamin Tincq of POC21 (“Eco Hacking the Future”) about open source designs aimed at sustainability. The  POC21 projects in 2015 include Aker (open source designs for urban gardens), open source energy systems, and other systems to deliver and conserve food, water, and transport.   These designs are “open source”, which means that the design is free for anyone to build the particular device (although in many cases the components may be commercial products).

To me, who grew up with the Whole Earth Catalog on my shelf, the concept is scarcely novel, and the collection of technology is pretty much unchanged from four decades ago. Personal fabrication does mean we can download the plans in executable form, which is way more convenient than mail order drawings! But the actual devices are functionally identical to 70’s and 80’s grade “sustainable” technology.

This is not surprising, since neither the problems nor the solutions have changed. Small wind turbines and photovoltaic generators still generate only a fraction of what a conventional home or office uses (i.e., they are only marginally useful for most people), composting systems are composting systems (and composting is really simple!), and so on.

The tech really hasn’t changed that much.

It also looks like the philosophical underpinning hasn’t changed either. We are still trying to decouple technology, especially survival critical technology, from the control and often crazy logic of capitalism. This is necessary because capitalism will never serve the needs of the poor very well, if at all.   “Sustainable technology” has always been about the idea that there are technological solutions to the challenges of political economics.

In her interview, Johnson talks about “the sustainability commons”, which she describes as a movement which “combines open source design with sustainability is creating an exciting alternative to profit-driven, proprietary sustainability products.”  I’m not sure how coherent this “movement” may be, but I grant that there certainly are people trying to create open designs that tackle “sustainability” problems.

Responding to Johnson’s question, Tincq gives a comprehensive explanation of why open source design is important for the goals of sustainability. His points are (paraphrased):

  1. We need the biggest team possible to create the solutions for wicked problems”, a way to share knowledge accessible for everyone.
  2. Open design and open hardware is seen as an antidote to planned obsolescence.
  3. The “re-localization of manufacturing“ will, he says, “save tons of carbon through shorter and local supply chains
  4. Local production with “shift from the consumer mindset to the prosumer mindset”, and generally enable people to understand and participate in the design and production of their own products.

These are ambitious goals indeed, and my own view is that that every one of them is more about culture and political economics more than technology. I think he is talking about redistributing power (and wealth), which is the essence of the solution.

This is even clearer in the rest of the interview, which focuses on intellectual property issues and access to capital. Tincq makes some good, if obvious, points about IP and investment capital. (It is difficult to get people to act altruistically, when the economic contingencies encourage short term and selfish behavior.)  But it is important to note that these challenges are not really addressed by the hardware designs in question, they have to do with social and political issues.

One of the more interesting points Tincq discusses is how open source hardware licensing is different from the models of software and documentation that inspire the concept. An open license such as Creative Commonsdoes not really protect the fabrication process itself—only the blueprint file.” This is a very important point. In the case of both documentation and computer programs, the “fabrication process” (such as displaying the digital text) is peripheral and irrelevant, so we mainly care about preserving access to the ‘plan’. But hardware is different.

Tincq elaborates with an example.  He would like licenses that allow free use of a design with restrictions on how you use it, i.e., how you build it.

All of these licenses allow for the use, reproduction, modification and redistribution of the product blueprints. What they lack though are restrictions on materials. For instance, it would be great to have a license that says: “You can modify this table and distribute your new version, as long as you use local, sustainable wood”.

This is another really good point, and I think there is a lot of interesting work to do here before we can even describe what you might want to specify, let alone how to enforce it. (I have done academic work that touched on this problem—I can tell you that it’s really, really, hard.)

I would note the potential role of something like provenance.org here. I could imagine using smart tags, cryptographic signatures, and “smart contracts” (that express license rules) that describe restrictions on components and processes in machine readable form. These could be analyzed and enforced by software.

For example, I would scan the tags on all the input materials, etc., into my personal fabrication system, which would make sure that everything is within the specs (e.g., the wood is locally sourced, the diamonds are conflict free).  The fabricator might be set to reject non-conforming elements, or I might just want to receive a certificate that says “this object complies with the rules specified here”.

There can be more than one version of the rules, so you can get an array certificates that says which rules you meet, and you can have some choice about the rules.

Interesting stuff!

Summing up:  I’m underwhelmed by the technology itself, and I have never really bought the notion that sustainability is a technological problem—it is a political, economic, and cultural problem. But I do like the fact that thinking is turning toward more sophisticated ideas about how to share knowhow, and how to construct a commons.

And it all makes me think about interesting things, like  how things like provenance tracking might be incorporated.

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