Monday, June 30, 2008

Rhizome Platform Design

In the world of technology and sustainability, there is a certain “buzz” surrounding the topics of personal manufacturing and platform design. Can we get away from the hierarchal model of centralized manufacture and distribution, and replace it with a world where design emerges from open-source collaboration and is manufactured at the point of use by 3-D printers and community manufacturing centers? Can a focus on meeting community needs, rather than selling communities products that create dependence, allow for improved localized self-sufficiency by way of platform design and localized manufacture? Maybe. There are many projects and theorists already working on these notions—the intent of this article is to suggest that these efforts operate within the framework of rhizome theory, and more importantly, that these efforts recognize their inherent weaknesses that rhizome theory was developed to overcome.

One example of this trend toward community manufacturing and platform design is the LifeTrac open source tractor project. There, an online collaborative called OpenFarmTech is trying to leverage engineers, users, and innovators around the world to develop a design for an inexpensive, low-maintenance tractor that can be manufactured, used, and repaired by third-world communities. I think this is a fascinating project, and one that John Robb has highlighted as an example of the potential for community fabrication. However, it’s also an example of the potential pitfalls of thinking that platform design or personal/community manufacturing per se will advance local resilience and self-sufficiency. The LifeTrac tractor, for example, still relies on an internal combustion engine, metal-based hydraulics, and rubber tires, just to name a few components that most certainly won’t be manufactured at the community level, or derived from raw materials available at the community level. While the LifeTrac project may free rural communities from dependence on specific, for-profit tractor manufacturers, it will not free them from dependency (and the associated side effects) on distant manufactures of engines, smelters of metals, or producers of tires. While this may be an improvement, it’s a Pyrrhic victory at best, as it will only transfer to locus of their dependency-derived problems, and will not actually bolster their resiliency to external shock or their ability to extract themselves from the growth-related problems that come from lack of localized self-sufficiency.

LifeTrac embodies the problems inherent in the promise of 3-D printers, extreme-personalization, and other examples of technology-first platform design. But these problems are not inherent in the notion of platform design itself. It is possible to properly yoke the technology of platform design to the needs and objectives of creating a resilient, minimally self-sufficient community. As an example of such a rhizome approach to platform design, let’s consider mud bricks…

Like the LifeTrac’s focus on meeting community agricultural needs, mud brick technology could play a critical role in community development in many environments—leverage a global knowledge base to create buildings with low heating and cooling energy requirements, safe from earthquakes, resistant to erosion, capable of impressive structural feats, etc. Unlike LifeTrac, however, an open-source platform for use of mud brick technology need not create or continue dependencies on external sources of raw materials, external manufacturing, etc. In fact, it has the potential to significantly reduce the dependence of most developing rural communities on imported cement, and it has the potential to provide the benefits of cement (and beyond) to those minimally-developing communities that can’t afford or source cement at present. This may become in increasingly important issue in the near future as global cement production (and the energy it consumes) skyrockets. Sure, an open source platform to develop mud brick technology isn’t very sexy (unlike a tractor!), but goals like producing high R-value adobe with excellent structural properties could produce amazing results.

When considering the architectural and infrastructure issues that advanced mud brick could address, many scientists, engineers, and corporations will completely ignore the potential for using vernacular materials, instead seeing a general materials engineering problem, or an infrastructure design problem. They’ll say something like:

“Well, concrete can be effectively adapted to meet the shelter needs of people in community X. We can create an inexpensive insulated concrete form that combines the high-mass concrete with a polyurethane foam insulation to provide both high R-value, high thermal mass, and excellent structural strength.”

That works fine if the goal is to enhance dependency on non-local manufacturing, or non-local extraction of raw materials, etc. However, if the goal is to increase localized resiliency and self-sufficiency, then projects must always be pursued with that in mind. In the same example, these engineers might instead say:

“Well, concrete is out as most communities don’t have access to the raw materials, or to the energy necessary to process it. Sure, we’ll still use concrete for some applications, but where possible we will use some kind of locally-produced product. Most communities have ready access to the requirements for mud-bricks, so let’s instead find a way to use those materials to achieve the same end as an insulated concrete form.”

