Integrating Open Source: the Open Agriculture Learning Series

by Dan Kane

High tech tools are increasingly being integrated into our agricultural systems every year. New combines often come standard with geo-located yield monitoring technology, while start-ups and researchers are exploring how drones might be used to monitor fields. New record-keeping tools with mobile platforms make it easy for farmers to track their activity, analyze their data, and get feedback and recommendations. These tools are powerful, potentially enabling farmers to see, understand, and manage their land in ways previously less possible.

But many of these tools are costly, proprietary, and crop-specific, often coming with high subscription costs on a platform that makes data inaccessible or less versatile. Their current format can create barriers for farmers that don’t match their target clientele. But are they only tools available?


Open source agricultural tools may be an answer to the emergence of new proprietary, high-tech tools. Drawing on the development principles of the open-source movement, university researchers, farmers, developers, and hackers are building their own tools that often have open-source licensing or are freely available to the public. For example, farmOS is a completely open-source records management system that can be integrated with aerial maps to make management fast and east, and Photosynq is a project that integrates a Bluetooth-enabled photosynthesis meter with an online data management platform.

Individually, these tools are powerful, capable of providing farmers with new ways of collecting, analyzing, and modeling data on their farms. But so many of these tools go unnoticed now or aren’t currently capable of integrating with each other. For busy farmers who don’t have the time to manage and learn multiple tools, paying a premium for a more complete service often seems like the more attractive option.


The Open Agriculture Learning Series (OALS) is a group that formed with all these issues in mind. In an effort to catalog all the tools available and generate conversations about how we can integrate them, we host periodic webinars where developers can present their projects, talk about their needs, and look for ways to collaborate. OALS has drawn in groups like farmOS, Photosynq, Open Pipe Kit, Comet-Farm, and many more.

Through the series we’ve learned about the huge variety of useful tools that are already out there, but we’ve also about how hard it is to get these tools to speak to each other. Simply hosting a space where folks who are interested can have conversations is the first step in the process. OALS has led to fruitful conversations between groups like farmOS and Photosynq, who are now thinking of ways to make it easier to push data from one to the other.

As we continue to map the landscape of great work out there, we keep learning and finding points of collaboration. High-tech tools will most likely be an important part of the knowledge systems farmers use to help them make decisions. Ensuring that they’re inclusive and available to all producers will be essential to building a food system that’s just and sustainable.

Access past Open Agriculture Learning Series presentations in the Archive.

Reversing the Mississipi: documentary about the Open Source Ecology project

This article was originally posted by Michel Bauwens on the P2P Foundation blog

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens

REVERSING THE MISSISSIPPI is a documentary about a genius technologist and a rebel educator, two pioneers from opposite spectrums with one goal in common: Build a sustainable community. Can two men driven by determination overcome global challenges to change the world?”

Watch the trailer here, commentary from Shareable below:


Anna Bergren Miller writes:

“When filmmaker Ian Midgley set out in search of a subject, he had no idea that he would wind up a matchmaker. But matchmake he did, forging a connection between two young changemakers working in the Katrina-ravaged southeastern United States. Midgley’s new film, Reversing the Mississippi, tells the story of two men—scientist-inventor Marcin Jakubowski and teacher Nat Turner—united by a passion for expanding access to economic opportunity.

Midgley met Jakubowki first. The physics PhD and TED fellow was living in rural Missouri on Factor e Farm, a living laboratory for his life’s work: re-engineering life-sustaining machines to allow anyone to build them using basic tools and materials. To create the open-source Global Village Construction Set, Jakubowski relied on the time and energy of a motley crew of volunteers. Despite Jakubowski’s good intentions—and the huge media attention Factor e Farm generated—the project had stalled, the overworked volunteers increasingly disgruntled with their leader’s detached management style. “If he took time to consider it, he would be glad that I was here,” remarked a member of Jakubowski’s crew. “But I don’t think he’s taken that time.”

Enter Nat Turner. A former New York City schoolteacher who resigned following controversy involving a trip to Cuba with some of his students and their parents, Turner responded to news of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation by packing a school bus and driving to New Orleans. There he established Our School at Blaire Grocery, an alternative school and sustainability education center in the Lower Ninth Ward. Students at Our School learn the fundamentals of urban farming and career skills in addition to preparing for the GED. When Midgley told Turner about Factor e Farm, the teacher was intrigued enough to travel to Missouri in search of new machinery for his agriculture program.

Midgley’s film documents Jakubowski and Turner’s fruitful knowledge exchange. What began as a quest for technical assistance quickly evolved into much more. Turner, too, had had experience with the tricky transition from visionary to staff leader. And beyond the nitty-gritty of organizational operations, the men shared a commitment to realizing the seemingly impossible. “The work that we’re doing is like what it would take to reverse the flow of the Mississippi River,” said Turner. “That’s how big it was.”

