Initial musings on the Global Village Construction Set

I recently discovered a cool project I hadn’t heard of before, got excited, and compulsively read all the blog posts and the Wikipedia entry and watched many of the videos all in one go (as you do). The project is the Global Village Construction Set, and its goal is to create and make freely available a set of modular, open-source designs for “the 50 machines needed to create a small civilization with modern comforts”.

50 machines

The machines include everything you’d need to grow food (tractor, etc.) generate power (wind turbine) and build houses (compressed earth brick maker, etc.)

I’m very impressed by the fact that the business side of it is open source alongside the design schematics: they publish detailed breakdowns of what materiels were used, at what cost, how long it took to make the machine, with how many people working. This stands in contrast to many Free Software projects that are Free as in Freedom – but only for folks with the cash for a private server, and the spare time and know-how to set it up and maintain it. The financial, time or knowledge requirements are often completely ignored.

The vision behind the GVCS isn’t the sort of extreme self-sufficiency where one person or one family produces everything they need, but it’s not the mainstream idea of massive corporations carrying out extremely specialized tasks either. It’s somewhere in between; not every person does every task, but a smallish community (a village? A small town?) would be able to provide their own food, electricity, and housing.

This isn’t complete self-sufficiency. Things like modern medicine and computers are outside the scope of the Global Village Construction Set.

I love the fact that Marcin Jakubowski, the main person behind the project, keeps talking about efficiency. Open source, cooperative development, with interchangeable, modular parts, he emphasises, is efficient. In contrast, secretive, proprietary, patent-based development is grossly wasteful.

Marcin Jakubowski is an interesting character. He’s a Polish guy living in the US. In the TED talk he tells a moving anecdote about his childhood: he remembers happy times playing, like all children, but he also remembers waiting in line for food (in Communist Poland before the end of the Cold War) and the terrible effects that hunger and poverty had on people. Jakubowski grew up, went to the US to get a physics Ph.D, then realized that his knowledge of plasma physics had little to do with the lives of ordinary people, so he dropped his physics career and began work on the Global Village Construction Set.

He comes across as the boyscout to end all boyscouts: eager to make the world a better place, modest about his own impressive achievements, speaking overly-precise English in a charming Polish accent. He does not show any sign of having a sense of humour. So I love the fact that he goes on about efficiency, straight-faced – I think he knows very well that “efficiency” is the justification given over and over and over to justify proprietary, corporate, secret, patent-driven technological development, and neoliberalism in general. I think that underneath his straight-man facade he knows that he’s giving a two-finger salute to current political and economic status quo, and laughing about it.

But, I might be just reading too much into things.

With a project like this, the first thing that leaps to mind is that it could be useful in poorer countries. There is mention of plans to integrate parts of the GVCS into development projects, but the focus seems to be on developing greater self-sufficiency in wealthier nations such as the US, so that it will no longer be necessary to rob the rest of the world for the things we need.

That’s a pretty radical idea when you think about it.

The Global Village Construction Set doesn’t seem to be particularly well-publicised, compared to other cool, trendy or “disruptive” open source projects. Perhaps that’s another point in its favour? Perhaps it’s simply part of the nature of the universe that the best-promoted projects are not the best projects in substance, because the people involved in the latter are focussing on other things than self-promotion.


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