Friday, March 27, 2015

Role of Open Design in inventing our future

Who invented the Steam Engine?

"James Watt!"

The inventor who changed this world and played an instrumental role in bringing about the Industrial Revolution.

“You definitely agree with me, don't you?”

But, what if I tell you a completely different story retold by Boldrin and Levine (Against Intellectual Monopoly).

James Watt was a prolific inventor. A brilliant man who got the idea of allowing steam to expand and condense in separate containers while repairing a small Newcomen steam engine. In 1768, he applied for a patent after doing a series of improvements. Soon he made an alliance with the rich industrialist Matthew Boulton, who secured an act of Parliament extending his patent until the year 1800.

In the name of economic freedom, the great statesman Edmund Burke spoke eloquently in Parliament against the creation of this unnecessary monopoly – but to no avail. After his patents were secure and the production started, Watt devoted a substantial portion of his energy blocking off rival inventors.

In the 1790s, when a superior Hornblower engine (compound steam engine) was put into production, Boulton and Watt sued Jonathan Hornblower and brought him down. Many new improvements to the steam engine were made, but they never saw the light until 1804 when the Boulton and Watt’s patent expired, as none of those inventors wished to incur the same fate as Hornblower.

The unfolding of events after Watt's patents expired was quite surprising. Not only there was an explosion in the production and efficiency of the engines, but also steam power came into its own as the driving force of the Industrial Revolution. Steam engines were modified and improved leading to the development of the steam train, the steamboat, and the steam jenny over the next thirty years. The high-pressure steam engine was one the key inventions whose development was blocked by Watt’s strategic use of his patent.

In most histories, even the one which we read, we buy into the "myth of the lone inventor" - an idea that creates a simple and entertaining narrative, like - James Watt was a heroic inventor, responsible for the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Although, these facts suggest an alternative interpretation of the history.

Was Watt’s patent a crucial incentive which triggered his inventive genius, as the traditional history suggests? Or did he push back the Industrial Revolution by a decade or two through the legal system he used to gain a competitive advantage?

Is the current system of "intellectual property" – patents and copyrights – a necessary evil that provides an incentive for invention and creativity? Or are they just unnecessary evils, the relics of the past when authorities granted monopolies to favoured bourgeois?

It is up to you to decide.

As an engineer I was always taught that our purpose is to solve real life problems, making this world a better place to live.

Through this article I am not trying to spread a libertarian propaganda, raising my voice against intellectual property, dogmatically disregarding consequences, insisting on principles of building a utilitarian society at any cost. But to show you that there exists an alternative way to push technology forward for a sustainable future – Open Design.
Open design is a form of co-creation which leads to the development of machines, systems and other physical products by using publicly shared design information using both free and open-source software (FOSS) as well as open-source hardware (OSHW). James Bessen and Alessandro Nuvolari wrote in their recent research paper, Knowledge Sharing Among Inventors: Some Historical Perspectives, how aggressive patenting had put an end to the period of extensive knowledge sharing which could be traced back to the 18th and 19th century. While many outstanding individuals made important contributions in the development of various technologies, the histories that we are exposed to, focus exclusively on “heroic inventors” which is often misleading and incomplete. The term "Open Design" was not coined in that era, but its essence was quite prominent even back then. They strived towards a common goal – pushing technology forward collectively for the greater good.

Today this idea of open design has been taken up by several groups and individuals. Marcin Jakubowski is one such US based farmer and technologist. After completing his PhD in fusion physics from University of Wisconsin, he realised that he lacked practical skills to solve pressing world issues which had rendered him more or less – useless. So, he started a farm in rural Missouri and spent his time learning the economics of farming.
He bought a new tractor. A few months passed, then it broke.
He got it repaired and a few months later it broke again.
Then pretty soon, he was broke too.

He realized that to start a sustainable farm and settlement, the truly appropriate, low-cost tools he needed just didn't exist. So he started building tools that were robust, modular, highly efficient and optimized, low-cost, made from local and recycled materials that would last a lifetime, not designed for obsolescence. He tested those tools and found that industrial productivity could be achieved on a small scale. He published the 3D designs, schematics, instructional videos and budgets on a wiki. Contributors from all over the world joined his movement and started a group - Open Source Ecology with a mission to create an Open Source Economy, an efficient economy that increases innovation by open collaboration. They identified the 50 most important machines that takes for modern life to exist - tractors, bread ovens, circuit makers, brick press, etc. Then they set out to open source the set of blueprints, called the Global Village Construction Set, allowing anyone to build their own tractor or harvester from scratch. So far, fourteen of the fifty machines have been designed, blueprinted, and prototyped, with five of those reaching the documentation stage. And now the project is about to enter the high velocity development phase.

It is very important to understand that hardware plays a pivotal role in the Open Design philosophy. An open source hardware is a component or device that has been licensed to allow anyone to examine, duplicate and modify as you wish. In the past few years, this openness in hardware has definitely taken a leap. Projects like RepRap – 3D printer and Arduino – microcontroller are some of the perfect examples of open hardware projects. It is important to focus on hardware because it is hardware that can change people's lives in a tangible way.

RepRap Project

The idea underlying Open Design can be well summarized by Nikola Tesla who wrote way back in 1934 - "The scientific man does not aim at an immediate result. He does not expect that his advanced ideas will be readily taken up. His work is like that of the planter — for the future. His duty is to lay the foundation for those who are to come, and point the way. He lives and labors and hopes."

Today technology advancement has reached such a level that individual invention happens with the help of hundreds. Even Issac Netwon will agree to it - "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."

Open platforms like OpenXC has already entered our vehicles. Motorola's Project Ara, the smartphone of the future, is also completely open-sourced. You are already living in the decade of Virtual Reality which coupled with open Brain Computer Interface will offer you a choice to remain in your everyday life or to enter the Matrix, giving you the ability to freely manipulate the simulated reality of the Matrix to manifest these abilities as various superhuman powers.

What started as the open source software movement decades ago, empowering people, is now finally inspiring and even extending its arms to support open source hardware, open product development, open enterprise and open design. There are lessons we can learn from these collaborative trends as we enter the next step in the evolution of both technology and economy. But first, we need to ask ourselves whether we have the courage to grab this opportunity and march ahead together?

If we do, then definitely we are about to enter the next phase of human evolution.