Illustrating the Solidarity Economy

Original post from the P2P Foundation Blog

We’re very happy to share this fantastic poster, with text by Caroline Woolard and an illustration by Jeff Warren. The poster is also available in Spanish and Mandarin. The following text is extracted from

Screen Shot 2017-01-26 at 10.00.33 AM

What practices and places can we rely on and strengthen in the years to come?

What might be called an “alternative” economy in the United States is known globally as the solidarity economy. The solidarity economy identifies and unites grassroots practices like lending circles, credit unions, worker cooperatives, community safety initiatives, community media stations, and community land trusts to form a powerful base of political power. The concept emerged in the global South (as economia solidária*) and is now gaining support in the United States under many names, including the community economy, the peace economy, the workers’ economy, the social economy, the new economy, the circular economy, the regenerative economy, the local economy, and the cooperative economy.

As many people finally wake up to the reality that white supremacy threatens public health on a daily basis, a wide range of people are educating themselves, assertively dismantling structures of oppression in organizations, and learning to follow the lead of black and brown artists and organizers who have been under siege for centuries and who have always been leaders in the solidarity economy. For more information about the solidarity economy, please visit: and

Marco Arruda of the Brazilian Solidarity Economy Network stated at the World Social Forum in 2004: “A solidarity economy does not arise from thinkers or ideas; it is the outcome of the concrete historical struggle of the human being to live and to develop him/herself as an individual and a collective… innovative practices at the micro level can only be viable and structurally effective for social change if they interweave with one another to form always-broader collaborative networks and solidarity chains of production-finance-distribution-consumption-education-communication.”

Text by Caroline Woolard

Support the Patriot Weeder Project: Designing a versatile, effective and affordable open-source cultivation system

Contribute funds to get this important, open-source design collaboration off the ground!

The Patriot Weeder Project aims to meet the demand from small organic farms for affordable, precise, and reliable weeding equipment. Funds from this campaign will be used to build and test prototypes, and produce open source plans for the Patriot Weeder:   An effective, versatile, and cheap weeding system adaptable to a wide range of farm sizes, soil types, and crops.  Most current farming technology is geared toward industrial scale production, leaving small-scale farms to equip their operations with a mix of obsolete, repurposed and invented tools. The ultimate goal is to make open source plans for the Patriot Weeder freely available for farmers and local fabricators on, a hub for open source solutions to support small farmers and the local food movement.  At you can already  find plans for our bicycle-powered thresher ,  fanning mill, and Dehuller/Flour Mill  (made possible by a SARE Grant) .
We embark on the Patriot Weeder Project in the spirit of Farmhack, namely in an attempt to simultaneously support both our emerging local farming sector and a revitalized local manufacturing movement. We can do this by getting the right tools into the hands of farmers at the right price, while at the same time developing a viable, decentralized, open-source, small scale model of local artisanship.

When my brother, an organic farmer, first asked me to build a weeding tool, I imagined he meant improving on the many available designs already in production.  I soon learned there are few to no available designs in the US.  There are old machines, like the Allis Chalmers G (ended in 1955) and the Farmall (built until 1980), but there are fewer of these antiques each year.  There are companies making either replica parts for the old machines or specialized weeding machines for certain applications (eg, tine weeders).  But it is nigh on impossible to find a US-made mechanical weeding system that is adaptable to many crops, farms of different sizes, and different soil conditions.  In Europe such systems exist.  However, they are expensive ($4K-50K) and they use proprietary shapes and sizes that make tool changing, universality, maintenance, and technical support a hassle.

Why was the mechanical weeder discontinued in the US?

Herbicides replaced machines for weeding.  Now public awareness of the problems with herbicides creates an opportunity for small farms to perfect mechanical cultivation (weeding) and lead the way back to a regional food system based on locally produced food and tools, and ecologically sound methods.

What features will a weeder for everyone have?

First, the design and plans will be open source so everyone can use and improve the plans.  Second, the design will be based on regular steel stock sizes, so any shop or farm can build the weeder with simple metal fabrication tools.  Third, the design will scale up for use with large tractors and scale down for use with small tractors, bike powered tractors, and pushed wheel hoes.  Additionally, the tool bar for the weeder will have an option for mounting on the three point hitch of a tractor and being pulled behind, allowing some farms to use one tractor for both plowing and cultivation.

The Patriot Weeder Project can do all this, but can’t do it unless you help.  If we nurture these seedlings of  sustainable agriculture, they will grow into a healthy network from which we’ll harvest the fruits of local food security, nutrition, and community empowerment. Please donate if you can, or share with your friends!

