This page is about creating free technical information and designs by collaborative effort: "Open Engineering".
Internet technologies are making it possible for thousands of people to collaborate on a project. A famous example is wikipedia, the world’s largest encyclopaedia. Designed to be read and changed by anyone, it is collaboratively edited and maintained by thousands of users via the wiki software, an open source program.
Could 'DIY' technical designs and information in fields such as engineering and agriculture be made freely available and evaluated by users, in a similar way to open source software? The idea is described here: Shared Technology Database.
What other collaborative initiatives are possible?
In the field of software engineering, collaborative design is already so successful that its products compete effectively with those of large corporations such as Microsoft. 'Open source' means that the program (or 'source code') from which the software package is generated, is made public. This makes it possible for you to adapt or improve the program if you want to. Of course most users won't have the programming skills to do so, but a significant minority around the world will, and their improvements can be fed back into the original package.
The Free Software Foundation: a charity based in USA,the FSF has a worldwide mission to preserve, protect and promote the freedom to use, study, copy, modify, and redistribute computer software, and to defend the rights of all free software users.
The GNU/Linux operating system is used on millions PCs and servers. Often referred to as simply Linux, it is the outcome of work by the GNU GNU Project and by Linus Torvalds with contributions from developers around the world. It is free software, written and distributed under the GNU General Public License which means that its source code is freely-distributed and available to the general public
If you use a PC for normal 'office' type work and web browsing, all the software you need is available FREE! Instead of Microsoft Windows you can use Linux. Several companies/organisations provide Linux 'distributions', which vary slightly but all essentially do the same job: you can download it, or for a small fee buy a CD (some will even provide a free CD). Typically it comes complete with a mail program, browser and OpenOffice (which can read and write most types of Microsoft file -Word, Excel, etc.). Some well known distributions are:
In other fields of engineering, the open source idea is not so easy to emulate. It's possible to offer a software package free because once you have produced it, making and distributing copies of it costs virtually nothing. The same is not true of a washing machine or any other physical artifact. Furthermore if you give out the design of the software (the 'source code') any programmer can generate the package with no more than a normal PC. However giving out the design of a washing machine does not make it easy for anyone to make one without specialist machinery, materials, training, etc.
However designs for simpler artifacts and knowledge of techniques in crafts and agriculture, could surely be developed and shared in an 'open source' way. More complex 'open designs' might be developed that do require sophisticated equipment to manufacture but that could be produced by many independent companies or organisations, rather than a single transnational corporation.
Already there are some projects along these lines. References to some of them can be found on Wikipedia (search for 'Open Design' and 'Open Hardware') and on the GNU website. As yet these have nothing like the weight or presence of the GNU project or Wikipedia itself, but it is early days. Some examples are:
Appropedia: "Appropedia is the site for collaborative solutions in sustainability, poverty reduction and international development. Appropedia helps us sustain our world."
Our Project: Free Software and Free Knowledge for a Free Society. "The idea behind the ourproject.org initiative is for it to be a tool which encourages the cooperative work effort of all types of people from every part of the world, promoting the coming together of people and the exchange of ideas and solutions to problems, with the condition that the results of the projects will remain freely accessible to whoever may find them useful, within this tool."
Apart from designing things collectively, it is intriguing to speculate on other possibilities that collaboration via the internet opens up:
Suppose that you wanted to band together with other citizens of your town to buy something - a sports hall for example. With the help of a friendly bank or building society, an account could be set up which people can pay into on the understanding that if the target amount is not reached, the money is returned to the contributors.
In the UK people are reluctant to vote for a small political party because their vote will probably be wasted. But what if there was a way to promise to vote for the small party if enough others make the same promise to give a good chance of winning.
A website already exists that enables people to make an "I will if you will" type promise. It's called the Pledge Bank. Pledges to contribute money are accepted too but payment is taken on trust.