When the world we live in feels too impossible I find myself imagining the world I want to live in. It’s not just about the major acts of horrific inhumanity that humans bestow upon one another, it’s about the small daily indignities too. In the world I want to live in we’re not senselessly slaughtering each other, and no one throws trash on the ground or holds the entire communal table in the coffee shop hostage with their cell phone conversation, either. And people actually do step aside to let the passengers off the train. In the world I want to live in, it’s understood that we are all in this together. Call me a cockeyed optimist, but I’m convinced that the smallest effort toward compatibility goes a long way.
So when MoMA’s curators brought the Free Universal Construction Kit—designed by the American new-media artist Golan Levin in collaboration with Free Art and Technology Lab, Shawn Sims, and Sy-Lab—into the collection, I wanted to celebrate. It’s a ideal example of what the open-source design movement is making possible.
The Free Universal Construction Kit, is a play set of about 80 two-way adapter units that allow full inter-system connection and construction compatibility between 10 children’s construction toy sets: LEGO, Lincoln Logs, Duplo, Fishertecnik, K’Nex, Tinkertoy, Zome, Zoob, Gears! Gears! Gears!, and Krinkles—all otherwise closed-set systems. In the audio tour accompanying the kit on display in the exhibition This Is for Everyone: Design Experiments for the Common Good, Levin explains that inspiration came to him while playing with his four-year-old son, who was trying to connect a LEGO with a Tinker Toy. He became frustrated that it wouldn’t connect, and that they wouldn’t be designed to do so was a mystery to him.
In the Free Universal Construction Kit there’s an adapter to connect a LEGO to a Lincoln Log, another adapter to connect a Lincoln Log to a Tinkertoy, and so on. Play teaches children to use their imagination, but play with a closed system can be an exercise in imagination limitation. The Free Universal Construction Kit extends systems to fit the imagination, creating a world of interactive rather than proscribed play. Possibility begins to shine.
There are laws protecting copyright, intellectual property, trademark, patents, and such, which may be one of the reasons that the kit itself is not available commercially. Instead, the digital blueprints for the adapter units—free, open-source design printing STL files—are available online to download for private use with your own open-hardware 3-D printer.
LEGO and Zoob play sets, two of the 10 adapted building brick sets, are also in MoMA’s Design collection, so don’t be surprised if one day you find them playing together in the galleries. In the meantime, the Free Universal Construction Kit is on view through January 1, 2016, in This Is for Everyone, a contemporary design exhibition that takes its title from Sir Timothy Berners-Lee’s 2012 London Olympics tweet that referenced his invention, the World Wide Web—the ultimate open-source design project.