Makers, Open Source, and Sustainable Design: an Interview with Dawn Danby

The maker movement has come of age during a period of unprecedented environmental crisis. We’re facing an unimaginable raft of interrelated challenges like water scarcity and climate disruption. But solutions to these shared problems are cropping up everywhere: makers around the world are exploring how to apply their skills to deliver thoughtful, human-centered, environmentally considerate projects.

There seems to be something in the Maker zeitgeist this year. The focus on technology, access, and unbridled creativity that initially defined the maker movement is now evolving to address bigger problems. As maker communities are increasingly drawn to projects with positive social or environmental impact, we’re seeing older sustainability concepts resurface in a new context. Appropriate technology projects like concentrated solar power and grey water recycling are re-emerging in new forms, reshaped by open source collaboration and digital fabrication.

This autumn, POC21 will gather a community of makers to advance open source prototypes that facilitate society’s transition to a low-carbon, circular economy. To stay true to this goal, the participants will have to consider their projects’ own environmental footprints. Whether a product is mass manufactured or fabricated in a makerspace, the same principles of sustainable design can help reduce negative environmental impacts. Sustainable design can empower makers to think about their projects in the context of a larger system.

One of POC21’s sponsors, Autodesk, will draw from its own community to share expertise, mentorship, and access to digital fabrication tools with the camp’s 12 project teams.

Autodesk experts will offer mentorship to the teams, providing support in sustainable design, 3D modeling in Autodesk Fusion 360, human centered design, and fabrication.

Dawn Danby is the creator of the Autodesk Sustainability Workshopa free and open-source resource for learning the principles and practice of sustainable design. She has been working in sustainable design for 15 years, collaborating with artists, architects, engineers and technologists. Originally a product designer with a focus on environmental issues, she’s currently exploring ways to support makers to apply their ingenuity to tackling planetary challenges. Dawn co-authored the bestselling book Worldchanging: A User’s Guide to the 21st Century, is a part time educator and speaker, and is passionate about seeing creativity channeled towards impactful solutions.

What does your ideal outcome for POC21 look like?

Dawn Danby

Dawn Danby. I believe that the future of making things can be sustainable. POC21 provides a testing ground for new models of open collaboration and grass-roots solutions. The camp’s providing more than a proof of concept for the projects themselves: it’s also testing new approaches for developing tools and systems for sustainable living.

At Autodesk, we’ve been exploring ways to rapidly design and test impactful solutions. For me, it’s about more than fabrication and prototyping. I’d really like to see thoughtful understanding of users: who are these projects for? How do we develop solutions that best serve people’s needs? I think that’s really core to a lot of sustainable design work.

We’d also like to see these projects get out there and scale. The more the projects spread and replicate, the greater their impact will be. The project teams have to explore how to create the biggest impact, whether it’s through open source dissemination on Instructables, or through crowdfunding and entrepreneurship.

What aspects of sustainable design are most relevant to makers?

D. D. If you’re trying to make something that’s going to get reproduced, it immediately becomes important to think about its environmental consequences. The projects at POC21 are more than one-off DIY projects: they’re intended to be shared, replicated, or modified.

As these projects scale up, they need to start thinking about the same kinds of sustainability issues that are relevant to manufactured products.

For example, embedding sensors and microcontrollers into everything can bring lots of opportunities, like rich new information about the environment. I’m a huge fan of the citizen science work of folks like Public Lab, or the Smart Citizen platform, both of which offer a deeper understanding of our ecological and urban systems.

But at the same time, the more electronic components we use, the more we’re salting the earth with e-waste. When we include electronics in designs, it means we have to think about repairing and upgrading those components over time. Thinking long term is essential to good design. All projects and products should be designed for disassembly and repair, and the open source community can show some leadership here. Where will the thing go at the end of its life? Can parts be separated and reused or recycled, or do they go to landfill?

Material provenance and toxicity are two other key issues. If these projects spread and scale, they should be built from responsibly-sourced, non-toxic materials. We should avoid scarce materials in favor of rapidly renewable ones, and think about how materials impact human and environmental health. Toxicity affects every living thing, from makers in the lab, to users in the real world, to ecosystems.

Energy is a hugely important consideration in how we make things, and it’s a focus for many of the POC21 projects. Optimizing for energy efficiency can require specialized engineering knowledge, so it’s worth talking to experts on the subject, but anyone who makes things should be thinking about it.

Can you give us an example?

D. D. On product lifetime, iFixit is an essential resource on design for repair. They make tools and guides for repairing consumer electronics that were designed very deliberately to not come apart. One of my favorite iFixit “product teardowns” is of the iPad 2, which requires a heat gun for the adhesive, a handful of guitar picks to separate the glass, and an energy drink to give you strength. Electronics like this are graveyards for valuable, limited materials, but are designed as if such materials were infinite. Why is this important? Well, once again, electronics have a huge energy footprint. The amount of energy in charging a phone is smallish, but the manufacturing and global supply chains for electronics are massive. If you can figure out how to make a phone last twice as long, then you reduce the environmental costs by half.

Very cool. So at what point in a maker project should I start thinking about sustainable design?

D. D. As early as possible. It’s much easier to bake sustainable design in from the start than to retrofit an already developed design.

What’s the relationship between Open Source and Sustainable Design?

D. D. All sustainable design concepts are open, and should be freely shared. Sustainable design isn’t new at all; we’re just still trying to unstick ourselves from 20th century models of extraction. We need more uptake. High performance buildings are possible, a circular economy is possible, and we need more models to show that these ideas are feasible. It’s completely natural to design things to be repaired; or to not pollute your surroundings; or to avoid unnecessary fuel use. There are so many ways to achieve these kinds of goals, and no one owns these ideas.

We often pretend that our design ideas are new to this world, but we’re always building on others’ work. Part of what inspires me about the open source movement is the fact that it attempts to acknowledge how ideas build off one another, how they’re forked and modified, often with a curious lineage across the planet. More people should be learning from others’ approaches to local fabrication, design for disassembly, materials selection, and new economic models.

The global Instructables community, which brings together thousands of projects, is largely open, and most of the projects are published under Creative Commons. The site hosts hundreds of projects featuring DIY approaches to energy generation, upcycling, and resource use in general.

Are there some freely available (open source) guidelines for sustainable design?

D. D. We built out a huge set of resources on the Autodesk Sustainability Workshop, which is a free online platform for teaching people to design and engineer sustainable products and high performance buildings. It includes some great tools, like a quick reference guide on Design for Product Lifetime. All the materials are licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0).

Guest post written by Michael Floyd

Michael Floyd is an experienced creative marketer and sustainability consultant. His work at Autodesk supports and amplifies the positive environmental and social impact of the global maker community. Originally from the US, he has been a Londoner for seven years.


Featured image: Will Buchanan, Save the World one drop at a time – open water monitor system (Creative Commons)