Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Education, games, the social, semantic web & open source

This article is on the longish side, as I have had many ideas which have been bouncing around in my head for years now that had to be side-lined so that I could finish writing my PhD dissertation. Now, some 90,000 words / 356 pages later, the book I wrote on my PhD research is finished and the “book” on open-source design has been re-opened. Please do write back with your thoughts, suggestions, criticism and counter-arguments as it really does help me to have on-going discussions about these ideas.

For years now on my personal web page, I’ve had a teaser challenging you to invent with me new ways to transform good ideas and important research generated in academia and non-profit research groups into products that are easily accessible and affordable to the world markets that need them.

I’ve asked you to help me come up with new ways to do collaborative, “open source” design that can be personal, compelling and meaningful, and provide utility to underserved segments of our world.

But what exactly am I proposing? What do we mean when we talk about “open source” design?

The basic premise of what I’m proposing is that ideas are becoming commodities and what will be important in the future will be how we synthesise ideas together into actions, hopefully to do good in the world. Open exchange of ideas and designs can help promote this, and games may provide that extra motivating factor. But more on that later.

Commodification as a catalyst for change

To set the stage, perhaps I can refer you to some ideas in an article written by Tim O’Reilly in 2004 that has influenced my thinking quite a bit.

Entitled “Open Source Paradigm Shift”, it is about how the commodification of predecessor “things” in the computer world has enabled rapid development of the “next big thing” in not gradual, but punctuated-equilibrium style shifts.

According to O’Reilly, we have seen this in the past with the standardisation and commodification of computer hardware when IBM introduced the personal computer in 1981.

Before the IBM PC, almost every computer had different proprietary architectures that used different processors and chipsets. Software developers had trouble establishing a foothold in the marketplace because it was a nightmare to develop for so many different hardware platforms — the market simply was too fragmented.

The standardisation and commodification of computer hardware empowered software developers to focus on what software could do best, and not on the tedious details of how to port applications to multiple hardware platforms.

Software developers like Microsoft, Sun and Oracle flourished and became the dominant movers and shakers in the industry. Hardware standardisation allowed the focus to shift to software.

And while IBM started the hardware standardisation revolution, it failed to recognise that hardware had become a commodity. It took Michael Dell to capitalise on this paradigm shift to become the dominant PC hardware manufacturer, and eventually push IBM out of the PC hardware business altogether.

Similarly, according to O’Reilly, the development of web standards like HTML, CSS and Javascript, yes through W3C, but also in large part to the huge Internet Explorer user base established by Microsoft through the tying of IE to Microsoft Windows, has led to a similar standardisation and commodification of software.

The web and the internet, and not computer OSs, have become the dominant platform, and the specific software you use does not matter so much. Software commodification has allowed the focus to shift to services, content and communities.

Yes, there are rendering differences between different browsers. But for all intents and purposes, a web page or AJAX application rendered in Chrome, Firefox, Opera, Safari or Internet Explorer served up by Apache/MySQL or Microsoft IIS/Microsoft SQL server is all the same to the end user.

What people do with software — create communities that sell, trade, report, criticise and educate — the content that people create — is what is important.

O’Reilly pointed out that while most people, when asked, claim not to have used Linux before, in fact everyone uses Linux daily when they log into and use a Google service. Users are software agnostic as long as they can access the online services and communities they want.

Similar to the case of IBM and Dell, Google and Facebook have become the dominant forces on the web because they recognised the importance of Web 2.0, and Microsoft is playing a huge game of catch-up because of their past focus on pre-shift software paradigms.

The commodification of ideas

So what does this all mean and how does it relate to “open source” design?

Well, the premise of what I am suggesting is that eventually ideas and content generated by communities will become commodities themselves, and what then is important will be how we can synthesise these ideas to have an impact on the virtual world and back in the real world.

In an environment where Moore’s Law holds true, this does not seem to me to be so far off into the distant future. In fact, we already are beginning to see signs of this happening now.

For example, what is Web 3.0 and the semantic web but an effort to liberate ideas from the “proprietary” silos of specific websites?

By adding machine-readable semantic meta-tags and providing context for user and publisher generated content, we are allowing search engines and meta-analyses to derive and synthesise meaning from large collections of content across websites.

Also, open specifications for migration of data between services and software help to knock down the barriers to the free flowing of information.

The recent privacy failures of Facebook and some of the responses to liberate social data through open standards and open software are signs that data wants to be free.

Even Microsoft’s integration of Facebook and LinkedIn into Outlook and Live Messenger is a sign that they too recognise the importance of knocking down barriers to information exchange. In their case, this exchange was established through business relationships rather than open standards.

Trending topics in Twitter and upcoming news in Google Buzz are only the tip of the iceberg for what you can synthesise from commodity user-generated content.

This premise, by no means, is unique as it probably was hinted at in O’Reilly’s article as well as by other internet thought leaders on the web.

But, to use Nicholas Negroponte’s terms, their focus seems to be primarily on the internet and on “bits” while I maintain that we need to focus on “atoms” as well.

This coming revolution is relevant to and might help us solve messy, real-world, analogue problems in addition to solving virtual, digital problems.

The power of communities for real world impact

Technology in the service of people can be a great force multiplier indeed. Communities can be mobilised through the internet to do great things.

Clay Shirky recently gave a talk at TED 2010 about “How cognitive surplus will change the world”. He described how if all the spare brainpower of all the people in the world were utilised fully, we could change the world many times over.

Crowd-sourcing for real world effect can actually work. Shirky highlighed Ushahidi as an example of successful crowd-sourcing and using Web 2.0 to make a difference in the world.

Ushahidi is a crowd-sourced geographic information system that was used to validate, map and report violence in Kenya in 2008. Since the code has been released as open-source, the system has been used to track the post-earthquake crisis response in Haiti and visualise the spread of the Swine Flu epidemic.

