A Mad Scientist's 50 Tools for Sustainable Communities

Marcin Jakubowski's plan to create low-cost, open-source machines that can make everything you can find in a Walmart

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The "Liberator" Compressed Earth Brick Press, designed by Open Source Ecology. Courtesy of Open Source Ecology


In the middle of rural Missouri there is a physicist-turned-farmer looking to redefine the way we build the world. Marcin Jakubowski is the mastermind behind a group of DIY enthusiasts known as Open Source Ecology and their main project, the Global Village Construction Set. The network of engineers, tinkerers, and farmers is working to fabricate 50 different low-cost industrial machines. A complete set, they say, would be capable of supporting a sustainable manufacturing and farming community of about 200 people almost anywhere across the globe—a "small-scale civilization with modern comforts."

The organization's final goal? According to the "vision statement" on the group's website, "A world where every community has access to an open source Fab[rication] Lab which can produce all the things that one currently finds at a Walmart cost-effectively, quickly, on demand from local resources."

As Valentine points out, "Every single one of [the machines] already exist in real life. It's not reinventing the wheel; it's open-sourcing the wheel."

All of the machines, from the tractors to the laser cutter to the backhoe to the cement mixer, are designed to be modular, require only one engine, and be built with interchangeable parts so that a single machine can perform multiple functions. The machine that clears the land for the foundation of a building, for example, can then be reconfigured to pulverize the cleared soil into uniform pieces just under a centimeter in size. The same machine is then retooled again to transform that soil into bricks. To date, Open Source Ecology has built prototypes of eight of the 50 machines, and it has finalized the design of the brick-maker (a.k.a. the "Liberator" Compressed Earth Brick Press).

But there's more. The communities Jakubowski is hoping to build will all be sustainable, energy-efficient, and off-grid. Additionally, as the name of his organization implies, all of his designs are open-source, available to anyone with an Internet connection and basic welding skills. As Jakubowski himself admitted last month during his presentation as a TED Fellow in Long Beach, California, it's "a very big, hairy, audacious goal" to seek to build and distribute the plans for all 50 of the machines. Oh, and he hopes to finish the bulk of the designing by the end of 2012.

"Marcin is a mad scientist," says Severine von Tscharner Fleming, a farmer in New York's Hudson Valley who also promotes the open-sourcing of agricultural and rural hardware. In fact, although Open Source Ecology's project is called the Global Village Construction Set, indicating an international focus, domestic farmers might be its most receptive audience. Currently, many American farmers tackling small acreages are making do with 1940s-era tractors and other solidly built but outdated equipment. Jakubowski's self-fabricated tractors and backhoes may provide one of the only affordable alternatives for start-up farmers looking for small-scale machinery.

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Leah Messinger is a reporter whose work has appeared in Afar, The New York Times Magazine, Newsday, The Oakland Tribune, and The San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, among other publications. More

Leah Messinger is a reporter whose work has appeared in Afar, The East Bay Express, The Hollywood Reporter, The New York Times Magazine, Newsday, The Oakland Tribune, Red Herring, and The San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, among other publications. For many years she was the editorial director of the California Institute for Biodiversity, and she holds a master’s degree in journalism and bachelor’s degrees in both conservation and resource studies and political science from the University of California, Berkeley.

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