How Sharing Increases Innovation

4/26/10Follow @rmchase

I believe there is a strong tie between sharing and the ability to innovate. This post will walk you through the logic.

Innovation is built on these things:

1. The existence of problems and the desire to solve them

2. The ability to apply new ways of thinking to these problems

3. The cost of the inputs needed to solve the problem (skills, data, resources, devices, networks)

4. The ability to iterate, adapt, evolve and scale.

1. PROBLEMS: Frankly, there is no dearth of problems and some kinds of people really like to think about how to solve them if they have the time. So problem-solving people who have at least some time on their hands try to problem-solve and people who don’t have time, can’t. (Why are there so many fewer historical examples of women doing remarkable innovative things? Well, duh…)

2. NEW THINKING: The ability to apply NEW ways of thinking, with an emphasis on the word “new.” Problems that are kept hidden in discipline silos don’t get any new thinking applied to them. See all the great work done by Innocentive, that gets problems out of silos and opens them up to a diverse group of solvers.

3. THE COST OF INPUTS. Here is where I want to linger for a bit. There is a whole world of inputs that could come at much lower cost—wherever there is excess capacity, an underused resource that has already been paid for and which therefore has lots more value locked up in it! If only we could get people, companies, governments to “share” more—to make sure that their unused unneeded excess capacity was made available to others to make use of.

Exactly when are we NOT willing to share?

• When we believe that abundance only comes from hoarding and we perceive that everything is rivalrous (see this earlier post).

• When we have just witnessed a communal sharing debacle (Chinese cultural revolution) or when goods really are rivalrous.

• When things really are scarce, there is just simply not enough to go around and so we hoard to protect our closest family.

• When things are abundant, why bother?

If we look at these reasons for not sharing excess capacity (and thus facilitating a whole lot more innovation), I see lots of room for improvement. We have to stop our rapid and prejudiced assumption that sharing reduces our own personal abundance. There are lots and lots of goods that are non-rivalrous (the new push towards open data for example), and many once-rivalrous goods that can now be shared (cars) thanks to technology. We’ve also come to appreciate that anything with a network effect actually has a much higher value the more it is shared (carsharing, ridesharing, social networks, mesh networks, the Internet).

Recently I’ve been doing a lot of writing and talking on this topic of increasing openness.

4. EXPERIMENTATION & EVOLUTION. The ability to experiment, iterate, adapt and evolve. In some cases, even if we deliver up items 1-3, there are some sectors in which we still don’t get much innovation because of institutional or government barriers. The status quo has developed a whole set of rules and regulations to protect existing ways of doing things, as well as protect the health and safety of people. I would put the automotive, housing, and a good piece of the telecommunications sectors into this category.

Sometimes the rationale is good and sometimes it isn’t. In any event, if we are going to see successful innovation, we have to let small scale (some volume) experiments flourish without many of the safety and regulatory requirements we place on large volume sellers of goods and services. Bureaucratic and even well-meaning red tape just make experimentation impossible.

A quote I heard from Tom Watson, founder of IBM: “If you want to improve your success rate, double your failure rate.” And a far less elegant quote from Robin Chase: “If you want to improve your innovation rate, open up more data, devices, networks, platforms, sources, and stuff.”

[Editor's note: This post first appeared on Robin's blog, Network Musings.]

Robin Chase leads Meadow Networks, a consulting firm that advises city, state, and federal government agencies about wireless applications in the transportation sector. She is also founder and former CEO of GoLoco, an online ridesharing community, and Zipcar, the largest carsharing company in the world. Follow @rmchase

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