This post does not attempt to summarize he open source phenomenon, wikipedia can do that perhaps more effectively (itself being, incidentally, a good example of the phenomenon)
This post however does recognise the ability to connect thousands of people (and thus talented minds) from across the globe to address a common issue. In the case of software it has been for the cause of creating software. Can this be extended to other things, such as holitective design of physical environments and buildings?
Before we search for examples where this has happened or attempted, let us look at some of the key generic features that enable this phenomenon to take place:
Firstly, a favourable characteristic is modularity. The success of an open source project very much relies on its ability to break down the project into distinct components that can be worked on somewhat independently from the other parts by people in remote locations. To what degree can the building process/product be broken down in such way?
The second prerequisite of a truly functioning open source project is the presence of strong leadership. This may take the form of a distinct individual or a core committee. They do not have the power to tell who to do what ( as all contributions are voluntary) . They do, however, provide the underlining "vision" of the project, setting milestones and giving overall direction. They will have been the ones who partitioned the modules mentioned above, and ultimately they will be responsible perhaps for bringing it all together. In the case of software development, leadership also takes the role of avoiding the very real risk of the project "forking". This is the phenomenon in which a group of people with passionate views that the project should head elsewhere, take the project into their own hands (together with a group of followers and create a different product. To avoid this, the contributors must trust that the leaders objectives are sufficiently congruent with their own, and not simply ego-driven, purely commercial, or adversely political in nature. It is thus obvious that charismatic (trustworthy) leadership is the key to the success of the project.
Finally the project must be attractive to potential contributes. In the Software world this usually means that there needs to be interesting and fun challenges to be solved, as most engineers derive their satisfaction from solving complex problems. Perhaps more generally, an attractive project is one which also provides a certain degree of viability, that is, it looks like it might just work and be a success. This often means that the leader, in the form of a committee or individual, must provide a "critical mass" of initial material to which an online community can react. This quantity will vary from project to project.
These three aspects -
- The modulation of a large task
- Strong leadership
- Attractive critical mass