by Chris McGivern & SF Team, 5 February 2019
Marcin Jakubowski has a bold vision of the future for society. As founder of Open Source Ecology, he has brought together a diverse group of builders, engineers and producers to develop the Global Village Construction Set - fifty modular industrial machines that anyone can build and maintain at a fraction of the cost of current alternatives.
These machines - a real world LEGO set, if you like - promise to deliver a small civilisation everything it needs to live comfortably, independently and sustainably in the modern world. Marcin spent two years on the Shuttleworth Foundation programme from 2012, and we caught up with him to reflect on his experience, and see how is plans for a new, open source economy are progressing.
Marcin has always had a keen interest in using technology for positive ends. And on occasion, it’s an interest that has run into conflict with his formal training. As a PhD student - studying fusion energy - he remembers asking a professor about some equations on wave propagation.
“He said what he taught me in class didn’t exist,” says Marcin. “He just made it up. I remember thinking, OK, let’s reevaluate here. What are we doing playing with abstract ideas when there are real world problems to solve?
“My father always taught me to do good things in my life. So I did a lot of study on alternative issues like sustainable and regenerative development - on my own, while doing my PhD. And then I just got out, straight to a plot of land and started farming.”
It was on this farm that Marcin started exploring the ideas that would form the basis of Open Source Ecology. There is an origin story he tells about his tractor breaking down, having to spend a fortune on repairs, only for it to break down again. But you get the sense that Marcin’s underlying belief that technology isn’t delivering on many of its promises - in solving inequality or reducing working hours, for example - is just as much part of his inspiration as anything else.
“Life shouldn’t be like that,” he says. “There are these barriers of complex parts and complex designs that only a few people can maintain. It’s just really wasteful, so let’s just open up design and production in general - really open it up.”
Marcin eventually established Open Source Ecology as a collaborative, open source economic platform to test ideas in open hardware and make survival and thriving easier for everyone on the planet. And after presenting his idea of a ‘civilization start kit’ in a 2011 Ted talk, people started talking.
“Right around the Ted talk, things started to explode,” says Marcin. “There was a lot of interest, and it really got me on the world stage.
“I was just minding my own business,” he laughs. “But it was pretty crazy. The Foundation team saw the talk and contacted me. I applied and ended up getting the offer - it was great.”
In simple terms, the Global Village Construction Set (GVCS) is a blueprint for a new way of life. Marcin’s vision involved designing open source industrial machines that can be made for a fraction of the commercial cost, while sharing the designs online, for free.
On a deeper level, it could light the touchpaper for a brand new, open source economy and put local farming and production into the hands of the consumer. From the Foundation’s perspective, it was an intriguing idea worth investigation and Marcin was invited to start his Fellowship in March 2012.
Before we funded the GVCS project, Marcin and his community had been bootstrapped from the start, with no other money coming in other than some crowdfunding from a friend’s program.
“People paid ten or twenty bucks a month,” says Marcin. “We did that and started producing some things, and as soon as we developed the brick machine or the tractor, we could sell a few. So we had always been crowdfunding and using bootstrapped revenue from our own production.
“Then all of a sudden, I’m flooded with a bunch of resources. We had no tangible revenue model at the time. I remember we were just hiring a bunch of people, seeing what we could do.
“But we always had a focus on a logical progression. At first we started on the brick press because we needed housing, and then the tractors, so there was a road map that was logical. We have what we call a product ecology, so we build the machine for cutting steel to let us build the parts for the other machines, and so on.
“There was an order to how one machine feeds the other. And a lot of it was work on the first prototypes - we kept prototyping in a very broad way without focussing on one product release.”
Marcin made great strides during his two-year Fellowship and has accelerated the open hardware movement significantly. It has led to others in the field taking notice and putting some of his processes into practice, particularly in the area of open and transparent documentation. We felt he would continue to inspire the open hardware community - and beyond - and fulfil his long-term vision for the Global Village Construction Set. However, it wasn’t all smooth running.
“At that time, I must say that I wasn’t enterprise-focussed,” reflects Marcin. “I really didn’t appreciate the distinction between product and project. We were just happy prototyping.
“Only very recently I’m thinking along the lines that all value is created at the point of sale. That’s how you are going to bootstrap your project. It’s something we are being very deliberate about right now.
“My leadership - with respect to understanding the enterprise aspect - was definitely lacking. It’s something I have really focussed on a lot over the last two years. And right now, I think the business model is very clear.”
Marcin is currently half-way through a twenty-year plan to establish his vision. Revenue is key to turning that vision into a reality, and it’s something he and the GVCS community have been thinking over for the past couple of years.
“We’ve got a decade to finish the entire set of fifty tools. We’re about a third of the way at this point - we have four machines fully completed and the rest is maybe 70, 80 and 90 percent done.
“These days we are talking a lot about democratized production. We are working on a desktop microfactory and we start our first ever immersion program this year. We’re going to have six or so people training with us to produce on a full-time basis in locations around the US and Canada.
“It’s at the stage where we think we’ve nailed the revenue model, and can scale by training others and having them work full time.”
“Well, the Fellowship helped us immensely. We put a lot of money into prototypes and buildings right on-site. That’s still living on, right here in sweet Maysville, Missouri,” smiles Marcin. “Overall the funding was well spent. We did burn up a lot, but also spent good money on making things happen and moved the project forward in an immense way.
“I look forward to coming back one day to the Fellow Gatherings. Right now I’m still busy on the ground, and showing powerful results. I want to wait a little more until we have something. There is a definite story we can teach people about bootstrapped funding for a project - I think we have really figured it out and we’re implementing it now.”
Marcin remains an inspirational figure and is making huge progress to turn his visionary idea into a reality. He continues working on the civilization starter kit at Open Source Ecology, and also contributes to the Open Building Institute project, creating modular, off-grid, low-cost homes. We look forward to seeing the final results in the years to come.