One of the early LifeTrac prototypes, still in use and guarding the front entrance at Factor E Farm
Open Source Ecology (OSE) is a distributed movement (growing quickly in Europe and elsewhere) of collaborative designers, tinkerers, fabricators, and perpetual-beta-testers of the ambitiously outlined Global Village Construction Set (GVCS). It has grown up from humble—and some have surely thought quixotic—beginnings, on a small bare plot of land in the Midwest, throughout almost a decade. The project has recently hit an inflection point of sorts, with the strong influence of three factors: publicity (a highly regarded TED Talk), funding (Kauffman Foundation grant), and follow-through (12 of the implements have working prototypes in use, and another 15 are in active development).
The following post is a set of personal reflections gathered over an enthusiastic but brief survey of on-the-ground operations at Factor E Farm (FeF). I was traveling through the area on my way cross-country to launch a farm-to-ecovillage collaborative conversion program at Neshobe Farm in Vermont, much inspired by the effort and vision of Marcin Jakubowski and OSE devotees worldwide. Additionally, I aim to contribute towards a rather more ‘software’ oriented supplement to GVCS: the Gaia Village Catalyst System, which packages some important threshold-lowering templates to formation and launch of agile open ecovillage enterprise, inviting a new ‘Commons Conversion Corps’ to scale up grassroots transition in, and of, the landscape.
I don't know the full creation story behind Factor E Farm. So much is still being articulated. I'm sure the very beginnings are entitled to some celebratory myth-making, in return on the immensities of challenge and marginality that were overcome to attain present concrete successes. I will leave that embellishment to founder and chief evangelist Marcin however, or any of the stalwart crew who have persevered on the ground out there, should they wish eventually to entertain any such ambiance as asset—for it can also cast shadows.
Thankfully, the hazy late-day sun showed me much exhilarating non-fiction I could read right from the ground on my quick visit, to supplement the official record. The sequence of increasingly indigenous, elaborate, precise, and carefully positioned structures tells an important part, as they shape (and were shaped by) daily patterns of habitation and invention on site. The array of adolescent orchard stock and decommissioned garden projects presents another timeline, going back five years or so, but with recent hiatus in order to focus wholly on the cause célèbre of DIY eco-industrial hardware technology.
As a public benefit design guild, the Farmers are focused on harvesting know-how, best practices, modularity, and precise analytical detail in their specific project realms for replicable dissemination—such is the beauty of open source. But always there is more to the Story than figures and logs, and this diaphanous human element is a powerful piece of what's happening here, why the work deserves attention, respect, and support. My offering is just this little lens into their test-bed for evolutionary autonomous fabrication, planted in its rich Missouri mud.
Arrival by car is nonchalant, through gateless front drive right to the center of activities in workshop #2. 'Driveway' here is just a squishy pullout off one of northeast Missouri's criss-cross grid of one-lane unpaved farm roads that roller-coaster through miles of gentle green hill-country farms, lakes, and wood-lots. My visit was unsanctioned but cordial, without clear schedule or apt tribute prepared for the benefit of Marcin's rugged and busy crew. I was traveling fast coast-to-coast on a pilgrim's path of attainment, genuflecting to next-edge way-stations along the journey to my own fresh and daunting renovation destination. It was a very special thrill to make contact here, in a slow (i.e. non-wiki-fied) and empathic way.
Always appetite is such basic communion! Toting spare Trader Joe's quicky delights for my own travel fare proved fortuitous, as these were well received to a goulash souffle dinner with extra eggs (about the only site-based foodstuff at this point and season). Dining chairs came out in a small circle around a broad chop-block stump, which we determined to become a fire pit soon. In much experience and tradition, the hearth is a key feature of real and symbolic central coherence for au naturale live / work endeavors—but perhaps overly, seductively, social, in this intensely task-oriented context? Goodness knows there is not a TV or sound system in sight. Ascetic hackers always be shippin'.
Behind the scenes (though certainly not hidden) is a continuously refined system for organization and management that is also built with solid, free, community-supported software. The GVCS development program is monumental, in vision alone. As it stands now, around one third of 50 planned implements have been realized by a few burgeoning OSE workgroups worldwide. Plans for the whole set are evolving in an open source process that compiles ideas and improvements from a wide user / maker base for continuous improvement and the ever-popular free-to-use licentiousness to reproduce.
