Policy session: Supporting Open Hardware international expansion

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By Julieta Arancio, associate researcher at CENIT-UNSAM

In a new step towards making open science hardware (OScH) ubiquitous by 2025, on June 1st, 2021, the Gathering for Open Science Hardware (GOSH) community organized an online workshop to explore how to promote OScH at the international policy level. The meeting, co-convened by Francois Grey and Martin Hauer and facilitated by Allen Gunn, gathered 20 participants from around the world, either working on OScH or with international policy backgrounds. The ideas discussed during this session, presented in this blog, will inform a policy brief aimed at international organizations, as was previously done for open hardware recommendations aimed at technology transfer offices (TTOs).

The workshop began with a plenary session, with presentations from Shannon Dosemagen on GOSH and Evangelia Gousiou (CERN). Dosemagen introduced the history, milestones and achievements of the GOSH community that led to organizing the policy workshops, contextualizing the urgent need for international policy supporting OScH. Gousiou reported on the experience of pioneering open hardware at CERN, including her own perspective as a developer, the case of the White Rabbit project, the experience of developing the CERN-OHL and benefits and challenges for the OHL initiative in the future.

The activities were divided into two main sections. In the first part, participants identified target audiences, key messages and stories of successful OScH projects in practice. The second part was designed to envision the impact that the policy paper can have: participants explored the policies and practices that should change to better support OScH. We will explore the main takeaways of these discussions in the following sections.

The audience(s)

In terms of audiences for the policy brief, the group that was most frequently mentioned by participants included international science and innovation diplomacy organizations, due to their key role in communicating between nation states and regional committees at different levels. This includes United Nations agencies working on technology policies to support the Sustainable Development Goals (e.g., the UN Technology Innovation Labs), and international humanitarian organizations that are pioneering open innovation (e.g., the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, IFRC). At the regional and national level, science, technology and innovation agencies and programmes were identified as relevant audiences, including among others Nesta UK, Vinnova, D.Innova, or the EU programme Science with and for Society (SwafS). Another significant cluster was composed of donors and funding agencies, both public (e.g USAID, FCDO, EC) and private (such as tech-savvy foundations like Gates and Mozilla), at national and international scale. In particular, donors that already have requirements for products to be open access were identified as strategic audiences. 

Finally, organizations working on the development of standards (e.g. WIPO, ITU, the IEEE, certification initiatives, patent bureaus) and on the industry and manufacturing side (e.g. manufacturers and professional associations, advisory centers, liability and insurance holders) were also identified as highly relevant audiences for an open hardware recommendation. Civic organizations working on commons and commons-based peer production, environmental activism and right to repair were mentioned as potential users that could amplify the message of the policy brief.

Making the case for Open Hardware

Considering the multiple audiences identified, there is a need to articulate a series of key messages that appeal to different groups. “OScH accelerates innovation”, in terms of both product innovation and for accelerating innovation within countries, was the most frequently identified message. In the first case, OScH was associated with the open innovation paradigm, particularly highlighting its potential for setting industry standards, acting as a multiplier downstream in the supply chain and avoiding vendor lock-in. This multiplier effect is tied to another key message, OScH provides economic benefits. This angle presents OScH as a tool for local manufacturers to rapidly adapt to market changes without incurring delays and costs on design, research and development; therefore generating ‘economies of scope’ that are crucial to small and medium manufacturers. Participants also highlighted the need for showcasing that commercialization of OScH is possible and already happening, with concrete examples.

Besides product innovation, OScH also accelerates innovation at the national scale. In this case the key identified message is “OScH Increases technological learning and innovation capacity”, therefore allowing governments to be more resilient in times of crisis. It was mentioned that the key role of OScH in the COVID-19 crisis set a precedent for not having to defend the case for OScH and local manufacturing anymore; however some participants suggested avoiding the excess use of the crisis argument as it can become counterproductive (promoting the idea that OScH is only useful for extreme situations). Avoiding duplication efforts, distributing work and quality control, building or catalysing local communities and articulating innovation ecosystems were some of the main benefits associated with OScH. OScH as a tool for achieving the UN SDGs was identified as a strategic association for the recommendation. In particular for creating partnerships and the capacity to build “on-the-go transfer” instruments between big science, applied sciences and enterprises.

