Heather Ford
Heather Ford

Engineering innovation

I have a new fascination. It’s about innovation: how it happens, to whom and, most importantly, why. The fascination stems from the incredible people I get to meet in my job — people who find a new idea to be passionate about, implement that idea in a novel way and then spread that passion to others.

A bit about the job. I work for an international non-profit organisation, currently headquartered in South Africa, that brings together people who are contributing to the information commons — that is, the pieces of art, science, software, encyclopedias and films that are free for others to copy, share and modify. My job takes me to many parts of the world to meet some of the internet’s greatest pioneers — people who want to keep the medium a breeding ground for innovation — to keep the revolutionary nature of the internet intact.

So what does the commons have to do with innovation? Here are ideas from three great men:

1. Isaac Newton once said: “If I have seen further [than certain other men] it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” (Actually, Wikipedia says that Newton wasn’t the first to say this, which in itself is an interesting illustration of the point.) Basically it means that if current ideas and knowledge are locked up and inaccessible, then new ideas won’t be built. Innovation requires that those giants give a “leg up” to new thinkers so that society can advance.

History recognises the importance of access to knowledge for innovation (also known as “development” to those “development-minded” among us). The United States was a pirate nation until 1891. It “stole” the intellectual property of authors like Charles Dickens until then because it said that it was a developing nation and needed to sell knowledge (books) cheaply in order to “catch up” to Europe (see the Wired article urging us to steal here). It’s an often-forgotten fact, but people back then realised how important accessible knowledge was for innovation to occur.

2. Innovation on the internet illustrates the importance of access most effectively. After all, where would Google be if its engines needed copyright clearance to search copy on the net? Mr Doom-and-Gloom-of-the-Internet, Lawrence Lessig, said this about the early years of the internet: “Creativity flourished there because the internet protected an innovation commons. The internet’s very design built a neutral platform upon which the widest range of creators could experiment. The legal architecture surrounding it protected this free space so that culture and information — the ideas of our era — could flow freely and inspire an unprecedented breadth of expression.” (The doom and gloom follows if you read on — and it’s all true — but I’ll wait for a Monday for more of that).

3. Finally, to another great thinker on innovation, openness and the web: David Wiley, author of one of the first open-content licences and director of the Centre for Open and Sustainable Learning at Utah State University. Wiley talks about the major changes occurring in the world of business, science, communication and entertainment:

From analog/print to digital — voice-over-internet protocol, e-books, digital newspapers
From closed to open — open-source software, open-access weather and astronomical data, open science journals
From tethered to mobile — cellphones, Wi-Fi, laptop batteries
From isolated to connected — email, instant messaging, web services
From generic to personal — skins and ring tones for cellphones, customised interiors for cars
From consumption to participation — blogs, podcasting, video podcasting

In a really great thesis on openness, Wiley shows how, by focusing on open access to their content on the web, higher-education institutions can increase quality, connectedness, personalisation and participation and that open education is a “catalyst for further innovation”.

Personalisation is driven by open educational content because it enables students and teachers to customise content. Using a Creative Commons licence to allow derivatives allows students and teachers to create personalised, translated modules of generic content, for example. Participation improves with increased openness because, “As a faculty member,” Wiley says, “if I want to engage my students in creating and contributing resources, tutorials and other study materials to a class, this is much more easily done when the course-material repository is open.”

So, we know a few things to start off about how innovation flourishes: firstly, you need access to knowledge about past inventions (that’s the bit about learning how to paint realistically before you start large big black squares and selling them for $1-million); secondly, that a neutral platform (rather than a platform locked up by big commercial interests) is essential for innovation on that platform (think of Google, YouTube, Facebook); and thirdly, that openness is a way to drive innovation towards all the great, positive things that the web was made for: that’s personalisation, connectedness and participation.

In my next post, I’ll talk about how the Japanese have gotten some of this on the button (also some notes about sushi innovation, tradition and tofu — riveting stuff).