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Introducing our project for Burning Man 2014: The Tree of Knowledge

Christian Villum - March 7, 2014 in Featured, Projects

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Members of the Open Design & Hardware Working Group have been working these last few months on putting together a project proposal for the magnificent Burning Man festival which takes place every year in August in the desolate Black Rock Desert in Nevada, United States. The result is a proposal to build the Tree of Knowledge.

The Tree of Knowledge project is based on a global, cross-team collaboration between artists, makers, academics and builders at Harvard University, Creative Commons, the Open Design + Hardware Network at the Open Knowledge Foundation and the Open Tech Collaborative. Together, we are the Tribe. We come from different backgrounds, live all across the world – from Copenhagen to Vancouver – we each have different passions and opinions, yet we all agree on a common ground: Knowledge is magic – and open knowledge is the backbone of the Tree of Knowledge.

On the Playa of the Black Rock Desert…

Just off the edge of the Playa, when the sun sets and the sky grows dark, a magical path appears: twin lines of glowing markers winding into the distance. Curious travellers who reach the end discover an oasis.  And in the middle of the oasis, a magical tree: from its branches hang wondrous glowing fruit, large and small ornaments filled with bioluminescent fluid. This is the Tree of Knowledge.

The tree stands in the middle of this mystical oasis, fueling a self-perpetuating cycle of curiosity, learning and sharing. Chill– almost ambient– music plays; this is a peaceful oasis. The site is both a destination,  a place where travelers come in their quest for meditation and wonder; and also a source, a place from which knowledge spreads, illuminating the desert of Black Rock City. From the moment the sun sets, travelers will be drawn to the Tree of Knowledge by its mystical glow on the distant horizon. As they get closer, they can marvel at the wonder of its bioluminescent fruit. It is a peaceful oasis, far from the chaotic setting of the Silk Road.

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The Tribe of Light

Once arrived, travellers will have their first encounter with a strange tribe, natives of the oasis, caretakers of the tree, their faces and bodies elaborately painted with colorful glow-in-the-dark paints. The Tribe of Light. Curious travelers will ask, “What is all this?” And to them we will say it is the Tree of Knowledge. We will educate through a variety of  rites of passage and tell them about the magic of bioluminescence, the value of shared knowledge, and other universal truths. We will encourage them to take some of the fruit — some of the light– away with them on the rest of their journey, to illuminate their path and share the open knowledge it symbolizes with their friends.

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Building the tree and growing the organisms

The Tree itself — the trunk and branches– is a dead tree, about 8 meters (~26 feet) high, transported to the site for this project.  Only upon close inspection can a visitor tell that it was originally cut into sections, and subsequently reassembled on site. Once the tree stands strong, the fruits are put on the branches from top to bottom – all transparent containers of bioluminescent micro organisms, slurping in the abundant energy from the sun – waiting for dusk to arrive and their glow to initiate.

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The lower-hanging fruit, which the curious travelers will be encouraged to pick, are transparent spheres filled with bioluminescent organisms in a saltwater solution.  These are attached to the tree by leather strings; when untied from the tree, these enable the fruit to be worn as necklaces and bracelets– magic amulets to take home. In this this way, the project illustrates– manifests– the ways in which knowledge spreads. The overall effect is of an otherworldly magic; the goal is to induce a sense of wonder.

Joining the Tribe and spreading the Knowledge

Visitors willing to go through a short training course (about 30 minutes) will be given the opportunity to be turned into ‘evangelists’, apprentice wizards: Upon completion of this training, in a special ritual, we will apply luminescent paint to their body so that they will be easily recognizable as part of the Tribe. These luminous evangelists will then be sent out of the Oasis and back to the chaos beyond, with a kit (a set of empty amulets and a flask of bioluminescent organism) and a mission: they will be charged with enlightening fellow travelers, sharing light and knowledge.

How to learn more – and get involved

To learn more about the Tree of Knowledge project, the Tribe of Light and everything else – visit the project site. We’ll be putting up photos and videos of the work as we move forward. Also, make sure to follow OD&H Working Group on Twitter for brief shoot-from-the-hip updates.

You can also join the project! Get in touch on opendesign@okfn.org to become part of the building team or contribute otherwise. Also, we plan to run a Kickstarter campaign and would love for anyone with experience in that field (or willingness to learn) to get in touch to lend a hand. The project is open, so feel free to get on board.

Make Things Do Stuff to Mobilise 100,000 Young Makers Across UK

Kat Braybrooke - June 6, 2013 in Event, Featured, Projects

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Creative Web Literacy is an increasingly important issue. I’ve written about it. Many others have written about it. But what are we all doing about it?

One of the campaigns I’m proud to be involved with here in London is Make Things Do Stuff, a UK-wide network of like-minded organisations including Freeformers, Technology Will Save Us, Mozilla, NESTA and the Nominet Trust who are committed to mobilize the next generation to create the many technologies that surround us, not just consume them.

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The goal? To get 100,000 young people learning new digital skills and feeling like makers by the end of the summer. For the well-publicized launch event last week, a buzzing patchwork of young people in sneakers, old people in suits and geeks with machines gathered at the Roundhouse in Camden, and it seemed as if everyone from the excellent National Geographic Kids magazine to WIRED to UK Chancellor George Osborne was there to check it all out.

