Wednesday, December 14, 2016

It's time to start talking about open innovation - how do we share innovations across society?

Innovation is one of the global buzzwords today.

From Parliament House in Australia to the remotest regions of Africa, the world is talking about innovating to solve old problems using new techniques and emerging problems using old ideas in new ways.

As a career entrepreneur and innovator, I'm supportive of these innovation agendas - innovation is an important and useful tool for organisational adaptation and problem solving within rapidly changing environments. 

Provided innovation is embedded and practiced as business as usual, rather than treated with lip service or ring-fenced into irrelevance it can be a powerful technique .

Thus far public discussions have largely focused on how we make organisations more innovative. How do we adjust cultures, structures and the legislative and policy frameworks that surround them, to help organisations embody that innovation spirit.

That's an important conversation - and very much a work in progress

However there's another conversation we need to have that might be even more important over time.

How do we share innovations such that their impact is magnified in ways that reshape industries and societies, not just individual companies and agencies.

Now this isn't a debate about the value of intellectual property (IP) ownership. There's strong and good reasons for individuals and companies to be able to protect and control the use of their new ideas and techniques. I'm broadly supportive of the current IP model used globally, although it can be cost-prohibitive and onerous and can (and has) been misused on occasion by those with the money and power to do so.

However there is a distinction between IP that should be protected and innovations that should be shared. 

For example, imagine how different the world would look today if an ancient Greek city-state had applied modern IP rules to the technique and process of democracy.

If the democratic process had been patented, on an ongoing basis, the concept and practice of democracy may never have become the modern standard for governance, against which all other models are regularly tested.

Now that's an extreme, and potentially absurd, example, but given the legal changes made over time to IP law to continue to globally protect the likeness of a cartoon mouse, perhaps not totally implausible.

There's many examples of innovations that only become valuable when shared, or have their value multiplied by collective use. The internet is such a modern innovation, with its base 'operating systems', IP addresses and HTML, available freely for reuse by billions around the world.

Other such innovations include the 3-point seatbelt, the global standard for protecting car passengers, which was invented and patented by Volvo in 1959, then given freely to the world to improve safety standards.
As a more recent example, in 2012 Tesla did something similar, 'opening up' many of its electric car patents, declaring they would not sue companies that used them under certain circumstances, in the interest of helping to build an ecosystem of car and component makers that expands the market for electrical cars.

There's other examples of innovations being 'open sourced' in some way to help share them. For example CKAN, the open data portal platform developed by the Open Knowledge Foundation, is open source - which has led to its widespread use by governments globally.

aGov, the Drupal platform used to deliver GovCMS, is also open source, and now deployed in over 400 instances around the world.

In both these cases vendors monetise these platforms through providing support services - but the platforms themselves are freely available should an organisation wish to go it alone.

Other examples of shared innovation include the code bases developed for government services and apps through Code for All and it's country-based affiliates, such as Code for America and Code for Australia.

Companies are sharing their AI research (and sometimes the code) - even the notoriously private Apple has recently announced that it will be taking part, in order to stay competitive in this fast changing field.

Governments are also, in certain cases, sharing their code - such as the US Army, which has shared code from its cyber defense systems to help tap the experience of others to improve their capabilities, and to help other organisations improve their own cyber defences.

The US Government even open sourced its open sourcing policy, along with a range of services it has built, so they can be easily reused by other governments.

There's been a little of this in Australia as well. The National Map is open source, as are several other systems. The Digital Transformation Agency has also worked in this space, open sourcing the code for their Alpha gov.au site and the text for its Design Guide.

However most innovation that could be shared is still not shared in a structured way.

Certainly events such as the new Public Sector Innovation Awards help raise awareness, and reward, innovations across the public sector, and can generate some informal sharing post event. Networks such as the Public Sector Innovation Network also play a role, at least in helping share ideas within the network itself, if not with the wider community.

But these are still largely inwards looking. They neither provide formal ways for agencies to share their innovations with other agencies or the community at large, or for agencies or those outside government to locate relevant innovations that might support their own endeavours, with a blueprint on how to implement them.

They also are poor tools for bringing innovation into government from outside - for learning from the daily innovation activity across more than 2 million businesses in Australia, and hundreds of millions worldwide.

There's really no current consistent structured method to find the right needles in that global haystack, the shared innovations that would transform an agency, company or community, solving problems and lifting their effectiveness.

This conversation, about how we share innovations effectively, is the one we need to have to scale the fantastic innovation work being done behind closed doors across Canberra, across Australia and across the world.

Without it all the work going into transforming organisations to be innovative is simply creating new types of silos, where innovation happens within a room and is poorly shared or built on by others who could leverage it.

I also believe that in this broader discussion of how to share innovations wisely and widely, we'll also find answers to the question of how to make organisations more innovative, as sharing will promote greater thinking about innovation 'within the walls' as well as without.

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