Available routes for open hardware projects

The meeting point

As we saw in the previous section, the routes your open hardware project can take are many and diverse. However, all these projects follow (or should follow) the principles stated by the open hardware definition:

“Open source hardware is hardware whose design is made publicly available so that anyone can study, modify, distribute, make, and sell the design or hardware based on that design.”

Although translations of “hardware” in some languages may bias the concept towards electronics, when we say “hardware” we refer to any physical, tangible artefact: Machines, electronic devices, biomaterials, textiles. This adds a layer of complexity to opening work that free/open source software doesn’t have to deal with: their source is plain text code. In the case of hardware, you may share a quick sketch and a description of your machine under a free/open license, but is this enough to allow others to work on it?

We will learn more about this in modules 3 and 4, but in order to enable people to “study, modify, distribute, make and sell” our hardware, we need to provide access to different types of information. These vary according to the kind of product you are working on. As an example, if your hardware includes electronics, you should be able to provide the schematics. However, for mechanical products this wouldn’t be necessary; instead your focus will be on CAD files, assembly instructions, etc. We will go through these specifics in one of the units of this program.

Diverging pathways

Open hardware allows us to create tools in a certain transparent, sometimes collaborative way. As tools, they are designed with a purpose in mind. And this is where projects start diverging.

Probably the most visible difference is that some open hardware projects are conceived as products from the very beginning and others not (although they may turn into products later). Therefore, these projects use some techniques that are closer to professional product design. Although you may not be creating a product, learning about these techniques can help you work in a more organized way.

Some open hardware projects are not intended to be products, and are born for example as part of a master’s student thesis, or as a project by a teacher who wants to get better results in the classroom. Or maybe they are the last cool invention from a hobbyist/maker, or a design by a community that needs to monitor the air pollution in their environment, and works together with scientists to develop new tools adapted to their needs.

In each of these areas, business, education, science, collective action, art… Open hardware becomes a powerful tool to achieve different purposes. Although you are probably only in an initial stage, it is convenient to start looking at which is the purpose of your project, and how it relates to others out there. But no worries, we will learn more about that in the next module.

Innovating with responsibility in mind

Responsible innovation is a process that takes the wider impacts of research and innovation into account while we are developing technology:

“Responsible innovation means taking care of the future through collective stewardship of science and innovation in the present.” (Stilgoe, Owen and Macnaghten, 2013).

It means taking into account effects and potential impacts on the environment and society of our innovations, because as many historic lessons tell us innovation has the ability to produce knowledge and value, but also unintended consequences, questions, ethical dilemmas and social transformations.

Assignment: Expectations

Reflect on the following questions:

  • Which are the pathways you’d like your project to take? Would you like to turn your project into a commercial product? Or are you looking to document an educational project, share your latest art, communicate a powerful advocacy tool?
  • Which could be intended and unintended consequences of your project success? Consider users, their environment, the whole life cycle of your project.

Write 2 or 3 bullet points to discuss this with your mentor, or if you are taking the course on your own, with a peer.


  • Stilgoe, J., Owen, R., & Macnaghten, P. (2013). Developing a framework for responsible innovation. Research Policy, 42(9), 1568-1580. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.respol.2013.05.008

  • A short video on Responsible Innovation

next: Open Hardware Canvas  

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