NESTA, Open Innovation, Creative Commons

Lately I've been spending a fair amount of time talking to the folks at NESTA in the UK. There's a lot of interest in how the kinds of legal and technical infrastructures we're building at Creative Commons might work at scale in the UK, and yesterday NESTA hosted me and James Boyle (founder of Creative Commons, and a guiding force in our science work from the very beginning) at an event labeled Open Innovation and Intellectual Property, jointly hosted by the Wellcome Trust and Creative Commons.

It was an interesting day. It was one of the few times I've had the scope of topic to cover all the things we do at Science Commons - open access to literature and data, biological materials transfer, open source data integration methods, open business models for biotech, and the patent exchange work for sustainability technology. 25 minutes wasn't nearly enough.

The other speakers were fascinating. I was heartened to see Sir John Sulston again - he was an early advisory board member for us, and his advice on the role of the public domain played a major role in the eventual decision to work on data as a public domain resource. And Dr. David Brown's experience in tropical medicine is a good place to start testing the Creative Commons systems and methodologies at scale.

Open innovation is a phrase in danger of being misused. It's a catch-all sometimes for "we don't know why our systems aren't working and what we need to do" - you can just say "we need open innovation" and hide behind it. But this meeting gave me hope that the systematic efforts needed to enable Chesbrough's vision of open innovation may be possible.

If we're going to achieve that particular vision of innovation, it's important to remember its tenets. Knowledge must move - "purposively" - in and out of organizations. There must be investment in the external capacity of the market itself to generate useful knowledge. And we need business models that are capable of surviving in an open environment.

The old theory of doing business as a hermetically sealed entity was never really true. Knowledge leaked, at conferences and in bars, in phone calls and in passing. And the pharma industry essentially practices a form of open innovation already, through its constant forming and reforming of alliances and mergers and restructuring. But it's not practicing open innovation at scale, with efficiency, or with purpose.

Practicing open innovation this way requires infrastructure. It doesn't happen by accident. But far too often, research funders make the mistake of assuming that by funding "collaborations" that they'll achieve the efficiency of openness. I spoke at an event last week where almost 50 people raised their hands when I asked who funded research, but only 3 hands remained up when I asked which of them had actually funded infrastructure that makes collaboration possible. That gap is precisely the problem.

Organizations like Creative Commons are deeply interstitial and hard to fund. And CC's been the outlier that has actually had success in fundraising. It's even harder to fund the smaller organizations. Getting funding to do empirical studies on the impact of a commons based approach is frightfully hard, for us as well as for groups like the Open Knowledge Foundation. So I'm hopeful that an event like yesterday's will start to raise the profile of these approaches, spur the emergence of pilot projects that tie together business models, copyrights, databases, patents, and more. It promises to effect great change, at a much smaller investment than simply staying the course and trying to achieve incremental increases in our ability to find drugs.

Thanks to NESTA for putting this together. I'm looking forward to seeing where this all goes in the coming months. Slideshare seems to be hiccuping today but I'll post my slides when I can.

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