Open Source Ecology: Taking Back Our Means of Production

In the great state of MO there is a little town called Maysville. Maysville is a farming town, acres of corn and soy surround the small central Missouri town. About a mile outside of the city limits, off a little gravel road is a 30-acre compound. The entrance has a small sign: “Open Source Ecology” stenciled on to a piece of plywood. There are little huts made of mud, a few houses made of compressed earth bricks, and a workshop with several of every power tool you could imagine. Inside of a small silo out back is 10 tons of steel. Steel is like tomatoes: $1/lb. Big 4″ steel square tubing with holes cut every 2″ makes the building blocks for life-sized erector set machines. Along with engines and pumps they are put together in different ways to make tractors, trenchers, hay bailers, brick presses, and tillers, which are lined up in a row behind an old beaten-down workshop. There are no vegetables growing, but 2 acres of land has been freshly rowed up; we’re going to plant them. We stay inside a small hackerspace/dormitory called the HabLab. In the small hacker space we are greeted by young people from all over the world. An Alaskan fisherman, a Grad student from Rio de Janerio, a financer from Miami who just sold his condo and quit his job to start a new open-source life, a genius construction worker from Canada, and undergraduate students from all over the country. We’re all here for the same reason: to build the Global Village Construction Set. Open Source Ecology came up with the GVCS four years ago. Fifty different machines that are believed to be the necessary components for a small-scale sustainable civilization to exist: wind turbines, tractors, tillers, 3D printers, CNC torch tables, Induction furnaces, welders, brick presses, and so on. Now they are journeying on the long process of designing and fabricating each one of them to meet industry standards of performance with their own unique standards: 1. It has to be cheap—each of their machines costs a fraction of the cost from proprietary makers. Industrial scale bulldozers cost about $250,000, they expect to be able to build one for $30,000. 2. Modular–each machine is broken down into several modules. These are independently functioning devices that, when put together on a proper interface, form whole machines. This allows them tons of flexibility in the building procedures, allows them to design and build machines in a fraction of the time it would normally take, and allows them to mix and match modules from different machines to produce new ones. Say we have a machine we want to design and build. So we break it down into 10 different modules. Now each person takes a module and designs it on their computer in parallel, cutting the time it takes to design in half. Now the same people, using their CAD files, build each module, cutting the time it takes to build in half again. All you have to do is connect each module at the end, and you have a machine! 2. Life-Time Design—rejecting practices of planned obsolescence, they build their machines meant to last for a lifetime. They use quick connect hydraulic hoses (easily detachable and moveable), they use universal parts that are easy to find and cheap to buy anywhere, each facet of the machine is easily accessible and replaceable. 3. DIY– If anyone has the necessary tools and space, they ought to be able to build these machines without any prior experience or knowledge. They are working to dispel the black magic around engineering. Detailed videos and instructions help anyone build their own machine 4. Open Source– All documentation is put up online free for anyone to replicate, reuse, or make their own derivatives off of. No patents, just collaboration. Anyone can contribute, anyone can participate, anyone can use. They want to democratize hardware and technology and they want a collaborative global effort to make it happen. I think one of the essential questions at hand in their work is HOW can we put the means of production into the hands of the people, HOW can we make it easier for us to get basic human needs met in an affordable and globally replicable fashion. I stress the ‘how,’ because I believe that it is a central premise to the organization; how can we make this happen? I found out about Open Source Ecology through my work at an Urban Farm in New Orleans. A documentary team from Los Angeles stopped by our project two years ago and told us they wanted to film a doc on what it takes to ignite The Spark in people to actualize viable alternative ways of life and living (like taking the red pill and disassembling The Matrix). The documentary was about us and OSE. The film crew wanted the two projects to meet, so last year a bunch of my coworkers went up to Missouri and built a tractor in 3 days and drove it back down to New Orleans (I had to stay for class >:| ). We’ve been using the LifeTrac for over a year. I was helping Marcin, the founder of the project, with some recruiting throughout the school year, and I felt like it was finally high time to get up there. In the first few days we got quickly oriented, catching up to the fast paced collaborative dialogue and action. There was tons of work to do. In a couple of weeks, we were to drive up to Wisconsin to lead a workshop on building the CEB Press machine, build it, then showcase it at the renewable energy fair. So we had to learn fast. We spent most of the morning working on detailed instructionals for the Brick Press. The machine has about 12 functioning modules, so we each took one and developed instructions independently. You can check out mine here: Main Cylinder (not finished, always a work in progress, but you’ll catch the drift). We had to learn how to weld, the basics of hydraulic mechanization, and a few other things to make it all work. The second half of the day, we were on the ground doing hands-on work. Tons of work to do: the soffits still needed to be put on the building we were staying in, scrap metal needed to be organized, machines needed to be deconstructed, irrigation needed to be laid out. Never any shortage of work. As for my learning goals, this is what I set myself for my month-long trip 1. To be able to understand and articulate the challenges of and opportunities for democratizing technology and hardware. 2. Basic hands-on training in welding, metal work, engineering, carpentry. 3. Gain experience with this particular model of collaborative work. 4. I’m not sure exactly what to call this goal– I want to grow with the zen habit of mind of working with people and working with machinery (See Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for the inspiration). 5. Set up relationships to bring the OSE connection to New Orleans. (Seriously, I think a lot of people, especially the TU SCHOOL OF ARCHITECTURE *COUGHCOUGH* would really be excited with the possibilities I’ve encountered. See more on the Microhouse as an example).


Next post coming shortly!


Sam Kiyomi

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