Last week BBC’s Horizon put out a special episode looking at the next generation of technological advances. Two of the stories they reported caught my eye as they suggest that the future of innovation lies in an open way of working.
The first story looked at the work of Professor Bob Langer at MIT. Professor Langer has received the Draper Prize and National Medal of Science for his work in biomedical engineering. Langer’s approach to research is to bring experts from a range of fields together to create an interdisciplinary team.
Previous approaches to designing medical devices were designed by doctors based on existing materials. Langer sought to design new materials to operate inside the body and be safely absorbed once their job was done. To make this possible he assembled a team including engineers, chemists, neurosurgeons, pharmacologists and a number of other disciplines.
The approach of applying one expert’s knowledge to the problem posed in another’s primary field has many parallels with open innovation, and led to advances never thought possible by those working in single fields.
The second story reported on the Protei project which we heard about recently at Open Source Junction. Protei was founded by Cesar Harada, and seeks to produce sailing drones which can be used to clean up oil spills.
Harada released his initial designs online and set out forming a community of scientists and engineers to collaborate on the project. Supported by a kickstarter campaign, over $33,000 dollars were raised allowing him to hire a work shop and invite his community to work together on the open hardware project.
The programme then focused on the contrast between the model of inventors patenting an invention which Harada characterised as “good for the manufacturer but not very good for the people”, to the “new culture of openness” shaping what we invent.
One comment that piqued my interest came from Gia Milinovich, who spoke of a “tension between the open source movement and business”, and a “battle between these two worlds”. While this paints an exciting picture for a science documentary, I think the language used here was slightly disingenuous.
While we hear of stories where one company attacks another company who backs an open source project, these bear little distinction from companies litigating against each other over issues with no relation to open source. It’s fortunately very rare that we see a “battle” between a business and an open source community, and the examples of this are greatly outstripped by the examples where the two work together in harmony, indeed furthering one another’s goals.
Designer Wayne Hemingway then described how he “loved the idea” of an environment with no patents and no copyright, which while certainly a valid goal doesn’t do well to represent the way open source works. The most common open source licences all at least require that the the original author be credited for their work, which in a copyright-free world wouldn’t be enforceable.
These criticisms aside, It’s great to see open source and open hardware getting airtime from a mainstream broadcaster like this.