I came into this semester very unsure of what “open-source design” was and why a company or individual would ever choose it over patents or trademarks. After all, how could a company ever benefit or turn a profit from a design that is made available to everyone? This is the skepticism with which I entered the course.
I first began seeing OSD benefits in our study of the Tesla model: how they were able to capitalize on shared designs and blueprints, how they were able to work with companies all around the world to create the best possible electric car and yet still turn a profit, how they managed to create a market for electric cars by generating interest after their designs went public. I started to understand the ways that OSD could be incredibly productive and helpful to companies and inventors.
The values and actions that characterize the steps of OSD felt counter-intuitive at first to the profit-driven, capitalist mindset of our society. Yet once I understood that OSD is a business strategy that focuses on maximizing profit, value, and innovation in the long run, I was able to truly appreciate the genius of its structure. I especially witnessed this firsthand with our hydroponics system. We would not have been able to build the systems that we did without the help of dozens of other hydroponics designers and agriculturalists out there. But because the design is open-sourced, we were able to join in the global collaborative project to create the best, most efficient hydroponics systems in an effort to bring food and value to impoverished areas such as refugee camps.
On Tuesday, our class had the opportunity to speak with Duron Chavis, a Richmond urban gardener and the founder of Happily Natural Day. We had the chance to not only learn about what he does and how got there but also to ask him specific questions pertaining to our own hydroponics design. The exchange of information between our class and Mr. Chavis embodied, in a small way, the vision of Open Source Design: the communication between different designers and entrepreneurs about their similar projects for the sake of mutual betterment. To be fair, I don’t know how much he learned from our side, but we certainly gained more insight from him about how to improve or adjust our own hydroponic systems.
I particularly loved his thoughts on how to maximize the value of hydroponics systems. My team asked “Which do you believe would bring more value (at least for the project we’re working on- helping refugee camps): a system that is highly advanced and efficient in one specific area and that requires a higher level of maintenance, or an incredibly simple design that could be widely accessible and translatable across different refugee camps, plants, and environments, but isn’t as specialized or effective?” He said that he believed the best type of system would be one of simplicity and minimalization, something that doesn’t require a high level of maintenance. It’s better to have a simple design that is easy to understand and translate across different cultures, climates, and plants.
I read the article about the open-source tractor business that is being run in Cuba by two men of Cleber LLC. Their tractor model, known as the Oggun, is simple, classic design that is then being combined with new technology. The two men, Clemmons and Berenthal, have decided to open their business in Cuba, a huge step since the lifting of the 1960 embargo. Having seen the daily struggle of Cuban farmers first-hand, these men have opened a business that is both sustainable but also very socially-minded. This emphasis on furthering social good can most be seen through their decision to open-source, rather than patent, the Oggun tractor design.
“Clemmons says their ‘make it live longer’ model sets them apart from other equipment companies that use patented, proprietary components,” the article stated. I love the work that Clemmons and Berenthal are doing, because they are fighting against the natural “profit as the end goal” mindset, and instead are focusing on improving a business that is dedicated to helping Cuban farmers. Stories and exmaples such as this are helping me see how incredibly beneficial and valuable it can be to adapt the OSD model, rather than choosing to patent.
Now a few weeks into our experiment, I think it’s time to revisit the business model canvas that our team created earlier in the semester. Does the hydroponics system still follow the general bulletpoints of our model? What needs to be change or adjusted? Will its value impact still be about comparable?
Many of the general aspects of our canvas are still accurate, such as Key Partners and Key Activities. Our Activities include “production of the hydroponics system, distribution of the products, and receiving feedback from customers.” These are broad enough that the changing of our actual system structure does not merit the fixing of these parts of our business canvas. This also holds true for our Value Propositions section. The value created by our system still includes refugees growing their own food, helping a market devleop in these areas, giving refugees a productive activity, and growing kale which is rich in nutrition. The main aspect of our model that needs adjustment is the Cost Structure. In building our actual system, we switched out many of our planned materials for different ones, which definitely changes the cost structure of what we have built. Instead of counting buckets, manaul air pumps, and “wick material” as part of the cost, we need to substitute those for one large container, a plant trough, cotton material such as socks or a tshirt, and an electric air pump with an airstone. After fixing these details, our system will continue to be on track with what we orginially planned it to be in our business model canvas.
