If you believe that people are more design-conscious lately, it's not a great leap to also believe they look for it everywhere - not just in the consumer electronics they buy. Don Norman wrote one of the best books on design, The Design of Everyday Things, and after you read it, you'll be ruined. For better or worse, you won't look at your world in the same way. I highly recommend reading the book, but you've been forewarned that you might be dissatisfied with life as you know it afterwards.
One of the most common everyday things is the space we live in: our houses, our apartments, our offices. There's a very cool trend in living spaces and construction called "Modernist PreFab." The essence of it is this: good design can reach into everyday living spaces, not just high-end, one-off spaces few can afford. They often use a renowned designer and architect, challenge him or her with a living space problem constrained by some simple requirements such as: it must be affordable to the middle class, it must be built with easily accessible, environmentally friendly materials, it must be energy efficient, and above all, it must be designed so it delights its inhabitants.
A modernist prefab website that will give you a very good idea of what these spaces look like is Fab PreFab http://www.fabprefab.com. Before you go there on work hours, you should know you could get lost exploring all the companies and designers that are into this. Some of their work is absolutely gorgeous and some of it is, shall we say, different. (Maybe minimalist is a better word. Thoreau would be proud of this one.)
The modernist prefab trend is the manifestation of two major currents of thinking: 1) Good design can be affordable and 2) good design can be packaged and widely distributed. When I thought about these principals of modern prefab I wondered if they had any bearing on open source. There's no doubt in my mind that they do.
First, the whole concept of prefab is known in the software industry as "reusable objects" and "design patterns." Nothing new there except an interesting parallel and granted it's not unique to open source. It's common for new software to be based on established operating systems, subsystems and components such as Apache, JBoss, MySQL, Linux. Very few projects are written from scratch. Even small packages like the Apache Commons libraries that are used in lots of open source software are there because developers simply got tired of writing the same stuff over and over again, all of it incompatible from one rewrite to the next, and none of the differences really adding much value. So, modernist prefab and software reuse are natural soul-mates.
Second, affordability and distribution of prefab is all about sharing designs with lots of people - the market for prefab decides what's good design. Open source is certainly about sharing designs with lots of people and the success of an open source project is decided by the users as well. Despite Richard Stallman's insistence that OSS should be "free as in speech", a lot people still look at open source in the "free as in beer" sense and for the most part, thankfully, it delivers on both. Maybe we can twist Richard's saying about what "free" means to be "affordable, as in beer."
Third, the designers of modernist prefab can be renowned architects who want to make a difference in the world. Rather than spending their lives working on three great monuments to man, maybe they want to make a bigger impact on more people by sharing their work and making it affordable. The designers of modernist prefab aren't second rate, they simply have different goals for their work and lives. The same can be said about the community behind most open source packages. Because of this, there's passion for open source projects that's a rare find in the commercial world.
Fourth, even a modernist prefab home needs to be customized and fit into its environment when it's installed. It needs a site survey, foundation, project manager, someone to pick and deliver the material. In the same way, no open source package just installs itself and fits perfectly. It takes some adjusting and maintenance, hopefully not a lot, but it's got to be built into the design of the package. The designer must bow to this knowledge that there will be some fit, finish and customization of the product. If the product isn't designed for fitting into lots of places and can be easily maintained, it's not well designed prefab or open source.
Finally, the prefab design itself is fluid and user-centered. Prefab architects set their sights on solving different problems - it's the unmet need thing again. Solutions that are currently on the market don't fit the bill in some way. Perhaps current solutions are too expensive, too big, too small, don't integrate well, are hard and expensive to maintain, aren't energy efficient. There could be a host of reasons to do something different. In that respect, as I mentioned in my last post, the market can be exceedingly small for it to be a viable target for new prefab designs. In prefab, the threshold for building something new, and hopefully innovative, is much lower like it is in the open source world.
What's interesting to think about is how two disparate movements, modernist prefab and open source, have so much in common. Subsystems and assemblies that come out of prefab design will be used as standard components in construction when it's mainstreamed. This is similar to the way an open source architect would use a model-view-controller design pattern or an Apache web server.
It's not strictly about the components themselves, it's about how you put them together that makes the design. There are interesting parallels to explore between the open source movement and prefab design and I hope this notion has spurred some interesting ideas for you.
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