Source: Reversing the Mississipi: documentary about the Open Source Ecology project

Feminism and the Commons

This article was originally published in the Fall 2015 FOOD/LAND Issue of GUTS Canadian Feminist Magazine
Tallulah Fontaine
Image: Tallulah Fontaine


by Alison Hugill


This time … it is women who must build the new commons so that they do not remain transient spaces, temporary autonomous zones, but become the foundation of new forms of social reproduction.

— Silvia Federici, “Feminism and the Politics of the Commons”

In the last decade, the idea of the “commons” has taken root in new territory. The commons refers to a moment when the distinction between public and private property was both challenged and defined, and today, in the face of widespread austerity measures, urban studies, architecture, and planning, in particular, have revisited the term in the pursuit of a radical spatial politics.

The recent “Make City” festival in Berlin, and its corollary ideas competition “Designing the Urban Commons” in London this spring, interrogated strategies for collective self-management and invited participants to challenge established ideas of property and ownership. The events began from the premise that the distinction between private and public property is a false binary that ignores the possibility of land and resources beyond the purview of the state or market. Whether evidenced in local community gardening initiatives like the “Agrocité” project in the Paris suburb of Colombes, initiated by collective Atelier d’Architecture Autogerée (AAA), or in the theoretical underpinning of critical educational forum “Campus in Camps” in Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank, led by members of the “Decolonizing Architecture” research group, the commons has presented a refreshing alternative for understanding the politics of space.

Additionally, we’ve seen a worldwide proliferation of discussions about the urban commons cropping up in response to crises: unprecedented examples of spatial commons resulting from protest movements or cases of extreme need such as the current refugee crisis, community farming initiatives, and efforts to safeguard the digital commons. Whether material or immaterial, the topic seems to quench a contemporary social drought brought on by the so-called “retreat of the public.” With this in mind, the question of how to scale the politics of the commons beyond local, spatial, or resource-based definitions is an ongoing concern.

The commons has historical roots in the English peasant revolts of the Industrial Revolution, a time period which entailed the seizure and enclosure of commonly held land. Residents and subsistence farmers were violently expelled and land was released into the privatized mainstream of capital accumulation, creating a landless proletariat. Karl Marx called this the moment of “primitive accumulation” from which capitalism as we know it was born.

Commons are intimately connected to a moment of loss and, if understood as a singular historical event, threaten to solidify the reign of capitalism and create a nostalgic political outlook. Contemporary theories around the commons insist, instead, that primitive accumulation is a constantly recurring cyclical phenomenon, through which capital seeks boundless expansion. New commons are constantly to be found and enclosures ceaselessly follow. Rather than a foundational moment, capitalist accumulation and the dispossession of commoners is seen as a dynamic process that demands a more structural challenge if it is to be curbed.

A recent turn away from the term as denoting a site or resource, and towards its understanding as a social process, has resulted in the active verb “commoning”: the creation of a community that shares political values concerning the common ownership of food, land, and knowledge resources. Importantly, as Greek academic Stavros Stavrides points out, commoning is about difference not commonality, and the ideal commons would constantly expand the scope of its participants. Beyond a purely resource-based definition of the term, this social pact entails a focus on immaterial forms of work, communication, self-management, and knowledge exchange.

If we think of the commons only in terms of spaces or resources, we risk missing the deeper structural problems inherent in capitalist ideology. A useful challenge to stagnation is found in Italian autonomist feminist Silvia Federici’s short essay “Feminism and the Politics of the Commons,” wherein she points to the feminist and Indigenous roots of commoning. In this piece she makes the important, and contentious, claim that a revaluation of traditionally feminized reproductive labour is crucial to any understanding of commoning as a future anti-capitalist political program. Reproductive labour sets the initial conditions for production to occur: it involves sexual reproduction, care, nourishment, and shelter. Without aiming to essentialize present-day instances of reproductive labour, it has historically been understood as women’s work. Federici proposes that we need to collectivize reproductive labour in order to make commoning a social reality, and argues that women are historically poised to lead the transition.

As noted above, the idea of the commons as a historical alternative to the state and market has gained renewed critical relevance in contemporary urban studies discourses for the way in which it addresses ever-increasing privatization of land and natural resources, as well as agricultural practices. Federici, who has been approaching the topic from a feminist perspective for decades, warns of the dangers inherent in the concept’s misappropriation, citing the ways in which the term “commons” has been hijacked by the UN and the World Bank to allow “a crisis-ridden capitalist class to revive itself as guardians of the planet.” Additionally, the promise of the internet as a commons has been increasingly debunked, as every corner of cyberspace becomes subject to privatization and surveillance.

