Community, Collaboration, Creation (Essay)

An exploration of the value of an open source; community driven ethos within the creative industries.

The technology available to the general public today, gives people endless possibilities
to network and connect with people from around the globe. It also means that products,
and the designers behind them have to cater for a potentially worldwide audience. “A designer now must take the needs of the entire world, including the environment, into account.” The above statement by Tim Brown gives an insight into just how much the modern designer must consider from project to project, it is a huge amount for an individual or even a team of designers to begin to comprehend. Todays connectedness gives these individuals an opportunity to be a part of an emerging ethical practice for the design industry, open sourcing.

Open sourcing is a practice most often seen in relation to software creation, in which the copyright holder allows anyone to study, change, and distribute their piece of software. Within the design industry, open source is usually referred to via the creative commons licenses. There are already many forms and iterations of open sourcing being implemented within the creative industries. From Rolling Tree’s community driven skateboard company, and online companies such as Threadless where the community alongside a few partnered artists generate a huge range of content, to Ziferblat’s social space that relies on volunteers and charges for peoples time spent there rather than the consumption/use of its resources.

Ziferblat is an experimental social and cultural space where “Everything is free inside except the time you spend there.” The concept was thought of by Ivan Meetin who first founded Ziferblat in Moscow 2011 “as a tree house for adults.” and sees its customers as “micro-tenants” rather than café goers with the mission of providing “a place conducive to people to feeling free, devoid of the pressures of modern living.” Ziferblat is not an open source project in the traditional sense but is funded and ran by its user base as the only employees are there to take payment or manage the space and are usually supported by volunteers who are there to supervise the space. Seeing the platform as a social experiment as opposed to a viable business plan, the intrinsic value of the concept (literally spending your time) seems to have taken root in their clients and they now have 14 locations across Europe.

Another home-brewed example of an open source ethos is Rolling Tree, a skateboarding company where “Everything is created within and designed by our open, global community.” Meaning that the consumers of Rolling Tree’s products will have a say in every step of its creation, from the initial concept of an item through the modelling and design of each of the products with some of the top contributors being rewarded at the end of the process giving participants more motivation to get involved with the community. Rolling Tree has five products currently on the market, many commendations from the wider skateboarding community and over one thousand members in their creative groups. They have shown that a community driven design ethic with a global background can be very successful when used in the industry and purpose.

Threadless is a community based clothing company, with the motto “You are Threadless. You make the ideas, you pick what we sell, you’re why we exist.” Using a similar yet slightly more competitive model than Rolling Tree, Threadless offers open design challenges for which designers and artists from around the globe can submit a design of their choice which is then scored by the community, the creator of the highest scoring design is rewarded and their design is then sold to the community through threadless’ website.

One design studio that credits some of their success to their open source ethos is Hellicar and Lewis, who once a project is complete allow anyone access to the software they have used or created for their project. They have said it has been “enabling us to develop faster, in a more economical and reliable way” as well as the fact “it enables us to make software that has already been verified and tested by the wider community.” Having chosen to found their studio on open source principals for their own ethical reasons has gathered them many supporters from various groups and companies in and outside the design community. Another benefit for Hellicar and Lewis is that releasing all of their previous work to the community allows them to explore different directions for their creative practice that may not have been obvious before. A recent example of this is the pair’s Feel TV project for Nike in which they fused digital interaction and physical performance, allowing viewers of the project to tweet from anywhere on the globe to influence the visuals being seen on screen or the live performance of those on screen such as the Associate Artists of the English National Ballet, the London Contemporary Orchestra, and Run Dem Crew. Feel TV was inspired in part by one of their earlier projects “The Hello Cube” which was developed as “The worlds first ‘twitterable’ object” and allowed users to interact audibly with the physical object or digitally via twitter both seeing the effect of their interaction either in the real world or with a twitter reply from the cube itself. One of the reasons behind the open source ethos of Hellicar and Lewis is their belief that it could be applied throughout society and its importance as an educational tool for programming.

