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Open Source Design
Alex Steffen, 23 Feb 06

cameron_ted.jpgIf Worldchanging has a central idea, it is this: collaborative solution-seeking is not only our best hope for solving the most profound problems facing our planet, it is our only hope. The problems we face are so huge, their momentum so fierce, that unless we put to use the energy and creativity of every person of good will, we cannot possibly overcome them.

Nowhere is this more true than with humanitarian crises.

Collaborative solution-seeking for humanitarian problems may just have taken a giant stride forward. Architecture for Humanity co-founder (and Worldchanging contributor) Cameron Sinclair just stood up on the stage here at the TED conference, and called for the creation of a global tool for open source humanitarian design:

"I wish to create a community that actively embraces open source design to generate innovative and sustainable living standards for all."

Because Cameron's call for action was made as part of his TED Prize wish, there are good reasons to hope we may see it come to fruition. (Full disclosure: Cameron is a colleague and friend, and TED is our largest donor, through the support of its Sapling Foundation).

That's important, because this is needed work.

One of the most influential things we've ever published is the essay I wrote in the days after the Tsunami, Beyond Relief. In it, I argued that a holistic, innovative, sustainable approach to disaster relief was fundamental to any hope of a successful outcome to long-term disaster relief.

These ideas are not ours. They are not Worldchanging's (though we wholeheartedly agree). Indeed, there is a set of interlocking revolutions emerging among those working to solve these problems. I wrote recently about the ways smart disaster response workers are coming to see humanitarian relief, sustainable development and conflict resolution as inextricably linked. And, of course, these sorts of efforts work best when the approach to solving them is open and mobilizes the skills and commitment of those whose lives have been disrupted. As Cameron himself wrote earlier says about disaster response, "Encouraging communities to be active participants in the rebuilding is key to creating sustainable solutions and to reducing the impact of a disaster."

The technologies certainly either exist or could exist with a modest amount of concentrated global effort. As Hunter Lovinsput it recently inan interview with WC ally Nick Aster:

Do you believe that economic development can go hand in hand with sustainable development?

Yes, and this is a critical point. We know how to meet people's needs for energy, for water, for housing, for sanitation, and for transportation, with much more sustainable technologies than are traditionally brought by development agencies. Most of what is called development around the world is really donor nation dollars hiring donor nation contractors to deliver last century's technologies, in such a way that the jobs and the economic benefit go right back to the originating donor country.

What's lacking is vehicles for sharing and honing and reinventing the solutions which already exist, as well as mechanisms for innovating new and needed answers to existing and emerging problems.

In our small way, that's what we try to be here -- an amplifier of solutions and solutions-in-potential.

But in a much bigger way, that's why Cameron's call for open source design is potentially so transformative.

Cameron is talking about creating precisely such a vehicle: an online resource capable of facilitating needs-based competitions; project tagging; a database giving immediate access to thousands of proven design and best practices; an online rendering tool with built-in simulation of austere environments; localized subsites for regional NGOs; the integration of local and cultural data and protective rights for designers (like the Creative Commons developing world license).

It's a big job, it'll be a powerful tool, and we'll be reporting a lot more about it in the future. In the meantime, let's have a big virtual round of applause for Cameron and his work!

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Alex or Cameron, if you're reading this, there is a group of really bright guys worth partnering with working on similar projects.

All arose from the same group of folks.


Posted by: Edward West on 23 Feb 06

I think you will find this an interesting intiative:

greetings, Edwin Gardner

Posted by: Edwin Gardner on 24 Feb 06

I have my doubts about the feasibility of 'collaborative' approaches to disaster response.
The tsunami was a case in point: a huge waste of money and resources, because all kinds of little NGO's and individuals all wanted their own little spot and field to work on.

I hope that when you say 'collaborative' in this context, you only point to sharing and exchanging ideas and strategies before disasters happen. Because when a disaster does strike, we need the pro's, that is the military.

'Rhizomatic', 'open source', 'bottom-up' approaches are fine for creative processes, but I think the hard, disciplined, structured and hierarchical, top-down approach, like that of the military and the Strong State, is much more effective in getting things done.

In a crisis situation of chaos, the last thing you want is the organisational chaos of the 'creative' NGO's that were so ineffective after the tsunami.

I'm not an expert, but I see the same trend in development thinking as a whole: top-down approaches are entirely back in, no longer taboo. Two decades have shown us that if you leave things up to civil society initiatives and NGOs, the results are very poor, sometimes even disastrous.
Dev thinking is going back to the idea of the Strong State and disciplined, top-down, harsh approaches.

