Open Source Design and Remedies Down on the Farm.

This piece was written for the catalogue of a brilliant exhibition organised by the Institute de Cultura de Barcelona, designed by Emili Padros and Ana Mir in 2003. The exhibition focused on ingenuity in design and engineering. Part of it dealt with local, organic and free-range problem solving, which was one of my great interests. It was a chance to get in touch with Mike Donovan of Practical Farm Ideas to discuss how communities can empower themselves and others to accelerate problem-solving. There is some mention of the internet, but bear in mind that this is 2003; Instructables was still over two years away (launched August 2005) and the most up-to-date ‘lifestyle’ example I had was Make magazine. I am pleased to say that at the time of writing this intro (March, 2019), Practical Farm Ideas is still going, and still produces 4 issues a year, but most sharing takes place online, allowing this culture of innovation to really mushroom.

Necessity is the mother of invention’ – Jonathan Swift (1667 — 1745)

To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk’ — Thomas Edison (1847–1931)

Designers love to quote aphorisms on creativity and invention. They tend to reinforce the existence of a shared knowledge or understanding, or their possession of particular skills or worldviews that inform their practice. These two are particularly pertinent, as they appear to support two of the most enduring myths about the activity of design – firstly that it relies on need, and secondly that it fits into a ‘mad professor’ model of creativity. If you look around at professionals in the industry, be they industrial designers or design engineers, one quickly discovers that this is not an accurate reflection of their situation. Very seldom do contemporary designers find themselves in the luxurious position of approaching a problem from scratch. Much of their efforts appear to be linked to the upgrading or improving of previous models (in the consumer electronics industry, there is even a term for this: rebezelling), and this is most often linked to markets, and competition, rather than a real understanding or sensitivity toward users. Rarer still is any contact with necessity in the immediate, Swiftian sense, or the even the pile of junk in the Edisonian sense. And, despite the fact that obsolete technology and ideas are continually recycled, sooner or later the inevitable will happen: the object in question ceases to do what it was intended to do as well as it might. This may occur for a variety of reasons: newer technology could come along that improves the performance, reliability or efficiency of a later incarnation; the use to which the object is put becomes obsolete; the object breaks down; or a competitive product comes along which does a better job, or the same job cheaper. Having said that this is inevitable, it is also extremely uncommon to find things that acknowledge their own mortality. Products are designed to suggest reliability and permanence, not the temporary fix that most of them become. This may change in the future. Proposed Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation is an emerging waste management principle that places the responsibility of disposal once and for all in the hands of the producer. One incarnation of this principle, Product Take-Back, is forcing manufacturers and retailers to think very hard about how long their wares last, and what the after-life may hold for them. So far this has promoted a fresh approach to the streamlining of dismantling and recycling programmes, and to the establishment of secondary markets, where obsolete goods have potential value (e.g. cars and mobile phones). We can be fairly safe in the assumption, however, that manufacturers are not thinking about encouraging consumers to adapt and repair the things themselves. This, clearly, would get in the way of their ability to make money. The last thing that manufacturers want is to be edged out of the cycle of production and consumption by granting the enlightened amateur the opportunity to have a say in a product’s lifecycle.

In many ways the recent evolution of manufacturing industries (most notably vehicle and consumer electronics) has been at the expense of this amateur, who is no longer afforded the opportunity to tinker, adapt or repair. Appliances such as washing machines will stand up pretty well to a certain amount of repair, but this increasingly means the replacement of discrete units that make up the whole system. To make use of such an appliance would not, therefore, necessitate the comprehension of these complex individual elements. On the contrary, it is in the interests of the manufacturer to actively discourage this. The ignorance of a consuming public is blissful if you want them to continually replace worn out parts.

To find a group of people who experience not only a necessity to repair, but who also have access to Edison’s pile of junk, one has to look further than a high-street notion of the consumer. If there is one group of people who appear to live in a continuous state of necessity and junk, it is the farming community. History points towards a continually evolving process of innovation and problem solving taking place by enlightened amateurs in this field (pun intended). Labour-saving devices have a huge impact on the efficiency of a farming enterprise – particularly if you happen to be the person doing the labour. As agriculture has become increasingly mechanised, and farmers have found themselves managing a greater variety of machinery, so the tools and expertise to which they have access have upgraded. Therefore on a farm of any size is likely to find not only someone who is a confident welder, but also someone who can fix hydraulics, electrical systems, possibly even electronics. These are skills learned through necessity – the urgency to keep machinery working at critical times of the year. Their application, however, does not stop with the maintenance and repair of existing machinery. The vast potential for labour saving innovation often means that it takes place right where it will have an impact. Farmers have always been extremely adept at finding solutions through innovation – historical developments beginning with the harnessing of power from animals through Jethro Tull’s Seed Drill and right up to the present, this level of ingenuity shows no sign of abating. 

