Monday, 9 November 2009

Cornerstones of an Innovation Society (Part I): Openness

Earlier this summer I blogged about the concept of a Knowledge Society for Europe as successor of the Information Society. And I had anticipated that several directorates in the Commission are working on the concept for the successor to Innovation Society.

Now President Barroso recently announced the programme for the new term of office of the Commission (see my last blog post in October). Under the motto “Knowledge4Innovation” he set the direction of “Transforming the EU into an Innovation Society”. This is a great move, I think, exactly at the right time, and with the right focus.

Innovation is key. It is key for solving the problems and challenges societies and economies are facing. Innovation is about constant improvement of the instruments, processes and relations we have in place for making things better, smarter, more efficient, more effective.

An innovation society is, in my opinion, a society that constantly aims for improvement, that constantly looks for better ways of doing the things we do. In our days, innovation is for society what the progressive movement was at the beginning of the last century. And I am sure innovation will shape much of this century in a similar way the progressive movement shaped the last century – up into the 1970s at least.

President Barroso also started to outline the focal elements for an Innovation Society. One of them is openness:
"Moreover, the application of innovations like Web 2.0 to business and public life is changing the way in which innovation happens. It is becoming more open and
collaborative. Once the preserve of a select elite, it now involves a much wider
range of actors. It tends to happen at the inter-section between different disciplines. It is sometimes disruptive, resulting in the downfall of established companies. Often, it is employee or consumer-driven. [...] crowd-sourcing and co-creation are now the order of the day!"
I think President Barroso is absolutely right. Over the last decade openness has increasingly become a key element for driving change and fostering innovation. In the IT world, the Open Source model (only think of Linux !), the increasing demand for Open Standards, and in general models of Open Innovation are prime examples.

Openness is moreover a key factor in the political arena as well as for societies in total. Opening up your think tanks, your expert groups etc. for including outside opinion and for gathering outside ideas and integrating them into your thinking is the approach for moving ahead in an Innovation Society.

There are two pieces of literature which I would list as key masterminds about the value of openness for innovation and progress. For the IT world it is Eric S. Raymond's “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”; for society as a whole it is James Surowiecki's “The Wisdom of Crowds”. I owe tremendous insights to both these writings.

It seems to be appropriate at this point to also stress that openness is not about making everything available for free for everyone and about letting loose on everything. Far from it. The key task is to find a new equilibrium between open and closed, between open and proprietary. Find new, innovative processes and instruments for opening up one's systems. Create permeable membranes rather than iron curtains. And we are seeing and will continue to see that those companies, organisations and even economies and societies perform best and progress best which are working on this change towards increased openness and open innovation.

Given all that I think President Barroso is right in outlining the task for the Commission:
"We need a new policy that reflects these changes. This means that we will have to, well, innovate!"
Some directorates and units had been ahead in the Commission already for some time – especially in the IT and standards world. Initiatives from DG Information Society have been aiming at more openness as a facilitator for innovation. Commissioner Kroes at several occasions outlined the benefits of openness and open standards for competitiveness and innovation. And, last but not least, the European Interoperability Framework (EIF) 1.0 had been a driver of openness and innovation in the area of eGovernment with a clear stance on Open Standards and on the need to consider Open Source offerings on equal footing with proprietary solutions.

In its discussions on standardisation and standard policy reform the Commission is currently at a crossroads. The White Paper on “Modernising ICT Standardisation in the EU” published in July this year proposes a bit more openness and would be a first step ahead (see my blog entry in July). EXPRESS is due to submit its report in January with recommendations for the overall European standardisation system. Supporting the transformation of the EU into an Innovation Society will be a key task for the new EU standards policy.

EIF is currently under review. I would say that the focus should not be to revise or review EIF 1.0, but – once again – to innovate. With EIF 1.0 the Commission took global leadership on openness and driving change. There seems to be a weird discussion currently whether to turn away from openness and adapt more to yesterday's thinking. This certainly would not help and would make the EIF almost meaningless. EIF 2.0 needs to build on the great successes of EIF 1.0 that can be seen in many of the member states and to further push for openness as key facilitator of innovation in the area of eGovernment, as well. After all, this is so critical for providing interoperable eGovernment services as part of the transformation of the EU into an Innovation Society.

Openness is essential for innovation. Don't wait for great minds locked-in behind closed walls to come up with the only valid solutions. In a knowledge-based society there needs to be room for great ideas and good proposals to freely circulate. This is the energy which will fire the innovation engine. Governance and policy making need to take this up if the transformation into an Innovation Society is to be successful.

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