Same thing, once more, when it comes to more global crises such as climate change: open source exchanges about ideas are great in this context, but you need the State to implement and act. As heavily top-down as possible, with force and clarity. A crisis of this magnitude is too dangerous to be left over to collaborating NGO's, even though they can play a useful role, under the guidance of the State.

Posted by: Lorenzo on 24 Feb 06

An approach I strongly advocate is creating an open-source, "wiki"-like, Pattern Language of Sustainable Design. It could build on the original Pattern Language, developed by Christopher Alexander and colleagues, and the "Patterns of a Conservation Economy" work of the Ecotrust of Portland, Oregon:

Patterns are more than descriptions of happy outcomes: they're instructions. Pattern languages are analogous to genetic codes. Created and extended through open-source sharing, with peer review, they can evolve. They focus our thinking: there's nothing like having to describe what you know as a set of instructions to sharpen one's thinking. Co-authoring a Pattern Language would be a powerful collaborative-design tool, focused on generative instructions instead of soon-obsolete descriptions.

Posted by: David Foley on 24 Feb 06

Another great group of people supporting the linked open source and sustainability mission are the folks at ( Their specific mission is: "Open Source Software for Education, Health & the Environment". You should check them out.

Posted by: Kirsten Ritchie on 24 Feb 06

I'm excited because this is the exact philosophy and purpose of

The site is still in development, and it's not officially open to the public, but it's a collaborative website for open source design, music, and writing.

The above link goes straight to the design section, but right now you can only click, browse, and comment on the first design under the "view all" page. Eventually it will be possible for anybody to upload their own designs, and for existing designs to evolve online. Note how there is a specific emphasis on designs that attempt to solve a pressing social issue.

Posted by: Brandon Carrillo on 26 Feb 06

the tsunami was NOT an example of a 'collaborative' approach.

Having been working in the field since January 2005 we have seen a myriad of top-down approaches waste millions (lets not even bring up Katrina!) and in the case of Sri Lanka instigate political friction - leading to the war in the east.

Since Jan. 05 we have had full time architectural professionals working directly with local communities and helped generate programs of locally based solutions to locally based problems. This has led to empowered local industries growing out of the reconstruction process.

The truth is that the tsunami brought in thousands of inexperienced NGOs - many with NO prior construction or management experience. As they garnered large funds they tried to move from relief and recovery into reconstruction while still working in an 'emergency agency' model.

I should note Oxfam Sri Lanka was a great example of getting it right - in large part as they had people with the right experience is strategic potitions - ie. an architect running the shelter and settlement division.


Next week I will come back to worldchanging and start by writing a blog about exactly what we are seeking to do...

- ie. developing a conduit for change -- NOT a 'design portal'...

ALSO -- responding to humanitarian disasters is a tiny portion of the power of this community, we are looking to improve the living standards of 5 billion people - many of whom live in fragile but growing economies. the innovations are out these but they are not being nurtured/developed or supported.

It is not just architecture, we are talking about the entire built environment... ...this includes infrastructure, sanitation, energy, community and civic buildings. With a focus on disaster planning and risk foresight.

The community is looking to include a number of stakeholders from architects, designers, planners, engineers, NGOs, governmental entities, funders, local community leaders, end users (connected through $100 laptops). a design-only approach is doomed to failure.. Having worked in this arena for a decade I understand and actively work will a range of players - most importantly - those on the ground

If you still think a top-down approach is correct then certainly help the UN on target 7 of the MDGs... I'm not saying one way or another is better or worse -- I believe in this and I'm donating ALL my TED prize money to it. If it achieves .001% of what I hope then we whould have created a real opportunity for change. [disclaimer: I am also working on the MDGs]


Edward - cheers for the note. At TED I spoke with Saul Williams (thinkcycle, etc.) about how to move forward and the lessons learned from his ventures. Hopefully we can keep the conversation going.


ps. I will be in India and Sri Lanka from the 4th-12th.

Posted by: Cameron Sinclair on 26 Feb 06


We are working with Creative Commons on developing a license specifically for design. I will check out the link...

Posted by: cameron Sinclair on 26 Feb 06

I had this license in mind for a start point

But in dealing with manufactures of our potential designs, I figured on adding the term that 10% of all profits need to go to any of a specified group of nonprofit organizations. This way, any company is free to use and manufacture the designs, but they need to keep their design copyleft and donate some profits to charity.

What do you think? Is 10% too high, too low?

Posted by: Brandon Carrillo on 27 Feb 06



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