Federici asserts the importance of considering the feminist roots of the commons and commoning, in order to present a structurally more cohesive alternative political project. In her well-known book Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, she traces the countless ways in which women’s bodies have been persecuted and policed—particularly as medieval heretics and, shortly after, as witches—by the church and state in the transition to capitalism. She lays out the systematic quashing of women’s social power and its inextricable ties to collective subsistence and reproductive health. It’s no coincidence that heresy flourished amongst the rural proletariat, particularly among poor women who took control over their own reproduction, creating powerful “sterility potions” to avoid further economic ruin. Heresy became increasingly associated with reproductive crimes and a prototypical women’s movement emerged within heretic groups.

Federici pinpoints the witch hunts as a direct response to the kind of social life and gender relations that prevailed in the communal living situations of rural peasants and serfs in the Middle Ages. Medieval serfs had relative autonomy over common lands—meadows, forests, lakes, wild pastures—and direct access to the means of their subsistence. No social separation existed between the production of goods and the reproduction of the workforce: “women worked in the fields, in addition to raising children, cooking, washing, spinning, and keeping an herb garden; their domestic activities were not devalued and did not involve different social relations from those of men, as they would later, in a money-economy, when housework would cease to be viewed as real work.” Though Federici is certainly not advocating a return to serfdom, nor glorifying the conditions of servitude, she does note certain social benefits that resulted from unfettered access to common lands and collective food resources.

In contrast, capitalist societies have since organized economic life in such a way that there is cooperation at the point of production, and separation and isolation at the point of reproduction. To combat this atomization in family units, Federici cites examples of urban gardens as playing a significant role in the production of food for local or neighbourhood communities. They have, however, largely remained spontaneous grassroots initiatives and the question of how to scale the idea of commoning, without ultimate subsumption in the capitalist market, remains largely unanswered. Foregrounding a number of contemporary examples—including the African tontines (autonomous, self-managed, women-made banking systems) and the ollas communes (common cooking pots) of Chile and Peru—Federici shows the ways in which women have been and continue to be the “subsistence farmers of the world.” Her insistence on the gendered nature of this struggle comes from a historical study of the role of women in struggles against land enclosures. Federici predicts critical feminist responses to her argument within the text, aware that many feminists would find her argument, that reproductive labour is intimately related to women’s lived experience, essentializing. She writes:

Arguing that women should take the lead in the collectivization of reproductive work and housing is not to naturalize housework as a female vocation. It is refusing to obliterate the collective experiences, the knowledge and the struggles that women have accumulated concerning reproductive work, whose history has been an essential part of our resistance to capitalism. Reconnecting with this history is a crucial step for women and men today both to undo the gendered architecture of our lives and to reconstruct our homes and lives as commons.

Many of the current examples of this kind of collectivization are taken from Indigenous communities in the Americas, including women in the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico. The enactment of the Women’s Revolutionary Law in that context strived to combat patriarchal domination by addressing women’s grievances with regard to political representation, labour, reproduction, and domestic violence. Indigenous feminisms in revolutionary movements have positioned women as intimately involved in the political and social struggles of the community. These movements have managed to avoid situations where Indigenous men and women are forced to enter the globalized capitalist economic system, which has reduced women’s power within the family. Under capitalism, paid economic labour has simultaneously been positioned over and against unpaid subsistence labour, while paradoxically depending on it.

A more recent example of feminist commoning is visible in the Kurdish Women’s Defense Force (YPJ) currently operating in the Rojava cantons (Afrin, Cizire, and Kobani) in the liberated region of Northern Syria, or western Kurdistan. Since 2012, the region has been largely governed by Kurdish militia, who have been in more or less constant battle with the surrounding Assad regime. The autonomous region has set up a series of district people’s councils, which collectively decide on matters of administration such as garbage collection, heating, land ownership, and cooperative enterprise. Women make up at least 40 percent of these councils, and autonomous women’s bodies have been additionally set up at each level in an effort to revolutionize the gender imbalance. In cases of internal conflict over issues directly concerning women (marriage, reproduction, polygamy, domestic violence), the women’s council has the right to overrule the mixed councils.

This particular effort to reverse gender imbalances and collectivize reproductive labour does not necessarily lead to a situation where women are isolated or pigeon-holed in domestic duties. Even in local examples of commoning, the importance of reproductive labour becomes clear as soon as efforts to cooperate emerge: questions of subsistence precede production and are its undeniable backbone. As feminist sociologist Maria Mies observes: “The way in which women’s subsistence work and the contribution of the commons to the concrete survival of local people are both made invisible … have common roots.… In a way women are treated like commons and commons are treated like women.”

