Bits are Abundant - So Lets Start Thinking That Way!



June 11, 2013

BuckyBall or geodesic dome. Photo by Jennifer C. on Flickr.Buckminster Fuller was a real visionary, but he died in 1983 and the backbone of the Internet TCP/IP was only standardized in 1982, so it would be hard to imagine how he would have been able foresee either the World Wide Web, let alone the re-thinking of intellectual property that has come about with the growth of Free Software (or Open Source Software). He definitely thought out of the box as he strove to "make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation."

One of his main critiques of our economic system was that capitalism forces value through scarcity, rather than looking at our ability to tap into the abundance in our universe. For a lot of organizations that we work with, this scarcity mentality is has been increasingly enforced over the last few decades. Government departments, non-profit organizations and educational institutions have been squeezed by successive cuts such that the concept of giving back to the greater commons is simply out of the question for most.

All of our economics and culture have until recently been based on atoms, which are ultimately limited by how many of them you could organize, store and distribute to those willing to pay for them. Bits are different though, as with ideas themselves, sharing them with others doesn't diminish what you have, but rather allows you to enhance and improve their organization through exchanges with others.

It has been fascinating to watch the adoption of Drupal in organizations around the world. Most don't realize that Drupal Core itself has more than 14 million dollars of effort put into it. Most of the organizations using it haven't watched the issue queue to see what goes into approving every single patch that becomes part of Core and how much review is required. This is software that is driving about 3% of the Internet and particularly with the work being done on accessibility, is actively striving to meet the needs of 100% of humanity.

The Drupal community already is operating with an abundance mindset. Not that we accomplish all of our goals, or have all of the resources we need, but it is more about how people are organized and how Drupal shops prioritize contributions to Core contributions. Nobody is asking if we can afford to be a leader developing Drupal 8 to be completely mobile friendly.

In this blog post I didn't want to focus on all of the exciting work that is going on, but rather highlight what could happen if the organizations that are using open source software actually understood what was possible if there was greater collaboration within particular verticals.

Governments around the world are struggling to meet accessibility and security issues. Both of these issues are highly technical, highly dynamic but with broad principals which allow you to invest an unlimited amount of time in them in order to reach perfection. Rather than individual departments believing that they can budget sufficient time and money for these critical issues, everyone would be so much better if these agencies could help nurture the communities that have expertise in these areas, knowing that best practices will be shared with everyone. By investing in collaboration outside of the organization's silos:

  • best practices can be tested in a generic environment;
  • staff can learn from world class experts;
  • new leaders can be identified by demonstrating their skills in an open form;
  • there will be better documentation;
  • there will be an upgrade path as new concerns arise;

Usually though it isn't about an individual choosing to share with a community or not. More often or not it's the lack of a clear mandate to share that causes people to hesitate. The UK's Government Digital Service Design Principles is a great example and they have been very active in GitHub, one of the world's hottest spaces for technical collaboration. I love the Shared-First initiative, that the White House is initiating across the government in the USA. These are useful beginnings, that will allow for a disruption of the existing dysfunctional IT practices and allow for the exploration of new forms of innovation between and within departments.

The non-profit communtiy generally looks at itself as a have-not sector, but according to Imagine Canada and the Wellesley Institute, the sector is worth $106 billion or 7.1% of the GDP, which is larger than the automotive or manufacturing industries. So what if we were able to break free of our own silos and look at common IT needs for better membership tools, approaches for addressing online engagement, and volunteer management. If non-profits were able work together and Share-First, what kinds of solutions could be met? I have a hard time believing that the Do-Good organizations couldn't do more good if their technology wasn't better.

Where would we be if foundations and granting agencies built in rewards for contributing back to dynamic open source communities, rather than simply paying to fix the same solutions over and over again. I was at a great talk by Allyson Hewitt of the MaRS Discovery District, where she talked about the need to fix problems strategically, at the source. If more organizations started to think about and collaborate with others then we might be able to begin addressing some of the bigger challenges in our society, rather than spending our energy running around attempting to keep up with the damaged lives and ecosystems around us.

There is an opportunity now to shape how our models work, such that we can meet the fast paced needs a modern civil society, however as Bucky said, "You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change things, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." Open source thinking is a huge part of that new model. Is your organization working to get onboard?

Thought I'd also share this interesting PopTech video by Chris Anderson: The Long Tail.


Photo by Jennifer C.


About The Author

Mike Gifford is the founder of OpenConcept Consulting Inc, which he started in 1999. Since then, he has been particularly active in developing and extending open source content management systems to allow people to get closer to their content. Before starting OpenConcept, Mike had worked for a number of national NGOs including Oxfam Canada and Friends of the Earth.