IF11: The Power of Sharing Sustainability

IF11: The Power of Sharing Sustainability

Breaking down the walls of trade secrets and copyright protection is one of the biggest obstacles to advancing disruptive innovation -- after all, owning the rights to the Next Big Thing is the tried-and-true way to make your company a big success.

But a short presentation on the last day of the Innovation Forum showed how that obstacle is slowly disappearing, and how that will speed innovation.

John Wilbanks, the Vice President of Science at Creative Commons, presented on the power of sharing knowledge.

"The risk of incremental innovation is that when we don't share, we typically get only incremental advantages in technology," Wilbanks said.

He gave the example of the ear horn, of all things. Incremental innovation in ear horns led to the development of truly massive ear horns that were used to listen for planes crossing the English Channel in the 1930s -- and that was all because the defense contractors of the day were opposed to disruptive technologies like radar.

The rise of the network has made the example of ear horns vs. radar less common -- but there are still significant obstacles to sharing knowledge, most of them ingrained by old habits.

"If we can take Creative Commons licenses and create Wikipedia, if we can take open-source software and create Linux, can we extend it to things that aren't even digital?" Wilbanks asked.

Among the well established examples -- the Eco-Patent Commons or the Nike-led GreenXchange, Wilbanks offered the examples of a company coming on to the market called littleBits, a company that lets you snap together electronic circuits like you would Legos -- and which is releasing its products next year under open-source licenses.

That last example offers a signpost on the path toward broader sustainability sharing, the idea of "standardized and shared connection of knowledge pushing out to the physical world," Wilbanks said.

It's an idea that is starting to be played out in projects like Nike's GreenXchange.

"If you have a patent that Nike used for clean rubber, can it be used for tires?" Wilbanks asked. "Can entrepreneurs build on those to make things better?"

"It's the power of connection," he said later. "We don't want to share knowledge just to give it away -- knowledge gets more valuable when you connect it to other knowledge. Computers get economically more valuable when you connect them to other computers."

In closing, Wilbanks laid out the four elements of sharing innovation:

  1. It's purposeful
  2. It's standardized
  3. It goes from one-to-many
  4. It's networked

"I want 100 people failing, I want 1,000 people failing, I want a million people failing," Wilbanks said about the one-to-many element. "It costs almost nothing to start a failed software company, it costs almost nothing start a failed web-apps company, but it costs and enormous amount to start a failed sustainability company, and we need to change that, so we can have the same amount of money going in, and a lot more innovation coming out."

But what it comes down to is that even as cutting edge companies like Nike and startups like littleBits are embracing openness with their knowledge, there's an exponentially larger pool of companies who have yet to understand and internalize the economic and sustainability benefits of sharing.

"The reason to do this should not be because it's nice to share, but because we have an economic reason and a moral imperative to do this," Wilbanks said.

John Wilbanks photo CC-licensed (of course) by Science Commons.