498991746_b70f7d09b3_mOur quest to define, own and control  ideas limits our ability to progress. This is the war cry of open source enthusiasts.  Our capitalist indoctrination and the command and control structure within our institutions have a hard time accommodating this.

It is not so much that these opposing views are at different ends of the same spectrum, the fact is they operate on completely different tracks and there are few bridges linking the two.

There are many points where the two tracks follow different paths. A good example is the blind conviction of command and control structures that if we find something that works on a small scale we need to scale up in order to achieve greater profits and return. This is not to say that scaling up is wrong, or does not have its place; it is the approach that is fundamentally flawed.

From a command and control point of view it is important to control the inputs in order to control the outputs. Scaling up allows an organization to reach economies, streamline operations and ultimately control processes. This works ok in situations where resources are infinite or at the very least not scarce. It also assumes that the outputs are universally demanded and relevant. We are increasingly finding that resources are scarce, people are searching against need and objectives and new markets are organizing themselves differently.

The open source philosophy sees this differently. They will not argue against the need for scale, but the approach to scale is different. In order for something to scale efficiently the process must be opened up. Through opening up the process , each contributor is able to use what has been built so far and add to it in a way that makes it relevant to their needs, objectives, resources, experience, context and knowledge.  The scale element comes from sharing and building upon existing knowledge through an open model.  In simple terms this equates to taking the elements that work successfully within a localized solution and applying those while changing specific elements that relate to context, resources, needs, learning styles and so on. Often when we scale up universally we lose many of the elements that led to success in the first place.

I know what you’re thinking: ‘this is specific to software’. If we consider that software is produced in order to facilitate solutions to problems, to satisfy needs or attain objectives, rather than for the sake of producing software, we can see how this philosophy can be universally relevant.

One of the barriers to understanding and adopting the open source philosophy is the need for profit or revenue generating models. If I give something away for free, how am I going to make money? The answer lies in changing the focus of commerce away from:  ‘How can I get people to buy my product or service?’ to ‘How can I service people’s needs, objectives and demands?’. The open source approach looks at creating the right environment in order to provide relevant, contextual solutions, products and services that people are looking for, or that meet their needs and available resources.

There are numerous examples of open source initiatives that are doing just that. Ken Bank’s FrontlineSMS is a great example with its global adoption across thousands of separate initiatives, all based upon his open source software but adjusted to fit specific purposes and solutions, from development projects to larger spin offs such as Frontline SMS Medic and FrontlineSMS:Credit.

There are many examples out there. Feel free to add yours here. I would love to hear your views on the subject.

Photo by: bre pettis