Open Systems Lab
Alastair Parvin, Founder and Director of Open Systems Lab (OSL), believes that OSL’s dream for the future is familiar to most people. It’s a dream in which neighbourhoods are beautiful, generous, healthy, affordable, resilient and green. Where homes are zero carbon places which are great to grow up and grow old in, and where communities contain thriving people and businesses who take care of each other.
The problem is, Alastair says, that even though most people agree on the desirability of this dream, even though there is no shortage of money in areas like the housing system, and even though the skills and design practices needed to change infrastructure already exist, the dream isn’t yet becoming reality; new builds are not zero-carbon; housing is becoming less, rather than more, affordable. Less community infrastructure is being built in new neighbourhoods than ever before.
Alastair explains that the reason for this dissonance between what could be and what is, is a series of systems and processes which aren’t up to the task. Centralised, top-down approaches to systems of planning, design and construction, land ownership and development which date back decades, centuries (and, in the case of land ownership, right back to the Norman conquest in 1066) were designed, he says, for completely different social and economic contexts, with access to hugely different technologies, and guided by fundamentally different values to those our societies hold dear today.
OSL seeks to redesign these societal ‘operating systems’ such that homes and neighbourhoods are built, designed and maintained by the people who live there, empowering families, groups and communities to take control of their community infrastructure, and to shape and form their places. Now, thanks to £4.5 million in funding from The National Lottery Community Fund, OSL are embarking on a ten year transformational and long-term change project to make this happen.
“We are used to the idea that we need to apply design innovation to places themselves - but we also need to apply design innovation to the systems that we use to shape and create places,” says Alastair. The planning process, he argues, is just as worthy a subject of a radically new design as the physical infrastructure of buildings.
Underpinning OSL’s work of system-redesign is a deep and fundamental commitment to democratisation, enabling smaller actors - individuals, families, community groups - to get involved with the design, creation and maintenance of the places where they live and work. As things stand, those kinds of small-scale actors face too many barriers when it comes to doing this work, Alastair says. “To get land, to navigate the planning system, to get finance, to find local businesses with the skills is too hard,” he explains. By designing new systems for each of these areas, OSL hopes to transform the way we shape our places, and open the process up to more people, “so you don’t have to be big, or wealthy and well-capitalised to do basic stuff like building zero carbon homes.”
Making System Redesign Tangible
Talking about systems in the abstract can rapidly begin to feel vague and insubstantial: these ‘systems’ are broken and need to be fixed, but how can we do that? What does that look like? OSL have started work on various practical projects which give a better sense of what this system redesign might look like in practice.
For instance, Wikihouse is an open-source, digital system for house construction which aims to simplify the process of designing, manufacturing and assembling houses, enabling anyone to build their own home (or other building). It encompasses digital design tools using standardised parts, component manufacture by a network of local micro-factories using digital fabrication tools, and a flat-pack style of assembly, enabling small businesses and even individual home-owners to put the building together in place. Alastair describes it as “like Lego, but for real houses.”
He says that Wikihouse disrupts the traditional construction system through its open-source nature and its relative financial accessibility. For example, a micro-factory can be set up in a garage for a few thousand pounds, while a distributed network of these micro-factories could have significant industrial capacity, enabling ever more buildings to be constructed by the people who will live and work in them.
But, as mentioned above, OSL believes that it’s not just the construction system that needs redesigning to enable the democratisation of place-making - the systems for design and planning also need revisiting.
“We’re building a stack of systems that can work together,” says Alastair.
For example, BuildX is a project in the pipeline to change the way houses are designed. Similarly, PlanX is a project to develop tools for those who want to engage in building and place-making in their communities to navigate the planning system, by making it more transparent and easier to use. The first PlanX service is now available, which helps people find out if they need planning permission to construct a building - a task which usually requires expert knowledge.
A complex ecosystem of place-making and design
OSL isn’t redesigning systems alone, though. Alastair describes the open-source nature of its various projects as vital to their success, with each project existing within a diverse ecosystem of other actors.
For instance, Wikihouse’s ecosystem consists of those who want to build homes or community spaces (such as families, community organisations, housing associations, and local authorities), companies and suppliers, those in the construction industry (such as builders, designers, architects, and engineers), and those setting up local micro-factories. Each of these members of the ecosystem brings Wikihouse to life in different ways based on their particular context - diversifying the ways in which it can provide a place-based solution to problems which are commonly-faced yet variegated and multi-faceted in practice.
Perhaps the most important part of the ecosystem, according to Alastair, is Wikihouse’s global community of contributors. This community, which includes architects, designers, manufacturers, and others who have used the Wikihouse system, is particularly important for refining OSL’s offerings.
“We’re not so much a public service, as a civic service,” says Alastair. “We’re interested in developing and building stuff for everyone that’s really useful.” As such, he considers feedback from the community of users and contributors as vital to achieve this goal.
Other members of the ecosystem include supportive institutions and organisations such as lenders, landowners and funders, or even local authorities.
“What we are trying to do,” says Alastair, “is to build the new within the ruins of the old. This is about realising a dream that already exists about the places we want to build.”