When Britta Riley learned the principles behind R&DIY — that is, research and develop-it-yourself — in graduate school, she immediately wanted to put them into practice. After a few failed attempts, including a do-it-yourself urine-to-fertilizer kit, she came up with the idea for a hanging window planter made from recycled materials. She assembled the first version in her fifth-floor Brooklyn apartment and within two years, more than 25,000 like-minded people had joined the open-source online community she created around the planter. That number has continued to climb since then, and this summer, Windowfarms will begin selling a manufactured kit based on the crowd-sourced design model.
I recently spoke with Riley about what motivated her to found Windowfarms and how other businesses can — and should — take advantage of the R&DIY model.
When did you come up with the idea for Windowfarms?
It was in late 2008. I’d been working as a museum exhibit designer on some exhibitions around environmental issues and food was one that was starting to come up a lot — the impacts of the food system and childhood obesity and issues like that.
Secondly, I had been persuaded by [food writer] Michael Pollan that growing some of one’s own food is one of the best things we can do for the environment here in the states right now. There are three billion of us who live in densely populated urban areas and don’t have access to Michael Pollan’s gorgeous backyard. Why should that mean we can’t participate and why should we be relegated to always being consumers who have to be told about all of this stuff by marketing departments?
Some friends and I built the first Windowfarm in my apartment window. At the time, it was just a bunch of leaky buckets and plastic things that we had cobbled together, but the goal was to use ordinary materials so that we could make something that was replicable.
At what point did you decide that crowdsourcing would be an integral part of the process?
Once we had something that worked on a pretty basic level and was growing about a salad a week, we said, ‘Wow, this is pretty cool,’ and we built a social media website, put the designs on there and said, ‘Hey guys, come check this out, build your own, improve it; if we all take different approaches and then we learn from one another we’ll be able to evolve it’ and that’s what really happened.
When I was in graduate school, there was still so much buzz around the term ‘crowdsourcing,’ but I didn’t like that. It basically just delegates these minimal tasks to a bunch of people all over the place but very infrequently does it engage their minds and their creativity. For me, the Holy Grail of this whole movement has been what we call ‘mass collaboration’ — going beyond crowdsourcing and getting to a point where we’re all building on one another’s ideas.
Especially around environmental issues, my belief is that we really need to accelerate the pace of innovation. I was so excited about putting a project out there that would allow for people building on one another’s ideas more quickly and in such a way that we could go back and look at it and trace it. There’s just this really beautiful social interaction that comes out of this process.
There are now more than 33,000 people participating in your online community, our.Windowfarms. How did you spread the word that this community had been formed?
That was, in a way, a stroke of luck. From having a few failures before where the content itself was not such a great fit, I knew that we had to have the right subject matter that carried itself. Enough people wanted to grow food in their apartments that it just drove itself. Within a week of our having put the word out, we were getting press from all over covering it. Also, when you’ve got it in a window, it’s kind of self-advertising. We did some big installations and those would get a lot more press because people just wanted to talk about it. It spread pretty organically with hardly any work on our part and it’s been that way for almost three years now.
How have the our.Windowfarms participants helped change or refine the initial idea that you came up with?
The really valuable insight there is someone exposing one of the problems. Exposing problems and posing solutions in general has given us a lot of insight into the possibilities in this area. That’s the biggest way the community has contributed.
How much has the initial design changed?
It’s gone through about 14 significant design iterations, but along the way there have also been a lot of little tweaks in between.
With so many people contributing, how do you manage the ownership of ideas and the product itself?
This was an area that was a total experiment. It’s been pretty exciting to find new models for dealing with this. On our website, when someone posts an idea it’s there for everyone to see. Basically, the people who have the really great ideas, their posts get the most traffic and more people end up sending them back there. They get more discovered and more credit within the community.
About two years ago, I had to patent Windowfarms because I was contacted by someone who claimed that one of our community members was using their designs and they already had an existing patent. I wound up having to go into the area of patenting and look at that. I talked to all these attorneys about it and I started applying for a patent on the Windowfarms design at that time. We didn’t totally have solutions ready at that point but I could see some of the areas of development that we were going toward.
I created a social enterprise so we have both a nonprofit and a for-profit, so basically the for-profit can make products that come from the Windowfarms design and the sales from those can fund the ongoing development of the community and the educational side of what we’re doing.
How would you suggest other companies or business owners utilize open-source collaboration?
I don’t advocate it for everyone. There are circumstances in which it makes a lot of sense and circumstances where it doesn’t. It comes down to these areas where we all have a big collective problem that we need to solve — that’s an excellent place for open-source and mass collaboration. Places where people are going to want to contribute their time and effort and intellectual property to making a better world. They should be using some of the knowledge that they’ve created toward public good.
You’re working on a manufactured Windowfarm kit now. When is that hitting the market?
We raised $257,000 on Kickstarter in pre-sales, so we’re having our customers finance the upfront cost that we needed to invest in these huge molds that are used to produce all of the new parts. Those are going to ship in the early summer and we’re also selling them on our website.