And then those same engineers could embark on an open-source development program that will produce flexible technologies that can be adapted by individual communities to meet their needs with locally available tools, materials, and production. How exactly will they do this? I have no idea—that’s exactly the point: when the goal of the design process is to support, not defeat, local resiliency and self-sufficiency, then that is exactly what the design process will produce. That’s the potential for combining rhizome with platform design and personal manufacturing...

One example of rhizome platform design already in action is the Cinva Ram (hat tip to BrianT). The Cinva Ram is a low-tech, low cost, but highly effective manual press for creating mud bricks out of a variety of locally-sourced materials. A team of four people can make as many as 500 bricks a day with this device, and it can be easily assembled at the community level using open-source plans. Other examples, just in the building materials arena, include advances in rammed earth construction, experiments in papercrete construction, etc.

How far can this go? Many people immediately point to modern medicine (e.g. an MRI machine) or to the internet (microprocessors) as examples of things that simply can’t be solved I this manner. They may be right. If your goal is to produce an MRI machine using only locally sourced raw materials and local manufacture, I’m pretty sure you’ll fail. However, if the goal is to produce a system of medicine that effectively serves a local community, I think there is a great deal of potential to address the problem in a truly local fashion if we can just get our goals in the right order. MRI machines are developed to make money, and they do that to the extent that they can improve health within a for-profit system. That works decently well for most people in an environment of surplus energy and amidst a solid political and economic foundation like currently exists in America or Europe. It’s a bankrupt business model in today’s third world, and quite possibly in tomorrow’s first world. While a resilient, self-sufficient community may never be able to produce its own MRI machine, I see no reason why it can’t produce an effective health-care system if it keeps that, along with local self-sufficiency, as the primary goals, and leverages a global (or even merely local) knowledge base to that end.


Rice Farmer said...

I was very pleased to read this. I myself am a firm believer that low tech should always be preferred over high tech because it is universally accessible. The more people lean toward low tech and away from high tech, the more self-sufficient they are, and the less they are open to dependency and exploitation.

In an ideal society, a sick or injured person could, when local means have been exhausted, be flown by helicopter to a hospital with high-tech means to save lives. But frankly, I see little promise of such a society in the future. I think only elites will have access to such care. Therefore, those of us who are not elites and have no promise of joining their ranks should focus on low-tech solutions.

As far as I can see, "platform design" has in a way been practiced for millennia. Until very recently in human history, everything has been "open source." I certainly hope to see more of that.

bryant said...

Great post Jeff.

As to mud bricks, there is a cool manual mud brick maker called the Cinva Ram. IIRC it is originally from Oz but now around the world. Plans and actual units are for sale/free on the web. See

Still, I'd rather build a muscle-powered baler and build with strawbale/cob and mud plaster than adobe. Making mud bricks is incredibly work intensive and I am very lazy. Plus in cold winter climes, strawbale is more comfortable with less heating.

Bales of field grass work if the by-products of cereal agriculture are unavailable or too expensive. So a few people with scythes and a manual baler can harvest and process all of their building material for a few days labor.

Jeff Vail said...

That Cinva Ram is a perfect example of "platform design" that is actually intended to benefit the community.

Regarding the straw bale vs. cob vs. adobe issue, I think there are two considerations. First, certain climates are best for each of the different vernacular forms. If it never gets below 80 degrees at night, then straw bale isn't much good (unless you have a passive annual air conditioning system, more on that in the near future). If your primary concern is heating, then straw bale may be perfect, because it provides a very high R-value (insulation), allowing a small wood burning stove or passive solar gain to heat the home. Cob is probably closer to the adobe side of things--not much of an R-value, but plenty of thermal mass, which is fine if you don't need to heat consistently or cool consistently. But the weaknesses of the three seem to be the ideal target for an open-source design campaign. Modern industry has produced the insulated concrete form, the Rastra block, and other systems that provide high insulation AND high thermal mass INSIDE the insulation (the ideal hybrid for many climate types). Unfortunately, ICFs and Rastra blocks still require centralized manufacture and imported raw materials. Can we create something like the Cinva Ram that will build a mud brick with high R-value, perhaps by creating internal air spaces that can be filled with straw? I don't know, but it certainly seems possible, but just because my idea falls short doesn't mean that an open-source development effort couldn't solve the problem. There are literally billions of people who could benefit from such a development...

bryant said...

