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Open Source Innovation: What’s In and What’s Out

Open Source Innovation: What’s In and What’s Out

The twenty-first century software industry owes a lot to a certain eighteenth-century inventor. Open source innovation is a phrase we tend to associate with post-millennial creativity, but it’s actually a three-hundred-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.

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 persons 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. Here are three key shifts to understand as you navigate the open source movement.

Passive recipients to active co-creators. We’re no longer merely receiving innovations from so-called geniuses or creators who work alone–now we are part of that creative process. Innovation is about re-working what’s already out there, taking things that people have already created and shared with the world, and putting them in a new sequence or finding a new use for them. The best example today is the development of new apps that make incremental changes on older apps.

Our culture and our systems to customers and emerging opportunities. 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 corporal culture. Our backyards are expanding. It’s time to explore them.

Own and protect to share and expand. The proliferation of open access platforms has redefined the notion of intellectual property. 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.

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 is to take that Franklin stove or bifocals, do something new with them, and then distribute them to see what other people will create. How will you reimagine the world’s lighting rod?

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