Idea Magnetism and Open Source

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Last weekend I visited an exhibition of 3D printing at the Science Museum in London.  It is nothing short of magical to see a 3-dimensional object being created before your eyes by a 3D printer attached to a computer. Chris Anderson – author of the recent business bestseller ‘Makers: The New Industrial Revolution’ describes how what we have learned about the digital world is now being applied to the physical world. The pace of innovation in this field is astonishing and it is not just confined to the technology. New business models based on open source sharing are turning conventional business thinking on its head. Intellectual property rights may become a thing of the past according to Anderson and he illustrates this using his experience of setting up a small company manufacturing “aerial robotics” – miniature helicopter ‘drones’. All of his company’s software and hardware specifications are shared freely with others. Far from leading to competitive suicide, this openness created a community of enthusiasts whose innovative contributions (mostly given free of charge) have led to the development of yet more groundbreaking developments.

One of the many challenging insights contained in Anderson’s entertaining and informative book is his discussion of Joy’s Law – “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else”! The implication of this is the importance of tapping into what the economist Friedrich Hayek called “distributed knowledge”. Anderson describes how the internet allows us to find and tap into the best people no matter where or who they are. Indeed, the essence of open-innovation communities is that those people find you if you are willing to share what you are doing and they are interested in what you are sharing. His own company, DIY Drones, is an excellent example of this ‘idea magnetism’.

This is not particularly earth-shattering to those of us working in the field of development. We have been creating knowledge-sharing communities for decades – though with varying degrees of success. What was new to me is that the business world is beginning to act this way too. Just imagine for a moment  what would be possible if collaboration were to displace competition as the new business mindset.

Putting aside such flights of imagination, one message comes across clearly from Anderson’s book – the generous sharing of ideas can lead to unimagined results.

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