The shift to a circular economy presents a wicked, multidimensional problem: how can we redesign our operating system so that it works in the long term, and reflects the current context in terms of resources, energy and economic pressures?

It’s hard to know where to start. After all, with our once-successful linear economy reaching its limits, you could say that designing economies that last has, never really worked that well for us in the past. The challenge is really about enabling an ecosystem to emerge which effectively (re)uses materials and resources, and rebuilds economic, social and natural capital.

When we look at the circular economy field now, it’s dominated by large corporate players – and we do need these businesses taking on responsibility and leading with their considerable research, manufacturing and marketing clout. But redwoods and rhinos don’t make a whole ecosystem, there are many more parts to be played. To live up to the rhetoric and develop a real circular economy we need diversity of size, of focus, of motivation, and perspectives.

open source
Diversity of scale – key to a healthy economy.

Reaching this goal will require a shake-up of not just our products and services, but also the way in which we develop them and interact with each other.

Much like the steam engine was able to power the rapid economical, social and – for better or worse – environmental change of the industrial revolution, at this stage it seems we’re waiting to see what invention will propel us headlong into a thriving 21st century circular economy. Will it be some magical nanomaterial? A molecular assembler in every home? Or some other fantastic Star Trek technology, beamed down to our production lines?

I believe that the ‘steam engine’ for the circular economy has already been invented – but it’s not a machine, it’s open source collaboration.

Currently much circular economy development is being done company-by-company, focused on individual proprietary solutions. If limited collaboration is happening, it’s behind closed doors in bureaucratic consortia. Following this trajectory there is still a chance that we may, in time, reach our goal of a functional circular economy – but time is perhaps the most precious of all the resources we’re fast running out of.

We still don’t know how the circular economy will work on many levels, but we know we want to get there. Fortunately, each improvement, each small step along this road can still be useful and practical for individuals, for business, society and the environment. It just so happens that this combination of an epic goal and diverse motivations is where open source shines.

Open source is a methodology which enables people to work effectively and invite collaboration with unknown others – whomever and wherever they are in the world. It provides a system wherein organisations and individuals can all autonomously contribute to and benefit from a shared ecosystem, tackling different parts of a larger problem without wasting time on redundant replication of work.

In practice, open source means publishing how things are made, such as a recipe, software code, production data, or design files so that anyone can study, use, and build upon this information. This often occurs through decentralised and distributed online collaboration: diverse groups discussing project ideas, giving feedback, fixing bugs, prototyping solutions and building useful, customisable software, hardware, tools and culture.

It’s interesting to compare the guidelines and best practices for developing a circular economy with those of the open source world, you’ll see many similarities – practical requirements for transparency, repairability, modularity, long-term perspectives, open standards…

Many people have already seen these connections and are developing open source circular economy solutions to recycle plastics , building extendible modular design systems like Open Structures , or open platforms for the transport industry like OSVehicle .

To some, open source sounds like chaos, like design by committee – it could never work.

But designs that are ‘free for all’ doesn’t mean it’s a free-for-all: open source means that anyone can contribute, but it doesn’t mean that all contributions are accepted as is. A project leader can still pick and choose from open source components, and they maintain control over their version of a project. If you don’t think OSVehicle’s two-seater has enough trunk space, you can duplicate the designs and develop a van based on the OSVehicle ‘DNA’.

But poor OSVehicle, you might think! Or perhaps ‘those stupid chumps’… a competitor has ‘stolen’ their work and is making money off it! But in fact, the van market hardly ‘competes’ with the small hatchback market. In this scenario, the utility of the the OSVehicle platform has increased dramatically with an extra model, meaning that more third-party suppliers of seats, steering wheels, other parts or services will see more value in supporting the OSVehicle system, lowering costs and increasing choice for OSVehicle and their customers. And any improvements the van company makes to the underlying system will benefit the hatchback company too.

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The collaborative development of the Linux Kernel

In order to develop solutions to fit a diverse range of problems and opportunities, this kind of genetic mutation is not just desired, it’s necessary. It’s evolution. In the digital world, the open source approach is now well established and successful part of business. In the server market, Microsoft has been soundly beaten by open source, thanks to multi-party collaboration and investment on the GNU/Linux operating system. Now Linux dominates not just servers, but also supercomputers, mobile and embedded devices. Every major player in tech is using open source to achieve their goals in some way – even the old holdouts seem to have come around.

Despite this growing movement, many (business)people outside of the tech world are understandably sceptical of the idea – 30 years ago when today’s CEOs were learning how the business world works, there was no way to collaborate effectively with unknown others around the world, and there didn’t seem to be a reason to. There was no way to ensure trust, no tools for distributed collaboration, no network of engaged individuals and organisations, and no open source business models. Allowing one’s competitors to study, improve upon or sell a company project would have been seen as madness.

But now we live amongst a growing global culture in which collaborating and working online is fast becoming the norm. We have professional tools for distributed co-creation, for documentation, for version control, we have trustworthy legally-tested open source licenses, and an ever-growing pool of individuals and companies with a range of motivations, skills and resources, keen to collaborate wherever their goals may be aligned with others.

There’s also a huge range of effective open source business models based around new markets, open collaboration, reduced R&D costs, and services or customisation. These business models work not despite their open nature, but because of it.

The world has changed. The old rules are no longer relevant everywhere.

But of course, open source is not magic. Merely having designs online doesn’t mean that people will actually engage with them – in order to get the best out of open source development, projects should be designed with collaboration in mind from the start. Knowing how to do this is tricky without the right experience.

So we want to spread this idea and make it easier for everyone to understand the opportunities that open source can offer them, and learn to work more effectively together on specific projects building towards a circular economy. We’re providing an opportunity for people and companies to try out this collaborative open source approach during the second edition of the Open Source Circular Economy days, an event taking place in more than 40 cities around the world between June 9th-13th 2016.

Over these days experts, citizens, and companies come together to discuss, design and prototype circular economy solutions, and share their findings for others to learn from. We work in the open and connect people from around the world, from the grassroots to the corporate level, across industries and cultures. And anyone is welcome to participate  – simply find an event in your local area, an interesting challenge to work on, or start your own.

Organisations all over the world are embracing the circular economy framework. However, if we are to truly accelerate this transition, a collaborative and transparent open source approach will prove vital in overcoming challenges and realising the full opportunities of a regenerative, restorative circular economy.

How open source can accelerate the circular economy shift by Sam Muirhead is licensed under CC BY SA.

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The Author

Sam Muirhead

Sam Muirhead

I make all sorts of videos – but I have a focus on using, explaining and promoting Free/Libre/Open Source Software, Free Culture, Open Knowledge and Open Source Hardware.

In 2012/13 I lived a Year of Open Source, I’m part of the Open It Agency and the Open Source Circular Economy Days team, and I also run post-production workshops with free software!