Certainly adobe and strawbale thrive in specific environments but across the northern tier of the US strawbale is probably better on average, especially in areas which produce non-corn cereal crops.

As to lightweight and insulative; have you seen rammed straw-clay? Mostly straw coated with a thin(watery) clay slip, then rammed into forms, traditionally between posts of a post and beam building. Generally used in interior walls but with a lime plaster it could be used on exterior walls especially with decent roof overhangs. Very light, very cheap and readily available most places.

My experience with rastra/ICF is that it does not perform as well as advertised and may be too expensive, both in terms of rebar/cement consumption and rastra's lack of rhizome-ness.

BTW, have you seen Cob Cottage/Ianto Evan's thermal mass/rocket stove combination? Dieing to build one!

Rice Farmer said...

With regard to what kind of materials and construction to use, one of the first things one should do when deciding is study the traditional housing of the area in which one is going to build. Peoples around the world have already found what materials and designs are best for their regions, and we can in many cases use their knowledge to great advantage.

Jeff Vail said...

Good point about studying vernacular solutions, such as traditional architecture. One great resource in that area is "A Shelter Sketchbook" by Lloyd Khan--highly recommended...

Jeff Vail said...

BryanT- I added info on the Cinva Ram in the main body of the article--thanks for the tip.

Paula said...

Small electronics manufacturing may not be beyond the community level. In addition to personal manufacturing, open-source personal fabrication is also well into development.

MIT's project called Fab Labs has produced a desktop fabrication system supported by an open-source network of engineers, students, community-level entrepreneurs and the like. It allows users to create a tool path for anything they like, and then machine these in small quantities. One of my clients is a manufacturer of big CNC machines, so I have some idea how this works, but not the details of electronics manufacture. However, Fab Labs has already been deployed to several isolated, third-world areas and is being used to produce (IIRC) small numbers of cell phone parts and other electronics for use by people in the community.

The Fab Labs site is here:

I also wrote a blog post about it here talking about Fab Labs' implications for community self-sufficiency, among other things.

Robert Martini said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robert Martini said...

Excellent post Jeff,

On another related note, have you read, Joseph Tainter's, The Collapse of Complex Societies? It is very relevant to your rhizome network theory, energy issues and everything your blog is about. It basically is big on the concept that society tries to solve problems with increasing complexity ( more specialization and increasing reliance on technology) which requires exponentially more energy via increasing infrastructure to accommodate itself. I highly recommend it!

Jeff Vail said...

Tainter's work is a classic, and has been very influential on me. Here's the post I wrote in 2005 after first reading it:

Logic of Collapse

I'm not sure I still support the conclusions I came to at that time, but the notion of diminishing marginal returns on investment in complexity is at the root of my attempts to solve the problem in The Problem of Growth

Anonymous said...

Food, water and housing are important, but so is group entertainment. Playing cards are a very flexible system , but a bit like eating lentils every night.

So, in the spirit of personal manufacturing;


marcin_ose said...

You may view a video of the fabrication process for LifeTrac, the open source tractor -

Robert Martini said...


Do you think going to renewable is a step in increasing complexity, I believe it is. I have been a bit perturbed by people on theoildrum not seeming to understand the problem with pursuing diminishing marginal returns. Also when everyone is rambling on about wind turbines and solar panels I wonder if they are net energy producers that pay for all the infrastructure behind them, such as the copper mine and mining trucks? Nobody seems to understand that wind turbines have large fossil fuel inputs such as all the raw materials not to mention the fact that several hundred gallons of diesel are spent just carrying around the enormous blades on the back of semi-trucks.

Rice Farmer said...

Mr. Martini makes an excellent point. I too have been calling attention to this matter, but unfortunately hardly anyone seems to think it's worth discussing.

Nevertheless, we need to be realistic about energy inputs. Unless an energy system can support itself AND produce a surplus, all that talk about "energy independence" and liberating ourselves from fossil fuels is just talk. This morning someone sent me this video.