Post Hole Borer

Whilst repair, adaptation, and construction of machinery has always occurred, so it has tended to remain a fairly isolated pursuit. As the debate surrounding sustainable development hots up, perhaps it is worth drawing attention to the relentless cycle of resource-conscious innovation that takes place in farming. If the greatest problem surrounding this development was its somewhat underground nature, so it took a particularly enlightened individual to see its potential and do something about it. That individual was a retired engineer named Mike Donovan, and his contribution is a publication called ‘Practical Farm Ideas.’ This is magazine, which comes out four times a year, provides farmers with a forum where they can exchange ideas for mutual benefit. It started from an interest in workshop projects on his own farm, combined with a realisation that farmers’ reading material was largely funded by advertising and sponsorship. As a primary source of information relating to new ideas in farming, commercial magazines have a contradictory role – any ideas they carry that relate to cost-reduction through adaptation or remedy are potentially at odds with the objectives of the publishers. Or, as Mike puts it: “If the editor knows his BMW is financed by Cargill, Norsk, Agco, John Deere or the Agricultural Mortgage Corporation, he’s not going to upset things by printing articles that threaten their, and his, well-being.” The ideas being exchanged in Practical Farm Ideas range from the prosaic to the bizarre, and from the simple to the incredibly complex. Whilst innovations such as the self-propelled forage harvester made from parts of a used combine harvester might be beyond the capability of many of the subscribers, simple remedies such as a PVC skirt adapted for a tipping trailer require little time or effort and reap immediate benefits in the reduction of spoiled produce. The magazine’s subscription runs into many thousands, the more dedicated of whom claim to have made tens of thousands of pounds’ worth of savings through the implementation of the ideas it contains. The enormous success of PFI begs the question as to why more of the ideas are not developed commercially, but the fact remains that many of the ideas are simply not economic for manufacturers to consider. Even with their limited resources, farmers can build using second hand material and scrap components, paying little or no attention to R+D, marketing, distribution, warranty, legislation, and the need to make a profit. Even so, one would have thought that the large manufacturers would be worried about this. It would be impossible to calculate the extent to which they are losing revenue through farmers maximising their resources, but it must be significant. They are also missing out on the opportunity to develop new products. Do they take an interest in the magazine? Apparently not. According to Mike: “A very few subscribe, but never contribute or express a view. Threatened? I don’t know, but I doubt it. Manufacturers are very insular and isolated people. They generally aim to keep making, and more importantly, selling, the same machine without modifications for as many years as possible. Changes cost money, introduce risk. Changes also indicate the original to be less than perfect. Marketing and leaflets have to be adjusted. Some manufacturers go on producing machines with design faults for decades, and keep selling them as well! Their advertising, dealer margins and prices are such that the deficiencies get overlooked and farmers are persuaded to buy.” By contrast, Mike’s subscribers appear unmotivated by the potential for commercial development. Out of the 3,500 or so ideas so far featured, less than ten have been put into production, and most authors don’t seek protection for their ideas, preferring to avoid the additional costs, and keep the information in the public domain.

“Wheely” Bird Scarer

If we take a step back from these competing processes of innovation, two separate models start to emerge: one which is market-based; the other which is need and resource-based. Whilst the former is clearly the more familiar, widespread and voracious, evidence here suggests that it is the latter which is more productive. It is as though the farmers who engage in this remedial innovation are taking advantage of a kind of ‘open-source design’ where the rules say that there are no rules and you can adapt anything you like to improve it. The following lists some of the attributes of these two opposite systems:

Commercial Development ‘Open-Source’ or Remedy-Based Development
Design for manufacture Design for use
Promotion of competition Integration and co-operation
Design for professional repair Design for amateur Repair
Maintenance of dependant industries Non-affiliation to industry
Standardisation of parts Non-standardisation of parts
Brand strategy and maintenance Non-branded products
Protection of ideas Sharing of ideas
Subject to lag in development Immediate
Success determined by share price Success determined by immediate effect
Constrained by standardisation in manufacture Unconstrained by standardisation in manufacture
Design with disregard, or maximisation of use of consumables Design for minimisation of use of consumables
Innovation through market competition Innovation through personal need
Integration of spare parts industry Re-use of old parts

While both approaches appear diametrically opposed in so many ways, it is clear that the second cannot exist without the first. It is through the adoption and adaptation of existing technology that new products and applications emerge. Interestingly, this model of shared innovation in agriculture is not confined to the UK: For many years The Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions (SRISTI) has pioneered a similar approach in India. This incorporates Prof. Anil Gupta’s own model of co-operation, which operates in communities in rural India called the ‘Honeybee Network.’ Its premise is similar to that of Practical Farm Ideas, although its implementation and strategies differ slightly. Professor Gupta is keen that developments, whilst remaining ‘open-source’ for those who need them most, remain the property of their author through a system that protects their interests where commercial development is concerned.