Support the Patriot Weeder Project on GoFundMe
Also seeking farmer input! Contact Lu through the GoFundMe page. 

Three Parts to the Project:

Part 1: A parallelogram row unit (pictured above) which clips on to a horizontal tool bar and carries a gauge wheel and a shank-mounted cultivating shoe or other type of weeder. The parallelogram row unit can be built light for use on a manually pushed cart or culticyle, or it can be built heavy for a large tractor. Many row units can ride on a single tool bar for cultivating more rows at once. Everything is adjustable with a single bolt sliding arrangement, so the row units can be tuned for crop height, cultivation depth, row spacing, etc.

Part 2: Homemade cultivating shoes and spring shanks. ​So that l​ocal shops can make cultivating tools to farmer’s specifications.

Part 3: The tool bar on to which the parallelogram row units mount can be belly mounted (such as a G, Cub, 140), but many farms do not have a tractor with a belly mounted tool bar. In order to make the parallel row units suitable for pulling behind a regular tractor, there needs to be a three point hitch tool bar that steers from behind the tractor. This requires a second person seated behind the cultivator in a “sulky” seat. For many small farms, the cost of a second person is worth it to save the hassle of owning a second tractor (especially an antique).

How will the money be spent?

For the first phase of this project, $1000 dollars will be devoted to materials: $300 for the parallelogram row units, $100 for the cultivating shoes and shanks, and $600 for the three point hitch steering tool bar.  Each of these three tasks will also get $1000 of labor (One week of shop time).   The goal of this half of the first phase is to get several prototypes in to the fields of two or three different farms by the start of the 2017 weed season.  The remaining funds will go toward field testing (with video camera) ($2000), repairs and changes ($1000 shop time), and materials for repairs and changes ($500)
In Fall of 2017 I plan to seek additional funding to complete the documentation of the project and produce open source plans and videos to upload to Farmhack.

Thank you for taking the time to consider this project!

Please help spread the word through friends and networks.

From the soil to the circuit: My experiences at FarmHackNL

– by Rowland Marshall

This time tomorrow I’ll be sitting on a high speed train hurtling through the countryside from Amsterdam to Paris.  It’s about three hours from there to my current home in the French capital, which itself is a further 16,547km away from my place of birth in Brisbane, Australia.  A thin pane of glass will separate my body, travelling through space at 300km/hr, from those of the cattle standing still in the fields adjacent to the tracks of the Thalys TGV.  But that is tomorrow, and today it is I who am in the field, standing still in the breeze beside a row of potatoes as the rest of the earth takes its turn to move.

The technology-rich world of high-speed rail seems miles apart from the seemingly stationary world of fields and crops, and yet today it is the train that feels out-dated, for flying just a few metres above me is a drone gracefully turning laps above the potatoes like an olympic athlete turns laps in a swimming pool.  In a few short moments the drone will land all by itself, and a stream of data will flow from its belly and into my computer, and it is then that my work will begin.

…we share a common passion for [technology], agriculture and the environment, and we’d like to see how we can use our skills to have a positive impact.

I am here in the Onstwedde region of the Netherlands on the farm of Nanne Sterenborg, taking part in the second weekend of FarmHackNL.  There are about 30 of us all together – farmers, business persons, geo-hydraulogists, geo-spacial scientists, programmers, engineers and more; all sitting in one of the more unconventional hacker spaces I’ve experienced to date.  There are tools and drums of farm chemicals against one wall, a truck parked in the corner, and a dust-encrusted wash station by the door.  Amidst all this, our inflatable couches, robots and glowing computer screens look a little out of place.  We’ve come here from all manner of towns and backgrounds because we share a common passion for agriculture and the environment, and we’d like to see how we can use our skills to have a positive impact.  Each person tells a different story – for my part I’m an electronic/software engineer-turned-medical designer-turned-drone research project manager-turned-French MBA graduate (phew!) with a love for the land that I inherited from my parents and the many aunts, uncles and cousins who have hosted my awkward city-dwelling self over the years on their farms around the Australian outback.  My reasons for being here are twofold – (i) the first being to escape the dirty streets of Paris for the cleaner air and dirt of the countryside again; and (ii), to see if I can humbly offer my skills in exchange for the further enrichment of my understanding of agriculture, food security, and the role of technology in the environment.

