Skip to main content

Two Steps Forward

GreenXchange: Sustainable Innovation Meets the Creative Commons

<p>Although we live in an era in which green innovation reigns, genuine progress remains elusive; but a new group spearheaded by Nike hopes to change that situation.</p>

We live in an era in which green innovation reigns -- and, at times, rains, even pours, from companies, universities, and research labs. A wide range of disciplines, from biotech and nanotech to cleantech and infotech, are enabling the design and manufacture of things that are lighter, simpler, cheaper, smarter, less wasteful, less toxic, and less resource-intense. Not much of it yet truly qualifies as "sustainable," in the purest sense of being endlessly cycled from raw materials to finished product and back again. But the trend is unmistakable, even during a recession -- or, perhaps, because of it.

Genuine progress, however, remains elusive, as scientists, innovators, and companies often travel down parallel paths, each reinventing the same metaphoric "wheel." A handful of companies have seen fit to share their innovations openly with other firms, including competitors. But it is often hit or miss, with no way of tracking the uptake of those innovations, let alone measure the salutary impact they may have on reducing industry's overall environmental footprint.

A small group of companies spearheaded by Nike have partnered with the nonprofit Creative Commons to try to change that. Their novel initiative, called GreenXchange, aims to allow companies to share intellectual property for green product design, packaging, manufacturing, and other uses. If it succeeds, this budding coalition could accelerate innovation across companies and sectors. At minimum, it stands to rewrite the rules about how companies share.

The project was incubated at Nike, which for years has been developing materials and processes to reduce the environmental impacts of its own products -- things like water-based adhesives, solvent-reduced synthetic leather, and "green rubber," which cuts the use of harmful chemicals used in traditional formulas by 97 percent, according to the company. Some of these innovations were posted on Nike's website, though there was no way to determine who was using this information, or how.

Meanwhile, Nike found a lot of similar R&D being done by different companies, as well as gaps in research, says Kelly Lauber, Global Director, Sustainable Ventures at Nike. "In order to get to a green economy -- in order to really head off some of the things that we're going to be facing such as water scarcity, climate change, and energy shortages -- we're going to have to start collaborating in a much more open innovation way," she told me recently. "Because the issues in front of us, they're all too big for any one company."

Lauber says she and her colleagues "stumbled upon" Creative Commons, a nonprofit that has designed licenses that allow creators of intellectual property (IP) to share their creations so as to control which rights they reserve and which they share. Creative Commons originally focused on artwork and written documents, from Wikipedia to the White House website. A few years ago it expanded its work to include scientific research.

Nike, along with Best Buy, partnered with Creative Commons to create GreenXchange. The project was announced earlier this year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Under GreenXchange, member companies can make patents and know-how available to the public in three ways. First, at the most basic level, every contributor commits to a "non-assertion pledge" allowing its patent portfolio to be used in basic academic research in order to promote open collaboration, innovation, and discovery among those involved in primary stage research.

Second, a member may voluntarily designate selected patents to be made available under a standard license for sustainability uses, including commercial applications. Those seeking to use the patented inventions are asked to register their commercial use, and if applicable, pay a standard fee. This allows data to be collected and tracked, and the environmental impacts to be measured.

Third, unpatented discoveries or information may be contributed to the network through a "know-how registry." This allows both unpatented and patented knowledge to be contributed, shared, and cited, as well as providing a public repository for prior art in the field.

Creating GreenXchange was no small matter, when one considers the cost and complexity of companies sharing information through traditional means. As John Wilbanks, VP of science at Creative Commons, explained to me, "Making sharing simple is very complicated."

Wilbanks offered two examples to show how GreenXchange could help companies cut through the legal thicket. "Let's start with a company like Nike. Let's say you have two patents that are paradigmatic. One is for a water-based adhesive. It's a patent on a process that lets you move from an oil-based adhesive to a water-based adhesive, which essentially lowers your pollution footprint. This is a technology that is not core to your business. It doesn't affect your ability to price your shoes or to exclude your competitors.

"Now, let's take a different patent," he continued. "It's an airbag patent inside the shoe. This is a core competitive advantage and you designed it as part of your shoe system, even though it might have some sustainability uses in the right hands." For example, "The airbag patent might become the core of a new truck tire that lasts twice as long as existing truck tires, which is definitely a sustainability use because it lowers rubber into the landfill."

Wilbanks' goal was to design was a system that made both of these patents available to the largest number of users without endangering the shoe company's competitiveness. In some cases, the solution might simply be about attribution -- giving credit where credit is due. Wilbanks says Creative Commons is working on technologies to track attribution. Another level is attribution with fees attached, if the IP holder chooses to monetize the innovation.

At another level -- the airbag example -- the IP holder might say, "This license is made available to anyone who's not a shoe company." Says Wilbanks: "From the perspective of the patent owner, this is a way to make patents available for sustainability use outside their core space."

GreenXchange isn't the first attempt to share green IP. In early 2008, IBM, Nokia, Pitney-Bowes, and Sony created the Eco-Patent Commons, which brought together a collection of patents covering new technologies, processes, and ideas that address environmental problems. "The premise here is that, in the environmental arena, sharing knowledge and technology has the great potential to address the world's problems," Wayne Balta, IBM's Vice President of Environmental Affairs, told at the time, "And there exists no organized way today to do this on a global basis." IBM was the originator of 27 or the original 31 patents released to the commons.

Eco-Patent Commons shares similar goals with GreenXchange, though it's a simpler device, claims Wilbanks. "The Eco-Patent Commons is what's called a waiver. It's basically saying, 'I'm not going to sue anybody who uses this.' There's no license, so you can't track the transactions, which means you can't get a count of how many people are using your patent. You don't know who they are. You can't get attribution because all rights are waived. And you can't capture any revenue. What we're doing is taking the IBM methodology and combining it with the Creative Commons methodology to create these public licenses."

Lauber says GreenXchange is in a start-up mode, not yet officially launched. The group is seeking founding companies willing to contribute start-up capital and develop the framework. In addition to Nike and Best Buy, the group includes Mountain Equipment Coop, with strong interest from several others -- Lauber mentioned Herman Miller, Marks & Spencer, SC Johnson, and Yahoo! as prime candidates. A founding partner meeting will take place this summer.

If it works, GreenXchange stands to stimulate and accelerate green innovation, as companies dip into the pool of IP to leverage other companies' creativity and successes. And it offers up a new model of sharing, one that recognizes that what works in one sector can be applied, perhaps in an entirely different way, in another sector. And that each of those applications contribute to the innovations commons, providing value to all participants, bringing to life that old proverb: "None of us is as smart as all of us."

More on this topic