Can We Open-Source Hardware?

May 18, 2012
Originally published on May 25, 2012 8:04 am

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode, The Power Of Crowds.

About Marcin Jakubowski's TEDTalk

TED Fellow Marcin Jakubowski is open-sourcing the blueprints for 50 farm machines that can be built cheaply from scratch. Using wikis and digital fabrication tools, Jakubowski's work enables anyone to build their own tractor or harvester from scratch. The effort is part of an overall project to write an instruction set for an entire self-sustaining village. Starting cost: $10,000. Call it a "civilization starter kit."

About Marcin Jakubowski

Marcin Jakubowski believes that the only way to achieve abundance for all is by opening the means of production. Through this, he says, "We can lead self-sustaining lives without sacrificing our standard of living."

Though he has a Ph.D. in fusion physics, Jakubowski chose a life as a farmer and social innovator. He is the founder of Open Source Ecology, which is creating the Global Village Construction Set. He's putting these ideas to the test at Factor e Farm in rural Missouri.

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Usually, when we use the term crowd-sourcing, we think of people coming together virtually over the Internet. But now, let's meet a man who is relying on the power of crowds to help change the physical world.


MARCIN JAKUBOWSKI: Hi. My name is Marcin. Farmer, technologist. I was born in Poland, now in the US.

STEWART: Marcin Jakubowski is open-sourcing a set of blueprints for 50 industrial machines that can be built cheaply from scratch. He believes, with access to these tools, anyone can create a small, self-sustaining village. It will level the field, so to speak.

Let's listen to more of Marcin's 2011 TED Talk and then we'll talk to him.


JAKUBOWSKI: So let me tell you a story. So I finished my 20s with a Ph.D. in fusion energy and I discovered I was useless. So I started a farm in Missouri and learned about the economics of farming. I bought a tractor. Then it broke. I paid to get it repaired, then it broke again. And pretty soon, I was broke too.

I realized that the truly appropriate low-cost tools that I needed to start a sustainable farm and settlement just didn't exist yet. I needed tools that were robust, modular, highly efficient and optimized, low-cost, made from local and recycled materials that would last a lifetime. Not designed for obsolescence.

I found that I would have to build them myself. So I did just that. And I found that industrial productivity can be achieved on a small scale. So then I published the 3D designs, schematics, instructional videos and budgets on a wiki. Then contributors from all over the world began showing up, prototyping new machines, doing dedicated project visits.

And now the project is beginning to grow on its own. We know that open source has succeeded with tools for managing knowledge and creativity. And the same is starting to happen with hardware, too. We're focusing on hardware because it is hardware that can change people's lives in such tangible, material ways.

If we can lower the barriers to farming, building, manufacturing, then we can unleash just massive amounts of human potential. That's not only in the developing world. Our tools are being made for the American farmer, builder, entrepreneur, maker. We've seen lots of excitement from these people, who can now start a construction business, parts manufacturing, organics CSA or just selling power back to the grid.

Our goal is a repository of published designs so clear, so complete that a single burned DVD is effectively a civilization starter kit. I've planted 100 trees in a day. I've pressed 5,000 bricks in one day from the dirt beneath my feet and built a tractor in six days. From what I've seen, this is only the beginning. If this idea is truly sound, then the implications are significant. A greater distribution of the means of production, environmentally sound supply chains and a newly relevant DIY maker culture can hope to transcend artificial scarcity.

We're exploring the limits of what we all can do to make a better world with open hardware technology. Thank you.

STEWART: Joining us from Kansas City is Marcin Jakubowski. Hi Marcin.


STEWART: I know that part of the concept of this global village construction set is about the practical needs for a small community, but there's also an element of economic equity, the social justice. Can you explain that part of the project?

JAKUBOWSKI: Yeah, absolutely. So this is not about creating a set of toys. This is about real life-size equipment that a community could use to provide food, housing, energy on the much more localized scale, focus being the economic significance, not just a set of toys.

STEWART: What kind of machines and tools are you talking about?

JAKUBOWSKI: So we've got everything from a tractor to an oven to a circuit maker, energy production equipment. There's a car, something that everybody understands. Precise machining equipment and everything in between.

STEWART: I think, when people think about crowd-sourcing, they usually think about software, how it applies in that sense, not necessarily how it might apply to a tractor. When did you realize that crowd-sourcing could be useful for something like farming equipment?

JAKUBOWSKI: Yeah, well at first coin, the concept of open-source ecology was back in grad school, which I actually couldn't talk openly about my research, because we had some hot material that we couldn't really share. And then I thought, well, what a waste. What if we could really collaborate on others in solving pressing issues and making products, or whatever that may be.

So, while that's been proven in software, of course, the same kind of model can apply to hardware, i.e. it's simply about collaborative development, where people are sharing open - it's a natural, a very, very natural extension of the software movement into real objects, which is much more complicated. But, in the practice of that process, the principles are basic and the same.

STEWART: To follow up on something you said...


STEWART:'s a little bit obvious, but I want you to spell it out for us. What is the...


STEWART: relationship between open source and lowering the barriers of entry?

JAKUBOWSKI: Yeah. The direct relationship is that, when you're leveraging the power of true open collaboration, then people don't have to end up re-inventing the wheel. They work together. It's a very simple concept. Can we do more by cooperating? Or can we get farther by hiding things away and preventing others from doing the same? Which is the standard way to do business today. It's about creating monopolies and getting competitive advantage by whatever means.

That means you don't share that the IP issues are a huge one, but if you can address that by not being afraid to raise the bar for everybody, when everybody cooperates, and therefore the products become better for everybody. So one argument one can make is that the present system as it is enforces mediocrity. There's only a few top players, but everyone else is kind of left behind.

So the question becomes, well, what if everybody had access to the best design? Then we can go much further in benefiting everybody. It's a win/win situation.

STEWART: Marcin Jakubowski, thanks for joining us from Kansas City, Missouri.

JAKUBOWSKI: Thank you.

STEWART: You can find out more about Marcin's machines, blueprints and designs from the Global Village Construction Set. And find a link to his TED Talk: go to Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.