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.