“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.” Steve Jobs
I love this quote from Steve Jobs. It is very honest and I absolutely know it to be true. But is it really something to feel guilty about? New knowledge is built on and incorporates what we already know; art inspires art, ideas lead to more ideas – it has always been like this, otherwise progress would be impossible.
In our society information, art and other cultural products are owned by individuals and organisations. Copyright give creators exclusive rights to their creations for a limited time (well, at least a lifetime) providing them with a means to earn a living as well as incentive to continue creating.
There are however some things that we own together as humans which we call the ‘commons’. According to Wikipedia the commons refer to those ‘gifts’ that we can only receive as a human community- to be shared, used and enjoyed by all. Think of ‘things’ like air, language, ecosystems, mathematics and of course the body of knowledge and the various creations of people that have become part of our human heritage, such as the work of Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare, Einstein etc. These are the traditional commons, and wonderful gifts they are, but recently we have been creating a new inspirational type of commons –and what makes it inspiring is the fact that we have been creating it together and by creating together we are enabling each other to create it even more.
Say what? The internet, a recent addition to the human commons and in itself the product of sharing and collaboration, is enabling what has been termed “peer production – a process by which many individuals, whose actions are coordinated neither by managers nor by the market, contribute to a joint effort that effectively produces a unit of information or culture” (Benkler, 2003). This development is dramatically challenging the traditional notions around ownership, commercial producers and passive consumers. The dynamic interchange between information consumption and creation in cyberspace is allowing us to see that our efforts to commodify information overlooks the fact that information is neither a pure public good nor a pure private good (Kranich 2004). It is a good that cannot be used up and when it is shared its value can escalate with increased use (Benkler, 2003) and finally, as is alluded to by Steve Jobs, it can inspire further innovation and creativity.
By creating together and allowing everybody else to share in our work we are starting to develop amazing information based (digital) resources – owned by no one and all of us at the same time. I would like to say that this is happening because we are evolving in altruism, but the truth is it allows us to do things that would have been otherwise impossible. Computer software engineers were first to recognise the value of developing a commons-like structure to share computer code and to collaborate on modifying and upgrading electronic products. Here is the argument for open source software described by Software Company, ‘Red hat’:
“All software has source code. Open source software grants every user access to that code. Freedom means choice. Choice means power. That’s why we believe open source is inevitable. It returns control to the customer. You can see the code, change it, learn from it. Bugs are found and fixed quickly. And when customers are unhappy with one vendor, they can choose another without overhauling their entire infrastructure. No more technology lock-in. No more monopolies. We believe open source simply creates better software. Everyone collaborates, the best technology wins. Not just within one company, but among an Internet-connected, worldwide community. New ideas and code travel the world in an instant. As a result, the open source model often builds higher quality, more secure, more easily integrated software. And it does it at a vastly accelerated pace and often at a lower cost”.
As it goes with ideas, the idea of open source software led to the generation of new related ideas or rather, different applications of the same idea. Multi-author websites like Wikipedia demonstrate the power and potential of collaborative information creation and free access. Wikipedia is written collaboratively and largely anonymously by internet volunteers who write without pay. Anyone with Internet access can write and make changes to Wikipedia articles. It attracts 470 million unique visitors monthly, has 77,000 active contributors working on over 22 million articles in 285 languages. Every day, hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world collectively make tens of thousands of edits and create thousands of new articles – for the benefit of all of us – for free (if you have access to the internet). The impact of Wikipedia is unimaginable. Its content plays a role in the education of millions of people and the creation of countless new ideas and creations.
The idea of the ‘unimaginable impact of sharing’ has led to the development of idealistic sharing movements such as the Creative Commons who provides flexible copyright options (for free) that allow artists/creators to give other people the right to share, use, and build upon the work that they created: “Our vision is nothing less than realizing the full potential of the Internet — universal access to research and education, full participation in culture — to drive a new era of development, growth, and productivity”. This sounds lofty, but why would someone do that – realistically? Take for example the popular song, Gangnam Style which went viral in August 2012 and became the most watched video on YouTube (1.578 billion times). The parodies, remixes and derivatives are part of what fuelled the billion hits on his video, and led to a sold out world tour for a previously unknown South Korean pop star. But, it is lofty as well – Corsera is an education company that partners with the top universities and organizations in the world to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free. And this is just one example, there are various free online universities and even traditional institutions like Havard are offering free learning courses online which are open to anyone.
