What does ‘Open Source’ mean for Architecture?

As part of the special report on open-source design published in issue 948 (June 2011), Domus approached Carlo Ratti to write an op-ed on the theme of open-source architecture. He responded with an unusual suggestion: why not write it collaboratively, as an open-source document? Within a few hours a page was started on Wikipedia, and an invitation sent to an initial network of contributors. The outcome of this collaborative effort was printed and the Wikipedia page remains online as an open canvas—a 21st-century manifesto of sorts, which by definition is in permanent evolution (Domus).

Last night at the BMW Guggenheim Lab Joseph Grima, Editor and Chief of Domus and Lab Team member Carlo Ratti discussed Open Source Architecture.

What is Open Source Architecture?

OSArch is an emerging paradigm describing new procedures for the design, construction and operation of buildings, infrastructure and spaces. It describes an inclusive approach to spatial design, a collaborative use of design software and the transparent operation throughout the course of a building and city’s life cycle. Basically it’s a new collaborative method of practice and a platform for adaption and innovation.

Take Kinect, a motion sensing input device by Microsoft for the Xbox 360 video game console and Windows PCs. So the story goes, 24 hours after the first sale hackers and makers had disassembled the hardware and the software to ‘crack the code’. A New York not-for-profit offered a prize for the first person to crack the code and publish it online. Rather than pursue the hackers Microsoft put the code online. Sales rose by 50% and a platform for adaption and innovation was created.

Until recently architecture and design was ‘top down’. The hierarchy was based on mass communication of one directional monologue with static products. In recent years we have seen a move towards peer-to-peer communication with multi-directional dialogue, without hierarchy, which has led to the creation of dynamic products. Then there is “Thinkering’ a move and trend towards a process of breaking things up and putting them back together in a different way. A process in which the ‘end user’ or ‘consumer’ is engaged in the production process from start to finish.

It seems to me that the 20th century was all abut perfect products and the 21st century is all about self-production. Enabled by organisations such as kick-starter, people; anyone, you, me and our neighbours, are able to develop and produce an idea or concept in our garages or spare bedrooms and, if the idea takes off, we get the turnover of a 50 year old company in a couple of weeks!

Open-source has shown us that there are many ways to get ‘rewards’. Traditionally people had an idea and then they patented it to protect their income. In the ‘new’ system, the one that I have seen in the Lab over the last few weeks, people want different ‘rewards’ they are not so interested in just monetary rewards.  People are interested in project or product prestige, being seen as an innovation leader, being invited to collaborate by others and having their efforts recognized.

“Are things really changing?” I hear you ask.

I’d personally say that the very fact that the Economist magazine discussed “The Third Industrial Revolution” on their front cover just a few months ago is testament that things really are changing

What are the great design icons of the 21st Century thus far?

Without doubt, what is revolutionary is the iphone – not for the design – but because it is a platform for multiple uses. We can harness as many or as little of the uses on the ‘phone that’s not really a phone’ all or some of the time.

Take the two Canadian teenagers who strapped an iphone onto a helium balloon with a Lego man and filmed ‘Lego man’s ascent into space’. They got as far as showing the curvature of the earth using the iphone movie camera and used the GPS to track Lego man when he descended back to earth. Six months later they were invited to TED and are the hero’s of an ad-hoc space mission. Projects of this kind had, until recently, been reserved for the domains of the elite like NASA now ‘everyday citizens’ are experimenting with technology and ‘everyday items’ in ways never imagined.

Its not just about technology and products its also about places and people.

I love the story of a teenager in Helsinki who wanted to sell crepes, coffee and ice-cream from a Citroën Camionette truck. He got frustrated with struggling with the local authorities over unnecessary bureaucracy and street-selling permits and so he set up a Facebook group to encourage everyone to go out and sell food in their very own ‘pop up restaurant’ on one given day. His idea has become an institution that flies under the institutional apparatus of the city.

What can we learn form the pop-up-restaurant story and Lego man going into space?

  1. Anyone can take action and do things
  2. We need to leverage off of collective will
  3. Our culture has changed profoundly. We are sharing ideas and getting involved thanks to social media and smartphones.

…. And finally what does this really mean for Architecture?

  • Problems will be addressed by collaborating with others, through increased inter-disciplinary working and by using many forms of knowledge
  • The ‘Architect’ may be more of an editor and curator picking the best pieces and putting them together

… Let’s see what evolves!