How Do You Use Open Source To Close Loops


The third installation of Salt columnist Stephanie Johnston’s Talking in Circles series takes a look at the fascinating new concept of applying open source methodology to the circular economy.

The term “Open Source” was coined in the world of software in 1998. Although it has continued to be largely associated with computing and software, at its heart is a very simple idea: freely accessing, using, modifying, collaborating and sharing.


It is the simple core idea behind the open source movement that led to the launch of a new movement in the world of the circular economy: Open Source Circular Economy (OSCE) Days. “The idea came up in a call”, explains Lars Zimmerman, one of the founders of the movement, modestly later admitting that it was his suggestion. “We basically wanted to run an international conference to raise awareness of the circular economy concept, but at the same time create an understanding of how open source methodology can support its development”.

Why open source?

Sam Muirhead, another member of the OSCE Days team goes on to clarify: “If conversations happen in the open, it’s easier to get involved and contribute. If you keep it all closed, knowledge and progress is lost forever for anybody else. With the circular economy concept still in the relatively early stages of development, we think there’s a lot to be gained from adopting this approach.”

What was involved?

One remarkable achievement of the OSCE Days’ team is the level of detail they have managed to capture and document around what it took to organise the event, and what came out of it.

“At the heart of the open source methodology is the need for documentation. It captures what you’re trying to do, what you’ve tried so far and where you want to go,” explains Zimmerman. “You might think you can document things once the work is done, but in reality it never happens so you have to get people building the documentation as part of the process.”

Running an international conference with six people, no legal structure in place, and no budget might sound like a non-starter, but the OSCE Days are in themselves a proof of concept. “It’s not as though we could fly everyone to one location, or travel around the world setting things up”, says Muirhead, “so we had to do it all online in a very open and transparent way so it was easy for other people to get involved and run their own events.”

Despite being a brand new idea only six months earlier, the OSCE Days ran as a global event in June 2015 and reached a phenomenal 33 cities spanning 25 countries.

With some events such as those in Berlin and Barcelona attracting hundreds of participants, it has been a hugely impressive effort in building awareness of the circular economy. “There were lots of people who may have been familiar with the concept of open source, but not of the circular economy”, explains Muirhead, “so it was a great step forwards in building an understanding of the value of the approach, and getting people to understand what the issues are.”

Some of the OSCE Days’ activities included:

  • A workshop at Philips Innovation, Eindhoven to learn from experts in open source and openly ideate wearable technology solutions
  • A five-day event in Berlin resulting in the development of a circular textile manual
  • A group of 20 enthusiasts in a small village in France and building a bio digester


A growing circular community

The value of open source methodology and the OSCE Days events themselves has manifested in a number of ways, and has begun to reach circular economy advocates all around the world.

Jason Selvarajan from Helsinki, the mastermind behind the concept of a Showerloop is just one individual to gain from the community developed through the events. Having worked alone on his concept for some time, the OSCE Days has given him access to a wider network, connected him to a Fab Lab, and opened up all sorts of collaboration opportunities.

“The global event was exciting for Showerloop because we made valuable contacts around the world and we hope to collaborate with them soon,” says Selvarajan. “Through the same community I’ve also stumbled upon other events which have really pushed the Showerloop to a new level of development.”

Can the open source method really work for the circular economy?

Eric Raymond, a prominent voice in the open source movement, and co-founder of the Open Source Initiative, has been known to question the ability for open source methodologies to work outside the world of software, and in an EconTalk interview back in 2009 stated certain preconditions or critical success factors for open source:

  • The capital goods required to do the work are cheap
  • The limiting factor on the work is human creativity and attention
  • The work is intrinsically rewarding
  • There is an objective metric for success

It remains to be seen if these criteria are indeed required in this context, and if so whether they can be deemed to apply, but certainly the community-building aspect of this approach could prove critical as the circular economy continues to evolve.

Do you know someone who’s working towards or delivering ideas or innovations taking a more circular approach? I’d love to hear from you. Contact me on Twitter @stephiejohnno or by email at with subject line: FAO Steph Johnston.



Photo Credit: Windell Oskay from flickr