Related to the previous argument, OScH is a tool for facilitating regional cooperationexplored the role of solidarity, considering the science, technology and innovation (STI) gap between different countries. Concepts like technological sovereignty and autonomy emerged during the discussion, highlighting the need for situating them in the context of multiple definitions of power, in multiple regions. The argument of public investment, well-known in the open science movement, was also identified as relevant: STI is mostly funded by public funds, building the case for OScH makes publicly-funded STI accessible to all”. Participants illustrated this with humanitarian, development, civil society groups and innovation labs that currently use OScH to design for their local needs.

Focusing on science and public engagement, “OScH is an instrument for better public-private collaborations”, enabling new audiences to participate in research, even beyond the time frame or initial scope of the research project, was highlighted. Moving towards practice, “OScH can close the reproducibility gap” was mentioned as a key element for open science policy, besides being a useful instrument for “pooling scarce or rare resources in scientific collaborations”. Finally, it also emerged that “OScH helps educators and students in STEM”, by avoiding black boxes that enable the development of open, collaborative hands-on projects. 

Open hardware success stories

Innovation: OScH enabled the development of a huge variety of open source imaging projects, including high-end devices, low-cost devices, very specific scopes, either with commercial partners selling DIY kits, or producing complex products in global collaborations (OpenFlexure, YouSeeToo, Open Source MRI project). In terms of processors, RISC-V cores released under open licences have spurred innovation and cost savings, and made internet of things (IoT) devices and many other applications possible (e.g Swerv).

COVID-19 response & medical hardware: OScH created an avenue for people to achieve a sense of contribution while addressing shortages in the supply chain. Some projects mentioned by participants include: Open Source Ventilators in Iran, in Italy, and the US, modified full-face snorkel masks as COVID-19 personal protective equipment, EchOpen, Open O2 concentrator designs.

Commercial: OScH makes successful businesses (Sparkfun, OpenTrons), allowing rapid adaptation and innovation. OScH enablers such as Arduino, the Prusa 3D printer, and its predecessor the RepRap, have significant markets and ensure that the derivatives avoid vendor lock-in.

Participation: OScH enabled the flourishing of numerous community science initiatives, many related to environmental monitoring. Air quality monitoring is a fertile ground for OScH around the world (e.g. sensor.community, open-seneca project at Cambridge University, and many more). Other examples include environmental sensing sets (Smart Citizen Kit), radiation monitoring (Safecast) and community and citizen science projects that make visible the research priorities of  under-represented groups in STI.

– Education: OScH enables the creation of challenge-based projects addressing local needs with minimum resources to promote STEM education (e.g. Arduino for youth science outreach in Qatar at Open House).

Humanitarian & disaster relief: the debate about COVID smartphone apps and open source/open hardware became a critical topic in humanitarian organizations such as IFRC and ICRC, discussing health innovations and principles for humanitarian action, and socio-economic support in local communities, e.g. in Kenya. When working in a disaster area, OScH is useful as it allows for rapid changes in the field. After a fertilizer explosion in Beirut’s port devastated the historic centre, open hardware furniture was provided to elderly and impoverished neighbours in a matter of hours, just by downloading and fabricating the necessary designs.

Employment: OScH has the potential to create jobs, faster, with a significant impact for small businesses and young entrepreneurs. In Kisumu, Kenya, makers provide fetoscopes based on open hardware designs to a local clinic, self-sustaining their practice. 

Innovation ecosystems: the city of Shenzhen is a hub for innovation worldwide, where open innovation principles are put into practice to connect the private sector, public universities and collaborative communities with less friction. The hub links companies, maker communities, public STI agencies and universities by sharing open designs.

