Should the world drift in a way farther away from your ideal picture as days go by, what will you do? Are you to take up arms against it, put up with it stoically or pretend that where you are is already the best of all possible worlds? Dr. Marcin Jakubowski, Founder and Executive Director of Open Source Ecology (OSE), opts for the first. A physicist-turned-entrepreneur, he contests the established order of things through launching an open source platform of hardware designs that enables the building of a small modern civilization. As the speaker of this year’s University Lecture on Civility (ULC), Dr. Jakubowski elaborated on the philosophy and practice of his social experiment on 24 October under the theme of ‘Assembling the Future: A Social Innovator’s Intriguing Project’.
Founded by Dr. Jakubowski in 2003, OSE went ahead to posit a Global Village Construction Set (GVCS) in 2008, which consists of 50 essential machines, such as tractor and 3D printer, for modern life to exist. By following the blueprints published on the web, all the machines—and everything derived from them—can be built with your own hands. Till now, prototypes of 32 machines have been published on the web, with the whole GVCS due to be drawn up in 2028.
Almost an American Dream
The founding of OSE can be traced back to Dr. Jakubowski’s life experiences. Born to a family of intellectuals, he has prized the power of science and knowledge to do good to all from a young age. Leaving behind the austere communist Poland for the US at the age of 10, the little boy was later to become a fusion physicist conducting research at the University of Wisconsin.
Science and knowledge, however, were not powerful enough to do good to all, as he discovered that deprivation still plagued the world he was in. Alienated from his studies which deal in the abstract, and disillusioned with the ivory tower, he returned to Mother Earth to practise sustainable farming, only to discover that he needed basic tools to succeed. This marked the birth of OSE, a collaborative innovative platform where everyone can study, modify, distribute, make and sell the designs or hardware that derive from them.
Technology and Knowledge Democratized
Dr. Jakubowski’s brainchild is daring on two counts. First, it is an open source enterprise; second, it focuses on hardware. The stakes of open source are high, as it goes against the grain of R&D which thrives by means of patents. Further, even though we already have a lot of things in open access such as Linux, the open source provider of codes for operating systems, they are mostly for software, not hardware. OSE’s devotion to hardware-making borders on the unthinkable due to the want of an open source hardware tradition, and the difficulty inherent in the documentation of the building steps.
The open hardware advocate, however, has no qualms about defying the established practices. ‘There is no such thing as technological determinism. Technology is totally context-dependent, subject to political, social and other forces in society. We have a lot of power in changing it.’ His resolve to go down a road less travelled—to open technology to all—is grounded in his belief in the absolute power of knowledge, and its ultimate purpose in empowering people to provide for themselves.
The question of money, however, will not go away with noble intentions. How can OSE generate revenue and sustain itself? To this question, the agent provocateur drew a distinction between an open source platform and a business model. ‘Open source is a methodology for developing things collaboratively. It gives rise to its own business model.’ The business model of OSE takes the form of workshops: while you can construct any tool in the GVCS by yourself following the open blueprints, you may also join OSE’s building workshops. Let’s say you join the workshop for a 1,400-square-foot seed eco-home. The workshop takes only five days to build an eco-home. US$500 is all you have to pay for tuition. By paying US$30,000 more for the building materials, you can take home the finished eco-home. The total sum—US$30,500—is much less than what you’d pay to purchase a house on the open market.
Giving Back DIY Its True Meaning
Why is hardware made the focus of OSE? Dr. Jakubowski explained it towards the end of the lecture: ‘When you use your hands to do real and tangible things, there is a connection which a lot of people have lost today in the virtual world. But actually it is something deeply wired in us, as ultimately, this connection is to the abundant resources—the rocks, sunlight, plants, soil and water that feed us.’ Hardware effects tangible change in people’s lives like no other.
Dr. Jakubowski is the first speaker in the ULC series that comes from the West and with a pure science background. Ms. Irene Ng, Director of the I·CARE Centre for Whole-person Development that organized ULC, said, ‘By inviting Dr. Jakubowski to be the speaker of this year’s ULC, we hope to attract more students and lovers of science and engineering who have rarely been I·CARE supporters. His innovative takes on open source, knowledge sharing and collaborative way of working accord well with ULC and I·CARE’s visions.’
‘Simple at first glance, Dr. Jakubowski’s blueprint is a radical rethink of our education, socioeconomic and value systems at heart,’ remarked Dr. Derrick Au, Director of the CUHK Centre for Bioethics, after attending the lecture. ‘His project is pursuing a democratization of technology, liberating the means of production to counter-act the gross socioeconomic inequity in our world. Perhaps his familial background and life behind the Iron Curtain and a strong sense of justice make him feel that knowledge and science should be open to benefit all.’ Emily Kwok, a Year 4 student in Sociology at CUHK, was most impressed with Dr. Jakubowski’s determination to serve the world, an aspiration she shares as a green and community advocate.
Some audience members, however, might remain skeptical of the application of the fusion physicist’s social experiment to Hong Kong, a place known for its unbridled consumerism. But can anything be ruled out simply because it is not in plain view yet? As the social visionary said at the beginning of the lecture, citing Victor Hugo, ‘Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come’.
This article was originally published in No. 527, Newsletter in Nov 2018.