Social entrepreneurship as a different approach to business has gained traction over the past two decades, but have you heard of “open” entrepreneurship? Many of you may be familiar with the concept of open source, which has been successfully applied in areas such as technology and knowledge management. I recently came across an organisation called Open Source Ecology, which has given me some new insights on the open sourcing, and how it represents a new way of thinking.

To explain the concept briefly and generally, open source promotes the free redistribution and availability to the public of a product’s design.  The idea is that the design is open to the general public to use and modify, free of charge. The term “open source” was coined shortly after Netscape announced in 1998 that it would freely provide the source code for its web browser. Today, the open source concept has evolved beyond software. For example, Wikipedia is a project that embodies open source principles in the field of knowledge management.  There has also been some progress in applying the concept to pharmaceutical development and scientific research.

Open Source Ecology selects the fifty most important machines to create a sustainable modern civilization and seeks to provide free DIY blueprints of these machines. The founder, Marcin Jakubowski came up with the idea after he became frustrated with the artificial scarcity created by industrial firms. He sought to challenge the control that a few giant corporations had over the world’s productive power by designing his own set of machines and making the blueprints publicly available and free for anyone to use. These designs encourage the use of local resources and sustainable practices.

By providing alternative low-cost, DIY versions of these machines, the project is decreasing the barriers to entry in industries such as farming and manufacturing. The idea is powerful because it takes the control of large businesses over an individual’s productive capacity. Because the models are open source, the design can be adapted to suit the different needs of the user- from a farmer in Virginia, United States to a village in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Jakuboswki and his Open Source Ecology concept has been described in The Atlantic as “not reinventing the wheel [but] open-sourcing the wheel”. There are three main insights that I gained from the Open Source Ecology movement:

1. Challenging the status quo:

Jakuboswki has a Ph.D in fusion physics and founded Open Source Ecology after realising that his degree was not as relevant to the urgent problems in society. He refused to accept that the only way for him to farm was to get expensive machines from large companies who have a monopoly on industrial equipment. He used his knowledge to create his own solution to the problem and at the same time, started a movement that can benefit people across the world.

Jakuboswki says, “we’re exploring the limits of what we all can do to make a better world with open hardware technology”. As we reflect on our own personal development and contribution in 2012, let’s ask ourselves whether we have explored the limits on what we can do to improve our community. What do we see in the status quo that can be improved or challenged? Jakubowski was a farmer and took the initiative to address the issues in the farming industry. What can we contribute as engineering, law, business, sciences and arts students and professionals to our related industries and fields of interests?

2. The power of sharing:

Open Source Ecology works through open-source collaboration. Because of this, there is a “24/7 development and improvement cycle around the world”. The organisation openly publishes its own trade secrets but in return, receives feedback and comments across the globe, leading to the best practice designs. Jakubowski noted that once you give a lot back to the community, positive things start to happen, and the community gives back to you. Unlike other corporations which seeks to keep their information secret and out of public reach, the Open Source Ecology publishes its own trade secrets openly. It found that in return, the organisation receives feedback and comments across the globe, from people building and testing their machines, leading to the best practice designs.

The culture of sharing and openness is another way to foster innovation and accelerate discoveries of new answers to current needs in society. The concept of social entrepreneurship offers an alternative to the traditional business model which is proving to be increasingly unsustainable. Perhaps  “open” entrepreneurship can also be part of the solution. What would happen if we run the community and change the culture so that we work more collaboratively as opposed to competitively? It can be a difficult paradigm shift, and there are still many questions in terms of incentives and practicalities, but perhaps there are more areas in our lives and within society that can benefit from more collaboration and less competition.

In the 21st century, we now have new technologies and new opportunities to share knowledge and solutions in new ways. The possibilities for open-sourcing is infinite. My challenge to readers is this: what aspects of your life can you “open source”? Everyone has their own unique combination of experiences, skills, and ideas that they can contribute towards solving the problems of the global commons.

3. The power of many:

The Open Source Ecology may have started as one man’s idea, but now, hundreds of people around the world are participating in this collaborative project.

Another example of what can be accomplished through collective rather than individual effort is the Polymath Project. Tim Gowers, a prominent mathematician posted on his online blog an important unsolved mathematical problem.  Gowers openly invited other people to help solve the problem collaboratively, asking “is massively collaborative mathematics possible”? The speed of which ideas are developed during this process was astonishing. Within 37 days, nearly thirty different people posted 800 substantive comments and submitted their ideas and partial answers. Not only did they solve the core problem in five weeks, but they also solved a harder generalisation of the problem.

Working and discussing together amplifies our collective intelligence. You may have heard of the saying “no one individual is as smart as all of us thinking together”. The Open Source Ecology and the Polymath Project made me reflect on my experiences as part of the SABF community. Conferences and communities such as SABF symbolise the principles of open source. There is an exchange of ideas, of opinions, and through discourse with each other, we gain new insights and develop our ideas even further. For example, I had epiphanies during the conference from listening to the expert speakers, but also from the conversations I’ve had with the delegates during the lunches and dinners. In particular, the experience has developed my opinions about the definition of a successful life and what I can contribute to society through my career. Even after four months since the conference has finished, I still continue the thought-provoking discussions with some of the delegates through emails and Skype. The depth of these talks and the connection I’ve felt with these people, despite the distance has been immense. With one of these delegates, we are discussing the different social entrepreneurship models and how it can be applied to his business. With another, we are talking about the differences in the start-up ecosystem in New Zealand and Argentina.

To conclude, as we look forward to the New Year, let’s reflect on how we can introduce a little bit of the open source concept in our lives. Let’s continue the flow of information and ideas- whether it is through contributing to blogs, going to more conferences or maintaining the dialogue with fellow SABFers.

To 2013: may the year be full of thought-provoking conversations, life-changing experiences and meaningful action!