 “Doubt is the father of invention,” a quotation attributed to Galileo, is perhaps more relevant than the two in the epigraph of this piece. The doubt here being whether conventional routes for innovation and production really have the ability to respond to peoples’ needs. Clearly remedy-based intervention is not about to take the place of established manufacturing industries, but there is a strong case here for its ability to add to it, and offer something extremely beneficial to those who have a need that is strong enough. This begs the question: Can this type of innovation exist in other, less specialist markets? What would happen if consumers could adapt and improve more familiar products?

Surprisingly parallels can be found in the most unexpected, and seemingly heavily commercialised, areas. In the United States, for instance, which has traditionally been a huge market for home craft activities (or ‘crafting’), the enthusiastic ‘crafter’ has access to hundreds of web-sites, and numerous magazines detailing projects ranging from egg-painting to rug-making. This is not a revelation in itself, and has been around for many years. A leap has been made, however, that links this enthusiasm with a contemporary understanding of design practice. This is in the guise of a quarterly magazine called ‘Ready Made.’ The founders, it seems, are attempting to do for housewares, furniture and furnishings what Practical Farm Ideas does for the farmyard. What differentiates it from established ‘crafting’ activities is that whilst the projects are intended to be undertaken by the enlightened amateur, they are clearly aimed at a younger, more design savvy audience who would not appreciate the twee aesthetic of most home-crafts. They achieve this through embracing ideas that are current in design thinking, styling these accordingly, and even inviting contributions from profiled designers. Through this, the editors are able to acknowledge the recent movement, particularly in Europe, towards an appreciation of the ‘rawness’ of objects, and a celebration of the different ways that objects can be adapted or re-interpreted. This is one of the main themes of the Droog collection from the Netherlands, but can also be seen in the work of Studio Boym and and many others. Work if this type is featured heavily in Ready Made (including the Boym’s ‘Spice Station’), but there are also articles with names like “Social Climbing – How to Be an Urban Tour Guide,” and “How to Appear Smarter than You Are.”  This is part of a tacit acceptance that lifestyle and image are king to their audience, which is further reinforced through the look of the magazine; a much slicker production visually than Practical Farm Ideas (although many photos are taken by contributors). This is to be expected, though, and simply reflects the fact that each is operating in a different market. The key thing is that both provide a forum for sharing innovation and ideas, and that many of the contributions come from amateurs. The importance of this approach needs to be stressed, so that more and more people can join the proud boast of those featured in Practical Farm Ideas: “Made it Myself.”

Fig. 1 Cover of Practical Farm Ideas, incorporating the magazine’s quintessence “Made it Myself.”

Fig. 2 Blackcurrant Sprayer

A home-built machine which straddles two rows of blackcurrant bushes and blows the pesticide into the sides of each row. The sprayer runs like a bicycle on just two wheels, supported by a pair of hydraulically folding outriggers.

Fig. 3 Post-Hole Borer

Unlike commercial machines which operate in an arc and stall as soon as they hit hard ground, this farm-built machine drills vertically and accurately and will go through almost any material. Based on a fork lift mast, the frame holds a hydraulically driven auger bit.

Fig.4 Bird Scarer

A home built scarer to keep crows and pigeons off oil seed rape and other crops. The top oscillates in the lightest of winds and the 50 mirrors make it flash in many directions. This is a more socially-acceptable alternative to traditional ‘banger’ scarers.

Fig.5 Carrot Harvester

A home built machine incorporating parts from many others, including a potato harvester and a pea vining machine. It cost £20,000 to built: 1/6th of what is might have cost new.

Fig.6 Power Harrow Blade Changer

A device for improving safety and efficiency when changing the blades of a power harrow – the machine is raised and turned through 90 ˚ to give clear access to the blades.

Fig 7. Ready Made Magazine

Figs. 8–9 ‘Spice Station’ by Studio Boym

A homemade accessory for storing 6 types of condiment.

Photos 1–6 by Mike Donovan.