One of the main benefits of an open source ethos is the allowance for mass global collaboration, as stated early the amount an average designer must consider for a possible worldwide audience is inconceivable, “Complex design problems require more knowledge than any single person possesses because the knowledge relevant to a problem is usually distributed among stakeholders.” (Arias, 2000). The collaboration of different creative minds of varying backgrounds and viewpoints can create a shared understanding of a design problem, which will lead to new ideas and innovations. This newfound understanding is invaluable information when applied in the right way, similar to Rolling Trees collaborative community, the creators are the consumers and vice versa. They understand the issues they have had with previous products and along with the rest of the community can solve them, they as part of the community also know the aesthetic choices that are often found surrounding the products. Community based design and open source ethics can also create opportunities for future project funding through crowdsourcing as they may feel a connection to the community and want to help with more projects. Another large benefit is that choosing an open source ethos may garner a project some form of respect  or admiration by the wider community which in turn will raise awareness for the project and the individuals leading it, as found by Hellicar and Lewis.

Many of the other benefits and motivations of working with an open source model are primarily for the individual participants of the community. Some may see the project as an opportunity to practice or simply because they enjoy the focus of the work. Another individual motivation may be that the individual identifies with the community involved in a project and may feel they can offer something beneficial for that community. Other factors may be that the individual may see a project as an opportunity and “may receive indirect rewards by increasing their marketability and skill base or selling related products and services.” (Hars, 2001).

However there are some seemingly substantial limitations on a global collaborative community, factors include the necessity of fluency in interacting with digital media, the possibility of group think and the distribution of time and resources. Many of these issues can be solved fairly easily, the necessity of technology is becoming less of an issue as more of the participants in the collaboration will be familiar with at least the basics of modern communication technology.  The distribution of workload, time and resources can be solved by discussion of organisation and an agreed upon time limit and division of work. The possibility of group think is more difficult to solve as many of the beneficial factors of global collaboration such as different expertise levels, backgrounds, knowledge and opinions can cause this, as communication with such varied individuals can become an issue. The opportunity for a diverse and innovative solution through a shared understanding of the problem can often outweigh the risk of group think. That risk being minimised by proper organisation and proper communication between “communities of practice” meaning people who work within a certain profession on similar problems, and “communities of interest” people with different professional backgrounds and levels of understanding who are all undertaking a similar problem.

“Although the contribution of the individual is critical and the capabilities of the unaided human mind are impressive, cognitive limits often require the use of external artifacts to extend our limits…Although creative individuals are often thought of as working in isolation, the role of interaction and collaboration with other individuals is critical” (Arias, 2000) This statement suggests that the necessity of technology to extend an individuals limits should push towards a collaborative effort to create a shared understanding as many of the complex problems in modern society requires more knowledge than one person can possess. The creation of a shared understanding of a problem through people of different backgrounds and expertise is what allows open source and community based design to be so effective. This shared understanding creates an opportunity to fully utilise a suitable medium for the effective communication of a solution or concept to the desired audience. It also allows a much more diverse audience to be created as the cultural background of a participant could easily inform a solution suitable for a whole new demographic.

An open source and collaborative process is becoming a much more viable and necessary business practice  and widely acknowledged ethical choice within the creative industries. As technology develops and it becomes easier for an individual to reach a global audience, it in turn becomes much harder for that individual to cater for the almost infinitely varying demographics of that audience. The increasing complexity of modern design problems is becoming something that can only be solved by groups of people with different backgrounds and professional practices, “Great discoveries and improvements invariably involve the cooperation of many minds” (Alexander Graham Bell). The majority of creative thought and intelligence is the result of interaction with other individuals, forming new associations and ways of expressing ideas and simply gaining new knowledge. Both the importance of representing diverse perspectives and as a result the need of collaborative education -to aid in uniting those perspectives can be addressed by open source ethics by actively involving individuals of varying practice and cultural backgrounds in a creative community with a common goal, the insight and diversity of a final solution gained is of far greater value than any loss of acknowledgement or intellectual property.Bibliography


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