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Real World 2.0: ready for open source hardware, sensors?

The current economic crisis won’t just produce major changes in the world’s economic institutions. Programmers, tinkerers and DIY aficionados aren’t just waiting for change, but reinventing what it means to participate.

We’re witnessing a change in our production model, where “producing little variety for many people” is being transformed into “producing a lot of variety for a few people”. Sensors connected to web and hardware applications that anyone can modify are the new frontier. The future? It’s already happened to the market for cultural products. And the model for free software is now being translated from the computer to the rest of the world.

The context

The administrations of Barack Obama and many European countries, as well as Japan and the main emerging economies, are increasing their public spending to fight the economic and productive slowdown. The challenge involve simultaneously cutting non-productive public spending, a measure that Obama wants to attack by improving the transparency of American budgets.

The rescue plans don’t just involve banks and financial and insurance entities. The U.S., as well as other G20 countries, are trying to take advantage of the moment to create a new green economy. The UN, through it’s environmental program UNEP, recommends an international investment in sustainable technologies to revive the economy.

An Internet for electricity: the “smart grid”

The United States is trying to stimulate so-called “green collar” jobs with a public investment plan that favors transparency and sending money to projects that, in the words of President Obama, favor a new sustainable economy and generate jobs with higher added value on U.S. soil.

With this goal in mind, investment is being targeted toward renewable energy, batteries for electric cars, new generation biofuels that do not affect the price of food, clean coal, a new intelligent electricity infrastructure capable of transporting energy from renewable sources thousands of kilometers and even advances so that nuclear energy loses its stigma.

One of the projects that stirs up greater expectations among experts, investors and entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley and other areas of research and investment is the so-called intelligent energy network, or “smart grid“.

Barack Obama has confirmed that the priority of his team toward major renovation of energy, education and the health system of the U.S. wasn’t just a campaign promise and he has proposed carrying out these reforms as the pillars of an agenda to motivate a “lasting prosperity“.

Energy and education are crucial to restart the world’s biggest economy, according to Obama’s team. Though Obama wants to use the transparency provided by web applications to show U.S. citizens where every budget item is going and how much every project costs.

Other tools, also based on the concept of access to information and the principle of Web 2.0 that any process of collaboration enriches and improves social participation, promise to put an end to traditional bureaucracy.

From Web 2.0 to the electric Social Web

The idea of constructing a smart electric grid was inspired on a principle related to open source software and the resultant applications which the editor Tim O’Reilly baptized Web 2.0: transparency of information and technical knowledge of a complex system contributes to it’s improvement, making it more efficient and transparent for all users.

If a website or the entire Internet can be enriched with the use, knowledge and experience of its users, the smart electric grid that the U.S. Administration is trying to build will convert electric consumption to a decentralized system, capable of adapting in real time to the necessities of its “users”, the citizens themselves.

In a “smart grid”, consumers would have access to relevant information related to the consumption of the entire grid at any given moment, her consumption level during any period and the price of electricity during moments of high demand and moments with a lower load on the grid.

Defenders of this type of energy grid, only possible with the use of sensors in every building and the exchange of information in real time over the entire system – an authentic Web 2.0 application-, argue that its use would favor the consumption of renewable energies.

The majority of renewable sources are intermittent by nature, depending on determined conditions (the existence of sun, wind, a determined flow of water, swells, tides, etcetera), and a smart grid would draw from the non-renewable energy grid when sensors from the “application” show that there aren’t conditions to satisfy the grid with renewable sources.

Theoretically, a system of this nature, based on the principle of free market capitalism, would mean that users would consume less during hours of peak demand, which would be the most expensive electricity, which would diminish consumption (and the carbon footprint of its users) dramatically.

The same principle can be applied for users of the network interested in consuming renewable energy: during poor weather conditions for renewables, the price would rise for this source, so that consumption would drop, when conditions improve the price of energy from renewable sources would drop.

The next step in this scheme would be to allow users to sell the excess energy that they produce through renewable sources back to the grid, at times when it would be most advantageous economically.

