April 18, 2011, 8:00 AM — Every once in a while, you stumble across something so basic, yet so cool, you wonder how the world ever got by without it before.
Consider the problem of food.
Anyone who's read The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals knows that Americans, as a whole, have problems with food. We eat too much, with too little variety in our epicurean palette. That's not some sort of foodie snobbery: many of the diverse staples we used to have in our daily diets have been supplanted (quite literally) by just a few staple foods. Most notably, corn, which dominates much of the US food cycle.
That's nothing, though, to the situation in some other parts of the world, where lack of infrastructure (physical, industrial, political... pick one or more) prevents millions from maintaining anything more than a subsistence diet--and sometimes not even that.
Solutions to these types of food crises has been nearly universal: get the surplus food from nations that have more than enough to those that don't. But as common as this approach is, it has never been universally successful. Nor has it been much more than a palliative: people may get fed, but they still may not be able produce enough to feed themselves later on. The underlying problem--the lack of tools and infrastructure to increase productivity--may still be there.
(Exceptions to this, of course, are regions hit by natural disasters. If those regions had infrastructure in place before the disaster, then that infrastructure will eventually get back in place after the recovery period.)
The problem is getting worse. Global food prices are on the rise, and energy costs make it prohibitive to ship food from one side of the planet. Getting infrastructure set up, though, is even more daunting. Building roads is expensive, shipping machinery costly. Then there's the arbitrary political hurdles that create obstacles like preventing the education to run and maintain such machines.
But it's the machines that developing nations need, more than the food. On a visit to Ethiopia in 2009, I talked to more than one citizen there who said that the arability of the land wasn't so much the problem as not having the machines to farm the land productively. My neighbor, an immigrant from Nigeria, has bought and fixed up a truck and is raising money with the help of his church to ship the thing back to his homeland.
Marcin Jakubowski, a Polish expatriate living in Missouri, may have a workable solution to this problem: open source hardware.
Jakubowski is the founder of Open Source Ecology, a consortium dedicated to the idea that sustainability does not have to mean sacrificing standards of living. The network of farmers and engineers Jakubowski has put together is building what could be described as a real-life Erector set of agricultural and industrial machinery known as the Global Village Construction Set (GVCS).
The GVCS is a collection of 50 machines that are geared to work together to sustain a village of people anywhere in the world, using locally attainable resources and tools. Indeed, some of the tools in the GVCS are meant to build and maintain other machines in the set, including a 3D printer and a 3D scanner. There's even an aluminum-from-clay extractor and a Compressed Earth Block (CEB) press for making bricks.
More importantly, every device in the collection has open source blueprints and (where applicable) manufacturing and design specs. As more devices are actually built, bugs are worked out and plans and specs improved. All of these tools and machines should ideally be built with local resources (human and otherwise), and maintaining them is also done locally. This negates the need for global support, which is expensive.
I ran across Jakubowski's project on a recent Ted video, though Jakubowski has been working on this project since 2003. Watching Jakubowski's presentation, I was struck about how the simple notion of open source hardware could extend the collaborative benefits of open source into solutions that would touch lives in ways even more fundamental than open source software could. Open source software can bring knowledge and education, but open source hardware can help feed and shelter.
There are, like any project, challenges that the Open Source Ecology community need to address. But the collaborative efforts they have done already are really amazing and well worth a look by their compatriots in the open source software community.