Is Open Design a Viable Economic Practice?

BY ALEX PAZAITIS | JUNIOR RESEARCH FELLOW, TALLINN UNIVERSITY OF TECHNOLOGY CORE MEMBER, P2P LAB

It has been roughly a decade after the days that people first discussed Open Design. It has hitherto evolved from a concept, to a movement, to a viable business choice.

The RepRap 3D printer has been one of the first and most successful examples of open design. A 3D printer that could replicate itself is more than a design solution; it is a bold statement on the technological capacities of our time. A thing built to create other things, now creating copies of itself. Creation, being one of the core human characteristics, is now embedded in our creations.

It is, thus, no wonder it has sparked a wave of enthusiasm across diverse communities. Different visions of open innovation, distributed manufacturing and an automated self-sufficient society embody, to a lesser or larger extent the notion of open design. Though as much as the vision extends, the actual practice remains rather restrained. And while RepRap based 3D printers may have evolved to a billion dollar industry, industrial uptake of open design and open manufacturing is, arguably, still not there to see.

Part of the problem, as it is often the case, is structural. As a social activity, the open sharing of ideas and collaboration to create useful things by the users themselves has a self-evident merit. It can lead to better technologies, more learning from the side of the users, broader access to means of making and less waste, due to on-demand production and better maintenance capacity. But as a business option it goes almost against the foundations of everything we understand as the purpose of an enterprise.

In the end of the day, is able to survive to the extent it succeeds to exchange their products and services for money. Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations, identifies this practice of exchange as a core survival tactic amongst individuals too. In a society where people produce themselves only a small fraction of the things they need, they exchange the products of their labour with these of other people to get the rest of it. It is then the common sense that markets and money is in fact the very purpose of the economy.

From a different perspective, the economy is about provisioning. It is the sphere of human activity that serves to cover societal needs: from the basic means of subsistence, to things and actions meant for pleasure and self-actualisation. From this point of view, sharing is actually a very economic function. Even more, on many instances it serves to create and distribute vital resources much more efficiently than markets. However, at least until recently, sharing could not be generalised as a capacity providing for human needs at scale. Therefore, it was mainly restrained to those domains where the costs of enforcing the rules necessary for market exchange were simply too high to bear.

But what the internet revolution brought about is much higher capabilities for communication and coordination based on shared information and human sociality. The sphere of these domains where market exchange is not the common sense has rapidly expanded. It became possible for people to pool, rather than exchange, the products of their labour on much greater scale, thus creating a much more generalised capacity for societies to serve their needs.

That is of course not to suggest that markets and money are simply done away with sharing and open design. Nevertheless, they no longer serve as the sole imperatives stimulating human creativity and coordination, if they ever have been. And it is vital for the flourishing of our societies to recognise, support and further stimulate these dynamics in our economic institutions. Even when access to better design and user experience is now more available than ever, businesses, especially small ones, will not invest in these possibilities before clear returns can be foreseen, in terms of covering their overheads, wages and taxes.

In the transitioning from the feudal order to the industrial one, no markets could ever exist and no exchange could take place if there weren’t for the provisions and enforcement of property rights and trade agreements. Likewise, in order to reap the benefits of the new technological capabilities, we need legal provisions to re-establish the relationship of businesses with their user communities now largely participating in the design and production; support measures like universal basic income for workers to be emancipated and devote their creative energy where it most needed in their local societies; and collective institutions that generalise and support pooling of productive capacities wherever possible, from digital platforms of open design, software and knowledge to open spaces for collaborative production, distributed manufacturing and needs-based design for societal needs.
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