The task, then, is to recognize and reverse this devaluation of reproductive labour and its inextricable relation to land and natural resources. A recent symposium in Berlin as part of the “Make City” festival attempted to tackle questions of how the commons can become a transnational project, beyond isolated local initiatives, and whether—from the perspective of architecture and urban planning in particular—it was possible to design the commons. What emerged, above all, was a sense that the topic concerned primarily social relations. Commons do not simply mean open and free access to land and natural resources, but rely on a deeper set of socio-political values that must be rooted in anti-colonial and feminist struggles.


Alison Hugill has a Master’s in Art Theory from Goldsmiths College, University of London (2011). Her research focuses on marxist-feminist politics and aesthetic theories of community, communication and communism. Alison is the editor of Berlin Art Link magazine, and a writer and curator based in Berlin.

“Feminism and the Commons” is from our FOOD/LAND Issue (fall 2015)

New York: It’s time to speak out for your right to repair

This content was originally published by the Digital Right to Repair at


The Fair Repair Bill

Right now, New York has a chance to pass the first Fair Repair bill in the nation. We have a chance to guarantee our right to repair electronics—like smartphones, computers, and even farm equipment. We have a chance to help the environment and stand up for local repair jobs—the corner mom-and-pop repair shops that keep getting squeezed out by manufacturers.

We’ve been working with local repair companies to come up with a solution. The Fair Repair Bill, known as S3998 in the State Senate and A6068 in the State Assembly, requires manufacturers to provide owners and independent repair businesses with fair access to service information, security updates, and replacement parts.

If you agree with us, find out who represents you in New York’s legislatures. Tell them you support the bipartisan Fair Repair bill, S3998 in the State Senate and A6068 in the State Assembly. Tell them that you believe repair should be fair, affordable, and accessible. Stand up for the right to repair in New York.

Note: you must be a resident of New York to submit a comment about this bill.

Electronics are making farm equipment harder to repair.

Kerry Adams, a family farmer in Santa Maria, California, found that out the hard way when he bought two transplanter machines for north of $100,000 apiece. They broke down soon afterward, and he had to fly a factory technician out to fix them.


Because manufacturers have copyrighted the service manuals, local mechanics can’t fix modern farming equipment. And today’s equipment—packed with sensors and electronics—is too complex to repair without them. That’s a problem for farmers, who can’t afford to pay the dealer’s high maintenance fees for fickle equipment.

Adams gave up on getting his transplanters fixed; it was just too expensive to keep flying technicians out to his farm. Now, the two transplanters sit idle, and he can’t use them to support his farm and his family.


Photos courtesy Stawarz

Photos courtesy Stawarz

The National Grange agrees: “On behalf of over 200,000 members of the National Grange, we fully support the Right to Repair Act because we believe in an owner’s right to maintain, service, repair and rebuild their vehicle or farming equipment on their own accord or by the repair shop of their choice. Our members, most of them located in rural areas, value their ability and freedom to fix and repair their own vehicles, tractors and other farm equipment. Should they seek assistance elsewhere, local repair shops should have access to all necessary computer codes and service information in order to properly and efficiently make repairs.

“In addition, we believe that in the absence of the Right to Repair Act, many individuals, both rural and urban, would likely put off important vehicle repairs and maintenance, jeopardizing their safety and the safety of others on the road. It is also important to note that our members often farm and ranch in remote locations where repair shops are just not available. Days waiting on parts from dealers can mean missing crop target pricing, costing our members in agriculture a great deal of revenue.”

Oh, the good old days. With electronics these days you're lucky if you get a dipstick!

Oh, the good old days. With electronics these days you’re lucky if you get a dipstick!

Farmers are Fighting Back

More and more, farmers are turning to the internet to learn how to repair their complex equipment. They are turning to websites like iFixit to share techniques for maintaining equipment.

But it’s not enough.



For more about how the right to repair is fundamental to the DIY and small farmer community, revisit Kyle Wein’s article on a few months ago: New High-Tech Farm Equipment is a Nightmare for Small Farmers.


How to Make Everything Ourselves: Open Modular Hardware

This post was written by Kris de Decker of Low Tech Magazine. The original article can be found here.

Open source consumer goods

Reverting to traditional handicrafts is one way to sabotage the throwaway society. In this article, we discuss another possibility: the design of modular consumer products, whose parts and components could be re-used for the design of other products.

Initiatives like OpenStructures, Grid Beam, and Contraptor combine the modularity of systems like LEGO, Meccano and Erector with the collaborative power of digital success stories like Wikipedia, Linux or WordPress.

An economy based on the concept of re-use would not only bring important advantages in terms of sustainability, but would also save consumers money, speed up innovation, and take manufacturing out of the hands of multinationals.

A modular system unites the advantages of standardisation (as parts can be produced cheaply in large amounts) with the advantages of customisation (since a large diversity of unique objects can be made with relatively few parts). Modularity can be found to a greater or lesser extent in many products (like bicycles and computers) and systems (like trains and logistics), but the best examples of modular systems are toys: LEGOMeccano, and Erector (which is now the brand name of Meccano in the US).

