Open source hardware can unleash the core American spirit of creativity and innovation

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Credit: Something Labs

This blog is part of a series on open hardware and key messages for public policy. Read the introduction and access other #OHpolicy blogs here.

By Sabrina Merlo, Head of Local Response at Open Source Medical Supplies

In March 2020, Sam Haynor was laid off from his role as exhibit developer at a science museum in San Francisco that closed its doors due to COVID-19. Sam was only four days into his free time when one of his housemates — an emergency room physician — shared photos of what her colleagues were using for personal protective equipment (PPE). Chinese exports of medical supplies had stopped because of their COVID-19 lockdown, and standard equipment like disposable respirator masks and protective gowns had become scarce.

“We were playing games in the living room when she came home and showed us pictures of what they were wearing,” Sam shared. “And I was like, damn it. All right, we can do something.”

Haynor and four co-workers mobilized. Within seven days, the team leveraged their relationship with their housemate-clinician to create and refine designs, test prototypes, and activate a network of over 1,000 people to go into production, aggregating and delivering donated finished product to hospitals, clinics and first responders. In less than four months, their distributed network — named Something Labs — made more than 280,000 pieces of PPE including face shields; protective gowns; sneeze guards; window masks; powered air-purifying respirators (PAPRs) parts, repairs and complete units; intubation boxes; and ventilator connectors. They also published their designs back into those open source hardware forums as well as on their own website. It was a heroic, civic-minded effort of innovation and output; a Rosie the Riveter-meets-Bell Labs barn-raising!

Even more remarkable is that Something Labs is just one of thousands of PPE emergency response manufacturing efforts that self-organized in spring and summer of 2020. Two Open Source Hardware (OSH) umbrella organizations, Open Source Medical Supplies (OSMS) and Nation of Makers, are currently finalizing an analysis of extensive surveying of the open source emergency response to the 2020 PPE crisis. Findings include the accounting of over 48 million pieces — valued at $268 million — of medical supplies delivered by grassroots groups and re-tooled small manufacturers from March-July 2020, most all of whom relied on online communities of open source designers. Hundreds of new open source designs for a wide range of medical supplies, including multiple new products that had not previously existed, have been vetted by end users and institutions, and are now available in repositories like the OSMS Project Library and the US National Institute of Health’s 3D Print Exchange.

Together, open source culture and the powerful, lower-cost digital fabrication toolset generated incontrovertible value and saved lives through protecting health care and essential workers. It’s not a reach then to understand why Forbes magazine’s 2020 Tech Awards recognized Makers as “Most Disruptive Innovators.” The OSH network has revealed a capacity for distributed innovation and creativity that is core to the original and cherished American entrepreneurial spirit. Given the current American economic crisis, and the enormous challenge of climate change, investing in key components of the OSH ecosystem would seem to be an opportunity worthy of investigation.

Makerspaces were the cornerstone institutions critical to the generation of tremendous open source designs where there were none previously. Makerspaces and FabLabs (an MIT originated, trademarked makerspace) offer access to tools and people who know how to use them. More than 2,000 makerspaces exist across the United States, ranging from environments inside schools, libraries, universities and corporate campuses, to independent, stand-alone nonprofit and for-profit spaces. As a baseline, it is important that these centers of innovation are “seen” and understood by policy makers, and to ensure their eligibility for workforce development, small business incubation, scientific research, STEM education, and arts funding programs. Those wishing to invest in American creativity and innovation through open source hardware could also help create Makerspaces and FabLabs where they do not yet exist.

Internet access was essential to the rapid sharing of information in the 2020 PPE crisis response, and is foundational to open source ecosystems. Open source thrives on access to ideas and information, embodying an essential American value of equal opportunity. Yet the FCC reports that “nearly 30 million Americans” — especially those in rural regions and Tribal lands — “cannot reap the benefits of the digital age.” Closing the digital divide will expand and help democratize the nation’s capacity to leverage the power of distributed open source hardware networks and information.

More opportunities exist across Federal agencies to leverage the OSH ecosystem and its capacity to inject value and solve problems. But OSH is still a relatively new and not well understood community and approach. We need facilitators inside government to connect the dots to OSH where policy is seeking to promote innovation. To that end, the incoming Administration should reinstate a Senior Advisor for Making in the Executive Branch, and restore and expand the Obama Administration’s Maker Interagency Working Group. OSH/Maker policy fellows should also be installed in Federal Agencies, the fifteen U.S. Manufacturing Institutes, and in the Legislative Branch.

Innovation is consistently identified as a key factor in determining American competitiveness in the global marketplace. How to build that creative culture is the object of endless and expensive private sector and government efforts. Yet here in plain sight is an existing ecosystem and proven models for rapid creativity and value creation: the open source hardware response to the 2020 COVID-19 PPE crisis. We should take this opportunity to identify and enact every lever available therein to contribute to American resilience, leadership and prosperity.

Sabrina Merlo is Head of Local Response at Open Source Medical Supplies (OSMS). Prior to OSMS, she spent a decade helping to build Maker Faire, the internationally recognized festival brand celebrating makers and the culture of innovation.

Sign up here to receive a copy of the forthcoming Open Source Medical Supplies / Nation of Makers report on the maker and local manufacturing response to the 2020 COVID-19 PPE crisis.

Journal of Open Hardware, an Open Access initiative run by the Global Open Science Hardware community and published by Ubiquity Press.

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