They’re here now: sensors

Tim O’Reilly, Internet veteran and eclectic entrepreneur born in Ireland but settle in Silicon Valley since the 80’s, founder of O’Reilly Media and of the conferences Web 2.0 and ETech, is one of the intellectual forces driving an idea that is well-liked by the new U.S. Administration, that has been heard from Obama advisers like Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google: it is possible to modernize the American economy through systems based on exchange of information and the free market to achieve a more efficient and informed society, based on the exchange of knowledge.  

During one of his presentations, Tim O’Reilly described the next big improvement produced with the help of the Internet: “The next stage of Web 2.0 is going to be driven by sensors. We are moving out of the world in which people typing on keyboards are going to be driving collective intelligence applications.”

O’Reilly isn’t referring to a world of science fiction. In fact, his predictions- not only technological, but social and economic- are so well-considered by investors and powerful entrepreneurs that he is nicknamed “the radar of Silicon Valley”. The name of his current company’s blog: O’Reilly Radar.

Dylan Field explains in O’Reilly Radar that, as occurs with all transitions, the incorporation of data from the existing physical web onto existing platforms will be gradual. “We are just beginning to see applications surface and the best is still ahead of us.”

Field includes in his post examples of a movement that is trying to achieve communication between complex systems and Web 2.0 programs, through the use of sensors and the participation of citizens. 

This is the case of SENSEable City Laboratory, a project from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology- MIT- that uses sensors to understand the macro-dynamics of cities. “For example, in one experiment the lab collected all cellphone usage in Rome for one night. They then aggregated the data and produced a visualization showing how people moved around and where events were taking place.”

“If we had real time access to this kind of information”, concludes Dylan Field, “how would it affect our choices? Would we decide not to eat at a particular restaurant because it is too crowded? Would we choose our entertainment based on the flow of the crowd?”

Open source hardware

In parallel with the intention to improve the social, and even administrative, culture with the most information possible, through tools that would favor transparency in environments such as energy, education or health, another trend is emerging with force that could convert any person not only into a node of an information exchange network, but into a “producer”. 

The first generation of Web 2.0 applications, such as blogs, social networks, networks to share photos and videos and the so-called micro-blogging (Twitter), has given the user a platform of expression until now considered “amateur”. What would happen if now we allowed users to create their own artisanal products, programming or electronics through systems based on the free exchange of specs and free systems of author rights?

Tim O’Reilly assures in an interview with The Economist that the authentic essence of Web 2.0 applications is to construct systems that become better, more “intelligent”, through the increased participation of their users. The encyclopedia Wikipedia, edited by thousands of collaborators throughout the world, has replaced the Encyclopedia Britannica and other “official”, professional and proprietary sources for millions of people.

Open source hardware embraces the philosophy that the process of creating electronic circuits, computers, cars and even homes can be enriched and “improved” if the creator of the technology allows others to use and modify it at will.

This is a philosophy of open source software promoted by Richard Stallman, Linus Torwalds and even Mark Shuttleworth, applied to whatever process of production imaginable. In the end, now there is a means of diffusion of information that allows intellectual exchange to take place on a global scale, between people who don’t know each other, but who potentially share an interest in any given production niche.

For Chris Anderson, director of the magazine Wired and author of the book, the blog and the theory called The Long Tail (which explains that the Internet has allowed any cultural content, as small as it may be, to have a market and a potential profit, thanks to a method of distribution that is virtually free: the Internet), believes that we are entering the New Era of DIY.

At first, Anderson believed that his observation of a trend of the “long tail” (the increase in consumption of minority products when people can buy them thanks to the Internet, besides products created by aficionados, while decreasing sales of products for the masses, or “pop culture”) applied only to books, music, photography, video and journalism.

In the market for music, a handful of artists were promoted by the big labels and sold millions of albums; with the arrival of the Internet, the users of “pop culture” investigated their own musical tastes and helped grow demand of niche and rare offerings, while demand for products prefabricated for millions decreased.

But the same phenomenon began to occur with electronic circuits that attracted aficionados of robotics, computers and other appliances when manufacturers put their specifications and components within reach of whatever user or business who wanted to copy, personalize or improve a given product.

