What if We Open Source Housing? | Alastair Parvin | Google Zeitgeist

>>Alastair Parvin: I’m going to start with
a piece of heresy, I think, which — maybe here it’s heresy, which is to suggest that,
actually, when we’re talking about disruptive innovations in technology, we tend to overfocus
on firsts; technologies that when we go or higher, faster or do things that have never
been done before. And actually, when we look back through history,
we all know that the technologies that really fundamentally changed our economic and social
equation were actually not firsts, but for everyones. It was things like the printing
press or the model T which is taking products that had actually been around for a very,
very long time. Actually, we should be really, really interested in mundane diffusion technologies.
And I understand that — That quote, by the way, absolutely captures that idea. I loved
it, so I think we skipped it past there. George Orwell, actually the first world war couldn’t
have happened without the invention of tinned food just captures that.
I understand Google have this rule called the toothbrush rule which is every new product
— is this right? Every new product should be used by most people twice a day.
And obviously what I’m talking about here is a product that actually everybody uses
most of the day. It’s the single biggest thing that we expend our money on throughout most
of our lives. We haven’t innovated it that much in the last 50 years. And by the way,
the way we make it is in crisis. So this is an unashamed pitch to say actually
you should be interested in housing. Come on, Google, catch up.
And when we talk about housing crisis, what we probably think about is massive urbanization
in the emerging economies, the rise of the slums, extreme housing need, which that is
the housing crisis. But, actually, this isn’t an east/west story. Actually, the west also
has a housing crisis. It’s a rise crisis of debt, a crisis of affordability, a crisis
of quality, and a crisis of sustainability. And what that actually looks like is this
in everyday terms, this is how we experience it.
So between 1971 and 2008, the cost of housing in the U.K. inflated so much that, actually,
if over the same period if chicken had inflated by the same amount, a chicken in 2008 would
cost you 47 pounds at the supermarket. And we tend to celebrate this; right? But
actually, you’ve got to be extremely rich, and some of you might be, but you’ve got to
be extremely rich before this isn’t screwing you in some way. It’s amazing how often you
hear people say, “It’s great. My house just doubled in value.” But what they could be
saying is my next house got just got half as big. So we found ourselves in this really
weird position where in 2007 or 2008 at the height of our economic prosperity, Britain
was building the second smallest houses in the whole of Europe. Why was that?
There’s something going on in the economics of the way we’re making housing that actually
doesn’t tally with the rest of what we see as economic and social prosperity.
And actually, the way we make housing hasn’t actually changed that much. Since the industrial
revolution the assumption has been if you want to make housing at scale, the only way
to do it is to get big organizations or corporations like governments to make it on our behalf,
effectively. Whether that was early industrial and philanthropic housing, whether that was
through communism, whether that was view the welfare state, or most recently, through the
rise of the consumer economy in things like Levittown in the States and this inflated
real estate bubble which we saw over the last — last decade.
And we tend to see these ideologically. We accept these as ideologically opposed to one
another, but actually, under the bonnet, they’re much more similar than we like to realized.
The fundamental idea is when you’ve got a piece of land, a single, large investor comes
in with a single large chunk of money and procures a whole neighborhood as a single,
large monolithic project, based on a kind of imaginary one-size-fits-all human being.
And of course what you then end up is with a big, monolithic one-size-fits-all building,
because actually, form follow finance. That’s actually the reason our cities look the way
they do and the way your house looks the way it does.
And of course the open secret behind this is what we’re actually living in are not designed
as places to live. They’re designed as financial assets. They’re monopoly houses. And again,
we all kind of know this. What we don’t necessarily get is that it leads to a situation where,
in an inflating market, it means there’s no reason for an intrinsically motivated production
model to be investing in all the things we see as good about housing, like having more
space, like being more sustainable, being more focused on the users’ needs. And it’s
amazing how often you hear developers blamed. They say, oh, they’re greedy y developers.
They are not greedy developers. This is just the economic development model that we chose.
And actually, a lot of us can’t afford it anyway.
