Architecture For Humanity

One of the downsides to being in the field organization is that you don't always get to watch a project go from idea to instantiation. In July, a group of us were fortunate enough to meet with Cameron Sinclair, the founder of Architecture For Humanity, Wired Magazine Rave Award recipient, and at that time, freshly funded with his TED prize. Winning the TED prize is as close to an adult version of a kids' birthday party as you can get: someone gives you money and you get to make a wish (and the cake is supposedly very high-end).

Cameron's wish, quite simply, was to create the equivalent of an open source community for architects, designers, builders, and dislocated people, so that everyone's standard of housing would be raised. His goal was to drive the barrier to entry for affordable housing down to zero: to make this incredibly affordable by opening up the most creative ideas to anyone who could consume them. Market expanding dynamics of the best kind. His motivations, and some of the real-world results he's prompted, are captured in Design Like You Give A Damn, a book that has impacted me, and my thinking about social issues and our individual ability to impact them, much the same way Stewart Brand's How Buildings Learn made me re-think systems in terms of long-lived design.

Rewind to July: Cameron, the great folks at Hot Studio, and some people from my systems engineering team sat down to sketch out what a network of open source architects would look like. This month, we've delivered it, using an entirely open source software stack from Drupal to MySQL to PHP to Solaris 10. There's something magical (apologies to Disney) about making a wish come true. The software cost of entry mirrored the goals of the project: drive down the cost to play so that everyone can contribute. If you want to hear the gory details, check out our latest Innovating@Sun podcast, where I sit down with Scott Mattoon and Jim Manico, the coders behind the AFH site, and walk through how we went from good idea to good web site in under 8 months. It's a social network that is more about social than networks, and in a good way.

The need to rethink our overall long-term design strategy, particularly for long-lived IT projects, became crystal clear during a customer meeting two weeks ago when the executive across the table from me said "I'm spending almost all of my IT budget on software licenses." Not on systems, not on networking, not on new applications that would improve their customer experiences, but rather on the core IT components that have (in many cases) open source, freely available alternatives. This doesn't mean his software operational cost would go to zero, since he'd still want support and maintenance, but the cost of entry for the software packages he had effectively became a barrier to entry for doing anything new. What I ran into is precisely what Cameron has figured out how to solve: disrupting the well-understood and accepted economics to make more ideas and services available to a wider audience. And I certainly give a damn about the results.

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Hal Stern's thoughts on software, services, cloud computing, security, privacy, and data management

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