Open Innovation and Creativity, A Panel at the Media Lab
At the Center for Civic Media, I make art, software and social processes which empower people to become more creative, more effective, and more informed. My recent projects include the Festival of Learning, research on gender representation in the news, and tablet tech for social checkups.
I'm an intentional polymath and range widely across the arts, tech, charities, ideas, and education. Before MIT, I worked in UK startups SwiftKey, Dressipi, and Texperts, developing technologies used by millions of people worldwide. I also helped start the Ministry of Stories, a creative writing center in East London. I was a Davies-Jackson Scholar at the University of Cambridge from 2006-2008.
Open Innovation and Creativity, A Panel at the Media Lab
Over the last two days at the Media Lab, we have been having our biannual member's meeting, a time for all of the lab's sponsors to stop by, look at our work, and to participate in talks and sessions about the big issues for technology, business and the future. Hashtag: #MediaLabNtwks.
One of the highlights has been a superstar panel discussion on Open Innovation and Creativity, moderated by the Media Lab director Joi Ito (my supervisor Ethan posted yesterday on Joi's views on openness). The panelists were Larry Lessig, Chris diBona, Yochai Benkler, and John Seeley Brown:
image by kawanet
Aside from assembling a superstar panel of Internet thinkers and doers, Joi had a fascinating rationale for bringing this particular group together in the room. Yochai has been doing work on the limitations of enlightened self-interest (which underlie the typical assumptions of businesses), exploring the other motivations behind work and collaboration (see his new book The Penguin and the Leviathan). In his book Code Is Law, Larry argues that code and software are political, and that we need to embrace the political decisions which are built into our technologies. John Seeley Brown, who directed the Xerox PARC research centre, has written about The Power of Pull, and knows a lot about non-Internet forms of innovation. Finally, Joi considers Chris di Bona to be Exhibit A, the most open man in Google, who has key insights on actually implementing open strategies.
The resulting conversation ranged widely. The panel discussed how the Internet became open, the nature of legal education, how to relate to lawyers, and how to change opinion about innovation within the legal profession. They also discussed why and when businesses might choose to be open. They discussed openness from the perspective of small innovators. Finally, panelists discussed just what "Open" means and took questions from the floor.
Throughout the session, Larry pointed out that the "fight" to keep open architectures on the Internet and elsewhere is always happening at many layers across many communities. This is important for two reasons. Firstly, we need to think beyond debates of the moment around open and closed architectures. Secondly, practitioners need to remember that technology architectures don't become open without politics.
Larry shared an anecdote of software engineers who prefer to think of technology as apolitical. Later in the session, Joi agreed that this was a disturbing tendency. He recalled a conversation he had with Japanese engineering students. Joi asked them, "who should be running the Internet?" After conferring, the students responded with "the police." Perhaps channeling Jefferson's famous quotation on the need for eternal vigilance, Larry argued that when we forget that technology is political we risk ending up with systems that restrict both our liberties and our ability to innovate.
This freedom to innovate is important to Larry, who related conversations he has had with network operators. Businesspeople are sometimes puzzled at why the Internet wasn't "pay-per-packet." Larry's response is that such systems existed, but the people who used the Internet "decided to choose something we could use without asking guys like you."
Yochai Benkler framed this situation in terms of the strategies which succeed in an environment of innovation. According to Benkler, environments of innovation require "two complementary elements: the freedom to operate and the freedom to appropriate." Companies create platforms which offer opportunities for innovation in hope that later on, they will be able to appropriate that innovation to grow their revenue. Yochai also spoke about how open cultures evolve and succeed. In open ecosystems, people have the freedom to "continuously teach each other and learn from each other." In the long term in places like California, people were moving so freely that it was impractical to use non-compete agreements. Over time, California business culture started to take pride in the openness of their ecosystem.
For Benkler, thinking about environments of innovation also involves thinking about how companies operate internally, and how people are motivated. He argued that our assumptions about companies operate on a model of human motivation that we all know is wrong. Our current views of the market assume that people act only with enlightened self-interest. Yet our experience, as well as a growing body of evidence within psychology, shows that we also care about what is moral, about empathy, and about people being treated fairly. Benkler argued that "we're diversely motivated and we need to build systems that relate to those motivations."
John Seeley Brown agreed. He highlighted a cultural shift within recent history away from self-interest towards a model of motivation based not on community (as I would have expected him to say), but new notions of identity. According to Brown, we used to construct our identity from the things we own and the things we control. Increasingly, he argues, we tend to draw our identity from the work we do, our reputation, and our participation in groups. A better understanding of work (and in consequence, openness) should account for these shifts.
At this point, Larry brought up the lawyers, and urged engineers to stop giving in to what lawyers suggest. According to Lessig, there has also been a shift in how companies and their lawyers see intellectual property. In the past, he says, "fundamental technologies used to be free" but "in the 21st century, all of the fundamental technologies are buried in IP." This, according to Lessig, wasn't planned by anyone but just happened as a result of short-term thinking within the legal profession. Comparing lawyers to a massive monster with six-month vision bouldering down on us, unaware of what it damages, Lessig argued that we need to be much more critical of what lawyers suggest and demand justifications for the policies they propose.
Joi agreed -- after carefully explaining that his comments were in a personal capacity only and didn't reflect the position of the lab as a whole. According to Joi, "we were able to do Creative Commons because they [the lawyers] weren't paying attention." In the current environment, according to Joi, it's hard to know what interventions are most likely to create and preserve openness. Do we provide the legal architecture for openness? Do we try to change the legal profession? Do we change the law? Might we reach out to employees? Or perhaps we could change public perception in order to encourage companies to change.