While the suits (as the kids fondly called them throughout the day) headed upstairs to the press room, EPIK‘s Dorine Flies and I took over some tables to share the open source Webmaker toolset between some singing kiwi fruits and DIY synth. As we set up Popcorn Maker, I yelled out the audacious claim that we’d help the 30 kids gathered to make their own music videos in under 10 minutes. I sat back, expecting no one to join us.

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Surprisingly, the table was full within minutes. The kids were ridiculously good at building creative projects and sharing their skills, some getting so stuck in to the hacking and remixing process that they lost all perception of the outside world, even ignoring the increasingly shrill synth frequencies as other kids experimented with the Technology Will Save Us crew next door.

“And what brought you here today?” Osborne asked a quiet bespeckeled teenager wearing a red soccer jersey. The reply was ponderous. “I don’t really know,” he finally answered, intent on the screen as it played a preview of his newly remixed video. “I guess I was just bored, and wanted to make something cool.”

In the end, that’s really what this sort of initiative is all about.


In the UK and want to be a part of the movement? Say hi on the Make Things Do Stuff website and Twitter – now’s a great time to get involved.

Open Design, Year One: Hardware, Ideas and Community

Kat Braybrooke - May 2, 2013 in Featured, Projects

It’s been a great first year for our Open Design network – we hit the 100 mark on our discussion list, delivered a keynote lecture at LibreGraphics, launched v0.1 of the Open Design Definition, planned a new design hardware challenge in France and helped run the world’s first Open Knowledge Festival in Finland. We even got flamed by Bruce Sterling in WIRED magazine (good times!). Most importantly, the community has some great initiatives planned for the summer. Here are updates and details on how to get involved.

On the Hardware side,

After a wonderful week of hacking, building new things and collaborating across design paradigms at our first-ever Open Hardware, Design and Fabbing topic stream at the Open Knowledge Festival in Helsinki, we are now happy to announce the launch of the first Public Domain Remix this summer, a challenge run with the Open Knowledge Foundation France and Wikimedia France aimed at encouraging people to remix public domain works in a creative way that promotes the use and re-use of public archive materials. The challenge has both an interdisciplinary and transmedial approach: rather than following the same medium, people are encouraged to shift from one medium to the other. The PDRemix starts at OuiShare Fest in Paris this weekend, so stay tuned for details!

On the Tools side,

A few community members have also begun an interesting conversation on Mozilla’s first-ever #TeachTheWeb MOOC [Massively Open Online Course] by setting up the first G+ Community for designers, creatives and makers who want to build inspirational outputs through creative [and unexpected!] uses of the free, Open Source Webmaker toolset. We welcome your participation – please join here. We look forward to the many fruitful discussions ahead!

On the Definition side,

After a very lively post-talk debate at my Seven Faces of Open Design keynote at LibreGraphics conference which happened at MediaLab Prado last month in Madrid, workshops around the world at FutureEverything in Manchester, the Open Knowledge Festival in Helsinki and FREE CITY in Tallinn, and a great deal of debating on the discussion list accompanied by a lot of GitHub additions, we have now launched a tentative v.01 of the revamped Open Design Definition! This Definition is a community-driven attempt to unite different understandings of this field across professional paradigms. We now intend to launch into an investigation of the many questions that continue to allude us, such as what are the “source files” of a design project? We’d love for you to get involved here.

On the Community side,

In its next stage, we now focus on fostering the regional richness of this talented global group. We’d like to invite each of you to showcase your participation through three new ideas to be launched this year:

1) We will soon be offering the option for you to publicly feature your name, contact info and affiliation for us to list on our new ‘Members’ page. We’ll set up a sign up sheet this month.

2) We will also soon offer all members the opportunity to become featured writers on the Open Design Blog. This is a good chance to showcase your work to an international audience of design practitioners and get valuable feedback. Stay tuned for details.

3) Most importantly, this year we will focus on seeding local installments of the Open Design collaborative around the world, in cities and nations with a regional focus and in-person meetings. More details about this later, but we’re quite excited about the groups who have asked to pioneer this option.

Lastly, a Thank You

It’s been an amazing first year for this fledgling community – we’ve had the honour of meeting many of you in-person, debating with you and learning about the inspiring Open Design projects you have helped start in your nations – and we already look forward to seeing what comes next. Massive thanks to each of you who helped all of it get started – you’ve been great. Here’s to another creative, artistic and interesting year!

Image from Ohanda’s RE*Campaign thanks to ds on Flickr.

A New Open Design Collective

Kat Braybrooke - February 23, 2012 in Featured, Projects


I’m excited to say that after many months of discussion, good talks late at night, keynote lectures, emails and excessive tweeting across the world, we’re finally launching a working group which is quite important to all of us involved as designers, builders and makers. I have a feeling it’s going to be an interesting journey.

We’ll be using this blog to post updates about workshops, conferences and festivals we’ll be at, so be sure to stay tuned through our discussion list in the future to get involved in the conversations.

In the meantime, a quick share. I’ve spent many a moment lately browsing through design-focused images on Flickr’s Commons (a photograph-focused catalogue of images in the public domain, many of them old and weathered black and white snapshots) and have found some really amazing relics in the midst.

This photo is one of my favourites. It displays the cameras of Thomas Smillie, the Smithsonian’s first curator of photography in the 1870s. Smillie graduated from chemistry in university but fell in love with photographic hardware and took some amazing photos of old cameras throughout his term with the museum. I feel like the gauzy, ethereal facade draping this snapshot adds interesting character to its already oceanic mood.

That’s it for now, but I look forward to meeting many new members of this group in the near future!

Join the Open Design + Hardware group: