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Could open source technologies help us solve climate change?

Jamie Andrews

4th May, 2010

'Open source' is a familiar concept to many web users, providing free, well-supported software across the internet. But could the same principles be used to rapidly disseminate low-carbon technologies around the world?

** In the spirit of the content of this article, the Ecologist has made it freely available to all our readers **

The growth of the internet, with all the associated changes it has brought to our lives, has been driven in large part by freely available, non-proprietary technology. The ethos of sharing, formalised by carefully worded open source licenses, has allowed inter-connectedness to flourish in ways that we once never dreamed of. Could adopting a similar approach for carbon-mitigating technologies have the same effect in tackling climate change?

One of the main problems that are faced when making this comparison is the ease with which a curious teenager in their bedroom can easily download open source software. In contrast, building an electric car, wind turbine or solar panel, requires significant resources and design expertise specific to the physical characteristics of the location in question.

That said, in recent times there has been a growth in open source hardware projects, beginning with those that straddle the software/hardware divide.

Hacking your home


Homecamp describes itself as the 'home hacking, automation and green technology community'. Based in the UK, and enabled by technologies like the Arduino, an open source electronics prototyping platform, members of the Homecamp community take energy monitoring devices like Current Cost, and install them in their homes.

By connecting devices to internet and mobile technologies, Homecampers are able to demonstrate such innovations as lights that switch off when a room is empty, or publishing their energy consumption online so that houses can compete for the lowest usage.

Homecamp projects are completed in the spare time of technologists and software engineers, and are fuelled by the enthusiasm of pushing technical boundaries and demonstrating achievements to their peers. Without the open data protocols of the internet, and the adoption of them by companies like Current Cost (which was the first to enable the connection of an energy monitoring device to the internet), Homecamp would not have been possible.

James Governor is co-founder of Redmonk, a company described as 'the first open source analyst company', and a contributor to the Greenmonk blog. An enthusiastic supporter of Homecamp and related initiatives, he believes that the principle of 'hacking' is key to finding the right technical solutions to climate change:

'We need to experiment, and share ideas, in order to develop grassroots approaches to reducing home energy consumption. Without open source there arguably would be no Homecamp.

'It’s not just the source code that needs to be open, however: "open data" is just as important - sharing information leads to better outcomes, because we're talking about social change. Hacking climate data, creating mashups (new ways of visualising information) will be key to personal energy footprint reduction.'

Wind turbine from a scrapheap

A few thousand miles further south, in Malawi, an energy innovation of a very different type took place in 2002, when William Kamkwamba visited his village library in Malawi and applied the very rudimentary knowledge he learned to build a windmill capable of generating electricity for his parents’ house in the village. Having collected the materials for the technology from a local scrap-yard, William’s story was hailed as a fantastic achievement of ingenuity.

Whilst on the surface there is nothing ‘open source’ about visiting a library and picking up basic engineering principles from a book, the sharing of knowledge and expertise is at the heart of how software engineers around the world have contributed to the open source projects that form the foundation of the internet.

As the internet becomes more prevalent in the developing world, innovators like William should get access to more structured knowledge about how to develop clean energy technologies. In fact, in a talk given to the US thinktank TED, William cited access to the internet as one of the reasons that people in Africa were keen to connect to the electricity such as that provided by his windmill.

Online emancipation?

Once web access is in place, it’s easy to see why the wealth of knowledge it offers puts the humble library to shame.

The Open Source Ecology project contains a wealth of information about how to get started with numerous carbon-reduction technologies. The project has an ambitious and inspiring vision, to develop a blueprint for replicable local initiatives worldwide to develop self-sufficient farms and villages by sharing knowledge and technology. Their aim is to develop a full toolkit that can be accessed and deployed from anywhere. In their own words: 'Our aim is the full integration of small-scale, adaptable manufacturing with sustainable agriculture to produce the Global Village Construction Set. With… the set in hand, people will be able to survive and thrive with a high quality of life that is not dependent on global supply chains, human exploitation, and environmental degradation.'

There are clearly similarities between hobbyist ‘hacker’ communities in the UK who are moving from software to energy-saving hardware, and the DIY attitude of a small number of entrepreneurs in developing countries. Both of these are being encouraged by easier and more open access to information and technical planning documents online. But is this really all that open source can bring to carbon reduction efforts?

Shared ownership

Josef Davies-Coates runs United Diversity, a social enterprise that shares the ideals of the Open Source Ecology project. He is quick to point out that without addressing the question of land, open technology may not realise its potential.

