Big Ideas from TED 2011: A Construction Set for Civilization

Posted by Nathaniel Whittemore

The big idea behind the Global Village Construction Set is that everyone everywhere should have access to the key tools for creating human civilization.

At the end of years of study and the completion of a PhD in fusion physics, Polish-born TED2011 Fellow Marcin Jakubowski found himself feeling like he was, to use his words, "useless." Believing he needed to get past a consumer lifestyle, he moved to middle America to begin farming. After buying (and then breaking, and breaking again) a tractor, he began to wonder what were the truly essential machines at the core of every society. And even more, he began to wonder why, if open source software had had such powerful impacts, there wasn't an equivalent for the essential hardware of civilization?

As he began to explore these questions, he determined that there were roughly 50 machines that were critically important for modern life—things like ovens and trackers. His goal was to design versions of these products that were robust, modular, made from local recyclable materials, and made to last a lifetime rather than designed for obsolescence. So far, Jakubowski has prototyped eight of the 50 machines with extremely high degrees of success, and has demonstrated that open source versions of essential hardware can achieve the same industrial productivity as purchased implements.

Jakubowski's project, Open Source Ecology, has already begun to create the global digital commons through which the blueprints and plans for these open-source hardware technologies can be found, and a community has rapidly sprung up around the project. Together, they're trying to build a Global Village Construction Set that could be used to jumpstart civilization anywhere.

For the founders, the point of the project is bigger than being clever and making your own tractor. Ultimately, the goal is to dramatically democratize the means of production for anyone in the world, enable environmentally sound supply chains, and hopefully, in their words, enable a DIY "maker culture" to transcend our sense of scarcity.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Ben Jervey, GOOD's environment writer, covered Open Source Ecology in February.

The "Big Idea" is a series of posts about the people and passions that make up the community at TED2011 Long Beach.