The weekend began with a brief presentation of the farm itself by Nanne Sterenborg, followed by an overview of the two days ahead from the FarmHackNL team.  The idea is simply to come together over the proceeding 36 hours to try to solve as many problems on the farm as we can.  This weekend’s theme centres on data, and in advance we have been provided with a mixture of satellite and drone imagery to play with in addition to the live data collected on the day.  The group broke into several different teams – one looks at trying to automatically identify pests on the crops from digital images; another looks to improve the communication between analysis and farm equipment; whilst others are improving the way farmers can use the multitude of data to better manage their fields.  Nanne bounces between the teams, smiling the whole time, answering our questions and listening to our views on where the various technologies are headed in the future.  This continues through the night and early into the morning, with the FarmHackNL team in the background providing us with a steady flow of coffee, support and encouragement.

By early this morning, great progress has been made.  One team has already demonstrated a new improvement for crop spraying by way of a late night tractor-test, and others have built early prototypes of their own ideas.   It is now late afternoon on the second day, and our ideas have all been formerly presented to the whole group, with awards going to the two teams with the best results, and the “open source” award for contribution of code and ideas to the farm hack community.  The weekend is drawing to a close, and as we begin to pack up we are laughing and exchanging contact details in order to continue the conversations and work down the line.

There’s a common misconception held about farmers that suggests they are part of a backwards industry that drags at the heels of technological advancement.  In my experience this couldn’t be further from the truth.  On any given day a farmer is a meteorologist, chemist, mechanic, scientist, businessperson and so much more; and to this polymathic existence will soon be added roboticist and programmer.  Gert, the son of Nanne, is the very embodiment of the next-wave agriculturalist (who, by the way, can also add “pilot” to the skills list). Part farmer, part programmer, he has drifted from team to team throughout the weekend, offering his unique perspective whilst at the same time listening to the expertise of the seasoned technologists amongst us.  With the mounting need to feed 9 billion people by 2050 whilst at the same time reducing the impact on the environment, the role of robotics and artificial intelligence in the agriculture and environmental industries is only going to intensify.  As my good friend Jaymis always says, I love living in the future, and it is great to meet someone like Gert who is leading the charge.

For too long the vast majority of the tech industry has operated on a “push” principle

At the same time, there is still a long way to go to bridge the current gap between the soil and the circuit.  I firmly believe that no one person can be a master of all domains,  and that each is capable of contributing their part to the whole.  For too long the vast majority of the tech industry has operated on a “push” principle where they have forced the extolled virtues of their products onto the customer, rather than employing a “pull” principle where the customer extracts the solution they need out of the opportunities the industry can provide.   In the past this has lead to death-by-features, over promising, and disappointment.  As a technology provider and an advocate for my industries, I firmly believe that it’s a great thing to understand the customer, but it’s a beautiful dance when you understand each other.  Hack events like this provide a great opportunity for this interaction, and that’s why you’ll continue to find me “in the field”; be it an actual field of potatoes, a rainforest, a construction site, or even a train station; rather than just behind a desk thinking I know what’s best.

There’s one thing I haven’t mentioned yet – as the only foreigner in the room this weekend I find myself swimming in a pool of Dutch speakers who graciously tic-tac between languages in order to make sure I am included and kept up to speed as the weekend progresses.  I am extremely grateful for their kindness and patience.   Despite getting lost from time to time, one thing has quickly become clear to me – you don’t need to speak the same language to understand passion, and that, at the end of the day, is what FarmHackNL has been all about.

The author would like to particularly thank Anne Bruinsma, Linda Haartsen & Simeon Nedkov of FarmHackNL; and the entire Sterenborg Family.  Dank u wel!

Community as Process, Installment Two

Welcome to Installment 2 of Community as Process. Last week we introduced three new wikis to the Farm Hack site: a new culture page, a farm hack methodology of documentation, and the recently updated getting started guide. Like everything documented on Farm Hack, these wikis are openly editable by the community–our intention is that they will be functional, usable documents, and that they will spark conversation and input by a broader swath of community members. 

Each of these pages has an associated forum which will host relevant conversation: Culture, Method, and  Getting Started. As a facilitation team, we want to create a public space where these significant conversations can happen. The forums are a great place to share feedback and conversations so that the entire community can benefit. 


Values and Vision Survey

Last Fall, a group of Farm Hack community members circulated a survey to help us create a foundation for our collaborative work. The purpose of this survey was to organize ourselves around our commonalities and to discuss them. The result has been an understanding among ourselves of the kind of community we want to take part in and help to facilitate–a philosophical banner to rally behind. 

The survey includes questions like: “What is the situation, broadly speaking, around agriculture and the emerging Farm Hack culture?” and “What are the beliefs and behaviors that could foster the best possible outcomes for the Farm Hack community?” 

