1.4 What is Distributed Manufacturing?

If the first wave of Commons-based Peer Production was mainly created digitally and shared online, we now see a second wave moving into physical space. Open design communities are manufacturing in Fab Labs, makerspaces, and community workshops. The Commons has come full circle: from the natural resource-based commons described by Elinor Ostrom, through commons-based peer production digital communities, to distributed, localized manufacturing. In other words, commoning began in the material world, expanded to manage digital resources in virtual space and has now returned to the physical sphere, where the digital realm becomes a tool for new forms of resource stewardship, production and distribution.

We call this latter process Design Global, Manufacture Local (DGML). It is an emerging mode of production that builds on the confluence of digital commons of knowledge, software, and design with local manufacturing and automation technologies. These technologies often include 3D printers and CNC machines, as well as low-tech crafts tools and appropriate technology — often complementing each other. Its key: what is “light” (knowledge) is global, and what is “heavy” (physical manufacture) is local. DGML and its unique characteristics help open the potential of new, sustainable and inclusive forms of production and consumption.

Imagine a process where designs are co-created, reviewed and refined as part of a global digital commons (i.e. a universally available shared resource). Meanwhile, the actual manufacturing takes place locally, often through shared infrastructures and with local biophysical conditions in mind. The process of making something together as a community, hand in hand, creates new ideas and innovations which can feed back into their originating design commons. This cycle describes a radically democratized way to conceive and manufacture goods with an increased capacity for innovation and resilience.


DGML presents an ecologically viable mode of production with three key patterns:

1) Non-Profit: objects are designed for optimum usability, not to create tension between supply and demand. This eliminates planned obsolescence or induced consumerism while promoting modular, durable and practical applications.

2) Local: physical manufacturing in community workshops, with bespoke production adapted to local needs. These are economies of scope, not of scale. On-demand local production bypasses the need for huge capital outlays and the subsequent necessity to “keep the machines running” night and day to satisfy the expectations of investors. Transportation costs — whether financial or ecological — are eradicated, while maintenance, fabrication of spare parts and waste treatment are handled locally.

3) Shared: idle resources are identified and shared by the community. These can be immaterial and shared globally (blueprints, collaboration protocols, software, documentation, legal forms), or material and managed locally (community spaces, tools and machinery, hackathons). There are no costly patents or intellectual property regimes to enforce false scarcity. Power is distributed and shared autonomously, creating a “Sharing Economy” worthy of the name.

Current examples of the DGML approach include Wikihouse, a non-profit foundation sharing templates for modular housing; OpenBionics, creating 3D-printed medical prosthetics which cost a fraction (0.1 to 1% ) of the price of standard prosthetics; L’Atelier Paysan, an open source cooperative fostering technological sovereignty for small and medium scale ecological agriculture; Farm Hack, a farmer-driven community network sharing open source know-how amongst DIY agricultural tech innovators, and POC21, an innovation camp for developing DGML projects in a communal atmosphere.

To preserve and restore a liveable planet, it’s not enough to seize the existing means of production; in fact, it may even not be necessary or recommendable. Rather, we need to reinvent the means of production; to radically reimagine the way we produce. We must also decide together what not to produce, and when to direct our productive capacities towards ecologically restorative work and the stewardship of natural systems. This includes necessary endeavours like permaculture, landscape restoration, regenerative design and rewilding.

These world-changing efforts cannot arise and establish themselves unless people are free to contribute, and that means finding sustainable ways of funding that can free time or capital to develop these contributions. Equally problematic is the possibility of the capture and enclosure of the open design commons, to be converted into profit-driven P2P hybrids (described earlier) that perpetuate the scarcity mindset of capital.

To avoid this, productive communities can choose to create generative livelihoods and solidarity mechanisms to sustain themselves and the invaluable work they perform. This is the role of Open Cooperativism, which we will be looking at in the following section.

To preserve and restore a liveable planet, it’s not enough (or necessary, or advisable) to seize the existing means of production. Rather, we need to reinvent the means of production and the way we produce. Design Global, Manufacture Local (DGML) is a mode of production combining use of the digital knowledge commons with local manufacturing and automation technologies.