What is Openness and where does it come from

This blog is not about Openness but given its relevance these days, I´ve formed my own opinion about it. It has been showing up on the radars of many for a while now and is related to a wider context. It is a central aspect of how people are working and might well be the defining characteristic in professional practice in development for the following years. The big boys have noticed it too.

In broad terms, Openness is the quality of a system being open. For our purposes, this means the disappearance of previous divisions in knowledge and practice. A large, heavily vertical institution tends to be less open than a small one, where everybody has a larger spectrum of roles, for example. In itself, this already signals that Openness is somehow related to the simplification of work. But we will get there in a second.

Openness manifests itself in organizations being more transparent and closer to their audiences; in knowledge becoming available to more people other than the specialists; in a bigger involvement from the masses in policy-making and so on.[1] In a deeply cynical XXI century, this can be a bit of a surprise.I´m a bit of a cynical person, so I doubt all of this has simple “good will” roots. [2]

So where does it come from? Did just everybody decide to be cool and invite others in?
Openness follows a natural tendency of artificial systems to mimic natural ones. Artificial systems (e.g. formal organizations; companies and so on) have set rules and procedures (dynamically changing, by the way), whereas natural systems (e.g. biosphere, society) have frameworks of operation. [3] The biggest difference between the artificial and the natural, in this light, is who sets the rules and who follows them. When it comes to the artificial world, the prevalent tendency of simplification and modelling of reality results in a centralization (even when systems are said to be distributed, by virtue of their simplification, they leave out stakeholders) of decision power. Just as natural systems are highly specialized and adapted, artificial systems, man-made creations, tend to be more broad. No matter how specific an artificial system seems to be, I think that is all a matter of scale and perspective. A km is nothing in astronomic terms.

The problem is that the world has become more complex and less forgiving, so those who had the monopoly of knowledge and power (make no mistakes, somebody is likely to hold it still. Utopia is THE horizon), scrambled for ways of recruiting expertise and insight from those who had been out of the loop and could have something fresh to offer. This has happened both voluntarily and eagerly as well as cautiously. Open source software is an example of the first, the release of criminal investigation data to nab a wrongdoer is a case of the second, for example.

So, as the world gets more complex, segmented views of it no longer serve the purpose of ever increasing progress. Operating at a percentage of its potential capacity, society organized itself to correct artificial divisions.

Because it creeped up on us, it was a just murmur for a long time, but the present bias towards Openness has been raising steadily since the days of Industrial revolution, when industrialists shaped the school curricula to create a society of specialized workers. Although it was an artificial division of labor, it was achieved by the democratization of access to education. In the short run this is somehow ironic, but with perspective, it becomes more evident.

In the past few decades, we have been building the infrastructure to support Openness (e.g. education, communications, transport, etc) and now, our generation lives with free communications, easy access to independent publications, free and detailed information, freedom to associate, funding platforms and etc (this list goes for ever). It has never been easier for so many, to affect so many others, independently.

Openness, by dissolving previous walls, allows for deeper self-expression and realization and suddenly, we are all specialists in our own things. Designers are working around this principle.

Much like a theoretical terra-forming process, human action has steadily inched towards where we stand. Our society was constructed and Openness seems to be, from here, the natural balance of things. [4]

[1] In an interesting twist of this, US anti-terror strategy post 911 was to mimic the headless network of independent terrorist cells from al-Qaeda. Fascinating read at Wired.
Basically, the distribution of decision power is a sub-trend of Openness.

[2] For the most part, Openness is considered a good thing. This is, naturally, open for discussion. Yes, pun intended.

[3] In nature, and we are not talking about about animals and plants alone, conditions for survival and demise of a participant (e.g. a certain type of social role, or some cactus in a desert, or a star in a galaxy) vary widely. All this happens accordingly to the specific needs of said participant (e.g. the relevance of that social role; ways of collecting and storing water; availability of fuel).

[4] Because civilization is no static system, I’m not suggesting the end of war and famine, misery and overall jackassery. But if you look at nature, it seems that this is the way things should be.


Expression is not Creativity

Put a group of diverse experts working together to solve a problem (this sounds like design practice) and chances are that somebody will be miffed by the end of it. Excluding fine tuned and prepared teams, I’d say this is more the norm than the exception.

Such meetings, and I’m focusing on creative meetings at the beginning of a project; require people to switch between two gears. Initially the M.O. is to be light hearted, emotional, playful and non-judgemental and then, when the ideas are collected, one becomes a bit more analytic, rational and focused in order to select the best. And this is where the conflict tends to start. The “creative types” become frustrated with the apparent nitpicking from the “technical types” and the “technical types” wishing the “creatives” would come up with more realistic stuff. [1]

It is common to say that technical specialists (e.g. electronic engineers) are less creative than the “creative types” (e.g. artists). I think this is an huge generalization that equates expression with creativity. “Creativity” involves some sort of fitting between problem and solution, “Expression” requires no problem nor it attempts be a “solution”.

