Monday, July 20, 2009

Distributed Economies: Focus vs. Distractions

John Robb recently wrote about developments in distributed manufacturing and distributed production.  While I share John's enthusiasm for the potential of peer-to-peer, decentralized, localized, and otherwise distributed manufacturing and production, two of the projects he highlights are excellent fodder for a discussion of some thorny issues on the topic.  Take a look at these two videos:

Video 1:  Microfactory table cutting tool (link to article )

Video 2:  Windowfarm (link to website )

Forgive my skepticism, but despite my general enthusiasm these projects both look like gimmicks.  Is this weakness merely because these projects are at an early stage in the evolution of truly important techniques, or does this demonstrate a deeper problem?

Take the window farm concept:  good intent--an attempt to increase the ability of dense urban areas to feed themselves.  However, execution and focus are lacking:  this solution is high-tech (relies on artificial growing mediums that derive nutrients from industrial liquid fertilizers, not natural soil processes), high-cost/energy input (at least to the extent that light bulbs are required), while producing very low calorie output.  All the windows in an average family's urban apartment could--by this model--probably produce less than 1000 calories per year in salad greens.  Is it realistic to think that we can ever produce significant quantities of calories/nutrition in sparse urban windows, or is this just a token effort?  Certainly, by failing to recognize this weakness and address projections to output significant levels of nutrients or calories in future iterations, this projects seems off track.  Is there any kernel of value here, or is it so distracted from substantive distributed production as to be nothing more than a token?  While I don't think there is significant potential to adapt urban windows to significant calorie production, it may be more realistic to focus on significant nutrient production through the provisioning of year-round, high-nutrient vegetables (here the salad greens approach is OK, but a much better focus would be on spinach, chard, kale, etc.).  Bottom line:  window-farming may have real promise, but the failure to focus on any meaningful metric in this project makes me conclude that it is more gimmick--and potentially harmful to the point that it advances symbolism over substance.

Now consider the table cutting tool (Microfactory MOW):  again, good intent, to empower decentralized groups to capitalize on open-source design databases to increase their ability to provide their own manufactured products.  However, this certainly seems like an overly complex solution to a simple problem.  In the example of the coat hangar in the video, it would be significantly simpler and would require significantly less reliance on externally produced advanced tools like the various electric motors involved, to simply cut the design with a box cutter.  What is impressive here is the information distribution process:  the open-source provision of the DESIGN.  The actual manufacturing process seems like more of a gimmick.

However, while the automation of decentralized manufacturing may seem like a gimmick at this point, these efforts are pioneering a process that may bear fruit.  It would certainly be significant if:

- we could reach a level of automated, decentralized manufacture that could, utilizing only locally available materials, replicate itself
- we could use such decentralized manufacturing to--on a systemic analysis--reduce our localized dependencies on external systems
- we could use such decentralized manufacturing to save significantly on the energy required for transportation of products by, for example, only transporting the manufacturing system and then leveraging local materials to provide manufactured items to the locale

I'm actually fairly optimistic about the ability of distributed manufacturing to provide some of these sources of value mentioned above.  What concerns me about the cutting tool highlighted in the Microfactory MOW video is not that they are still at a very early stage along the road to these types of value, but that the designers do not appear to be consciously aware of these end goals or the current shortcomings of their design.  To the extent this is true, I see their efforts as more gimmick than substance, which is unfortunate as they clearly have the intelligence, motivation, and funding to pursue potentially important advances.

In a somewhat related note to "distributed economic systems," next week I'll introduce my open-source litigation checklist wiki project (for those interested in the future of law and legal systems).  The link is already available on my sidebar if you want to take an early peek...


Geoff said...

Things generally grow from the ground up, so it's my belief we can expect distributed economies to be the same. Can we already see it happening? Isn't every person making something at home as a hobby, that they sell or trade, participating in the beginnings of this distributed economy? Every soap maker, amateur beekeeper, carpenter, small farmer etc.

It comes down to considering the complexity of necessities. When times are tough we'll do without luxuries. Most of these projects are overly complex solutions to what are essentially simple problems. Do we need to build complex computer controlled machines to do what a person can achieve with some simple tools in half the time?

Similarly, the cities of the world may well be faced with a food crisis, but is an overly complex solution going to solve the issue, or just make it worse, especially when it depends so heavily on the very resources that we're going to have trouble sourcing and applying to existing farmland?

Life whittles away overly complex solutions and I doubt these kinds of projects will be any exception to that.

Rice Farmer said...

I certainly share your feelings on this matter. Although I was unable to watch the videos (there is no high-speed internet access here in the boonies), your description makes it possible for me to comment.

Indeed, the idea of making technologies and platforms widely available for local use is a very good one. It sort of formalizes and facilitates the dissemination of technologies practiced since the origin of human culture.

One problem you note is the overly complex nature of some solutions. Absolutely so. One must always keep in mind that the lower the technology, the greater the number of people who can use it. And vice versa. A case in point is (from my own experience) regulating the flow of water to rice paddies. One could go the high-tech route and use specially designed metal plates operated by electric motors. But I find that a rock of appropriate size and shape placed in a certain way works just fine.

The other video reminds me of the so-called "vegetable factories" being touted as the future of agriculture here in Japan. But they have the problems you observe. This high-tech, high-energy, high-capital food-growing method will never become widespread for obvious reasons.

ryan said...

after years of science-type research i have come to the conclusion that we do not need cardboard coat hangers, even if they are cut with a cool little doohicky. turns out you can just throw your jacket on the chair or hang it on the wall.

paul stamets has some better ideas for cardboard - grow gardens and mushrooms -

Oscar said...

I have also seen John's thinking on this subject, and I've been surprised by his omitting of two sources of local manufacturing that have already been developed and employed: CNC and hand-mill machining. I know people who haven't bought a single replacement part in years; they simply fab their hardware and materials themselves. Obviously there's a degree of skill involved here, but the point is these technologies and capacities exist already and can be readily leveraged for local manufacturing, rather than reinventing the wheel. I only wish training for these skills was more widespread, especially for CNC.

Anonymous said...
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esme said...

Isn't American hyper-consumer culture just one big overly complex application to a fairly simple thing: living.

The more we can do ourselves, the more truly democratic life becomes.

Less Confusionism, More Taoism.