30.May 2022

No Open Hardware without Infrastructure

Gameli Adzaho is an Environment and Human Health specialist and STEAM educator fascinated by ‘community science’ as a tool to tackle environmental health challenges. He is currently the Africa Regional Program Manager at Just One Giant Lab. We talked to him about his view of open hardware and the role it plays in knowledge transfer.

What does open source hardware mean to you?
To me, open hardware is about people having access to designs and tools. So it’s about them being able to build or modify something that’s useful to them.

Open hardware is also associated with decentralization. In your view, how important is it that open hardware can be produced decentrally, for example in makerspaces?
The principle of distributed, decentralized production is good for giving everyone access. I believe that we must use the tools we have to solve the problems we face. And so if there are better ways to solve something, we should go for them. We need to get the best possible tools to get the best possible outcomes. If the tools are not available, we must make them ourselves. Of course, it depends on the task and the context in which a particular technology is useful. If it is something that is not very critical, or if the quality in terms of precision does not affect the results, then it makes sense to use a low-tech version that does not require any special infrastructure. However, if it’s a context where we need high precision or high-end hardware, we have to try to maintain a certain level of quality to get the best possible result.

Some believe that open hardware spreads knowledge across national borders, enabling innovation and development. What do you think of this?
I think that’s important, especially when it comes to lab equipment. There are projects like the OpenFlexure Microscope which gives people access to designs, know-how, and support to build microscopes that can be used for research and other purposes. This kind of technology transfer enables education, as we can see in the example of the Volt Microscope which inspired the VoltSchool initiative as well. The great results seen so far is evidence of the tremendous potential of open hardware.

What does it take to make this really work? Do we need better documentation or more designs?
Of course, having more and better designs is important, but if there are no people to use and work on them, an essential part is missing.

In general, open hardware as a tool for sharing knowledge works, because we already see people participating in open hardware projects around the world. The OpenFlexure Microscope is an example, or if you look at projects for measuring air or water pollution, like sensor.community, these kinds of projects show that the traditional institutions like the city authorities are failing to properly solve local problems.

I think one reason, why we are not seeing so much happening at scale is because of the knowledge as well as infrastructure gaps. There are just a few people having the time and energy to work on open projects. Also there is no support for them. But it’s needed for mainstreaming projects. I think we have a lot of institutions here in Africa that are not really interested in working on open hardware, how to build makerspaces and stuff like that. But I am sure that this could be a transforming factor. Universities and schools can play a role because they already have access to the community and are able to get people involved. I’m convinced that this can help to go a long way.

So it sounds simple – just get a room, some 3D printers and you are ready to go! But it’s not as simple as that, because this kind of stuff is extremely expensive in some parts of the world. But I’m sure that those spaces are really important to get people involved. So we need some basic infrastructre to start.

No Open Hardware without Infrastructure