Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Foundations - set your content free!

I am working on a book on information, knowledge and philanthropy. This is not news - I've been "working" on this since my last book in 2004. This is the year, I can feel it (Hey, if I can get to "inbox 0" I can write another book! Perhaps what I need is an underwriter or two...anyone interested please give a call. I'd be happy to offer up a logo-emblazoned coffee cup or tote bag.)

Anyway - this is a MUST READ post on sharing information with creative commons licensing from nonprofit change guru Beth Kanter. Here are a few teasers from Beth:

"I believe in setting my content free. It provides a huge return on investment. Here's why:

  • A way to crowd source ideas. People can add and embellish your content and if you have access to the remix, it can give you new ideas
  • It creates a gift economy and that help you build your network
  • It gets your work out there. My photos and blog posts have traveled around the world!"

That said, the more I dig into the role of information in different economic situations the more complicated I understand this to be. I'm reading two very different books that are provoking a lot of thought on this. One, recommended by @jranck (A go-to source on knowledge, health, development, technology, innovation and philanthropy) is "When Nature Goes Public" by Cori Hayden, an anthropology professor at UC Berkeley. This is a deep look at "bioprospecting" - in which drugs are developed from medicinal plants and traditional knowledge. The challenge - how are the monetary rewards from these drugs distributed between the corporations that develop the drugs and the indigenous populations that provide the knowledge? As Hayden describes it, in recent years, due to the efforts of indigenous rights movements and shifts in academic practice the drug companies had a "fragile obligation" to generate some form of "equitable returns" to the communities that provided them the plants and information about how to use them.

Such a commitment - returning the financial value of information/knowledge to marginalized populations - is a worthy goal that benefits efforts at both economic development, human rights, and community health. However, free sharing of information - also a worthy goal per Beth's post - won't advance these kinds of efforts. So different protocols are needed in different settings.

The work of Lightyears IP shows another way that protocols fit into these puzzles. Lightyears IP has helped coffee, cocoa and vanilla farmers in various African countries earn a more fair share of the value of their products. It did this by renegotiating the "value of a brand" - returning 00s of millions of dollars to Ethiopian coffee farmers, for example, "simply" by helping them regain control over their luxury brand rather than remaining at the mercy of commodity markets. I think this work is truly transformative - more on it can be found here. An award winning movie "Black Gold" documents this work.

As an historian, I am trying to understand some of the roots of these various practices of information development and sharing so that I can think about where we might try to head in the future. I finished Steven Johnson's "The Invention of Air" in one sitting - gleefully inhaling this well-told story of Joseph Priestly, 18th century scientist and theologian. Among other insights, Johnson shares Priestly's prescient approach to open sharing of scientific discoveries, hails the cafe society which made it possible, and notes that Priestly offered an alternative to corporate and academic bureaucracies as funders of innovation. (pp 143-146) While transatlantic letter carriers and amateur societies such as The Lunar Society (whose members were the original lunaticks (sp)) were the email and online networks of Priestly's day it was the iterative, open sharing of ideas, and reliance on diverse networks of thinkers from many disciplines that bear the most resemblance to the issues of innovation in the 21st century.

My second current night time reading is "The Science of Leonardo" by Fritjof Capra. I can't help but contrast Johnson's portrait of Priestly with this view of the Renaissance genius Leonardo Da Vinci. Leonardo certainly has Priestly trumped in terms of 21st century name recognition. But Capra makes a key point - Leonardo was known during his lifetime and ever since largely as an artist, not as a scientist. It wasn't until 200 years after Da Vinci's death in 1519 that his scientific notebooks were discovered and the real polyglot genius began to be known. According to Capra, this was no accident. It stems directly Da Vinci propensity to widely share his thinking and writing about art during his lifetime (in addition to painting on every major church in Italy), while keeping his scientific process and inquiries largely too himself. He went so far as to keep his scientific workshop on cables, so that he could lower it through the floor into a hidden room below when he wasn't working. Why? No one knows, but Capra speculates that Leonardo "regarded it as his intellectual capital" and primary source of income. (p 27) Capra's thesis is that Leonardo's talents in art and science were inextricably linked and deserve recognition as a root source of systems thinking, ecological analysis, and even the Gaia Theory. However, since he shared his "art" in ways that he did not share his "science," the true complexity of what Leonardo was up to during his life has only come to light over hundreds of years later.

Thus, Leonardo Da Vinci - whose name is synonymous with genies - wrote of the deep interplay between art, science and imagination yet treated these "disciplines" very differently in terms of sharing information and capitalizing on them monetarily. Priestly demonstrates "old" practices gaining new attention as our tools for sharing grow faster and more global. And Hayden and Lightyears IP demonstrate that the balance of power in a global economy does not default to the benefit of the poor, and our emerging knowledge economy will be no more of an automatically equitable free market than was its industrial or agricultural predecessors.

The more I read the more complex it gets. The process of writing the book will (I hope) force me to navigate a clear line of argument through all of this. I'd also love to build a cohort of similarly interested thinkers to help clear that path. Surely, with blogs, twitter, wikis, and cafes we can "be like Priestly" and the lunaticks, share our ideas like Beth, and collectively advance our thinking on information, knowledge, sharing, economies, globalization, and philanthropy. Please let me know if you are interested, how you'd like to participate, and any tools, resources or networks you are already using or plugged into. And, if you'd like to underwrite the book or the conversation, I'd love to hear from you too. One thing Priestly and Da Vinci had in common - underwriters.

*For a totally different level of book recommendations let me point those with kids (or not) to the new series The 39 Clues. My 8 yr old and I inhaled the first 3 of these over the weekend - traveling through an imagined world of Mozart, Ben Franklin and countless other "big thinkers." The series shows the power of networks extends to young readers' entertainment. This being 2009, it is, of course, more than just a book series, it is also a game and a web site.


Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Beth Carls said...

Lucy, I love how you think!

As a social venture entrepreneur, I share a lot of content that I produce. Many of my less socially responsible friends would probably say I share more than I should.

I think, from what I understand about your approach to collaborative thinking between all the sectors of our economy, that if there were more capital markets open to entrepreneurs like myself - who plan businesses to be socially and fiscally sound - that we would not be as hesitant to share what we create.

In today's immature market of social capital markets, from my experience, our Intellectual Property is what we own and what we sell to create the social benefit we envision.

Curt Beckmann said...

Hi Lucy,

Great post! I went looking for the associated tweet to RT, but couldn't find such a tweet. Will tweet from scratch :-) even though about week late.

Seeing as you're a strategist for philanthropic orgs (foundations), perhaps you can take another step (or perhaps you already can): encourage foundations to establish a policy whereby they preferentially support people or groups or grantees ("insert appropriate noun here") that release their content under a free-ish CC license. Freer the better. CC-Zero is best, CC-by-SA is good, CC-non-C is not so good, etc.
In full disclosure, I'm on the BoD at, which would benefit from lots of CC-BY-SA content flowing around, but ultimately it's humanity that benefits. Want impact? Release your IP! Thanks for listening.

Lisa Colton said...

I'll add to Beth's list: her "free" content is so valuable that the "consumers" of it find reasons to give back. I've been a donor to Beth's birthday campaigns simply because it's a great way to say thank you, and I promote her work in my area of focus, the Jewish community. The gift economy is what powers the crowd sourcing. When readers get so much from a blog, they are more than happy to take a moment to comment and add their wisdom for free too.