We’re bombarded with apocalyptic images of Polar Bears floating in despair on blocks of ice. Climate Change is here to drown us, and our actions have caused this.
Then we have some people like Louis CK and this boy, crying over the mess we have created. Both of them are pretty lucid about how silly we’ve been. We’ve extracted oil that we shouldn’t have been extracting. We’ve spilled waste around us faster that we could clean it.
Even so, there is hope. We know how to solve this shit.
But the solution is drastic and painful: We need to stop using toxic and non-renewable materials.
Let me repeat: We need to stop using the fossil fuels that power our cars, tractors and planes, and that make our packaging and computers.
And here is were you might say that I am insane. Am I even ready to do this myself?
I don’t think I am. I feel completely addicted to fossil fuels. I don’t know how to grow my food. I don’t know how to make my clothes. And I don’t want to travel one week by foot to get to visit a friend in a different country.
Besides the consequences stopping fossil fuels will have on my comfort, there are also other short-term problems at a global level.
- Food: Organic food is already expensive. If we don’t have our distribution services powered by fossil fuels, it will get harder and more expensive to grow and distribute organic food to everybody.
- Transportation: How do we replace transportation? Today over 90% of cars run on oil, and it will be a few years before electric cars, planes, ships and infrastructure can catch up.
- Packaging: How do we replace plastics? Over the last 50 years, we have been generating it faster than we could recover it, and it has ended up filling our land and oceans of waste. But packaging is an essential part of our food distribution systems.
- Participation: How do we get everybody to help? Even if we find solutions to all of these problems, a solution is not a solution until people adopt it. How would we get everybody to apply new solutions in mass to regenerate nature faster than we’ve destroyed it?
These are problems that taken together are hard to solve.
But I believe there are two ideas that can help us transition towards the solutions we need: The circular economy and open source.
Let’s dive in:
I/ The Circular Economy
Today we live in a linear economy. We first extract resources from the ground. We turn them into products. We consume these products. And once we discard them, we send them to the landfill or burn them. This creates waste, pollution and depletes our finite resources.
In a circular economy, we would design our products with their end of life in mind. Instead of throwing or burning them, we could repurpose the materials of our discarded products to either nourish the ground or to reuse them into other products.
Wondering what this would look like in practice?
Here are some examples of circular products:
Ecovative: This company creates packaging made of mushrooms to replace plastics, foams and other harmful materials. Once you need to discard the packaging, you can throw it in the garden, where it becomes compost. There are two other benefits. Their protective performance is comparable to other synthetics packagings and they use far less energy to produce them.
Active Disassembly: It’s a design practice that uses smart materials and processes to allow for rapid and non-destructive disassembly of products and components.
For example, when you heat these screws made out of smart materials, they lose their threads. This allows to disassemble big batches of devices fast and with high quality, improving the shredding or fragging recycling processes that we use in many industries today.
The main benefits is that it lowers the cost of remanufacturing, time and labour to disassemble and it improves the quality of the recovered components.
Splosh is a company selling a one-off ‘starter box’. It contains a range of simply designed bottles with an added sachet of concentrated liquid. When the sachet is mixed with warm tap water you create cleaning products. You can reuse the bottles as many times as you want. All you need to get more cleaning product is to order refill sachets delivered in boxes through the post.
Okay, these examples are pretty cool, but the Circular Economy is still not enough by itself. If we want to have a global impact, we need to allow these solutions to spread to the entire world.
And here comes the second solution:
II/ Open Source
Open Source consists in granting other users the freedom to use, study, copy, modify, and redistribute any software, design or hardware.
This philosophy has spread massively some great projects that have become part of our everyday lives.
Some famous examples are:
–WordPress, that powers 25% of the websites
–Linux which also powers most of the Internet servers
– Wikipedia, the go to encyclopedia that passed the Encyclopedia Britannica with a small army of volunteers.
-or the Bitcoin, a currency now valued at more than $1bn in a little over 8 years.
I’d like to share now some projects that are now merging Open Source and the Circular Economy, and which will probably bring exponential benefits for the environment, society and the economy.
The first one is the Showerloop developed by Jason Selvarajan. It’s a shower filter that recycles, cleans and reuses your shower’s water. This filters allows you to use 10 times less water when you take a shower. Considering that showering is an action that we repeat daily, this is a lot of water saved.
Showerloop already shared openly its invention and makes it possible for others to produce it locally. This makes it much easier and faster to save water all over the world than if a few companies had to distribute it.
To put it in perspective, people are craving for better showers that consume less water. An example of this is the Nebia shower which consumes 70% less water than a normal shower. Their crowdfunding campaign raised over $3mn on Kickstarter, and Y Combinator, Tim Cook and Eric Schmidt invested in the company, so there seem to be bright days ahead for these products.
