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“Open Source” for technology innovation?

Monday, 28 July 2008 — by

Open Source is as much a business model as it is a philosophy. Could the philosophical underpinnings of Open Source be applied to technology innovation?

The reason I ask is that after reading the wonderful and absorbing story of Amy Smith and her dedication to accessible, low-cost technology for developing countries, we may be at another waypoint in our sociocultural development that I believe is our transition to what I call our role as the custodian of Earth, its inhabitants and its resources.

Redefining the Open Source philosophy for innovative technology

A re-worked definition of Open Source in our new context would be: a technology, or series of technologies where the source knowledge, materials and know-how are readily available to the general public for use and / or modification from its original design free of charge.

Amy Smith and her team of students set out into Peru to help villagers improve their lives and their way of living with affordable, easy-to-use, low-cost technology. However, despite this humble and philanthropic backdrop, the challenge is, certainly in an academic sense, formidable.

In the developed world, we’ve amassed a huge knowledge base of key technologies that much of our world relies on yet these technologies have, for the most part, not seen the light of day in the undeveloped regions of the world.

We take for granted sanitation, electricity, clean running water and the means to cook food safely. Our store of knowledge affords us no end of useful, innovative ways to achieve these things, many of which are in the public domain.

Thing is, poor farmers often can’t read. Nor could they afford the time off to travel to wherever they’d need to be to read such things, even if they could. In these instances, it is the likes of Amy Smith who travel out to these impoverished regions, where they then set about sharing this valuable knowledge.

But sharing the knowledge isn’t enough; the underlying technology often needs a re-think. Want running water? Well, there’s a ton of things you need in place to make that work. Most of which are simple, but only with respect to the availability of people with the requisite knowledge, and the required resources.

Innovative thinking is something that everyone has the potential to exercise at some point in their lives. After all, our world is built on the back of layman innovations, with only our recent modern world — beginning with the Industrial Revolution in Britain during the 18th and 19th century — owing its existence to ingenious innovations in science & technology.

Access to innovative thinkers is therefore an essential ingredient. These people have to re-think and re-engineer the every-day conveniences of our modern world, or the conveniences that poor people rely on for their very existence.

However, hidden within this mix of ideas and truly remarkable innovations is the makings of patent infringements, a problem the Open Source community is all too familiar with.

In the broader context of domesticated technologies, an arrangement, or a legally-binding commercial cease fire would need to be put in place to free up the innovators and allow them to extend their lateral thinking into areas that were (speaking in a future tense) formally bound by a patent or some other legal device.

Just what is technology anyway?

It’s all too easy to forget or to totally misunderstand what technology is:

“You see, the perception (or common misconception?) is that technology is new stuff, like computers, energy-efficient light bulbs, high-speed trains, space flight, nanotechnology, genetics, crazily tall buildings and stupidly long bridges.

When in actual fact, technology is glazed drinking mugs, the three field system, mass-produced cloths, glass windows, zip fasteners, the bow & arrow, central heating and the printed word.”

For the likes of Amy Smith, she appears to understand this great leveling of technology more than most. Her grasp of technology and how to eek out any latent, innate potential to the fullest is a gift of hers.

Her work and the work of her peers is probably more important now than at any other time in human history.

Sustainability is no longer enough. Now, we must augment such notions and strategies with innovative, low-cost inventions that can be taken and replicated over and over again, throughout the world.

Their role is to popularize technology free of any need for commercial financial reward, yet fully in the knowledge that their innovative technologies are helping to make the lives of poorer people around the world better…

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