Open Source Ecology is a project which aims to provide blueprints for to build civilisations. Don’t worry — this isn’t flat-pack imperialism, nor is it woolly, idealist fantasy.
The project has set out a list of 50 machines — ranging from agriculture and building applications to laser cutters, automatic cow milkers and tractors — which the group has designed from the ground up and then shared its material lists, assembly directions and instruction manuals, all for free, online.
With these machines and a little graft, a settlement can establish itself as practically self-sufficient organism, complete with solar power, clean water and, crucially, the ability to repair equipment as it breaks and to fabricate more tools.
The key to this remarkable self-repairing ability is 3D printing and rapid prototyping. These are relatively new technologies — for the non-military public, that is — which take digital mock-ups and computer-aided design (CAD) drawings and accurately process them into physical objects.
3D printing is based on the principle of additive polymer layers — a digital, three-dimensional design is broken down into layers, much in the same way as a digital photograph is broken into row upon row of pixels, each containing a single piece of data which determines hue and luminosity. Combined in the correct order, these pixels form an image.
The 3D printing principle takes this one step further, adding another vertical dimension and extending colour and brightness information with material data — resin, metal and even glass.
A rapid prototyping machine then takes these layers of information and physically prints them, feeding the object powdered or pellet-sized materials from an infinitely feedable hopper and fusing them into a solid with a laser — sintering — or with glue binders, similar to traditional inkjet printers. This aspect also allows control of the cyan-magenta-yellow-black inks, meaning pieces can be made in full colour.
Currently the technology is at a point at which resin and metals can be used to produce simple objects, but it doesn’t take too much imagination to envision when this will be developed to produce high-precision artefacts with complex, interlocking parts which can be relied upon for critical applications.
Some companies are currently selling consumer units which come supplied with blueprints of the printers themselves, which means that you can build self-replicating versions of these machines.
You need only open up your computer to get an idea of where this could be headed. Printed circuit boards are made with 2D printers and acid baths on resin/metal plates, and the stunning complexity and power which such circuit boards offer us cannot be overstated.
Scaling this up into a third dimension affords possibilities which conventional fabrication can’t even come close to. Imagine, for a low-tech, boutique example, a ceramic coffee cup internally riddled with copper filaments and an RFID chip similiar to those found in passports and Oyster cards.
Such a cup would be able to intelligently inform a similiarly wired coffee maker when its contents are nearly consumed or approaching undrinkably cold, and thus requesting a fresh round of coffee be brewed, including selecting the correct brand of coffee and proportion of milk and sugar as ascertained by the smart cup.
Of course, making perfect coffee is not going to set the world alight, nor will it democratise manufacture and local economic control — a key factor in social empowerment — but enabling communities to replace critical machinery and components independently will.
Architects have been extensively exploring new ways to build cities. In the early days of rapid prototyping, some forward-thinking individuals envisaged entire buildings being printed in this fashion, with only raw materials needing to be fed into these enormous machines.
But to print a building in this way would require printers many times larger than the building itself — a clearly impractical approach in space-starved modern cities.
Rather than building from the outside in, a more innovative method is to establish tracks upon which nanobots can run, again only requiring raw materials.
These miniature, autonomous machines — approximately a millionth of a metre wide — would zip around the tracks assembling the building according to the nanobots’ built-in instructions, which is a blueprint of the entire building.
And much like our intelligent coffee cup, this building would be free of the constraints of traditional bricks and mortar construction. Such an edifice could be laced with circuitry to provide high-speed internet connectivity, light-sensitive windows, solar panels and much more.
From third-world villages to the most advanced cities in the world, rapid prototyping can democratise design and manufacture, putting control back in the hands of those who choose to sieze it.
Similar printing technologies are also preparing to reset the Big Pharma monopoly. Using basic chemical initiators and digital instructions, a properly modified printer can manufacture medicine free from the constraints profit-hungry drug corporations.
Once again, it’s simply the availability of instructions which flattens the arcane hierarchy of wealth equalling health.
One day a person in need of insulin would simply download a file from their doctor and within 20 minutes would have a week’s supply of the drug, freshly manufactured in their own home from basic raw ingredients. Make no mistake — this is life-saving, world-changing stuff.
But the incessant and desperate march of copyright owners to lock down the internet and the free passage of information is a threat to these emerging, powerful technologies.
The world is approaching a point at which it’s connected enough to start repairing and improving itself, but the monopolisation of information is one of the points which we need to defend most fiercely.
Projecting the future of human endeavour and its marriage to technology is famously perilous. With the benefit of hindsight, such predictions can be laughably off-key, but we can be certain that what’s to come is stranger than we’re yet ready to suppose.