Now, Nebia is great product that’s worth praising. But I am sure Nebia would be able to distribute their product and positive impact much faster if they shared it in Open Source.
I hear you saying that this is the kind of thing a strategy-less dreamer with no business sense would say. And you might be right.
But let’s discuss the impact of making it Open Source first. I’ll talk about the business side later on.
Imagine for a second that the blueprints are in Open Source. Hackers could take the Nebia design and plug a Showerloop filter into it, and instead of saving 70% of water, by adding both water saving we could potentially save 99%.
Nebia would still be ahead with its expertise, machinery and distribution channels, and others who want to tinker with it could create different uses or improvements for their technology. This would create even more value for everyone, and potentially allow the community to help improve the product, its materials and the diversity of solutions it allows.
A second great example of the mix between open and circular processes is Afforestt. This indian company has developed a way to regrow forest 10 times faster than with traditional techniques. Shubhendu Sharma, its founder, applies Toyota’s industrial processes systematizing the production of its cars to scale the growth of permacultural forests. His process can grow forests and regenerate animal habitats in two years instead of 20.
The project has already started sprawling to other countries. Groups in the United States, France and the Netherlands are now reforesting new areas thanks to Afforestt open source method.
A third example of an open and circular solution is Ifixit, a website that offers repair guides made by the community and by their experts.
Some manufacturers keep their repair manuals secret, making it impossible for consumers to repair their electronics or other products.
That’s why Ifixit has been creating new creative commons manuals, to fill the knowledge gaps in our repair culture. And it has made it more impactful by opening its platform to the world. They know they’ll be able to build their library of manuals much faster with the contributions from everyone.
They don’t allow for commercial re-use of their tutorials, so they are not strictly Open Source, but they have been one of the most active actors to bring transparency into the repair field. And it is creating a real impact on waste by empowering others, by setting the example and by bringing in other manufacturers to open their repair practices, such as Patagonia or Fairphone.
I’m just going over one last example of an open and circular solution.
Since we began using plastic in packaging, we’ve generated way more plastic than we could recover.
This phenomenon has ended up filling our lands, beaches, oceans and animals with plastic that we end up eating as well.
Some people have already identified the source of this problem and have been working on solutions.
One of these projects is Precious Plastics.
Dave Hakkens, the creator of the Phonebloks concept, started Precious Plastics to recover our plastic waste. His goal is to spread the knowledge of how to make tools that can turn plastic waste into a new plastic filament that we can reuse to create new products.
He published in Open Source the blueprints and list of materials to create the machines needed to turn plastic waste into reusable filaments. This way others can create their own and start turning waste into a valuable asset from which they can generate an income. Without him having to save the world on his own. It’s about involving one brain less (Dave’s), and thousands brains more.
The organization Plastics for Change is another example of an initiative using this philosophy. They offer a platform that connects individual waste picker recyclers to a market of sustainable brands interested in buying this recycled plastic and use it into their products.
These are just a few projects making an environmental and economic impact by opening their designs and processes and thinking circularly.
Now you might be thinking that even if these project are open source and circular, they don’t have enough resources to make a real change in the world.
So as long as corporations are not on board, these projects won’t have real impact, and this idea will never fly with them.
But this brake might also be shifting. I am pretty confident big corporations are getting how Open Source can benefit them as well. A few big companies in traditional industries are already leading the way.
Tesla recently Open Sourced their designs. Their goal is to get other manufacturers to adopt their technology and help them create the infrastructure needed to adopt electric cars on a massive scale.
Adidas is open sourcing the sustainable design of their sportswear with their athletes, customers and partners to co-create together.
Levi Strauss open sourced the water innovation strategy that helped them save 1 billion liters of water. By sharing their tools they hope it will encourage water conservation and spread the impact they achieved across the apparel industry.
And this is just the beginning of a bigger trend.
But is Open Source the same as DIY then?
From the consumers perspective some questions might remain unanswered. If idealist entrepreneurs and big companies start making everything Open Source, would I have to start producing everything on my own?
It may be complicated to make every product yourself. It may need special skills or machinery, or be expensive to produce in low quantities.
There are many other benefits to buying Open Source products besides having the capacity to make them yourself.
Let’s see the three most important ones:
An open ecosystem is by definition transparent. This is beneficial for consumers because it prevents monopolies and price-fixing from manufacturers, and gives access to the information of how your product is made, with which materials and through which manufacturing processes, opening new ways for improvement.
2/ More security:
How can you be sure that your products don’t have secret ‘backdoors’ or security and durability flaws like planned obsolescence?
You would need full transparency about how it works.
When the public, and communities of specialists, are able to study and discuss how a device works, they can look for security ‘bugs’ or ‘anti-features’ like tracking or spying, and fix them, or warn others.