People get caught up in the euphoria of such things and proclaim that we're saved, without asking critical questions about the energy balance. Can this facility produce enough energy to build, run, and maintain itself, and still have energy left over to sell? Or does it continually require outside energy (fossil fuel) inputs? There are lots of such videos about all kinds of inventions (such as cars that run on water), but they avoid giving us all the information we need to assess them. That itself should be a tip-off that we are not being told the WHOLE story.

piterburg said...

While there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that a very effective health care system could be created without MRI machines and similar devices, even a low-tech medicine requires some materials that cannot be manufactured locally, e.g. vaccines, surgical steel for scalpels etc.

I think you had correctly identified weaknesses in our system that could only exists while it is growing. On the other hand, I do not think it would be possible to return to autarky and keep the true achievements of civilization at the same time.

If were ever to create an economic and social system that would be sustainable and stable AND would constitute a true step up in the development of the humanity rather than being a relapse into Dark Ages, it would need to flexibly combine self-sufficiency in everyday items (food, clothing, utensils, building materials) with a possibility of trade in necessary specialty items, like scalpels, dentistry tools etc.

Jeff Vail said...


Good points. This is essentially what I have in mind when outlining the structure of rhizome as BOTH "minimal self-sufficiency" and a high-degree of interconnectedness between minimally self-sufficient nodes.

The key, I think, it setting the bar for "minimum self-sufficiency" at a point high enough that you really can live with it if you need to in order to avoid the negative effects of dependency. If I have to sell my soul to gain access to some advanced technology (like MRI machines), then I want to be able to say "no thanks, while my present level of self-sufficiency isn't great, the trade off isn't worth it." Even if I have to say "no thanks, I'll pass on vaccines and scalpels," it would be an option. I'm not saying it would always be worth it, just that it's a balancing test. It certainly isn't worth avoiding scalpels at present, but I can envision a dystopian future where I'd need to sell my children into bondage to have access to a scalpel, and then it would certainly be worth saying "no thanks, I'll accept the consequences--and I have the luxury to do so because I am otherwise self-sufficient."

Bill said...

Your critique of the Life Trac project goes to the heart of the matter. Why does a forward looking design project focus on an engine that remains dependent on fossil fuel?

In terms of design and mechanics, we need to go back to pre-internal combustion technologies and re-think our way forward.

Animal power technologies draw on current account energy sources that can be raised and bred on the farm. Animal power machinery in the US and Europe has not made many design advances since the tractor companies bought up and destroyed draft animals in the early 1900s.

Animal power also requires land to be kept in permanent grass cover, provides a continuous source of manure, and prevents grain overproduction by reducing the amount of land available for the plow.

The Amish now have the most advanced animal power technologies that include the use of small engines to run hydraulics and harvesting machinery. Amish "engineers" have also experimented with limited hydraulic pumps that develop pressure from ground driven equipment wheels.

Anyone who has ever used existing animal based farm equipment will attest to the elegance and efficiency of the machinery produced in the early 1900s. Unfortunately, because of the sidetracking onto the dead end of fossil fuel power, we have seen little innovation in this machinery since then.

johnthackara said...

Insightful post indeed. People need time (I know I did) to absorb the consequences of concepts such as energy balance, or EROEI. They (we) will carry on proposing high-entropy solutions, with the best of intentions, until the penny drops.

That penny-drop can happen quickly when conditions are right. I've been amazed talking recently to lifelong water engineers, for example. Very senior figures, who've spent a lifetime building hard infrastructure and control systems, are embracing a soft, decentralised model as I write - and at an institutional level, not just as individuals.

I'm optimistic that a similar transformation in thinking will happen among thing-designers pretty soon, too.

Concerning mud brick as a platform for building: The Nubian Vault Association is doing great work in in Burkina Faso and neighbouring countries of the Sahel. The Association’s role is a “pump-priming” one: to get the technique adopted in a particular zone, then to gradually withdraw and move on to other suitable areas.

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marcin_ose said...

Add the melting down of scrap metal as suggested in our program, and the entire loop on local fabrication can be closed. See our discussion in the video:

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