SOCIETY | Nov 22, 2016

A Wikipedia of things thanks to Open Manufacturing data

The first time I heard the concept of “Wikipedia of things” mentioned was in 2013 during the TED talk on “Architecture for the people by the people” by Alastair Parvin. To support the principles behind his WikiHouse project, thus the vision of urbanisation that was finally open, shared and collaborative, Parvin reasoned about the tremendous opportunity that the democratisation of manufacturing (which we are experiencing thanks to Internet, to the culture born from Free Software, Open Hardware and the maker movement, as well as patent-free digital fabrication technologies) offers us.

In other words, being able to test new models of development, raising citizens from simple consumers to collectivities able to confront the most pressing infrastructure problems of this 21st century, by developing Open Source, Low-Cost, High-Efficiency solutions that anyone can replicate and adapt to their needs by creating a “Wikipedia of stuff” accessible to all.

A truly disruptive scenario, but today are we really so far from achieving it?

Internet is already full of “things” in the form of data that are freely accessible (open or interchange formats) and usable (Open Source licences): 3D models of portals like Thingiverse, Youmagine or Repables, the instructions of portals like Instructables, Appropedia or Hackaday, the now numerous Open Hardware projects (Wikipedia carries an extensive list) or the increasingly numerous Open Manufacturing projects (which we are talking about in the section of the same name in Tech Economy). We speak of a heritage that goes from paraphernalia to small and large machinery, equipment, clothing, games, furniture, homes, vehicles, electronic boards and computers, but also processes, technologies and know-how. Linus Torvalds, creator of the Linux kernel, has coined the term “lazy like a fox“, calling for solving problems not reinventing the wheel every time, but by applying, if possible, solutions that have already been tested. This heritage can thus be seen as the starting point for a wide production range.

The old continent (Europe), Italy in particular, is neither conscious nor culturally ready (not humble enough and entrenched behind its “excellencies”), but many emerging (or simply smarter) countries are already taking advantage of this huge common database. So what is happening is that in Peru, for example, it is possible to design a small Open Source excavator named Buoy using data shared by Open Source Ecology; or we can see how the set of machines created by the Precious Plastic initiative of Dave Hakkens is being replicated in different ways around the world, from Indonesia to Ukraine, from South Africa to Cambodia, depending on the availability (and convenience) of components in a particular place; or we can see how many small businesses can create different types of vehicles, from city cars to small sports cars, from the transport of persons to that of the goods, all from the same modular OSVehicle platform.

These data, but above all the culture that makes them available, are like the spark of the Big Bang and their availability pushes the creation of platforms for sharing that are increasingly accessible and efficient, and tools for their handling that are increasingly easy and powerful (just look at the exponential growth of community modelling platforms such as FreeCAD) in a virtuous “chain reaction”.

Sharing undeniably creates economy, well-being and social regeneration (feeling oneself part of a community), but it is difficult to trigger because, for once, it is necessary to focus on humanity rather than on machines.

 Giovanni Longo