So the shift that we’re facing that we should really, really think about, and we’ve seen
in all of your kind of tech and Web enterprises over the last few decades is this shift from
the monetary economy, the idea that the only people who have the tools and infrastructure
to do stuff at scale is in the monetary economy. So this idea we can make tools and infrastructure
for the social economy, for people who are intrinsically motivated, who are not making
a house to sell but are making a place where they’re going to live, where they’re going
to pay the heating bills. And of course we’re being given this epic
opportunity to do that in what’s been termed as the third industrial revolution, the rise
of digital manufacturing, the distribution of manufacturing. With 3D printers. Again,
arguably for me more exciting, but more mundane, are technologies like C&C machines.
And what these technologies are doing is effectively saying that the factory in future might well
be everywhere. And the implication, therefore, is the design team might well be everyone.
And that really has huge implications for design. What it does is it radically lowers
the threshold of time and cost and skill to deliver high performance products.
It effectively questions this idea of the economics of one-size-fits-all. The idea that
maybe in future, products will be more and more like Darwin’s finches.
So about a year and a half, two years ago, myself and the others, particularly in a studio
called Zero Zero, we gan really thinking about this and we began working on a project exploring
what that could mean for housing. And with this project, WikiHouse.
And effectively WikiHouse is an open source construction system. It’s a library of models
which are shared in the commons online freely which anyone can download and access, into
the moment of SketchUp, because it’s free and it’s pretty easy to use.
And pretty much at the click of a switch what they can do is generate a set of cutting files
from that model, which effectively enable them to print out the parts from a house using
a standard sheet material like plywood which is widely available. And the parts come out
numbered and ready to build. And what you essentially end up with is the mother of all
Ikea kits. [ Laughter ]
>>Alastair Parvin: So we’ve got a couple of videos of different prototypes that have gone
on. You can see the process going on. You don’t need external fixings. It uses no bolts.
It uses wedges and pegs to go together. The mallets, even, to make it come on the cutting
sheets themselves. And a team of just around two or three people can put together a house
like this pretty quickly, and they can make a small house in about a day. And they don’t
need any kind of traditional construction skills to do it.
And also the twist on this is that it’s incredibly fun and sociable, by the way. People get confused
between construction work and having fun. And what we can begin to see in that is this
okay, if we can develop those structures, what you end up with is a structure that you
can then complete and develop into houses. And of course what you’re create something
not just houses but the capacity to make other houses. So we can begin to see the seeds of
what could become a completely different urban development model for the way we make public
housing. So imagine today we take that plot of land
and instead of giving it to one large single chunk of capital investment, we say actually
we’ll raise the same amount of money but with many with a bit instead of with one person
with a lot. And they can come together and agree essentially on a set of rules that they
can all abide by for making their own houses, for principles, and then they can effectively
start a community factory and design and make their own neighborhood. And it’s a neighborhood
made as a place to liv. It’s designed as the place where you’re going to be bringing up
your kids. And so there’s no reason to make the ceilings lower, to take out the storage.
And fundamentally, who else is going to invest in putting more insulation in the walls if
not the person who is going to be buying the energy over the next ten years.
And what we’re creating here is actually not about — it’s not about a kind of market versus
nonmarket. What we’re actually creating here is a market which is fundamentally about a
different kind of product, which as different as a product as a hot dinner is different
from an insurance policy. Even though they both look like houses.
So, actually, I would suggest that the total future scale of the market for houses as places
to live in, procured by their users, will be so huge in the long run that it will make
the total size of our existing property industry feel pretty tawdry by comparison.
And of course the system is extremely replicable and that’s the power of it. We only need to
do one thing once, then immediately someone with take it, adapt it, and share it. And
so you can create whole development models where suddenly you are radically lowering
the thresholds for people to take neighborhoods and develop them for themselves.
And the twist is, actually, this isn’t new. This isn’t high tech. This is actually how
we built cities for hundreds of years. And the only difference is now we’ve got a Web
connection, and it’s a really big connection. So the project is all completely open, and
we’re still, we’re very keen to point out we’re still in very early days of development.