We extracted a working document from the survey responses and posted it as a wiki; it’s called Vision, Values, Strategy, and Goals. We invite you to offer your thoughts, and reach out to us to participate. Feel free to comment offering general feedback about this document as well as to address the specific questions. 

What’s next

In the next few weeks, we’ll revisit the topics and documents covered in the first installment of the Community as Process series. As we post this content, we are working to refine it, make it appropriate and useful, and frame it in ways that will best serve our community and ourselves as a facilitation team. 

We plan to incorporate additional methods of user participation into the Farm Hack platform itself. We will be collaborating with Public Labs to develop rich user profiles for our site, enabling each user to tell their story and display their involvement in the Farm Hack community. 

We will host and publish recorded video conversations with community members. Keep an eye out for these Farm Hack open hour convos as well. If you would like to participate in an open hour to talk about your experience with Farm Hack, tool development, etc., please contact us at

In solidarity, 

Kristen Loria, Nathaniel Levy, Dorn Cox, Daniel Grover

FarmOS: A Drupal-based farm management solution

This article was originally posted on

Posted 24 Nov 2015 by 

Image credits :

Mike Stenta. CC BY-SA 4.0.

FarmOS is a Drupal-based software project aimed at easing the day-to-day management of a farm. It allows different roles to be assigned to managers, workers, and viewers. Managers can monitor how things are going with access to the whole system, workers can use the record-keeping tools, and viewers have read-only access to, for example, certify the farm’s records.

I spoke with Mike Stenta, lead developer of farmOS and active developer since 2010, and he had a number of reasons for using Drupal and putting their files, code, and documentation on GitHub.

“I settled on Drupal for farmOS because I see it as a good intersection of flexibility, scalability, and community,” Stenta said. “It uses a modular architecture, so you can build applications in Drupal like building Legos. The community is huge, and the number of contributed modules and themes is mind-boggling. If you can think of it, you can probably build it in Drupal—and chances are someone already has.”

FarmOS's Mike Stenta

Fourteen modules are currently being developed, including Farm Access, Farm Admin, Farm Asset, Farm Crop, and more.

“The focus right now is laying a strong groundwork so that others can more easily join in and contribute,” Stenta said. “The world of agriculture wasn’t even on my radar until 2008. I started college in computer science, but switched to art and photography—partly because web development wasn’t in the curriculum. After college I found my way to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. There I worked as a farm apprentice. Then I came back to the east coast. In 2010, I helped my friend start a small CSA in Connecticut, and the philosophy of food and cultivation sank in deeply over those years. It shaped my direction profoundly.”

Then, he had the inspiration for farmOS. It came from some software he developed for the CSA. To take it to the next level he started generalizing his work, which led to the creation of the modules that are the core of farmOS today. Stenta is also working on a general ledger module for Drupal, which is a double-entry accounting system similar to popular proprietary products.

The community surrounding the project is important too, and farmOS is looking for beta testers and other contributors to the project.

“FarmOS is developed by a handful of contributors, and more are getting involved steadily,” Stenta said. “Community is everything, and it’s important to foster good communication and planning in any open source project. We publish monthly roadmaps and invite people to help. All the planning and task management is done in the Drupal issue queues and on GitHub, so it’s transparent and accessible. The monthly development meetings are a new experiment we’re trying to invite more people into the conversation. The project is still very young, but the interest has been huge and it’s starting to take on a life of its own.”

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.

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’.

The Quadractor: an all-purpose work vehicle

The Quadractor, manufactured in the 1970s and 1980s by Traction, Inc. in Vermont. The quadractor has a vertical shaft gear train originally developed by William Spence for using in aircraft landing gear, who designer of the Quadractor and founder of Traction, Inc. The tractor operates through four identical vertical drives to the wheels, and is therefore continuously in four wheel drive.  This drive design allows for the lightweight Quadractor (around 500 lbs) to pull loads up to two tons.

Spence wanted to create a tractor that was lower cost and that used less fuel than conventional tractors with comparable workloads, and be highly dynamic (also that had really good traction, hence the company name he came up with). Though the tractor been used most extensively for logging, it can be used with cultivating, rototilling and plowing implements that are attached underneath the tractor rather than behind, the weight of which are distributed to all four wheels.

Though the quadractor is no longer being manufactured, there is a community of users restoring, retrofitting and using the quadractor for their small farming operations, homestead and woodlots. These users can exchange and dialogue on the tractor, modifications and implements through a user Forum. Specs and more information at

Read a more detailed account of the quadractor and its manufacture in this 1979 Mother Earth News article by Bill Rowan.