Like many, I also believe that everybody can be creative. However, I think that this creativity manifests itself in different ways and therefore, different types of creativity would be best employed at specific stages of the creation process.
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The Sources of Innovation, review

I´ve recently read “The Sources of Innovation”, from Eric von Hippel (its free to download at his website and can be bought at TheBookDepository.co.uk ) and despite not being all that recent (1988) it is really something I recommend. Especially if you are after a structured view on innovation, his academic research can be good medicine against some of the more superficial talk on the topic. Eric von Hippel is “(…)a Professor of Technological Innovation in the MIT Sloan School of Management, and also a Professor in MIT´s Engineering Systems Division” specialized on “research related to the nature and economics of distributed and open innovation. (…) developing and teaching about practical methods that individuals, open user communities, and firms can apply to improve their product and service development processes”.

You get the point.

Even if the basic premise of the book (product innovations are often accomplished not by product manufacturers, but by users and suppliers) is not entirely new in the current days, it is very well explained and defined. You get to understand the economics of the innovation process, and some hard data is given to underline how fitting the model seems to be.

This work deals with different levels of innovation management, from managerial to policy making and for me it was an excellent primer on innovation management. Its age and enduring relevance lead me to believe that it’s a good place to start looking for some formal knowledge on the topic

A quick overview of the topics you will find:
– The Functional Source of Innovation (In a given product innovation, who is responsible for it. Producers, Suppliers or Users? Or a combination of more than one?)

– Variations in the Source of Innovation (How does the model apply to different industries, markets, business cultures, etc)

– An Economic Explanation (The simplest and most efficient way to predict who will be engaged in a given product innovation. Basically, it will be the stakeholder that extracts the biggest economic benefit. I am, naturally oversimplifying this…)

– Understanding The Distributed Innovation Process: Know-How trading between rivals (how and why do seemingly rival firms trade information between each other. Good introduction to the distributed nature of the innovation process)

– Managing the Distributed Innovation Process: Predicting and Shifting the Sources of Innovation (How to influence how distributed innovation happens and how to manage for it. Probably the most hands-on section of the book)

– Implications for Innovation Research (How do the Functional Source of Innovation model and the Distributed Innovation Process hypothesis influence where to look next at in future research)

– Implications for Innovation Management (What are the new considerations for Innovation managers. What to experiment with)

– Implications for Innovation Policy (at the highest level, how can governments and institutions foster and support innovation, in the light of the new information)

Bottom line, if you are trying to advocate for open innovation, this has some real-life stories, backed by scientific data. Can’t get much better than that. Oh, its free.

Workshop “Breathe, Amsterdam”

During my last visit to the Netherlands, there was a workshop on November 18th in Amsterdam, with the people from Combustic, Pachube  and Booreiland. The topic was  the measurement of air quality in Amsterdam and how it could be achieved on a crow-sourced basis.

Each coordinating party zoomed on one aspect, with Casper from Combustic being all about problem solving and bringing the participants together, while Ed (Pachube) was passionate about collection and access of data and the related infra-structure. Sara, who was representing Booreiland, came to talk about their fresh out-of-the-printers book (check it at metaproducts.nl) and how can we design products that take full advantage of the The Internet of Things, with special attention to the user.

To get the ball rolling, there were three really cool presentations on air quality [1]; the making of sensors [2]  and finally the coordination of sensors and actuators for morphing architecture [3].

With these, we got an understanding of methods and techniques of air quality monitoring, the future possibilities of the field and how to integrate the resulting data in adaptive systems.Important questions were raised on the importance of air quality data, how should it be collected, who builds the infrastructure, who funds it, etc…

Now, data collection on a crowdsourced basis has two challenges: the technical accomplishment of designing systems that measure what we want and are cheap enough to spread around, and the management of users motivation to participate. Tech for the first, People for the second. Managing these two is not always easy, as we’ve already learned.

A big part of the workshop was the method developed by Booreiland to design with the user in mind and still make use of the technical advantages of products connected to the Internet. It was a bit challenging to get people to stop thinking about features and tech specs and consider user experience and motivations, but at the end we had some cool ideas and even better, everybody was charged up to meet and work in between the two sessions.

After all, the objective is to get to a working system that could be used to sense and record air quality around Amsterdam.By the end of the workshop, we had decided on which variables to measure, and that we wanted to also measure indoors air quality, to compare it with the exterior.

A number of issues were raised on what constitutes clean air (some pollutants are worse than others, for instance), how to scale up or down the data collection and how manage user participation.

Unfortunately I won’t be able to make it to the fun session of actually getting things working, but i was a nice introduction to the topic of data collection and crowdsourcing.

For those of you interested in following what happens there, I suggest you start paying attention to the Internet of Things Amsterdam MeetUp group.

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