LEGO, Meccano and Erector are composed of relatively few elementary building blocks, which can be used to build various objects. The parts can then be disassembled and re-used to build something completely different. Apart from the elementary buildings blocks, these manufacturers have produced many more specific building blocks, which are less versatile, but further increase customisation possibilities.

Afmetingen lego bouwstenen

All the building blocks in a set of LEGO, Meccano or Erector fit together because they are designed according to a set of specific rules. The holes (Meccano and Erector) or studs (LEGO) have a precise diameter and are spaced apart at specific distances. In addition, the dimensions of the building blocks are precisely matched to each other. The long lasting success of LEGO, Meccano and Erector (which appeared on the market in 1947, 1902 and 1911 respectively) is based on the fact that those rules have never changed. All new buildings blocks that were added in the course of the years are compatible with the existing ones. Today, kids can expand their collection of these toys with that of their parents or grandparents, and they are worth as much on the second hand market as they are worth new.

Grid Beam, Bit Beam, Open Beam, Maker Beam and Contraptor

The same principle could be applied to everyday objects, from coffeemakers to furniture, gadgets, cars and renewable energy systems. All you need is a standardisation in design. The design rules can be very simple, as is the case with Grid Beam. This modular construction system, which was developed in 1976, is based on beams with a simple geometry and a repetitive hole-pattern. The beams can be made of wood, aluminium, steel, or any other material.

Grid beam high sleeper

In spite of the simplicity of the design, a great variety of objects can be constructed. Grid Beam has been used to make all kinds of furniture, greenhouses, constructions for workshops and industrial processes, windmills, wheelbarrows, agricultural machinery, vehicles, sheds and buildings (a book about the system was published in 2009, and can be found online). Grid Beam was inspired by a system envisioned by Ken Isaacs in the 1950s, Living Structures, which used similar beams but contained only a few holes.

Grid beam wheelbarrow
In recent years, several systems have appeared that use a very similar set of rules, based on a repetitive hole pattern. Bit Beam is basically a scaled-down version of Grid Beam, aimed at building smaller structures in balsa-wood, like a laptop stand or a prototype device. Contraptor uses a similar approach, but is aimed at providing structural metal frames for DIY 3D-printers, milling machines, or robotics. OpenBeam and MakerBeam are also modular construction systems based on very simple rules. These are not based on a hole-pattern, but use T-slot aluminium profiles. Makeblock combines both approaches and includes electronic modules.

Most of these construction systems are limited to the design of frameworks. There is one system, however, that offers much more possibilities, because it is based on a more sophisticated set of rules: OpenStructures. The project was kicked off in Brussels in 2007. Unlike all the projects above, OpenStructures is still in an experimental phase. However, it is interesting enough to look at in more detail, because it best shows where modular construction systems may be headed in the future.


The first basic rule of OpenStructures is shared with Grid Beam and similar systems: all parts are connected to each other in such a way that they can be easily disassembled, using bolts and screws rather than nails or glue. However, the OpenStructures design “language” is different: it is based on the OS Grid, which is built around a square of 4×4 cm and is scalable. The squares can be further subdivided or put together to form larger squares, without losing inter-compatibility. The illustration below shows nine complete squares of each 4×4 cm put together.

OS grid
The borders of the squares mark the cutting lines (which define the dimensions of square parts),  the diagonals determine the assembly points, and the circles define the common diameters. As is the case with LEGO, any modular part has to comply with at least one of these conditions in order to be compatible with other parts. Either the dimensions have to correspond with the horizontal and vertical lines, or the assembly points should be spaced according to the grid, or the diameters should be similar. Below is a part that fulfills two of three conditions.

Compatibel onderdeel
While this set of rules is more sophisticated than that of the Grid Beam system, complicated it is not. Nevertheless, it allows for the design of a much larger variety of objects, not just square or rectangular frames. Over the course of five years, OpenStructures has yielded objects ranging from household devices to cargo bicycles, suitcases and furniture.

Open versus Closed Modular Systems

In spite of the similarities, there is one fundamental difference between modular construction systems such as OpenStructures, Grid Beam and Contraptor, and modular toys such as LEGO, Meccano and Erector. The first group consists of “open” modular systems, where everyone is free to design and produce parts, while the second consists of “closed” modular systems, where all parts are designed and produced by one manufacturer. Closed modular systems produce uniform parts. For instance, all LEGO building blocks are made of plastic. LEGO does not produce building blocks made of wood, aluminium, glass or ceramics. There is a limited range of colours. And because LEGO is a closed system, nobody else is allowed to produce LEGO pieces.