Joi's reason for asking this question is that he wants to live in a world where more people feel satisfied in their work-- where enlightened self interest is only one model for employees. He asked Chris di Bona, "How do you hack the system where we have more people focusing on what they want to do?"
Chris responded that quite often people don't take advantage of the freedom they already possess to open their work. Other times, the lawyers need to be convinced. In his role at Google, he takes on the challenge of reminding people that it's okay to release things, when every lawyer has been taught to lock things down.
Larry agreed, and argued that it's going to take another 20 years before the lawyers who understand innovation will have sufficient power to change things. At the moment, Larry says, the only people who can afford to innovate are those with large numbers of defensive patents. John Seeley Brown agreed that this was a tragedy waiting to happen. He talked very excitedly about new technologies that are now cheap enough for people to hack in their garage and worried about intellectual property laws which would prevent that kind of innovation. Chris agreed, and shared the worrying news that over the last year, in his estimation, patent lawyers are now going after smaller and smaller companies, for licensing fees as small as $5-10k. Lessig called this "a tax that eliminates the ability of the guy in the garage."
Yochai had a very interesting theory for the role the Media Lab could play in this larger picture. Sharing the story of Craig Venter's attempt to patent to human genome, he argued that Venter's initiative prodded academics to sequence the genome in a way that would remain open to humanity. He sees the Media lab as a site of future-thinking innovation which could provide insight on new models which will either be the site of the next generation of legal battles, or possibly the means which make our old notions intellectual property obsolete. His advice to Media Lab researchers: identify strategically significant choke points in closed architectures and develop open alternatives.
Lessig wasn't so sure that technology would provide a way out of closed systems. Joi was similarly doubtful that prediction and innovation would naturally move towards openness, "it is incumbent upon us to take collective action to keep the Internet open." What we can do, says Joi, is to change the thinking of engineers and makers so that they appreciate the political implications of their work, and design them with those political issues in mind.
At this point, the panelists took questions from the audience:
The first person reflected that ideas about innovation and openness seem to make great sense within the Media Lab, where people develop so many amazing things. However, the people who run the businesses that shape our lives don't get the experience of seeing the lab, and instead contribute to an extreme division in society between haves and have nots. He wondered if what we needed to do was to start an #OccupyMediaLab.
Joi responded that the situation is more complex and nuanced, and that "being an abolitionist of intellectual property doesn't work." Instead, he suggested an iterative process of growing open innovation within companies. In that way, companies could learn what works while warming slowly to the idea.
One of the Media Lab students asked what questions we should ask in order to decide if something should be open. Chris di Bona answered that he thinks we should "default to open." Some products, especially physical devices, may need to be patented. Nevertheless, he talked passionately about all the great ideas which die in companies, which die in labs, and which never make it out to the public. Opening those projects would give them a chance to reach the people they could benefit.
Another student, Eliot Hedman, asked: How should I tune my mind so that I can be open and still have a future? He was concerned that if he opened his work, Google would exploit his idea and he would have to make his money some other way. At this point, a large part of the audience applauded. John Seeley Brown responded that ideas are cheap, and that people make money from execution rather than protecting an idea. Having shepherded ideas into products at Xerox Parc, he has completely changed his view on the value of innovative ideas. He used to think it was 90% of the value, and he now thinks it's only 10% of the overal value to be had from a new product.
Sasha Costanza Chock, co-PI here at the Center for Civic Media, asked a question about co-design, a process in which user communities collaborate over the design with the people who build things. He wondered if that should be included in our notion of Openness. Chris diBona gave the classic open source answer, asking Sacha to go do it if he thought it was important. He pointed out that many times open source contributors are building for themselves rather than others, and that the best way to encourage them to take on co-design was to develop co-designed projects that the open source community could respect. Yochai Benkler agreed with Sasha that open is far more than just intellectual property, and that the push toward openness needed to include the internal processes which companies use to do work.
Another audience member asked, "What is the meaning of open? Apple was closed, and yet people made great things with Apple technology. Is Open about IP, is it an approach to collaboration, is it a business model?"
Chris responded, "it's not really open if I can't take it and do something else with it." John Seeley Brown sees Open as "what enables collective tinkering." He also shared the fascinating insight that often what people see as open technologies are actually institutional innovations. Joi agreed. According to Joi, open systems become necessary once a company is working at a level of complexity that one designer simply can't anticipate all of the possible uses. Referring to Cesar Hidalgo's idea of "people bytes" and the limitations of individuals + organisations, he argued that Open approaches help companies overcome the complexity and simplicity threshholds inherent to the initiatives they carry out.
Finally, Media Lab student Kasia Hayden asked why companies would choose to be open rather than closed.
Joi responded that if you want to work in an ecosystem, you want to be a platform, and make money off what other people do. He drew our attention to the fights between very lage companies. Joi pointed out that big companies open the things their competitors do, and close the things they do. He joked that if you have lots of layers of this going on, you gets lots of open. He then shifted to a less confrontational rationale-- a company might choose to open something in order to improve its ability to develop their expertise in an area.
John Seeley Brown ended the session with an open question which he sees as critical to the future of open innovation: How do you shape an ecosystem? To do that, you have to decide what to give away, and how to build a sense of trust and reciprocity with the people using the platform, while still making money from it.