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Open Source Architecture, The Power of Collaboration

This article was written by Alex Steffen in February 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

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Some demographers call it the largest migration in human history: the movement of hundreds of millions of poor rural people to the emerging megacities where they believe they can build themselves a better future. Overall, the urbanization of the planet is a good thing, helping people struggle out of absolute poverty, increasing access to essential services like health care and education, and raising the status of (and opportunities available to) young women (and thus helping to bring down birth rates and stabilize population growth). But the sheer magnitude of urban growth -- by some estimates, two-thirds of the cityscapes that will exist by mid-century have not even been built yet -- presents dire challenges as well. Already, over a billion people make their homes in urban squatter settlements: how do we build communities to house the two billion more who are expected to live in slums by the middle of the century?

"By the middle of the century, one in three people on the planet will be living in inadequate, often illegal housing," says Cameron Sinclair, co-founder of Architecture for Humanity. "I mean, think about that! The formal architectural profession does not have anything like the capacity to meet people's needs on that scale. Worse, many of the people working in this space are unaware of each other's work. There's a vast replication of effort, not only the same successes, but the same failures. We need millions of solutions, and we need to share them all across the world."

But how do help billions of people share millions of solutions in a useful manner? Cameron thinks he has the answer: The Open Architecture Network. [Full disclosure: Cameron contributes to this site, and edited the refugee section of our book. We've also worked together on disaster relief, and I consider him a close friend.]

The Open Architecture Network is a collaborative database which Architecture for Humanity hopes will make it easy for architects, designers and engineers from around the world to freely share their work, evaluate and modify existing solutions, and collaborate around new approaches. Think of it as the Wikipedia of humanitarian design, the first big step towards open source design.

With a coalition of sponsors and partners, including Sun, Architecture for Humanity built and is starting to test a system designed to be not just a repository of good ideas, but a tool for collaboration and research. Users will be able, Cameron says, to search existing ideas based on a number of criteria (such as, say, "housing, affordable, tropical, community-designed, passive solar, bamboo materials) and the ratings of other users.

This is no elitist playground, either. "We're not defining an architect as someone who's been through 7 years of education," Cameron says. "If this thing isn't useful to informal community designers living in favelas, it'll fail. We aim to prove that you don't need $15,000 worth of CAD programs to come up with design solutions. You can participate with a napkin sketch, a borrowed scanner and a public Internet connection." (However, it should be noted that the site will be available initially only in English, which will further limit its utility to barefoot architects.)

The Network will also provide insight not only into what people have built elsewhere, but how they built it: "It's not just designs, it goes all the way through to implementation -- it will have not just innovative abstract solutions, but actual projects and built buildings."

The seed stock for the database will come from Architecture for Humanity itself. They plan to include some of the ideas from their book, Design Like You Give a Damn, as well as as many of the 1,200 entries to their previous architectural competitions as possible.

Indeed, Cameron would like to see humanitarian architecture and design competitions change the way they operate in light of the Network's possibilities. "What if design competitions were based around a particular set of criteria, but at the end, you made the good thinking in all the designs open and available to everyone? Imagine if all the great new ideas remained available. For that matter, why should the project end? Once the competition is over, some of the designers might look at other people's work and have a realization about how to make their projects much better. Just because there was a prize awarded shouldn't mean that you stop trying to show your idea to the world and keep refining it in conversation with others."

The legal framework which will allow such collaboration is the Creative Commons Developing Nations License, which gives designers the ability to charge those who can pay for their work, while sharing that same work freely with others who can't afford to pay. It might, in addition, create a mechanism for the new generation of informal designers in emerging megacities to find a market for their leapback solutions. "If the system works, it's a call to action: all that community and humanitarian design work that you said you wanted to do but couldn't -- well, here is the system for doing that. It'll be interesting to see if the design community rises to the challenge."

"This will involve the design community changing how it sees itself," Cameron says at the end of our conversation. "Are designers ready to see themselves not as lone geniuses but as partners in a movement? Can they respond to a need in a distant place -- say a community center in Senegal -- and rally around and share ideas and talk about, given the resources and the needs, what solutions can be suggested and how the community can actually make use of them?"

If the site really takes off, Cameron hopes it will create an entire, constantly-evolving body of solutions. "Imagine that someone comes up with a model for building affordable housing in China, and that it is clever and sustainable, and it can be downloaded and changed and altered for different situations, so next you get fifteen different 'children' of that design and then each of those iterates with other influences elsewhere, until you rapidly get a biodiversity of design, a whole family tree of innovation."

It's a great vision, a worldchanging vision, because, as Cameron says right before we ring off, "If you really want to make change in the world, you can't hoard the tools for making it."

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The Open Architecture Network and the Future of Design is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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