Problem Solving as a Mashup


An article titled If You Have a Problem, Ask Everyone in yesterday’s NY Times describes a new business model for what might best be called “open source problem solving”. Example: John Davis, a chemist from Bloomington, Ill., knows that you can keep concrete from hardening by keeping it jiggling (vibrating). He proposed using devices that keep concrete vibrating as a way to stop oil from freezing and the Oil Spill Recovery Institute of Cordova, AK paid him $20,000 for his idea. The problem and its solution were mediated by InnoCentive, a company that

links organizations (seekers) with problems (challenges) to people all over the world (solvers) who win cash prizes for resolving them. The company gets a posting fee and, if the problem is solved, a “finders fee” equal to about 40 percent of the prize.

To use a hip-hop (and increasingly web-centric) metaphor, we might say that the solution in this case was a mashup.

InnoCentive makes money by taking a 40% cut of the prize money as a sort of “finders fee”. It’s not clear whether this comes out of the prize itself or is in addition to the prize. Their website and the Times article provide several other good examples of innovative problem solving that resulted from this approach.

Former Xerox PARC Director, John Seely Brown, sees this as another application of the open source model (”open source science” is the way he characterized it). Examples abound. The article mentions efforts to discover ways to develop artificial meat, solve protein folding problems, and figuring out how to land on the moon. These are all examples of using open competitions or games to to solve problems.

There are also a growing number of non-competitive–i.e., more communitarian–applications of the open source problem solving. For example, the BIOS project helps to solve problems of “inequities in food security, nutrition, health, natural resource management and energy” by making scientific solutions available through open source licenses. The BioBricks Foundation provides open source standards and licenses for “standard biological parts”–i.e., for genetically engineered DNA sequences that can be used and shared by synthetic biologists and engineers to invent useful organisms. I suppose one example of a useful genetically engineered organism might be, say, a bacterium that converts carbon dioxide into oil, which happens to be Craig Venter’s latest project. These examples of open source science are accompanied by the Public Library of Science, a example of open source scientific publishing–why shouldn’t scientific and medical literature be freely available to the public?

Of course, open source science is not the only or even the most prominent example of the open source model being applied outside of the software industry. It infuses our culture. As John Seely Brown (former director of Xerox PARC puts it in the Times piece) , these examples represent “a huge shift in popular culture, from consuming to participating.” Today, this model appears almost everywhere we look, from Wikipedia to YouTube to the DailyKOS to Architecture for Humanity.

And as long access to the Internet is itself kept open and free (as in freely available) and neutral — i.e., net neutrality — there’s no imagining how the open source model might be applied for the mutual benefit of society.

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