Learning the lessons of open projects

The flexible, collaborative and interconnected nature of the Internet can serve as a model for how government leaders and managers can solve complex challenges, while fostering innovation and leveraging scarce resources.

A newly released report from the IBM Center for Business of Government delves into the Internet evolution and how lessons learned from open projects initiated by government, industry and academia throughout the years can help tackle some of today’s pressing issues outside the digital community.

“The Internet has spurred a great deal of creativity and innovation, reached considerable scale, and had a big impact on society—three things that government and nonprofit leaders strive for,” writes report author David Witzel, a fellow at The EdgeLab.

In presenting his incentives for open projects, Witzel said this methodology allows leaders to overcome resource constraints by leveraging assets from many different sources. Open projects also promote innovation by encouraging participation, lowering the cost of experimentation and increasing information sharing.

“Open approaches may be particularly valuable strategies for grappling with complex, ‘wicked’ problems, which are dynamic and for which no clear solution is known,” Witzel said. “They operate better in dynamic environments and are able to generate more innovation and experimentation. The ability to aggregate distributed efforts may make them better able to reach critical mass and scale.”

Internet-like open projects are already beginning mold efforts in government and nonprofit sectors. One example Witzel cites is the Health and Human Services Department’s Nationwide Health Information Network. The initiative creatively applies Internet lessons to address challenges around health and health care information issues, he said.

Based on his observations about the Internet evolution, Witzel offers 12 guidelines for designing open projects. As his first tip, Witzel stresses collaboration, or as he puts it, “Let everyone play.” The myriad of contributors to the online community has resulted in a robust “do-it-ourselves culture” that pulls input from many sources and relies on its participants for ideas, fixes and enhancements, he writes. By opening up projects to more participants, additional resources and new ideas are added to the mix, he said.

The "let everyone play" approach will also likely to lead to a mix of organizations adding value to collaborative projects. An interesting project is apt to draw the attention from a network of governments and businesses with varying interests and incentives, Witzel wrote.

But as Witzel notes, the Internet relies on individual contributions, too; citizens, informal groups and nonprofits continue to play a key role in its operation and growth.
 
“Many groundbreaking ideas and products have come from amateur hackers, students and individual entrepreneurs,” Witzel writes, citing contributions such as versions of the Network News Transfer Protocol from Duke University students, IRC and Linux from Finnish university students, and HTML from a British physicist working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research.

Along with the concept of engaging everyone to contribute comes the idea of creating something and then giving it away. A key trait of the Internet is that “much of the key intellectual property that makes it run is available in the public domain for anyone to use and reuse,” Witzel writes.

Reusing widely available intellectual property not only encourages greater participation but it has the potential to grow the social return from a project. "Ideas, algorithms, standards and software are all inexpensively reproduced for distribution and improvement, generating increasing returns to our efforts,” Witzel writes.

For federal agencies wanting to avoid playing favorites, open licensing can also help projects create a “self-leveling playing field.”

“Open knowledge sharing creates a shared asset that all competitors can benefit from in a precompetitive space,” Witzel says. “The flip side of not wanting to be responsible for picking winners is that governments and nonprofits don’t have to be proprietary about what they know and learn and are thus able to ‘lift all boats’ with shared knowledge and resources.”

 

About the Author

Camille Tuutti is a former FCW staff writer who covered federal oversight and the workforce.

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