'Building common resources and maintaining shared infrastructure requires common land, money and media systems. Community land trusts are like the real-life version of an open source software repository. The Open Source Ecology project is exciting because its members focus on cutting edge open source technology that facilitates massive cost-savings for those adopting it over purely commercial alternatives.

'But more than that, through projects such as the Factor E Farm [the demonstration project run by the Open Source Ecology team] in Kansas, they are beginning to incorporate a deep understanding of how land use and ownership relates to the changes to our society that open technology can bring.'

Going to meet the market

Whilst projects like Open Source Ecology are pioneering some fascinating and optimism-inducing concepts, the rather grim reality of the UN process and the global economy remains. Surely if we are to see real change, we need to address the macro: commercial projects, and (dare I say it) the market? Viewed from this perspective, it’s less easy to fantasise about the possible parallels between distributed clean energy infrastructure and the explosive growth of the internet.

The obvious thing that makes the clean technology sector unique is the collective challenge we face in addressing climate change. In contrast to deadlines imposed by nature, the development of the internet and associated technologies went at its own (albeit rapid) pace. Unlike with climate change, political leaders were not tasked with the challenge of ushering in the changes to our lifestyles; internet adoption has flourished due to the perceived convenience of moving online, and the commercial viability that has gone along with it.

When we look at the pressures politicians face when it comes to climate change, a very different picture emerges than the sketch above. It’s a familiar story of leaders wanting to protect economic interests whilst at the same time guaranteeing emissions reductions. In this context, open source (or not) comes down to one thing, and one thing only: ownership of intellectual property.

Intellectual property


Leaders in developed countries are extremely reluctant to do anything that compromises the commercial interests of companies that contribute to GDP. This rule seems to apply for planet-saving technologies just as in any other area. Under the status quo, if it can be patented, it will, meaning that to access key technologies we may be faced with the curious dilemma of either making a few people incredibly rich, or perishing due to climate change.

One of the many sticking points at UN climate negotiations from Kyoto to Copenhagen has been on the subject of ‘technology transfer’; that is, how to ensure that under-developed economies in the Global South have the necessary access to technologies that have been patented by western companies and universities. By getting the right frameworks in place, poor countries should be able to ‘leapfrog’ dirty fossil-fuel-driven development and instead move straight to a clean energy infrastructure.

Key policy instruments introduced under Kyoto such as the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) were supposed to address technology transfer, but in reality they have done little to enable developing economies to build sustainable ventures around proven technologies. At Copenhagen, debates around intellectual property continued to stagnate, and there was little discussion about how to link practical policies with a coherent position on patent ownership.

One approach that has been suggested is ‘compulsory licensing’, a practice pioneered in the pharmaceutical sector, where companies are forced to licence their products in areas where there may not be a lucrative market. This approach has worked well in the distribution of anti-retroviral drugs in sub-Saharan Africa for the treatment of AIDS. But forcing a commercial company to license its product at a slightly lower profit margin is still a long way from the potentially explosive effects of open source.

The bigger picture

Shane Tomlinson works for think-tank E3G, leading a programme called 'Systems for Change'. He’s a specialist in the intellectual property issues surrounding low carbon technology transfer. He believes that there are a number of practical steps that can be taken to improve the current situation.

'There is a need for nations to develop an ambitious technology framework in the UNFCCC which can deliver solutions for a globalised world,' he says. 'This should focus on agreeing a new international technology mechanism in Cancun; quadrupling public research and development support by 2020; and resolving differences on IPR in a pragmatic manner that reaffirms the flexibilities already available in international law and agrees to both protect and share innovations.'

To move the debate forward in the policy arena, open source must become a legally definable term. At present, the more mature open source hardware initiatives (such as Opencores) are largely focused on digital technologies, with licenses (such as the GNU Public License) borrowed from the world of software.

Some existing hardware initiatives are using the popular ‘Creative Commons’ set of licenses, which are often used for software, but are also used extensively for writing, photos and other creative works. Given the large number of proprietary components that often make up a technology, it’s far from clear whether it would be feasible to simply apply a Creative Commons license across the board for low carbon technologies.

Widening the debate

It’s very easy to get bogged down in the details of specific projects, or particular policy concerns. Indeed, some may define the whole UN process as a huge bog of details and there are few people apart from lawyers who get excited about specific licensing arrangements.

But on a macro level, reducing the barriers to technology development and adoption is vital to enabling carbon reduction. Open source principles could hold the key. And aside from crunching the numbers of carbon reduction, on a more human level it could also unlock forces of individual and community empowerment currently lacking in the climate change debate.

Jamie Andrews is a freelance journalist and a founder of low carbon travel website, loco2

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