What happened was that the real information, the “new Intel Inside”, was improved with the help of people, as demonstrated by Web 2.0. Information converts a product that could just be a standard item without distinctive nor any added value, into something unique. And this is where Chris Anderson believes will be the nexus of a true revolution:

“Instead of a small number of products for millions, it’s a case of millions of products for a small number”, believes Anderson, adapting his theory of The Long Tail to all types of markets and consumer products, not just cultural ones. “The monolithic software model hasn’t addressed this. That’s what small companies and individuals are for: We’re in the era of ‘do-it-yourself’.”

With hardware, users can also “add value”

Small businesses from the creative world to the Internet, such as independent programmers, have gotten used to creating or modifying lines of code in a few hours or days to give life to applications that work in an autonomous mode and form a part of any platform: platforms for applications like Facebook, iPhone, Android telephones, social networks with OpenSocial specs, programs or plugins for browsers (Firefox and Internet Explorer have their own platforms, and Google announced their own for the Chrome browser) and innumerable alternative spaces even more niche.

But, as Ryan Singel explains in Wired, until recently these creative minds didn’t have the same freedom in the world of information and electronic hardware, not to mention other sectors even less open to innovation.

It is in this context of veiled demand that where free, or open source, hardware has appeared with force. Enthusiasts of the so-called “do it yourself”, DIY, movement have begun to use hardware platforms that can be freely modified, as tools of fast, and modular, production, to simplify the process of creating, for example, routine robotic applications.

When Singel talks about this new trend, he cites Tim O’Reilly given that the new legion of fans of free hardware have their own media: the magazine and website site Make, published by… O’Reilly Media. It’s no surprise that they call this Californian “the radar”. As, or even more, successful as the magazine is the O’Reilly-sponsored festival for free hardware enthusiasts Maker Faire.

Make is limited to supplying the information needs of a spontaneous community of technophiles (“geeks“) accostumed to using and modifying at will free software, who after adopting the same attitude with web applications are doing the same with consumer electronics devices.

Philip Torrone, Make’s senior editor, believes that open source hardware, complete with diagrams and kits that can be self-assembled, is growing faster than expected. Torrone believes that 2009 will be the year of free hardware.

What type of assemblies have attracted the most interest from the readers and members of the Make “community”? The most popular kit for the beginning of 2008 is a USB charger embedded in an Altoid tin, an apparatus that, explains Ryan Singel, was designed by Limor Fried, of Adafruit Industries, who began to publish documentation about devices he’d made when he was in university, such as a signal blocker for a mobile phone.

Attentive to the trend, Michael Arrington, founder and director of Techcrunch, a blog about Web 2.0 startups, presented in July of 2008 (his first entry about the idea) the creation of a Tablet PC (a computer without a keyboard and with a touch screen) so simple and comfortable as to be cheap, but which can still achieve an important function: to surf the Internet. 

The so-called- internally- CrunchPad will cost less than 299 dollars and will be an open source device that can be bought, assembled, modified and improved by anyone.

The device, whose development is being coordinated by the developer Louis Monier, a veteran of Internet search engines, is being improved by an open collaborative process between TechCrunch (through posts by Michael Arrington about the device on his blog) and those who participate with comments on his posts.

In this way the CrunchPad which has had 2 prototypes (about the first prototype and the second prototype) continues to be improved.

Michael Arrington has encouraged thousands of aficionados of free hardware and DIY trends to become interested in the idea, leaving literally thousands of comments about the device.

“We’ve also gotten quite a bit of interest from the investment community”, assured Arrington in January of 2009. “The real question for us is whether this project has legs and should go forward towards production units, which is a very big step from a working prototype. That would require spinning the company off from the blog and building a team around Louis. It’s a decision we haven’t made yet.”

The next step: to construct an open source world?

Now that the concepts of Web 2.0 and free software are now applied to ideas as diverse as open source hardware and the construction of an intelligent electric grid in the United States, is it possible to initiate a new industrial era with open source objects?

The model and values contributed to the world by the world of free software is powerful, once it is discovered, oftentimes in a fortuitous way, by a generation of curious Internet enthusiasts, who are converted, from time to time without being conscious of it, into authentic trend hunters. The “microcelebrities” (term defined by Clive Thompson in Wired)- born from a powerful blog or an interesting video collection on YouTube, or from photographs in Flickr,- can make an idea reverberate across the web. The Internet has unleashed an era of creativity that can be exploited at a moment of global crisis (the 2009 Bay Area Maker Faire is devoted to “Remake: America”).

