Web 2.0 Goes to Work

Cameron Sinclair's Open Architecture Network shows how new collaborative technologies can transform industries and projects worldwide

With roughly 5,700 members and 1.3 million visitors in June, the Open Architecture Network may seem like an irrelevant blip when compared to such Web 2.0 darlings as Flickr (owned by Yahoo! (YHOO)), MySpace (owned by News Corp. (NWS)), or Google's AdSense (GOOG). But most of the early 2.0 successes are consumer-focused, with many dedicated to social networking. Like AdSense, which has given Madison Avenue executives the collective jitters, the Open Architecture Network suggests that 2.0's cocktail of collaborative technologies can have an equally radical influence on business and industry practices. In the case of the OAN, the industry in question is architecture.

The OAN is a free, Web-based network that's part database of architectural projects, part design tool, and part community, and its ambitious goal is to improve the living standards of 5 billion people—a number that includes not just the 1 billion people living in abject poverty today, but the one in three people who, by 2020, will be living in slums. It's a goal that Cameron Sinclair, the architect-cum-activist who spearheaded the site, knew could only be achieved by tapping the collective intelligence of the Web.

"The one-size-fits-all solution for low-cost housing has failed a million times," says Sinclair. And even though aid organizations often know that the current dependence on standardized solutions doesn't take into account relevant cultural, climactic, geographic, or other considerations of a specific area, they aren't good at developing new ones. "I was at a closed meeting with a major international aid organization that was looking for a way to improve its success rate for new initiatives from 32% to 37%—my jaw was on the floor!" says Sinclair.

Expertise from Many Corners

You can blame the low numbers on entrenched thinking; bureaucratic resistance to change; an organizational structure in which decision makers are far removed from the field; or the need to react to a crisis quickly, leaving little opportunity to consider the particulars. OAN, he says, promises to raise that success rate, both by casting a wider net for ideas and by giving architects and organizations a place to share projects and garner feedback from experts.

"An architect may put up a design for a project in Sri Lanka and someone with experience there will say, 'You're dealing with a Malai Muslim population, and that design is never going to work. Here's my advice….'" Sinclair says.

Ben Spencer, a Seattle designer who joined the network in early March, several weeks after its beta launch, attests that the venue, "helps architects share knowledge…and avoid technical mistakes and cultural misunderstandings that could undermine a project." While organizations such as the American Institute of Architects have far more members, the OAN may well already constitute the most global professional network.

Cutting Costs, Dissolving Hurdles

The U.S. accounts for just half of OAN traffic, with much coming from Sub-Saharan Africa and India. Perhaps more significant than its size is what the network allows its members to do: Members pay nothing to join or to post work; they can make a project public in order to garner feedback or limit access to project team members; and they can choose from several copyright licenses, ranging from "I own this but you can learn from it" to "This design is free." To Sinclair's surprise, around half of the projects have been posted under public domain, meaning that other architects or organizations may use the plans.

Originally conceived as a community forum, the scope of the project evolved as the OAN took shape.

Some 30% to 40% of its members are using it as a project management tool—a way to manage project schedules, share information with far-flung team members, and even mark up drawings. Many tools were developed in response to the needs of Architecture for Humanity, the nonprofit founded by Sinclair in 1999 to promote architectural and design solutions to social and humanitarian projects around the world. (But, while AfH spearheaded the development of the OAN and owns the name, Sinclair is adamant that the network belongs to its community of users.)

Architecture for Humanity projects tend to involve people from different organizations based on different continents working with a tight budget. E-mail is cheap and ubiquitous, but ill-suited to sending large architectural files, while the cost of FedEx and international site visits can quickly burn through funding. As a result of the network, says Sinclair, "Our FedEx bills have dropped, my travel costs have dropped, and it has streamlined our operations allowing us to put more money into salaries for designers in the field. And we're a small organization. If the UN Habitat used this system you could be talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings." Of course, most of the architects on the network work for commercial firms, which would be equally keen on trimming costs.

More Tools and Resources Coming

"It has been particularly useful for travel on intensive projects," agrees John Gavin Dwyer, a Minneapolis-based architect currently using the network for two projects in New Orleans—an emergency mobile clean water and energy unit and a photography studio and gallery. "I just need to find a coffee shop, and I'm updating critical project information for the team," he notes.

More tools are planned, including multiple-language versions and a Google mapping application that will plot where projects are happening and reveal additional pockets of need. And soon, users will be able to view PDF and CAD files online on a Web page—a first and perfect example of how the OAN lives up to the 2.0 tenet of the "network as platform."

"One of OAN's greatest potentials lies in its yet-to-be-realized resources section," says Spencer, whose design for a women's center in East Timor found financial support through the network. (He'd begun working on the project as a Peace Corps volunteer in that country but it was back-burnered after Spencer was evacuated due to political unrest before funding was secured.) Ultimately, the resources will include information about architects, materials, structural systems, building-related legal and financial issues, and "every building code on the planet," according to Sinclair. It will also include useful case studies of successful projects—and failures.

Learning from the Runners-Up

The OAN will get a nice boost come fall, when it kicks off the first-ever AMD Open Architecture Challenge, a competition sponsored by the network's partner, Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), to design a technology training center. The network is currently accepting proposals from potential hosts of the center (the deadline is July 20), and will announce the project specifics in early September.

Designers then have until Jan. 15 to submit proposals, and the winner, announced Mar. 25, will receive $250,000 in funding for the project. Perhaps more importantly, the nonwinning projects—which might include smart solutions that simply weren't the most appropriate for the site in question—will all become a part of the network. "Usually, those are all thrown in the bin—a waste of hours and hours of creative work," says Sinclair.

What's Truly Democratic Design?

It's this combination of community, peer production, collective intelligence, and difficult to re-create data sources that distinguishes Web 2.0 sites from other online destinations. While Sinclair doesn't reject the 2.0 label—and admits to borrowing Flickr's tagging function—he's quick to note that the OAN hasn't implemented some of the sexier 2.0 features because those might not be accessible to someone logging on from a village in Ghana.

"Everyone talks about the democratization of design and they mention Target (TGT)," says Sinclair. "That's not what democracy is. That's just making design cheaper. We want to give people access."

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.