Closed modular systemOpen modular system

There exist modular construction systems that operate according to the same principles, like the T-profiles made by 80/20 inc. However, in the modular construction systems that we have introduced above, everyone is allowed to design and produce parts, as long as these parts are compatible with the basic set of rules. We find the same approach with open software, like Linux (an operating system), OpenOffice (office software) or WordPress (a blogging platform). The computer code for these systems is being written by a large amount of people, who all build a part of something larger. Because all participants stick to a basic set of rules, a great amount of people can, independently of one another,  add parts that are inter-compatible.


Consumer products based on an open modular system can foster rapid innovation, without the drawback of wasting energy and materials


An open modular system has many advantages over a closed modular system. Since anyone can design parts in an open system, it generates a much larger diversity of parts: they can be made in different colours and materials, and none of the producers can set a fixed price for all consumers. And because many designers constantly review, adapt and improve each others’ work, innovation is accelerated. All open software systems described above are arguably better than their closed counterparts, and some of them have become more successful. A closed modular system only has one advantage: the one who holds the copyright makes a lot of money.

Sustainable Consumer Goods

Modular construction systems encourage the re-use of physical parts, and thus form a sustainable alternative to our present-day system of producing consumer items. Most products that we buy end up in landfills or incinerators within a couple of years, at most. This is because the majority of manufacturers encourages consumers to replace their products as quickly as possible, either by designing objects that break down easily, or by introducing new generations of products which make the former generation of products obsolete. This approach not only generates a massive pile of waste, it squanders an equally massive amount of energy and raw materials.

Part of OS grid

Consumer products based on an open modular system can foster rapid innovation, without the drawback of wasting energy and materials. The parts of an obsolete generation of products can be used to design the next generation, or something completely different. Furthermore, modular objects have built-in repairability.

Open modular construction systems could greatly speed up the diffusion of low-technologies, such as pedal-powered machinessolar thermal collectorsvelomobiles or cargo cycles. Building a windmill or a cargo bike goes much faster when using modular parts than when using carpentry or welding, and there is no need for expensive tools or special skills. Mistakes can be easily corrected — just unscrew the bolts and start again. It would also be interesting to see modular parts combined with an open hardware project such as the Global Village Construction Set, which generates many interesting designs but makes limited use of modularity.

Circulation of Parts

“While eBay provides a circulation of objects, and cradle-to-cradle provides a circulation of materials, modular construction systems provide a circulation of parts and components”, says Thomas Lommée, the creator of OpenStructures. “Our ambition is to create puzzles instead of static objects. The system should generate objects of which it is not entirely clear anymore who designed them. An object evolves as it is taken in hands by more designers.”

Kitchen appliances openstructures

The kitchen appliances that were designed in the context of the project are good examples. A couple of parts were initially made for a coffee grinder, were then used, together with new parts, by another designer to build a coffeemaker. This appliance was then further developed into a water purification device by a third designer. The plastic bottle that served as a water container was replaced by a cut through glass bottle containing a clay filter. Thomas Lommée: “By adding or removing components, or by using them in a different manner, what you get is a family of objects”.

Cargo Cycle

Another prototype that originated from the project, is a cargo cycle. The rear is a sawed through frame of a standard bicycle, the end of which is compatible with the OS Grid. This means that the front of the cycle can be built up in a modular way. Designer Jo Van Bostraeten used this opportunity to design both a cargo bicycle and a cargo tricycle (the latter is carrying a 3D-printer), and it doesn’t end there. Together with Lommée, he also constructed a modular motor block. The unit consists of an electric motor and wheels, on top of which a similar unit can be placed that holds a battery. Since the units are compatible with the OS Grid, they can be coupled to the front of the cargo cycle, resulting in a completely modular motorised cargo vehicle.

Openstructures cargo vehicles

The latest “family” of objects to come out of the project is aimed at children. It is noteworthy that this collection arose from one component of the cargo cycle — the container.  It is built up from modular parts that can be bolted together, and can thus be combined in different ways. A couple of designers got started with those parts, resulting in (among other things) a sled, a seat, a toy excavator, and a swing. When the child becomes an adolescent, the parts can be used to make a suitcase or a tool box, or become part of a cargo cycle that could make him or her some pocket money.

Open source objects

More interesting than the objects themselves, is their user support system. Grid Beam is obviously a product from the pre-internet age. Those who want to copy a design are encouraged to look at a picture of someone else’s creation and “count the holes”. OpenStructures, on the other hand, leans heavily on online user support. The re-use of parts is being facilitated by an online database that can be used in three ways.

A Modular Database

First, you can request an overview of all objects that were designed based on the OS grid. The webpage for each object then shows you the parts and components from which it is made. Second, you can request an overview of all parts that were designed based on the OS grid. The webpage for each of these shows you which components and objects they could serve. Third, you can request an overview of all components. The webpage for each component shows you their parts and the objects they can be used for.