Kiva is another example of successful crowd-sourcing to help change the world. This non-profit matches microloans provided by private lenders with entrepreneurs (usually of low-income) looking to improve their lives.

Kopernik is a non-profit that tries to match tech seekers, tech providers and financial supporters to deliver innovative technologies to poor communities. Their success stories include the distribution of self-adjustable lenses in glasses to a poor community in Indonesia.

Kickstarter is a for-profit company that helps people crowd-source funding for a variety of projects ranging from the artistic to the charitable to the commercial. People can list the project they are trying to fund and set a fundraising goal. If they are able to collect enough pledges, the project is funded minus a 5% fee for the service. Recent, successfully funded projects include Diaspora* and

Quirky is a for-profit company that crowd-sources product development for both the ideation/development side and the selection/production side. Users pledge to purchase the product concepts contributed by other users, gaining reputation and achievements for picking successful products. Highly rated concepts are placed into limited-run production by Quirky and sold to users in the Quirky store, and profits are shared with the inventors.

Collaborative education

Education, too, has benefited greatly from crowd-sourcing and community-based collaboration.

While education traditionally has been thought of as a top-down activity, a “client-server” interaction with a master/teacher/mentor providing instruction and training to an apprentice/student/trainee, collaborative educational media might be considered to be a form of “peer-to-peer” education in which peers in a community contribute to educating each other.

A number of successful collaborative “educational” systems have been developed, and you might know them as Wikipedia, Stack Overflow and Moodle.

Even and the open-source movement taken as a whole might be considered to be a form of community-based work education in which people learn by contributing to the development of specific pieces of free software.

The promise of open source design


“Design in a social context.”

“Technology in the service of people.”

“Community service in the digital era.”

“Atoms AND Bits.”

Can we apply the trends and ideas and services that have been so well articulated in the world of BITS to the world of ATOMS?

Originally, my focus was on figuring out ways to create an alternative pathway for developing medical devices in an “open-source” manner, in a manner similar to Richard Stallman’s Free Software Foundation and how open source software is developed.

Not to compete with corporations — they provide a much needed function for society — but to augment their capabilities with a parallel development track for underfunded areas where help is sorely needed.

But development of medical devices is hard nut to crack, specifically due to the expensive regulatory pathways required for government approval, and the defensive patent minefield corporations feel they have to create to protect themselves and their large capital investments.

Neither are likely to change soon without dramatic shifts in government policy.

Altruistic development of needed medical devices and drugs might happen through:

(1) more public funding (large public investment in science and development historically has reaped great dividends, although it requires political will to justify spending in a time of economic strife),

(2) X-prize type competitions to incentivise smaller medical development companies (although the regulatory pathway still is a significant hurdle) and

(3) private altruism (thank you Bill & Melinda Gates, Warren Buffett and many others).

While open source medical device design might be an admirable aspiration, open design to solve more general local and community problems might be an easier target to reach.

Designers and private firms have taken the first steps to promote collaborative ideation not just in medical devices but in collaborative problem-solving through such projects as OpenIDEO and Project H-Design. These both are fantastic initiatives and I invite you to check them out and contribute to their efforts.

But we need to go further. The challenges we face in our world require not just collaborative ideation, but collaborative funding, development, manufacturing and deployment. We need complete solutions.

Can we share not just ideas, but actual mechanical designs, perhaps in the form of STEP files in a repository like Sourceforge?

Can we exchange best design practices with each other in a wiki like Wikipedia or a Q&A forum like Stack Overflow?

Can we fund projects for the greater good like Kiva or Kopernik or Kickstarter?

Can we work together with these established organisations to create something better for the common good?

Games as a powerful motivator

As that famous Cupertino CEO is fond of saying… “Just one more thing…”

I recently saw and was greatly inspired by a talk by Jane McGonigal at TED 2010 on how “Gaming can make a better world”. Basically, what she proposes is to use games as an overlay on real life to provide minute-by-minute motivation to get people to do good.

Another inspiring talk by Dan Pink illustrated by RSA Animate reveals insights on “Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us”. His basic thesis is that autonomy, mastery and purpose are the three driving factors that lead to better performance and personal satisfaction.

Both of these ideas jive with my own experiences working in the medical device and mechanical design world over the past 10 years, as well as with what I’ve seen that motivates fellow engineers and software developers in industry.

We want to do things that mean something to the world. We want to do good.

We just don’t know how we can contribute in a meaningful way.

And yet, the collective skills and cognitive power — of social and political scientists to identify problems, engineers and designers and developers to come up with solutions, companies and factories to produce products, and NGOs and governments to deploy solutions — is hugely enormous.

Given the right motivational framework — perhaps through games, achievements or something else — if we could tap into even a small percentage of that “cognitive surplus”, we, the community, could change the world.


So, what a wonderful journey we have taken thus far. We live in a rapidly changing world that provides us with more opportunities than ever, but also presents us with the most challenges we’ve ever faced as a species.

And yet, we have the skills to make a difference. Just look at what has been achieved in the open-source software communities, and the relationships — standing on the shoulders of giants — that have been established.

For example, the open-source Drupal CMS could not exist without the Apache webserver, the MySQL relational database, the PHP scripting language and the GIT revision control system — all developed in separate but active open-source communities.

Likewise, could we, for example, link ideas generated by OpenIDEO with product development by volunteer engineers and funding from Kiva or Kickstarter, and then connect with interested manufacturers and NGOs through Kopernik?

Can we leverage and link the work people are already doing in a unified and open movement to promote the free exchange of designs and knowledge?

Can we have a Web 3.0 revolution in Atoms as well as in Bits?

Can we do open source design?

Let’s do it!