Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Road to a Sustainable Open Source Hardware Community

As Matt suggested in an earlier post, there are four main barriers in open source hardware. Here’s what can be done to overcome them:

Knowledge: Tutorials and Wiki style information
Physical Skill: This takes practice. Maybe we can do something about this through hands-on training workshops
Time: Make collaborative work more efficient
Money: Subsidize costs of development

Right now, the user base will still be fairly small, and investments in innovation will remain at the hobbyist level, with the user footing both time and financial costs of tinkering. The goal will be to go from having these people coordinate only with us, to having them work with one another.

So one approach to this is that individuals contribute to areas where they have a comparative advantage. If you know something, teach it. If you’ve got crazy hands, teach people or use them. If you have time, help someone out. And if you have money, you can donate.

But what does each individual get out of this? Good question. I’ll put it this way. This structure of collaboration, where an individual developer can trade one type of capital for another, allows the community as a whole to create a successful project. Each individual can reap a reward from being part of a successful, productive community, though that reward may not necessarily be financial. It’s almost imperative that this exchange not be (purely) financial in nature. Otherwise that becomes the only reason people do anything, and it is the standard by which they measure their personal contributions and involvement. As a finite and scarce resource, if money is the reason that people participate in your community, you’re going to run out of money long before you get that core group of users going.

Even if all we can tackle all the barriers described above, we’re still missing one thing. The successful community that makes any progress whatsoever must have leaders to guide its initiatives. As a community, our goal is then to have a core set of users that moderates and guides the community. And each project needs a leader as well. This is the key to sustainability.

Sustainability isn’t everything, though. Community growth is yet another issue I’ll try to tackle next time.

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