And we’ve just got for the first time the first few teams who are really beginning to
take this project and drive it. So we’re working with an amazing group who are setting up kind
of community make-up factory in one of Rio’s favelos.
One of the most exciting teams is the team in WikiHouse New Zealand, WikiHouse New Zealand
in Christchurch where they are addressing effectively the failure of a capital-led development
model to respond to the Christchurch earthquake recovery.
And the twist is this. If I haven’t persuaded you of anything so far, which is that actually
when we think about it, we talk a lot about smart cities, about the city of the 21st century.
But the reality is that the fastest growing cities globally right now are not made by
formal development, capital-led projects. They’re self-made cities. That’s just the
reality. Those are just the maps. So actually if we’re serious about tackling
problems like climate change, if we’re serious about international an urban development,
actually the only way of solving these issues is going to be by diffusing these solutions
through open models. The traditional development model isn’t going
to work because simply there isn’t going to be enough debt in the world to finance it.
So what we think we’re doing, and we’re one of many interesting teams who are just beginning
to tinker around open hardware projects. But what we think we’re doing collectively is
beginning to found a global commons of solutions for easily fabricated, replicable, low-cost,
high-performance solutions. Not just the things like structure but to things like off-grid
energy and sanitation; effectively, a Wikipedia for stuff.
That’s something I think you should be really, really interested in.
And I want to just quickly finish because we’re in a room full time of incredibly interesting
and smart people. By going off piece and speculating on five interesting open hardware technologies
that I think could be super disruptive in the next few decades. This is one we’re already
working on and guess what? It’s really mundane. It’s just high performance windows. But actually
these cost a huge amount right now. High insulation windows. So we’re trying to develop a product
which can be made for a fraction — for yourself for a fraction of the current market cost.
We’ve already heard about things like watering infrastructure, but rethink this whole idea
of leapfrogging infrastructure which we’re very, very familiar with. Actually, let’s
build the infrastructure and the tools to do that. So off-grid infrastructure won’t
just include things like sanitation and electricity and energy. It will also include things like
recycling. By 2025, I think 550 million more people are
going to be joining the middle classes in India, and a lot of them are going to want
to use air-conditioning. So, actually, there are worse problems you could be working on
right now than a low-cost replicable solar-powered air-conditioning unit.
Fuel, there has been a lot of really interesting experiments going on around biofuels and algae
production. And, again, what they come up against again and again is that they can only
diffuse as the market — as far as the market economy will allow them to.
Imagine if we could develop systems and tools that will allow anyone to create essentially
a fuel farm on their own roof and develop maybe, like, a liter of fuel a day.
Imagine — don’t see this as technology but imagine the socioeconomic impact of how that
would change the political sphere in terms of foreign policy and so forth.
And, finally, I would say that in the great Venn diagram of people interested in farming
and permaculture and people interested in robotics, there is not much of an overlap
but there needs to be. And I think there will be, and there is beginning to be.
This is going to be massively important when we start talking about how we are going to
produce large-scale food in the future with a shrinking rural population, with effectively
increasing costs of oil potentially, or more volatile cost of oil, effectively scaling
organic permaculture methods around farming. But the underlying message behind these that
we’re really interested in is that it’s not about the product. It’s about the political
economy that they sit in. If we are really seriously interested in this idea of sharing
these capabilities, if we are really seriously interested in the idea, as I put it, that
actually in the 20th century, a lot of development came around the idea that we would — the
design’s great project was democratizing the right to consume. That was Henry Ford, IKEA.
That’s what we did. That was Coca-Cola. I think what these technologies are beginning
to do is share the idea or make it real that we will democratize the right to produce.
And that is a really, really potentially disruptive element in terms of really rethinking civic
democracy at a time when actually the traditional institutions for the market and the state
are struggling to provide it, to deliver on that promise of welfare.
But what’s interesting for us is that actually the governments and the transparency that
lie behind these products is really, really important. We can’t say we are democratizing
unless the ownership and the sharing of those assets genuinely is democratic.
And that’s for us kind of a really interesting, open question. Thank you very much.
[ Applause ]

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