Staying on the lofty side of what is really an information revolution, consider the following Ethiopian proverb: “When spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion”. Free and open creation and sharing of information allows us to collectively address the most difficult issues and powerful structures that impede our quality of life. For example, international non-profit organisation Avaaz “empowers millions of people from all walks of life to take action on pressing global, regional and national issues, from corruption and poverty to conflict and climate change. Their model of internet organising allows thousands of individual efforts, however small, to be rapidly combined into a powerful collective force”. The impact of the controversial non-profit organisation, Wikileaks, contributes to the reduction of corruption and the development of stronger democracies in all society’s institutions by providing “innovative, secure and anonymous ways for sources to leak information to their journalists”.
Non-profit/public benefit organisations are the creators of various information products (mostly educational) designed to benefit specific beneficiary groups or to assist the organisation in the process of doing so (like data collection tools or systems for example). The other day I got a reminder from Amazon of all the non-profit management books that they think would be a good idea for me to buy. Among them I read a description of a book which advised non-profits that “the sooner they realise that they are in competition with other non-profits for limited resources (i.e. funding), the better”. This point of view is of course based on a traditional business model where freely sharing your intellectual property is definitely not considered good for business. NGOs are mission driven organisations each trying to persuade a limited pool of donors that its approach to development, which tends to be different from that of other NGOs, is worth funding. Thus, from a traditional point of view it might not be unreasonable for NGO’s to be reluctant to share their work, but considering what is currently being achieved commercially and for the greater good by sharing and collaborating on information, it might be somewhat short sighted.
The first important thing to keep in mind when considering why it is important for NGOs to share is your point of view. All social problems are interconnected. They are different symptoms of the same underlying issues and often one problem is causing the other. At the surface NGOs are doing different work, but ultimately they are just dealing with different features of the same problem. And coming back to the Ethiopian proverb, in South Africa we have more than a ‘lion’ of a social problem– we have T-Rex – no single organisation is going to tie it down and even if this point seems obvious, fostering the idea that you are just doing your little bit without caring about the larger collective effort is equally limiting.
If NGOs start sharing their work and implementation experience, they can exponentially increase the impact of their work as a sector, nationally and internationally. As I have mentioned, existing knowledge and ideas are the fuel for future creativity and innovation. It is true that another organisation in say Guatemala (or Limpopo or for that matter) might look at your work and use it as inspiration to create something that is better, or perhaps just better suited for their specific circumstances – and that is a good thing. Although your work might be giving other organisations an advantage, if we are all sharing you have the same advantage. Even only the process of sharing, which naturally encourages dialogue, can lead to the strengthening of ideas and practice. Thus by sharing, instead of trying to get the competitive edge by limiting each other, we are pushing each other to be more innovative, more creative and to be more effective.
We also said that the value of information can increase the more it is shared and used. The impact (value) of our programmes is further increased the wider your development strategy is implemented. Due to the face-to-face interaction with beneficiaries that are part of many development strategies, NGOs are often limited to operating in a specific geographical area. By sharing your strategy and intellectual resources you can enable new/other organisations to implement your or a similar programme in another area where such an intervention is needed. One of our grantees, IkamvaYouth, created an online resource and participation portal where they provide anyone out there in cyberspace with all the tools and guidelines to implement their programme. In this way their impact is significantly increased and resultantly their ability to secure funding as well. What is more, the more your work is used and referenced the more your credibility as an organisation and reputation as a thought leader grows.
We therefore encourage organisations to share their work by contributing to communities like those established by DGMT (see below) or the various other spaces that form part of the information common. For organisations that are concerned about how their work will be used, flexible copyright through the Creative Commons is an excellent option. There are four “building block” permissions that a CC license can have:
– Attribution: others may use your work, but only if they give you credit.
– No Derivative: others may use your work, but they may not change it.
– Share Alike: others may use your work and change it, but if they distribute it they must use an identical license to the one you chose.
– Non-Commercial: others may use your work, but they may not charge money for what they create.
At DGMT we give our grantees a little push to share their work on our online sharing community called the DGMT Confluence of Ideas and Practice which we have recently opened for all organisations. We are also in the process of developing a Monitoring and Evaluation online resource which will be highly reliant on organisations sharing their M&E experience and resources with each other. As is the case with open source software, if we share and learn from each other’s reported implementation experience, we can create better programmes, quicker (since we don’t all have to learn through experience) and at a lower cost (which means more funding for strategies that really work). The overall implication is that the entire sector is strengthened and as a collective we are more effective in dealing with the various manifestations of social problems.
 Yochai Benkler, “Freedom in the Commons: Towards a Political Economy of Information,” Duke L. J., vol. 55, #6 (Apr. 2003): 1245-76, p. 1256, http://www.law.duke.edu/shell/cite.pl?52+Duke+L.+J.+1245.