Thursday’s class marked the start of the construction of the hydroponics models we have so long been discussing and blueprinting. Ironically, our model once again changed as we started building due to the lack of materials we had needed for our original design. Without a lid for the bottom bucket or 2L bottles to put the individual kale plants in, we were forced to rethink our design. After finding an extra tray that another team ended up not using, we adapted and placed it on top of a large rectangle container that we also found. This structure looked very different than the setup we initially intended to create, but the overall wick-system process was still the same. We also decided to scratch testing two different kinds of soil medium (we were originally going to put two plans in sand and two in dirt to test the effectiveness of both). Instead, due to a lack of dirt, we decided to put three plants all in sand and test the effectiveness of different wick materials.
By the end of class, we had arrived at a system that looked and operated quite differently than we had planned. But that, in essence, is entrepreneurship. Planning, preparing, researching, but then finding the act of creating and testing a wholly separate process that necessitates change and adjustment. I’ve seen and heard of many entrepreneurs who lose their business because they either refuse or are unable to adapt to their circumstances. A danger in entrepreneurship is getting too attached to the product (or the intended product) and failing to be open to change. At the heart of open-source design is a desire on the part of the creators and entrepreneurs to change and modify their product/service based on available resources, customer feedback, and successes or failures in the market. Already on this first day of putting together our hydroponics system, we experienced this on a small level.
This week, we began developing our Business Model Canvas, which helped my team start thinking about the resources, partnerships, and steps we need to make this system a reality among refugee camps. As we talked, I realized how vital customer feedback would be to us and to the open-source design community over time. I think that developing positive and strong customer relationships would be a key aspect of getting this project to work in the long-run. In OSD, because so many communities are adapting and changing the same concepts, communication is crucial. Without communication and sharing of information between the relevant actors (such as the designers, manufacturers, and users), progress cannot be made as effectively or efficiently as it would otherwise.
When we put together our Value Proposition, we were considering mainly the ways which our hydroponics system could benefit the refugee camps and the refugees themselves. But, as Professor Bevin pointed out, we should have included the ways that value could also be created for the businesses and OS designers we would partner with. For example, partnering with us by supplying our project with some of the resources we need to build the systems could booster a business’ CSR. We would also be creating value for the open-source hydroponics community by contributing to the innovation conversation and by offering firsthand feedback from the refugees on the effectiveness of different types of hydroponic systems across varying climates and landscapes. Thus, value would be created for not just our team and the refugee camps, but also for our partnering businesses and the OS community as well.
This week, we learned more in depth about various refugee situations across the globe, including their needs and available resources. This helped my team to form more specific ideas about the type of system we want. We are still sticking with the wick system, because of its simplicity and affordability. But we decided to add on to the system a manual air pump. Using an electric one is both complicated and expensive, and would make the entire garden vulnerable in a power outage. A manual pump will improve the oxygen and nutrient supply to the water and plants. We also decided against lettuce as our chosen test-vegetable. After hearing more about the refugee situations and food shortages, I think that a vegetable or fruit with more substance and greater nutrition would be ideal. I believe our team will pursue kale, since it grows well with wick systems and works similarly to lettuce, although it is also packed full of more nutrients and will satiate hunger for longer periods of time. Understanding the refugee crisis more deeply made me so excited for our OS project this semester. It put the project into “real-life” terms and helped me see how what we’re doing and how what everyone across the globe is able to do through open-source design could have incredible impact in poor conditions such as these camps.