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Why „Open Source“ Circular Economy


  • C:Lab @Buro Happold


[ o°]


Open Source


A quick look at the definition of open source hardware.


”Open Source Hardware …

is hardware whose design is made publicly available so that anyone can study, modify, distribute, make, and sell the design or hardware based on that design.


↑ The highlighted words are the 4 freedoms of Open Source. And look. It is verbs. It is about doing things. Or about enabling people to do practical creative things with objects.


Circular Economy


Let’s ask Wikipedia for a quick definition:


„Circular systems…

employ reuse, sharing, repair, refurbishment, remanufacturing and recycling to create a closed-loop system.“


↑ The highlighted words are also verbs! The circular economy is about doing things! And therefore it should be about enabling people to do practical creative things with objects.

So. The same as Open Source.

Are the things they enable the same or support each other? Well let’s compare them:


Open Source






Circular Economy








Ok. That is pretty interesting.

But what about design? The circular economy is mostly about HOW to design things. Does open hardware has anything to say here too?


Let’s have another look at the definition of open source hardware.


”… Ideally, open source hardware uses readily-available components and materials, standard processes, open infrastructure, unrestricted content, and open-source design tools to maximize the ability of individuals to make and use hardware.”


This is an attempt to make it as easy as possible to physically recreate hardware everywhere. Because if open hardware want’s to leverage some of the things that make open source software so great it needs to be easy to manufacture on sight. Software you download install and run. Hardware design files you download … understand, source parts, manufacture …


This is how ’shipping‘ software works, but not hardware. 

The difference between software and hardware is striking. Computers are the same everywhere in the world. The same basic general purpose machine. So you can download Open Source Software from the other side of the globe and start using it within minutes on your local machine. The computer it runs on is already built. The atoms that make the software come to live are already in front of you and properly arranged. With hardware it is different. You can only download the design files for a tractor. But the difficult and expensive part of sourcing parts and materials and putting them together is still ahead of you.


So open hardware ideally makes an effort in the design to be easy to make. And things that are easy to make are probably also easy to repair, reuse, refurbish and so on. They are also probably more circular!

Let’s compare some design ideals:


Open Source

Design …


readily-available components and materials

standard processes

open infrastructure

unrestricted content

open-source design tools

Circular Economy



standardization & compatibility

ease of maintenance & repair

upgradability & adaptability

dis- and reassembly


local materials



product attachment & trust


(6 of those were taken from Conny Bakkers Book „Products that last“)


If you look careful into this you’ll see that in some parts they basically ask for the same thing and in other parts they complement each other – give each other hints how to achieve their design ideals even better.

More depth please …


There is so much more I could tell you – starting from legal questions and divining deep into specific design questions. Our studio → Mifactori – explores the combination of Open Source and Circularity. You can find a lot of information, examples and sub methods there.

Just one thing to tease you. We found out that „Open Source“ is not a good word to attract people to use these open methodologies. It has to many misconceptions attached to it and triggers the wrong questions. So in our studio we use „Open Design“ or „Circular Design“ at the moment to describe and dumb down the synthesis of Open Source & Circular Economy.


Visual from our article: What Is Open Circular Design?



Thank you

I look forward to the discussion. You can find and follow my and Mifactori’s work here

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