Getting access to an open ecosystem where others can take part also provides a bigger range of options to choose from. This allows users to put together just the right system for their unique needs. Users may assemble pre-built modules, or customization services businesses can pop up, offering personalized solutions.
For example, Apertus, an open source camera has a modular framework that allows other component manufacturers, customization services, and filmmakers themselves to collaborate. Everybody can design and improve modules for a common format. This means smaller, more specialized businesses and projects can focus on particular parts, without having to develop and produce entire cameras. Software and hardware developers have all the documentation required to understand and improve the system, so they can get the best possible performance without having to try to hack and reverse-engineer a ‘black box’.
But is Open Source good for business?
On the other hand, if you are in business, you might be asking how you can prevent others from ripping you off if you share your project in Open Source.
Don’t worry. Nothing will prevent others from ripping off your ideas. If your idea is good, others will happily use it without your permission.
But this shouldn’t be a problem. Stay with me here, it feels counter-intutive but I assure you it will be clear in a moment why this isn’t bad.
As Steve Jobs said: “Good artists copy, great artists steal”. He was the king of patents and he knew by experience that nobody could prevent others from copying an idea.
He took the multi-touch interface technology others invented, combined it with his computer technology and distribution channels, and created the smartphone market.
In a similar fashion, Android copied his concept, made it Open Source, lowered the costs and became the new dominator of the smartphone market.
But even after beeing copied by many, Apple has remained the most valuable company in the world, despite this “copycat” competition. So we can say Steve Job’s anger was blown out of proportion.
Actually Intellectual Property protection has never created value. It destroys value by forbidding the reuse of knowledge. And to make money businesses need to focus on creating value, not in destroying value.
One example of this is Arduino. Arduino has created an open source micro-controller hardware kit. Giving open access to dive into their hardware has led its community to create amazing inventions on top of it.
It has allowed the Reprap company to create the first low-cost open source 3D printer, and create on its way the new wave of 3D printers of all sorts, untapping a huge market.
It has also allowed young entrepreneurs to create brain controlled hand prosthetics that are 10 times cheaper than the existing systems in the market.
But these are just two examples among many other inventions that the Arduino community is building and making available to the world.
This is the perfect example of a company creating something valuable to others, and enabling anyone to create more value on top of an initial idea.
So asking “how do I prevent others from ripping me off” might not be the right question.
I think a better question would be: “How do I capture some of the value I created?”
For me there are 3 essential elements to make a thriving Open Source company.
1/ Solve a pain 10x better.
Otherwise, nobody will make the effort of replacing their products and habits to your alternative. This might be saving 10x more water, like the Showerloop, being 10x easier to use and build upon, like the Arduino micro-controller or Precious Plastic’s plastic reuse, or being 10x faster, like Afforestt’s reforestation process.
2/ Grow a community of contributors:
Once you open your project, you need others helping you build it and keep innovating to stay ahead of the closed competition. You don’t need to have a million of contributors, just a few significant people contributing to what you’ve started are enough to stay ahead.
Without a community, a closed competitor could take what you built and distribute it themselves. Arduino has embraced and invited its community to share their improvements and to create a common library of inventions that is accessible and beneficial to everyone. This has made them a very fast-growing company that is now setting the pace in tech development.
3/ Deliver a Great Product and a Great Service:
This is pretty straightforward. Even if you are 10x times better than anything else that exists, if your product is of poor quality and breaks easily, users will turn to copycats selling better quality versions.
Same goes if you don’t have a great service, with tutorials and forums to help users set up your product.
4/ Sell your product or service for more than it costs
Any business needs to make a profit to survive. So if you do these four things you’ll be on your way to make a living for yourself and make a bigger impact for the world.
All this sounds complex to set up? Maybe. But not more than making a closed Intellectual Property company work. So if I had to start a product company tomorrow I would choose the open path. It is less lonely, more fun, and has way more potential to create a bigger impact than if I had to do it all on my own.
Open Source companies are showing that they are successful because of being Open Source, not despite of it.
Conclusion: What are we waiting?
That’s not to say traditional companies can not make amazing innovations that help the entire world. Only relying on Open Source and grassroots innovations is not enough.
But it’s unwise to put all our hopes to get products in harmony with society and nature from a few wealthy and western companies who can afford to develop and distribute these solutions. The beauty of the Internet is that it is a network free of ownership by a central authority.
Giving the developed and developing world access to designs in a decentralized and local way is less risky and more secure in keeping the world tidy and abundant for everybody.
So let’s get over our need to control the ideas in fear that others might take advantage from us.
The real question is: Do we care enough about future and present generations to design circular solutions and share them in Open source so they can spread as fast as the internet has over the last 20 years?
After all, we could make it work, we have made it work, and we are making it work.
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