Open is the new black

Open is a paradigm shift about how society is organised around simple rules that enable distributed co-operation, which breeds innovation and creates value. Open systems reduce transaction costs, allow interoperability and re-use. But open is opposed by a host of restrictive laws and practices, software patents, digital rights management and anti-circumvention provisions.

An ever increasing number of open memes are changing our world.

  • Open Source;
  • Open Access;
  • Open Standards;
  • Open Licences;
  • Open Innovation;
  • Open Business;
  • Open Spectrum;
  • Open Data.

What makes something open?
A system is open when it uses simple rules to enable self-organisation in place of restrictive commands and controls that disable sharing. I make something, and then someone else can change and add to whatever I have made in ways that I cannot imagine, but will change the world for the better.

Three reasons why open works

1. Open enables innovation
Innovation doesn’t need a silver bullet, it needs silver buckshot. Open allows lots of people to try lots of different approaches to a problem. Open is the best way to facilitate serendipitous creativity that results in viral beneficial change because it lets systems respond and evolve rather than requiring perfect foresight from architects, which no mere mortal possesses. An example: Ushahidi allows anyone to gather distributed data via SMS, email or web and visualise it on a map or timeline for disaster response.

2. Open builds on open
If we see ICT networks as consisting of three layers – connections, logic (or code) and content – we see how openness at each layer enables innovation at others. TCP/IP is an open protocol at the code layer that enables the internet to carry any number of different AV formats.

3. Open systems are built for black swans*
Internet history tells us how the internet’s distributed structure was created to survive nuclear attack. Open systems aren’t reliant on central command and control, which would be single points of failure in a disaster.

* For those who haven’t read Taleb’s book, a black swan is an unexpected event that standard forecasting models are unable to predict – for example, the global credit crunch.

Three fallacies about open

1. It’s not about the price
Chris Anderson’s Free gets it badly wrong when he equates a no-charge with open, and confuses YouTube with Wikipedia. He is right that you can make money giving stuff away, and that people’s behaviour changes when there is no charge for something, but is wrong to confuse open and no charge. Linux doesn’t support multimillion dollar business models because there is no charge to copy, but because its openness has enabled the creation of immensely robust, flexible software.

2. You can’t fake open
You can try, and lots of companies do, but you can’t fake open. Microsoft infamously dubbed their vendor spec masquerading as a standard “Office Open XML” as if they had never heard of Open Office, one of many Office suites that support the global standard Open Document Format. No one was fooled.

3. You can’t make money
When Larry Lessig advised Second Life not to lay claim to all the designs, songs and art of Second Life, he also suggested that it should try to profit from a virtual land “tax”. It worked. The incredible outpouring of creativity that followed from letting people own their own creations led to the growth that fed virtual land hunger. Open business models never strangle the growth of communities, instead they find ways to profit from that growth.

The bottom line
Open isn’t always easy to do – it takes risk and it takes expertise (especially to work around the default settings of intellectual property law), but it is the future.



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