Vice President, Science Commons project at Creative Commons
It's a term being used a lot these days. Open innovation (OI) encapsulates
the power of the informed user to drive innovation in new product design. It
enables users to build new products that suit themselves, as opposed to
manufacturers, which develop new products for profit.
This shift to user-driven innovation leads to explosive growth in products
and features in disciplines ranging from "Threadless," a community of t-shirt
designers and buyers, to a group of engineers building the best kite-surfing
kits on the market. In each area where it is observed, OI democratizes
innovation processes—shifting enormous control to the user—and has explosive
power when combined with digital communications networks.
Threadless epitomizes these elements of OI. This community of people loves
shirts, from designing them, to buying them, to talking about them. Thousands of
Threadless users spend their free time creating t-shirt designs—artistic, funny,
ironic, textual, visual—and submitting those designs in standard formats, free
of charge, to the group's Web-based forum for voting by the other users. Winning
designs are printed in limited quantities, then made available for sale back to
the community. The company behind the process makes a tidy profit by dint of
creating and maintaining the community through trust and transparency, but the
innovation and design happen at the user level, not the manufacturer level.
This user empowerment is recapitulated in other genres, including content,
with the advent of ubiquitous digital music and photography, and even in
engineering fields like robotics and materials science.
A Foundation for Open Innovation
Open innovation isn't a "natural" outcome of digital systems and users,
however. It sits on a set of pre-conditions, fundamental infrastructural
elements that allow OI to emerge in some systems faster than in others.
About the Commons
Science Commons: Making the Web Work for Science
Science Commons designs strategies and tools for faster, more efficient Web-enabled scientific research. It identifies unnecessary barriers to research, crafts policy guidelines and legal agreements to lower those barriers, and develops technology to make research data and materials easier to find and use.
Its goal is to speed the translation of data into discovery—unlocking the value of research so more people can benefit from the work scientists are doing. For more information, visit sciencecommons.org.
Creative Commons: Using Private Rights to Create Public Goods
Creative Commons provides free tools that let authors, scientists, artists, and educators mark their creative work with the freedoms they want it to carry. It sets creative works free for certain uses. Like the free software and open-source movements, Creative Commons’ ends are cooperative and community-minded, but its means are voluntary and libertarian. It offers creators a way to protect their works while encouraging certain uses of them—to declare "some rights reserved." Visit creativecommons.org for more information.
OI starts with interoperable information and low transaction costs. Digital
content is a good example: We use it effortlessly today. Think about taking a
digital picture on your Cape Cod vacation and sending it to a Web-based
photo-sharing site so your family in another state can see your amazing view of
the water. It's easy. You can even do it using your phone.
This ease is possible for two key reasons: First, most digital cameras
produce standard file formats that most computers can read, manipulate, and
upload; and second, there are essentially no fees imposed on camera users as
they read, manipulate, and upload files—or on the users who view the pictures on
the Web. The pictures represent interoperable information available at low
transaction costs. And they result in even more innovations: user-created
calendars, picture books, postage stamps, and even more t-shirts.
However, user-driven innovation can be strangled into oblivion if the
information is neither interoperable nor available at low transaction costs. The
most obvious example of this is the way technical and legal decisions either
enable or disable OI: If users don't put the photos on the Web, the whole
process is stillborn. If users don't grant rights in advance, creative re-use
becomes illegal, and the process dies.
Thanks to the access principle, business explodes when users can spend their
time and money innovating, not negotiating permission to use the network. It's
why the Web, despite its significant disadvantages in functionality and user
base at launch compared to Prodigy or AOL, crushed both of them in only a few
years. The access principle, as applied in the network, fostered innovation
because it shifted power from the owners to the network users.
Applying Open Innovation in New Ways
Using the access principle's lessons, we have the opportunity to bring the
gains we've seen in user-driven commerce and culture to pursue improved human
health. We can finally begin to attack the persistent tragedies of rare and
neglected diseases, to understand how drugs really work, and to understand how
to prevent disease. It will happen when we stop being drug
consumers who passively accept manufacturers' innovations and
instead become user-innovators of health care, driving the markets
ourselves. But this is not what we see happening. The knowledge network isn't
emerging to create these opportunities.
The time has come to change the way we cure disease. We are no longer asking
whether a gene or a molecule is critical to a particular biological process;
rather, we are discovering whole networks of molecular and cellular interactions
that contribute to disease. And, soon, we will have such information about
individuals, not just the population as a whole. Biomedical knowledge is
expanding rapidly—yet the system to capture and translate that knowledge into
saving human lives still relies on an antiquated and risky strategy of focusing
the vast resources of a few pharmaceutical companies on just a handful of
diseases. We need a system that empowers the individual to innovate.
This goal will require investment in creating the pre-conditions for
user-driven innovation. The information in life sciences, health care, and drug
discovery is far from interoperable, nor is it available at low transaction
costs. Those roadblocks frustrate the emergence of innovative, user-centric
systems, which means that our open systems serve us far better in the search for
shoes than in the search for cures.
The science-user network differs from culture and commerce: It is grounded in
pre-existing knowledge that is, in many cases, already locked up like the
scholarly literature or the research tools in scientists' freezers. It will
require re-formatting something that already is under control—legally and
technically, we must change the network infrastructure to foment a user-driven
revolution and explosion in value.
Transforming Health Care Through Open Innovation
Five key elements are required: a network, a user base, a set of standard
technologies, a low level of legal control, and a lot of content. The Internet
and the Web offer the technical foundation, but we need more robust systems to
manage the scientific research demands. We need the user base of scientists to
dramatically increase, flinging open the door to include anyone who wants in,
and we need tools that are simple enough for an interested non-scientist to
start asking questions and doing research. We have standard technologies, but we
need new systems that let the home user innovate at a level comparable to an MIT
scientist. We have policies that lower the legal barriers in theory, but we need
funders to create incentives for individual scientists to share information and
tools in reality.
And, though we have content—lots and lots of content—we need a lot more,
coupled with open-source knowledge management systems and community-driven
innovation. Only through the mixture of content, community, and tools can we
make the alchemical transformation of raw data into usable knowledge and a
Through this transformation, we will create a world of users who drive
innovation in our approach to drug discovery and health care. Our goal should be
to enable life sciences innovation that we cannot even imagine, that we did not
design for. We should constantly focus on creating systems with explosive
potential for innovation, and we should draw our inspirations from the systems
that have proven to carry that potential.
My organization, Science Commons, is among a set of organizations working at
this intersection of law, technology, policy, and business. We join a network of
organizations, including the iBridgeSM Network, Innocentive, CollabRx, Public
Library of Science, BioMed Central, Coriell Cell Culture Repository, Addgene,
and more. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is a common thread throughout
this network. We're all working to shift the innovation engines to the users.
It's time to bring open collaboration and open innovation systems out of the
social network and into the cause of human health.