Open source has about it the spirit of making something from nothing; or at least keeping financial investment to a bare minimum during the run-up to productive application of your technology or device. As such, it can lower the threshold to indiscriminate use or alteration, and bleed an imprint of makeshift never-finished casual acquiescence into the product itself, a tell-tale absence of finishing touches and packaging or presentation. The young village here may need makeup and marketability, but that's down the road. Right now the hardware at FeF shines and wows, no doubt. I may not get past the impression that the LifeTrac home-built tractor is inspired by childhood Erector Set aesthetics and technology, but it all performs, and performance is the real advertisement. Design and workmanship are technically clean, spare, practical, even to untrained eyes. It is a functional statement and invitation: these are meant for adaptation and re-tinkering.
The level of R&D is extensive for each implement, yet remains in-obvious at a given work site as it is asynchronously distributed via loose-knit expertise and collaborative experimentation around the globe. Factor E is the spiritual center of this network, movement, and ethos, and the machines are the clunking whirring heart of the social organism here. The human comforts of such a working home base are slim, and my own sensibilities caution at the potential disconnects from future Global Villager end-owner-operators. Fair enough—this is not a tourist attraction yet (I slipped in under pretense), but even the gents on the ground acknowledge that something could be done for hospitality and tidiness, to make their lives and loads a little lighter. Comforts, well cycled with austerity and exertion, can spark the best of creative perseverance. Micro-managing outlays for basics like food and shelter eventually becomes a psychological and physical drain, or you find yourself beholden to other people's terms and values. Obviously at Factor E, the replicable output of machines is paramount. This is valiant, admirable, and viable under duress in the short term, but needs to find balance with other requirements for stable, meaningful community.
Despite the global nature of these undertakings, a spirit of place is alive here and deserves celebration, too. The ecosystem is in fair shape, but carries quite a legacy of human intervention. It is really a beautiful pastoral setting, patiently awaiting some polish and presencing with eyes toward future ambience of diversely cultivated spaces. Out on the periphery of non-industrial support systems, features like rain catchment, greenhouse planting space, waste cycling, community kitchen, and cross-gully pedestrian bridge-work all cry out for artful loving care, rough as it may come.
In the morning I was sun-risen, and immediately took to the upper field walk for a taste of the soft dawn atmosphere. Sampled some dandelion leaf too, one of my favorite wild tonic nutri-packs, available in most temperate regions and best during spring—feedstock for an open source vegetable juicer? I sat on a dilapidated hay bale, thinking there ought to be at least a three-legged scrap metal bench artifact at this pleasant niche above the trees. But farmers are not so frequently seated, I notice, not for sitting’s sake alone. I should like to try them on a little of the 'slow down to speed up' wisdom of efficient excellence. I listened, too, honoring all the purposeful industry ensconced here.
The Toolmakers aren't so snappy to lift off in the AM. Delving into wiki edits and obscure textual study by light of an LED lamp through late hours, Marcin will even hop out of bed on a lark to sketch 3D CAD designs that arrive on brainwave side-band. I extracted permission and instructions for a quick trip through newly installed HabLab bath facility, and brewed a spot of tea to share around, shifting gears. My journey rushes on across an arbitrary threshold from this culture-hacking outpost into a world of ways very different and decadent. Got to keep bolstering the bridges. Do the work, create new play, tell the story. A dash of drama and intrigue—preface to the open myth-making immersion ahead. I am grateful, nervous, and full of resilient ambition, carrying on.
Where does Open Source Ecology move fastest, farthest, forward? On the ground, in community, with a mix of dedication and improvisation, in service to sustainably productive habitats; where sparks of vitality zip and fly from arc-welder incandescence, into new wealth of appropriate power, food, and shelter, to embraces of interdependence amongst family and friends. And perhaps more efficiently and expansively here too, in the decentral venues of digital storytelling which imprint patterns of documented success and possibility across the vast landscapes of our snowballing cultural malfeasance. It has ignited something in me, to learn and observe this work, it has matured as a catalyst, and now I am half way to implanting myself on a piece of neglected farm ground for a great village building work-play-learn broadcast adventure. Do follow along here, there, all over the movement of regenerative community enterprise. Invest some of your strength and consideration, lend an emotional signifier if moved. Submit donations and send care packages. Share. Go. Inhabit!!!
"I believe that open society and open source economic development is a route to abundance and prosperity for all. I am convinced that until we learn to share, there will not be enough for everybody. Sharing means engaging in open source economic development. In practical terms, I am looking for collaborators who are interested in developing a world-class center for open source product development--with the stated goals of eradicating poverty as we know it, increasing meaning in people’s lives, and evolving to freedom beyond material scarcity--while living regeneratively with balance in our life support systems.” - Marcin J.
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