Victor Keegan wonders in The Guardian if it is possible to construct a world from the ideas of collaboration and constant improvement through open source.

Open source, says Keegan, not only is superseding proprietary software in the servers market and in the new segment of low cost laptops (netbooks, a trend started by the project for a laptop for children of poor countries, the OLPC XO-1, a project coordinated by Nicholas Negroponte), thanks to the success of distributions of Linux that are easy to use and graphically attractive such as Ubuntu.

The global recession, says the British journalist, combined with the unprecedented expansion of social networks, is preparing a perfect storm that could convert the new model into a global force. Open source hardware seems to be an idea whose time has come.

The British weekly The Economist published in March of 2009 an interesting article about another idea that seems irresistible: entrepreneurship can be within reach of anyone, even those who start their careers without much money and without having passed through the traditional circles of elite education and economic power.

The Internet and the cellular phone have made becoming an entrepreneur increasingly cheap and the opportunities to create and attractive business for thousands or millions of people has multiplied, when the number of users with Internet access constitutes a sixth of the worldwide population, while half of the inhabitants of our planet regularly use a cellular phone.

“It is curious that while financial capitalism is in global meltdown, a completely different kind of entrepreneurial activity – call it commune-ism – is rising.”

Do it yourself projects: DIY has arrived

There are dozens of examples of “do it yourself” trends and free hardware.

Arduino: an alternative phenomenon of worldwide scope. The Italian company founded by 2 Italians (Massimo Banzi, Gianluca Martino) and a Spaniard (David Cuartielles) makes a circuit board that anyone can modify, adapt, or fabricate through shared specs without any charge that thousands of electronics fans worldwide are using to create small robots and applications that can be used in daily life. Clive Thompson wrote in October of 2008 an excellent article for Wired magazine about the Arudino, its creators, the projections for the device and the future of free hardware.

Openfarmtech.org: open source environmentalism that includes the construction of a new type of urban center or “eco-city”.

Akvo.org: a project specialized in the creation of environmental health products (sanitation, potable water, treatment of water and waste residues, hygiene systems, etcetera).

EDAG: the first open source concept car. Among its remarkable specifications, the use of organic, low consuming lighting (OLED) and a totally recyclable basalt fiber chassis (100%, no tricks

OLPC-2: after the minimal impact of XO-1, the first “computer for children in poor countries”, the second OLPC device promises to improve the now notable first version. The device would continue being inexpensive, it would also use Sugar, the Linux distribution developed for children, it would have a large tactile screen covering its entire surface (in the style of Nintendo DS) and it’s rumored that it’s specs will be open source. In this way any school, enthusiast, country or company will be able to adapt them and produce them at will.

TOPP (Open Planning Project): an urban planning project using the exchange of information between citizens and the enrichment of its projects through an open source philosophy applied to improving a city. It’s a project instigated by the entrepreneur Mark Gorton, creator of web of file exchange between users (P2P) LimeWire.

DIY city: a decentralized project to create “a city where information is open and flows easily from government offices to residents, from residents back to government, and from residents to other residents, to create a tight-knit information ecology that improves life in cities for all”. A new concept to improve the “human communities” through ideas like open source, Web 2.0 style collaboration and sustainability.

VIA OpenBook: a laptop with open source design and specifications (as well as the operating system). Thanks to free licensing, anyone can download CAD (computer assisted design) files and use or modify the design for OpenBook to adapt it to their preferences.

CrunchPad: an open source tablet PC with a Linux operating system that should cost about 300 dollars, if TechCrunch finally decides to develop a commercial model (at the moment, they have presented in their blog 2 prototypes, the last of them in January of 2009).

Tweet-a-Watt: intelligent meter to measure how much energy every home appliance uses. The open source device is easy to configure and modify.

Hexayurt: a small prefabricated cabin that can be used as a home whose production costs about 200 dollars. It uses common construction materials, such as planks for insulation. The idea is to give access and dignity to housing for the poorest people.

A gift with the article: a proposal of a business model, courtesy of Chris Anderson via Twitter: “Business model for my open source robotics startup: disclose the cost of everything and charge 40% markup. Want it cheaper? DIY!”