Changing policies

The final part of the workshop was dedicated to identifying which policies will have to change and which practices can be modified to better support OScH. The recommendations were grouped in different clusters.

Regarding policies that need to change, funding was identified as a main topic including the following recommendations:

  • Defining concrete steps for funding agencies and institutions to adopt OScH, and to incentivize OScH adoption in research grants, Prize & Challenge competitions (US), and start-ups;
  • Including OScH in procurement policies, in particular defining  how governments get information on open source alternatives besides pushing for OScH procurement policies within institutions.

Standardisation policies are another arena to explore:

  • Including OScH licensing into current standard practices;
  • making it easy for participants in the standards development process to license their patents in a way which is compatible with open hardware;
  • Creating and maintaining a short list of recognized or acknowledged open licenses or designations, in a way that becomes easy to communicate to non-technical audiences and decision-makers;
  • Addressing liability regimes for open hardware designers;
  • Having large standardization organizations (like the International Organization for Standardization) incorporate OScH, so certified organizations can also articulate their current ISO-certified activities.

In terms of international cooperation, recommendations include:

  • Incorporating OScH in science diplomacy roadmaps and development programs led by multilateral organizations;
  • In order to go beyond prototypes, openness needs to be actively addressed within organizations e.g. in development or humanitarian work;
  • Digital strategies will have to shift towards support of OScH, in particular if funded by large donors such as the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO) or governments;
  • Development programs can incorporate OScH as a way to generate short-circuit science equipment production by small businesses, in countries where import restrictions are prohibitive.

Open science policy was identified as a key field that should change to include open science hardware as one of the fundamental elements of open science:

  • Open Hardware licenses can be implemented by-design in cloud infrastructures like European Open Science Cloud (EOSC/NFDI) and GAIA-X;
  • Policies to promote open science will have to fund open source program offices which include OScH assessment and training within organizations. 

Finally, in terms of capacity building and education, STEM policies will need to adapt and incorporate a focus on open source skills and ecosystem building including OScH. It becomes difficult to teach people the capacity to use and modify OScH when there are no common standards; some degree of standardization can help training and educational efforts.

Changing practices

The discussion on OScH practices addressed different levels of openness, both incentivizing and discouraging current behaviours. Changes in funding and institutional support include preference for OScH in calls for projects and procurement procedures, universities backing crowdfunding of science equipment, and the creation of dedicated funds to support OScH long-term. TTOs play a key role, as they can incorporate OScH as an alternative by training officers and developing disclosure agreements to distribute the results of a collaborative project as OScH.

OScH provides a powerful opportunity for impact, particularly for the aid sector. Sharing designs can benefit agencies, hospitals, and university labs. An option is to adopt OScH for field activities supported by donor governments or aid agencies. Using the influence of powerful campaigns such as MSF, OScH for health could make an impression in the general public and lead to cultural change. In order to spark organizational change, OScH as a concept needs to be included in recommendations for Digital Transformation Strategies of Organizations, so new procurement policies and innovations can happen. This can be inspired by recent strategies such as IFRC Strategy 2030, IFRC Digital strategy, and UN digital cooperation.

Standardization needs to be accessible not only for technical people, but policy makers as well; existing standards may need meta documentation to make them useful to wider audiences. Standards are needed not only for documentation and metadata, but for quality, safety, risk, for what it means to be open, and degrees of openness. Standards should also be in place so OScH developers and maintainers can have their work recognized in terms of academic careers. If GitHub serves as an alternative CV for software developers, why not for hardware? 

Education and communication practices should also change to support OScH. Including OScH best practices for training in university curriculum, developing training materials for professional associations, running extension programs to familiarize the general public with OScH, involving students early and communicating high-impact OScH stories, all can contribute to OScH expansion.

Moving forward

These takeaways from the workshop discussion will be incorporated into a policy brief that the GOSH community will disseminate among the identified target audiences worldwide. After an open period for comments on the draft, we will be sharing a link to the published brief; we do appreciate wide dissemination within your networks.

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