Open modular construction does not mean that everyone should make their own consumer products


The webpage for each part, component and object also gives additional information: the dimensions, the materials, the designer’s name, the licence and the order information. To add to this, all parts and components receive a serial number. This means that after a modular object is taken apart, the serial number of each part and component can be entered into the database to see what else can be made with it. Missing parts can be obtained via the database: either by ordering them online, by finding the address of a shop where they sell them, or by downloading the digital design and making them.

Not Everyone is a Designer

Open modular construction does not mean that everyone should make their own consumer products. An object like a coffee maker or a workbench could be obtained in at least three ways. Firstly, the consumer can download the digital design and then assemble the object with parts that he or she buys, re-uses, or makes using a 3D-printer or laser cutter, whether at home or at a fab lab or tech shop. It can also happen in a more low-tech fashion, as is the case with Grid Beam: the consumer buys wood or metal beams, and drills the holes himself.

Modular parts water boiler

A second option is that a company buys the license of the design (if it is not free) and converts it into a building kit, comparable to a kit from LEGO, Meccano or Erector. In this case, the consumer would not have to search for the parts himself, but he still assembles the product himself, just like he would assemble a piece of furniture by IKEA. Similarly, a company could offer a more general building kit, which can be used to make whatever one would like, similar to a box of basic LEGO bricks. Bit Beam, Contraptor, Open Beam, Maker Beam and, recently, Grid Beam offer one or both of these options.

The third possibility is that a manufacturer places the object on the market as a finished, assembled product. The coffee maker or the workbench would then be sold and bought just as any other product today, but it can be disassembled after use, and its parts can be re-used for other objects.

Economic Model: who Produces the Parts?

While the design process behind OpenStructures and other open modular construction systems is identical to that of digital products such as Wikipedia, Linux or WordPress, there is also a fundamental difference. Computer code and digital text accumulate without any material costs. This is not the case with objects. This makes open modular hardware less easy, but it also creates  economic opportunities. It’s hard to make money with open software or online writing. However, in the case of an open modular system for objects, someone has to provide the materials.

It is also important that the parts are produced by as many manufacturers as possible, so that they are available worldwide. Otherwhise, the shipping costs can be so high that a modular object becomes too expensive.

Modular toaster

There are many opportunities to make money with an open modular construction model. A manufacturer can choose to produce a part in which they sees economic potential. Another manufacturer can choose to sell a building kit or a finished product of a design they think will sell. A designer can make money by uploading a design that might be free to download for personal use, but not for commercial use. A manufacturer that wants to commercialise this design, can then buy the licence from the designer.

Craftsmen can focus on the design of exclusive, handmade parts in special materials, which are compatible with popular mass produced items. Others can start a fab lab or a tech shop where people can build their own modular objects for a monthly fee. In short, an open modular construction system offers economic opportunities for everybody.

Collaborative Economy

“It is not our ambition to build a gigantic factory that produces all possible parts”, Lommée notes. “OpenStructures should not become a modular IKEA. Our ambition is the creation of a collective economic system, where one producer benefits from the production of another producer. Because parts which are made by one, can be used by another. What we would like to see, are streets full of little shops where everybody generates their own little part of a larger system, a collaborative economy where small, self-employed producers have their place. Not one big player that makes everything. The social dimension is very important.”

Contraptor parts

“If IKEA wants to sell a product that is compatible with our system, then that’s fine with me. But the system can only work if it remains open. The larger it becomes, the easier it is for a small company or a craftsman to be a part of it. The ambition is to start a universal, collaborative puzzle that allows the widest possible range of people — from craftsmen to multinationals — to design, build and exchange the widest possible range of modular parts and components.”

Organising Re-use

Apart from a design language (the OS grid) and an online database, OpenStructures also has set up a prototype of a warehouse in Brussels. This kind of place should become the hub for the organisation of the re-use of parts and components. Think a fab lab or tech shop, but then combined with the storage of modular parts. If a modular product is no longer needed, and the owner does not feel like using the parts to build something new, he or she brings it to one of these places, where it is taken apart, and its parts are stored.


An open modular construction system offers economic opportunities for everybody


Other people could come to this place to buy parts or to use them on site to build something new. As Lommée says: “Not everyone has to make their own products, but after its useful life, a modular product always comes into the hands of a group of people who like to make things.”

Compatibility between Open Modular Systems

While it is still in an experimental phase, OpenStructures is by far the most ambitious and complete open modular system designed to date. However, being a European project, it follows the international metric system, while the much older Grid Beam follows the imperial system. The systems are not compatible. With more and more open modular systems appearing, would it not be important to provide inter-compatibility between them?


