Open everything. Right here. Right now.

June 4, 2008 § Leave a comment

Today, Toronto kicks off Open Everything: a global series of six (or more?) events about the art, science and spirit of open. We’ve got 60 amazing people registered who come from computer programming, community development and everywhere in between. It’s gonna rock.

If you are wondering what we’re going to talk about, check out the Open Everything Toronto wiki or the list of speedgeeks. Also, you may be interested in my hastily compiled welcome notes:

Welcome. It is amazing to be in a room with 60 people willing to take an afternoon off to talk about the art, science and spirit of open. Really, this is something I could have only dreamed of a year ago. What’s even better is that this is the first of six Open Everythings. Similar conversations are already planned for Berlin, Cape Town, London, Singapore and Cortes Island in Bristish Columbia. We are onto something very big and very important.

Let’s start our conversation with a couple of questions. How many people here use Linux? How many have heard of Linux? How many have heard of Wikipedia? In the end, almost everyone. Linux and Wikipedia exemplify what we are hear to talk about today: the idea of openness. And, along with it, principles like transparency, participation, creativity, remixability, community.

The fact that these two very different things – an operating system and an encyclopedia – both embody these principles is not an accident. In the early 1980s, Richard Stallman and others started talking about something called ‘free software’. Stallman wrote a definition that outlines four principles: the right to run, study, distribute and improve any piece of free software.

Famously these principles inspired projects like Linux and Wikipedia. They have also helped shape the open source software movement and, really, the Internet as a whole. But what isn’t so famous is huge explosion of other endeavors built on open principles like these.

A few months ago, I looked on Google and Wikipedia for places where people were using the concept of ‘open’. In 30 minutes I found about 15 examples. Obviously, some of these examples used ‘open’ was being well before the idea migrated from software: open systems; open societies; open standards; open space meetings. There are also fields that are taking their inspiration much more directly from things like Linux and Wikipedia: open education; open content; open innovation; open policy making; open design; open media; open philanthropy. And, then, there were a few surprises: open ethics; open religion; open fitness.

Some of this is fluff and fashion, of course. However, there are increasing examples of people very seriously and effectively applying open source thinking – intentionally and unintentionally – beyond software and encyclopedias. Here are three examples: The Open Architecture Network, an online community that shares building designs with the aim of creating low cost, innovative housing solutions for the world’s poor. The MIT Open Courseware initiative and the Shuttleworth Foundation’s own Siyavula project, which are using open source techniques to develop and share learning materials. And BarCamp, which is like an open source conference model for techies, making it easy for people to design events on the fly and for the model to be replicated in different cities around the world. You will hear about many more examples as a part of today’s Open Everything event.

I asked someone why they wanted to come to open everything. The response: “I don’t know, but I am violently intrigued.” That’s a nice way of putting it. There is no question that the explosive growth of open source thinking is violently intriguing. So much so that I can’t stop thinking about it.

However, I think we are ready for more than just intrigue. While still revelling in the playfulness of open, it’s also time to admit that this is serious business. It is serious business that is genuinely (and quietly) reconfiguring economics, knowledge and power everywhere on the planet.

When I first started thinking and writing about this stuff less than 10 years ago, both Linux and Wikipedia were fringe phenomena. They were just for geeks. Now, Linux – a piece of software created by a loosely coordinated group of people spread around the world and working for single company – is edging into the mainstream. It not only powers a huge percentage of the computers that run the Internet, but it also serves a simple, low clutter operating system for mass market, low cost laptops now being introduced by companies Asus and HP. Even more clearly a mass success, Wikipedia is now in more than 250 languages with 2.3 million articles in English alone. This huge public asset was produced with money or the market. It was produced almost completely by volunteers driven by passion … and a healthy dose of ego. The crazy open ideas of 10 years ago are the mainstream of today.

More important for today’s conversation: we are not only seeing a growth in the number of areas where people are applying open source thinking, but we are also seeing some of these new experiments gain real traction. My favourite example is what open has done to photography. On Flickr alone, there are now almost 70 million photos under a Creative Commons license. Much of this is just pictures of my kids (literally, my kids). However, it also includes a ton of useful stuff that people can use for presentations, mash up into new media products or just put up on their wall. In terms of Education, MIT has not only put all it’s curriculum up online, but that curriculum is being widely used and event adapted. OOPS in Taiwan is actively translating large quantities of MIT Open Courseware into Chinese. And, in meatspace, BarCamp, an intentionally amateurish and self organizing idea, has spread to every part of the world, from Azerbaijan to Malaysia to Slovakia. I looked at the BarCamp wiki today, and there are camp-like events already planned in over 90 cities for the second half of 2008. Just like Linux and Wikipedia, these Open Everythings are going mainstream.

As someone who thinks this is a good thing, I have two big questions: How will we know an Open Everything when we see one? and How can we do this better?

It’s easy to pull out things like the Free Software Definition or the Open Source Definition to test if a piece of software is open. However, we can’t just apply the same tests to a piece of architecture, or curriculum or public policy. We can’t just say am I free to ‘run’ this law or this building. We need a set of principles broadly define the essence of open, and that we can apply much more broadly to the world. Having thought about it a bit, my guess is that the essence of open probably includes things like transparency, participation and remixability. But there are probably more and better words needed here.

Similarly, the best practices of running an open source community are becoming increasingly clear and well documented. Modular ownership. Good infrastructure for reporting bugs and submitting patches. Open and constant communication. All of these things are essential. And, only some of them work well when you port them over to areas of endeavour like education. From the business process perspective, we need to start asking what are some of the core techniques that work across different domains and what things are specific. We also need to look at ways to cross pollinate. My guess is that people skilled at facilitating open public policy process and open events have just as much to teach to open source communities as the other way around.

For me, these are two critical things to be thinking about: the essence and practice of open. We need to look for examples, identify patterns and share our approaches. As we go, we need to wikify, videotape and blog about what we’re concluding. And, literally or figuratively, we probably need to write a book that explains the essence of open.

Our job here today – and my invitation to all of you – is to do exactly this: to help write the book on open everything. My promise and the promise of the people running other Open Everythings is to collect, share and steward the ideas that come up in these conversations. We want to take these ideas somewhere useful and inspiring, to loop back to you and to keep you involved. As a part of the bargain, your job is simple: think hard about Open Everything for the next few hours, and make some new friends while you are doing it.

We’ve got an amazing squad of bloggers and documenters for the event. Watch their progress on the Toronto wiki and on Flickr. I will also post highlights (plus a hypertexted version of the above) tomorrow. Should be fun. Spread the word.

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