POC21: One Year After

There will not be a POC22, 23 or even 30. So where do we go from there, and how can we scale “open tech for good”?

(Disclaimer: this text was initially intended as a mere Facebook post for the anniversary of POC21, and got a little longer than expected, so I decided to publish it here on Medium. I wrote this rather quickly, so it is unstructured and incomplete — Please be forgiving, more will follow!)

Exactly one year ago, the main act of a crazy little journey called POC21 ended at the Millemont Castle, 40 minutes west of Paris . Invited by OuiShare and OpenState, 200+ makers, designers and social innovators from over the world gathered for a 5-week “innovation camp” — an extreme co-creation event that fits somewhere between a very long hackathon, a all-inclusive maker hostel, and a hippie commune (watch, read).

The goal was to prototype 12 open hardware products for sustainable living and make them present-able for the upcoming U.N. climate summit, COP21, during which the final prototypes were exhibited in Paris. They ranged from solar generators (SunZilla, SolarOSE) to energy-saving circular showers (ShowerLoop), ikea furniture for urban farming (AKER), low-cost water filters (FairCap) and low-tech pedal-power tractors (Bicitractor).

The overall concept for POC21 was that these 12 prototypes would serve as a Proof Of Concept (hence the name) that open source technologies, collaborative innovation and decentralized fabrication can help us solve some of the world’s most wicked problems — in this case, moving from a carbon- and waste- intensive production and consumption system, to a more resilient and future-proof alternative.

However, we found out along the way that there was actually a 13th project, which arguably ended up having the most profound impact on many of the participants’ lives: the camp itself.

While I cannot speak for everyone, POC21 changed me more than I could imagine, and made me think deeply about what I wished to achieve in the rest of my (way too short) life on this planet. But maybe not in the way that many of you would expect — I did not move to the countryside to live in a tinyhouse, grow my own food and build DIY wind turbines as a hobby.

After the second act of POC21 ended (the COP21 itself), I became more and more concerned about the gap that separates all the nice open source, collaborative and socially useful projects we (the happy few) get all excited over, and the real world that exists outside of castles and fablabs:

  • A world where half of the world’s population (> 3 billion) live in poverty, while the wealth of the top 1% is greater than that of the rest of the world combined (*)
  • A world that is crossing critical planetary boundaries, from mass extinction and biodiversity loss to catastrophic climate change that threatens the future of civilisation itself (*)
  • A world where far-right policies and political chaos is on the rise: Brexit and Trump are often cited, but watch out for Erdogan, Le Pen, AfD, Orban, Putin, Temer, Duterte or the China sea crisis … with all the prejudice toward minorities and migrant populations (*)
  • A world that entering a time of accelerating change from emerging technologies — artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, digital fabrication, biotech, nanotech, quantum computing, blockchain, internet of things, … all of which are exponential and combinatory.
  • A world where NASA-funded research predicts a civilization collapse and others expect the extinction of the human race is a likely event Sir Martin Rees of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk believes that humanity has a 50/50 chance of making it through the 21st century. Unless of course, we live in a computer simulation, which unfortunately does not seem to make us any safer.

Are our open source heroes able to solve these wicked problems?

It really struck me that among the dozens of inspiring/open/collaborative projects I had been all excited about during the past 5 tears, very few, if any, managed to scale up, and to reach a substantial real-world impact. And certainly no one seems to be fit to help us solve issues such as the ones outlined above. At least not in the 20 years we have in front of us before everything falls apart, and while Uber keeps raising billions after billions, to build a global monopoly of self-driving cars.

So when I left for a mini-sabbatical after POC21, I did some homework, read a lot about venture capital and impact investing, and started to think about how we could connect the dots. I started to get obsessed about what would be required to leverage the incredible force of change that is technology (or the way society reacts to it) not to build another useless app, but to solve these wicked problems. And ideally, how to do it an open, collaborative, transparent and decentralized way, to build a commons of knowledge and ensure civic oversight over technology.

My gut feeling is that we should bring together the best of three worlds: the (clean-)tech startup world, the impact/social entrepreneurship world, and the collaborative/open/decentralized technology world, and attract enough talent and capital to really get serious. I see weak signals of this happening with growing interest for “impact” in tech circles, as well as the other way around, and new global cross-disciplinary networks with a bold vision such as the Fab City Network. But we have a very long way to go from here, and we need to create a vibrant ecosystem for this.

How? Well, let’s find out!
I will share some ideas in upcoming posts.

But yes, basically, this is where POC21 brought me so far, sort of.
Thank you, POC21 Community!

(*) Some parts from this paragraph were borrowed from an upcoming text of Jules Peck — thank you for that :)