Lommée doesn’t think so: “Most of these systems are designed for different applications. For instance, Contraptor aims at precision, because the parts are used to build robots and other sophisticated machines. Esthetics are clearly not important. I am a designer, so what interests me especially is whether or not a modular system can generate beautiful objects, things you would want to put in your interior. There is also Wikispeed, for instance, which concentrates on the development of a modular car. Arduino is aimed at electronics. I don’t think that all of these modular systems have to be compatible with each other because the applications are very different.”

Open beam

He goes on to explain why he chose the metric system. “I have been doubting a lot about this. But in the end I decided that the metric system is easier to work with. And I think the world is big enough for two systems — just look at the variety of energy standards which are in use. Somebody has developed a European version of Contraptor, based on the metric system and compatible with the OS grid. And it is always possible to design a coupling between two systems, so that they can be used together. On the other hand, we live in a networked world where everything is connected and copied. This often means that when standards compete, only one survives. And this is not necessarily the best one. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.”

Kris De Decker (edited by Deva Lee). This article is also available in Spanish.

Three Proposed Governance Hacks for Making Peer Production into a Real Economic and Social System

This post was written by Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation. The original post can be found here.

Capitalism wasn’t always an organic and dominant system. Before it achieved its status as a full mode of production, i.e. as a coherent way to create and diffuse value, as a form of society and civilization, it needed to hack the old society to mold it to its image. Karl Polanyi, in The Great Transformation, explains how early merchants were still dependent on artisans and guild labor for example (the so-called ‘putting out’ system), and could not rely at first on making labor a commodity itself. The situation is not different for the emergent ‘proto’ system of production that is today ‘commons-oriented peer production’, in which communities of contributors, paid or unpaid, create ‘commons’ (shared resources governed by their users) and not commodities. How can this emergent post-capitalist logic, that is already beyond the labor and commodity logic, come into its own ? How do we make peer production into an organic system. With this priority in mind, the P2P Foundation and other similar networks of P2P activists and scholars have put forward a number of hacks.

The key issue is: how do we keep ‘value’ within the sphere of the commons, so that the commons can grow and ‘reproduce’ itself. Or in other words: how can we actually make a living through our contributions ?

A first proposal is the copyfair license, i.e. a reciprocity-based license. Why is this necessary ? Technically, according to the traditional definition of ‘communism’ in the 19th century, the General Public License is a communist license: from each according to their contributions, to each according to their needs’. But the issue in our current political economy is that such a dynamic invariably leads to the domination of the ‘free and shared’-resources based economy by large private players, and additionally, leads to a usage of these shared resources without contributions. While this ‘liberal communism’ (communism at the service of capital and the liberal value of the abstract ‘right toshare’), may not be a problem for non-rival and anti-rival resources such as knowledge and code, it may be seen as more problematic in the world of design, seeds, and other forms of sharing that are more directly linked to physical production. Indeed, once we need to invest in building, machines, raw material and salaries, the private domination of the open economy may be seen as problematic. Thus, a license that would require some form of reciprocity, would have a number of advantages. The requirement that firms that do not contribute, pay a license fee, would create a stream of capital to the sphere of the commons and its communities and ‘Foundations’. Second, and more important, the requirement to define reciprocity, would recreate a ‘moral economy’ that would re-integrate positive social externalities in the market sphere itself.

Our second hack would also involve governance and property dynamics. We propose the creation by commoners of truly ‘open cooperatives’, i.e. coops that do not just work for their own members, but structurally and ‘statutarily’ co-create commons along with livelihoods for the cooperative workers. In this model, the coop would be ‘for-benefit’ in legal orientation, not for-profit (profits would be used for its social goal), multi-stakeholder, but also co-create commons, in the form of both immaterial commons (shared knowledge) but also eventually common material resources (the Allianza Solidaria housing coop in South Quito requires 100 hours of labor of its members that is used to create common parks). These new coops would not end up behaving selfishly on the capital markets just on behalf of their own members, but would create the common good as a natural part of their activities. A similar proposal is the ‘fairshares’ ownership models which divides property in four equal pieces, for founders, funders, workers, and user communities.

Here then is our final and third proposed ‘hack’ of the day: open supply chains and open accounting. Once a ‘ethical enterpreneurial coalition’ is constituted around the copyfair license and/or a social charter establishing common values and a commons orientation, then it becomes more natural to move from competition to coopetition, i.e. the share production and accounting information throughout the network. An example is the Enspiral network of social enterpreneurs in New Zealand, who function transparently within the network. Through this hack, the mutual and ‘stigmergic’ coordination of productive activities, which already has been achieved in the immaterial production of knowledge, code and design, would also start to create post-capitalist ‘mutual coordination’ dynamics in the sphere of actual physical production.

If these three steps were taken concurrently by various actors then ‘peer production’ would substantially move to function as a ‘organic’ system that is able to self-reproduce itself, as the commons contributors would be able to create cooperative livelihoods. We would have moved from a ‘communism of capital’ to a ‘capital for the commons’.