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Today's open source movement takes cue from Ben Franklin

Nov 16, 2015

The Next Idea

The 21st century software industry owes a lot to a certain 18th century inventor.

Open source innovation is a phrase we tend to associate with post-millennial creativity, but it’s actually a 300-year-old idea. Benjamin Franklin famously did not patent his lighting rod, his bifocals, his stove, and many other of his inventions because he thought that these ideas were simply too important not to share.

This is the same mindset behind today’s open source movement: unrestricted access to designs, products, and ideas to be used by an unlimited number of people in a variety of sectors for diverse purposes.

Early open-source innovation at work.
Credit Flickr / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

Open source innovation has not only revolutionized the software and biotech industries — it’s completely changed the way we think about creativity.

To be derivative is now a form of being creative. That is, in order to do something new, we don’t have to build something new — we can use existing and emerging forms, made available through open access, and do something new with them.

This promotes a democracy in the innovation game:  With open source services, there is no discrimination against individuals or groups or against fields or endeavors.

The new open source landscape is a vastly fertile one, with countless possibilities for growth, but its vastness and freedom can also feel overwhelming.

So what’s the Next Idea?

Here are three key shifts to understand that will help with navigating the open source movement.

Passive recipients to active co-creators. As Venkat Ramaswamy’s essay for The Next Idea pointed out, we’re no longer merely receiving innovations from so-called geniuses or creators who work alone — now we are part of that creative process. The open source movement has sparked a democracy not only among the people who create products and services but also in the consumers who use them.

Now, consumers themselves want to have a say in designing the very things that they buy. Henry Ford quipped that his customers could have a car painted any color they wanted as long as it was black. His vision for a one-taste-fits-all industry is a relic of a long-gone past. Today’s shoppers want and expect total personalization, with all their needs, desires, and idiosyncratic tastes perfectly met.

Zara is making this happen in retail with just-in-time inventory. Boeing is mass-customizing jets with millions of moving parts and by manufacturing with 3D printing. Carmakers are the next big sector poised to make this change.

Insularity is passé. The open source turn is also a turn outward. This has inspired so many organizations to spend more time with other people, looking more thoughtfully at the groups and trends that surround them, and less time with their own corporate culture.

Our backyards are expanding. It’s time to explore them.

The healthcare industry would benefit from this outward kind of thinking. It’s a sector that moves very quickly, with a lot of potential to innovate. The problem is that the healthcare system as a whole is very slow to adopt change.

The typical excuse is regulation, but the industry is not any more heavily regulated than most others that experience rapid growth, like aerospace and financial services. The healthcare system needs to become more flexible, more open to adding new parts and moving old ones around, and pay more attention to emerging opportunities.

With this flexibility and open-mindedness, healthcare professionals will be able to incorporate miracle medical advances into current practices at a much faster rate.

Own and protect to share and expand. The proliferation of open access platforms has redefined the notion of intellectual property. The most innovative sectors of our economy, like biotech, are moving toward a post-patent approach because the antiquated legal system can’t keep up with the pace of invention.

More so, what constitutes intellectual property is becoming more and more ambiguous. While the legal system wrangles and works to remain at the center of the “innovation industries,” collaborative and open forms of innovation are making it increasingly difficult to identify who owns what.

This more capacious idea of creative license means that ownership is not our end goal. Rather, the new project is more of a public or social one — it is the distribution of creativity as opposed to the singular concentration of it. Our challenge is to find new ways to keep intellectual property relevant even as we embrace this opening up of creative ownership.

Benjamin Franklin saw that there were uses and applications for his inventions outside of his original intentions. He understood that the only way to fully realize that vision was to make it everyone’s.

What started out as Franklin’s invention became the world’s collective creation. The hope was to take that Franklin stove or bifocals, do something new with them, and then distribute them to see what other people would create.

How would you re-imagine the world’s lighting rod?

Jeff DeGraff is a clinical professor of management and organizations at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. 

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