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

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.

That appeal is one reason Open Source Ecology's followers have recently been growing in number. In addition to the collaborators who convene at Jakubowski's 30 acres in Missouri, donors numbering in the "upper hundreds" are offering varying levels of financial support, according to Julia Valentine, a long-time activist who recently joined the group to do outreach and fundraising. And small groups in Oberlin, Ohio; Eastern Pennsylvania; New York; and California have started getting involved by helping develop blueprints and by building prototypes.

Although the Global Village Construction Set is ambitious in scope and attempts to create open-source blueprints where previously only proprietary information existed, its concepts aren't entirely new. 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 these technologies have been proven."

That comes as a relief to Mireille Cronin Mather, executive director of the Foundation for Sustainable Development, which potentially could use some of Open Source Ecology's blueprints and machines in the projects related to health, environmental sustainability, and economic development that it pursues throughout the developing world. Having worked in Africa and India, among other places, Mather says she has observed many high-concept projects prove unrealistic on the ground. "I've seen very, very well-meaning 'appropriate technology' projects just lying unused because the sustainability aspects aren't all the way thought through," she says.

One short-term stumbling block for Open Source Ecology, however, may turn out to be the more mundane, less revolutionary aspect of maintaining organizational momentum. That is, continuing to grow its ranks and develop cohesive support and funding. That will be key if the group intends to reach its goal of completing the design of the remaining 49 machines and raising the $2.4 million needed to do so by the end of 2012. "We haven't really formed up some of this business part of it," Valentine says.

So far most of the money coming in has been in the form of small, individual, recurring donations. Venture capital is an unlikely source of future funding since there's not expected to be any return on investment. But that hasn't stopped the small groups in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere from helping out, which Valentine says is the only way Open Source Ecology will be able to finalize 49 more machines in 21 months.

The partners from Ohio, based at the New Agrarian Center in Oberlin, are testing blueprints for the Compressed Earth Brick kit. They've drawn up plans for a large storage center for their Community Supported Agriculture project and a "mushroom chamber" for cultivating fungi, and they are trying to use Jakubowski's blueprints to build the compressed earth brick machine to produce the bricks needed for the building. "We love the concept of what he's doing," says Sandy Kish-Jordan, the director of the center. "We loved the concept, but also the notion of collaboratively creating something that can provide a purpose in our community, and at a reasonable cost."