Learning from the Open Source Movement

A Guardian sub-editor garbled the final paragraphs of my latest guest blog there - but here's a corrected version...

I argued recently that a focus on a few kinds of social enterprise - those that happen to fit an official definition, or can be used to forward a government agenda - is blinding us to a much bigger picture.

Perhaps the most striking example of this is the surprising indifference of social enterprise to another great movement of our times: the open source software movement. Now I'm sure that many people reading the last sentence will be utterly bewildered. Open source software? that's just a specialist thing for computer geeks, isn't it? What has it got to do with our enterprise, or the social issues we're trying to address?

Well – lots!

I think of open source as the 'intellectual property wing' of social enterprise – and nobody should be under any illusion about the leading position that intellectual property - the knowledge and creative industries - now occupy in developed economies. Moreover, this particular 'wing' is probably globally the most successful aspect of social enterprise. About three quarters of the internet runs on open source software. But let me pick out just three inspirational areas:

1.  The open source movement has developed a whole new philosophy around intellectual property, maintaining that knowledge should be free – that although it is important to prevent plagiarism or passing off an inferior product as a trusted brand, to curtail the free exchange of knowledge and ideas is a disservice to society. In pharmaceuticals, this is literally a matter of life and death – or blindness. South Africa's health minister once called the high prices of lifesaving medicines 'a crime against humanity'. But this is increasingly an issue for our own NHS. where one current struggle involves big business trying to prevent the licensing of Avastin – already being used with great success by doctors treating the main cause of blindness in the UK – at £50 per dose - and instead force them to use the 'very similar' but differently licensed drug Lucentis, at £750 a dose. Obviously, this sort of thing is unacceptable – but the importance of the open source movement is that it does not simply reject such approaches to intellectual property, but has built viable alternatives – real business models that outperform proprietary interests but still freely share the knowledge they embody. Viable business models that can deliver free services. Now there's something that ought to get the attention of social enterprisers engaged in health and social care - not to mention the relevance of these intellectual property issues to the much anticipated social franchising opportunity.

2.  Secondly, open source is based fundamentally on breaking down the divide between producers and consumers – what Karl Marx once called 'alienation' – and replacing it with active community co-operation. What open sourcing does is say to software users: here's the code, it's owned in common, if it goes wrong, or if it doesn't do something you want it to, let us know - or you fix it, we'll incorporate your 'patch' and give you credit for it. It effectively enlists tens of thousands of creative individuals and organisations – the 'community of developers' - in the production process. And this model is no longer limited to software development – there are open source projects for everything from cars to carousels. In my last Guardian Blog I mentioned Yochai Benkler's view that it is the co-operatively networked individual and voluntary economy of 'peer production' that will win out over traditional firms. Rachel Botsman has recently further developed these ideas, arguing that the linked development of online networking and renewed belief in community, along with environmental concerns and questioning of an economy based on buying and selling, 'are moving us away from the top-heavy, command-and-control forms of consumerism and towards decentralised ideas based on openness, sharing and peer-to-peer collaboration.' (What's Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption). One example she uses is Zopa, the online network that links savers/lenders directly with borrowers, cutting out the 'big banks', increasing the savers' return to over 8% while at the same time reducing the cost of borrowing by at least 20% - and with a default rate below 1%. How can social enterprise, so intimately bound up with the idea of active community participation, ignore the emergence of such exciting new business and financing models?

3.  And finally – but perhaps even more importantly - the models offered by open source are not precious. Above all, it is an 'open' movement. Conventionally structured companies, individuals, public and voluntary sector bodies are all together in the 'community of developers'. Being human, there are of course conflicts – but the movement remains remarkably united by a shared fundamental philosophy that has been central to the development of the internet, and is still hugely influential in companies like Google. Above all open source software is successful – consistently taking market share from proprietary brands. I argued in my last blog that there really isn't any difference between 'social enterprises' and, say, a passionate farmer determined to preserve old English apple varieties full in the face of commercial pressures. Some interpreted this as a blanket rejection of working with big business. It wasn't – the work being done by some multinationals – Danone for example - and indeed social enterprise multinationals like Scott Bader – is inspirational. But one thing the open source movement has taught me is that while we should be open to any useful collaboration, and take on board the technical, resource and other things we sometimes lack, it is social enterprise, not big business, that really has the answers to the fundamental questions, and collaborations need to be within our own philosophical framework.

So what are the key lessons here for the rest of social enterprise? Well all this should be music to our ears, shouldn't it? The development of viable business models that can deliver free services, that are fundamentally based on breaking down the old producer-consumer economics and replacing them with collaborative communities, that out-perform business models based on greed and exploitation – of either people or natural resources – while at the same time utilising the very latest technology and the new social behaviours it is propagating? One of the biggest social enterprise developments this year – the miEnterprise group of CICs – will certainly engage in all of these areas.

But a questionmark remains: it is the small matter of self-confidence - and underlying this, the question of whether we really have the strong philosophy – the shared values and ideas – to gear us up to the kind of influence open source has achieved? The core idea of open source – that knowledge should be free – has proven strong enough to sustain useful partnerships with all kinds of organisations, including huge conventional businesses. Is our bigger idea – doing business to do good – really strong enough to sustain us? Is it really the heart of our self-identification as social enterprise?

Can we move away from the idea that we are a restrictively defined and inward-looking 'sector' – and instead blossom into a movement that reaches out to all, but on its own certain and successful terms?