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Open Hardware and COVID-19 Roundtable

A joint initiative of the Wilson Center’s THING Tank Initiative and the Engelberg Center on Innovation Law & Policy at NYU Law.

March 2020 was a scramble for more.  As the impact of COVID intensified, and the limits of existing supply chains were revealed, everyone began to scramble - for bottled water, for toilet paper, and for medical supplies. 

This need was met with a collective, distributed, decentralized effort to design, manufacture, and distribute open source materials, including hardware devices, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and other medical supplies, to the places that needed it most.  Building on some existing capacities, and often starting from scratch, groups of engineers and specialists connected over the internet to iterate on equipment designs.  Makerspaces, manufacturers, and universities reoriented whatever manufacturing capacity they had towards producing equipment.  Medical institutions developed internal processes to put equipment into the field.  Government gave guidance, provided designs, and worked to convene and coordinate disparate stakeholders.

The response validated the power of open source hardware and distributed manufacturing to help mitigate a crisis. While no one involved would suggest that the process was neat or clean, it filled key gaps in the supply chain when it was needed most.  As more traditional supply chains have reoriented themselves in the COVID world--at least temporarily--we now have a chance to reflect upon this unprecedented early response.  We can take the time to understand what worked (and why), what didn’t (and why), and what steps we can take to do better next time.  This work will benefit existing and future efforts related to open source hardware for disaster response, as well as work in other areas, including low-cost and open source hardware for scientific research.

That is why the Wilson Center and the Engelberg Center on Innovation Law & Policy at NYU Law are working together to understand what happened at the start of the COVID crisis, and prepare recommendations for harnessing the power of open hardware and emergent communities, via a series of interviews and working sessions, including roundtable discussions.  We have pulled together representatives directly involved in the response from a wide range of roles- including makers, designers, institutions, and government officials. Approaching the issue from both traditionally “top-down” and “bottom-up” perspectives will help understand the opportunities and potential barriers for open hardware to maximize its impacts in disaster response, along with other research and policy arenas. 

We are excited to bring together such a wide range of stakeholders, and give them the space to reflect, compare notes, and distill lessons on how to do things better next time.  We look forward to compiling these insights in a way that can provide a road map for creators, policymakers, and regulators through programming including publications and events.


Point of Contact: Alex Long, Program Associate,

Stitching Together a Solution Cover

Publication | Stitching Together a Solution: Lessons from the Open Source Hardware Response to COVID-19

Read the report