It seems fitting that as all the controversy about Wikileaks is reaching a fever-pitch I just got done reading a book, called “Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation,” that is all about the extent to which open environments–be they natural, office, or other–are essential to innovation. Two things have really stayed with me after reading the book. The first is that when we tell the story of great inventors, we always like to think in terms of the “eureka” moment, of the lone genius in his garage; however, the author points that many of these innovations actually were developed over years and were built upon the platforms of other ideas. This is not to deemphasize the role of the individual in innovation, but rather to emphasize the importance of collaboration and openness to those innovations–for the simple reason that if good ideas are not allowed to flow, then people can’t do anything with them. The second thing that stuck in my mind from the book was that if we are to really solve social and environmental problems then we must be relentness–if not reckless–in our pursuit of giving away our secretes. That is to say, if I have a hunch about a new way of doing microfinance in the US, it does no good to society if I hide it from others in the vain fear that the idea will be “stolen.” The book, of course, goes into great depths to refute the notion that the profit motive is the only way to stimulate and encourage new ideas; in fact, he has an entire chapter devoted to what he calls the “fourth quadrant,” which he defines as ideas that were derived from non-market, collective sources (such as academia or governemnt–think of things like GPS and the internet as great examples of ideas that were developed in this quadrant). By mapping out 200 inventions over the last 600 years, he shows that the preponderence of good ideas have come from this quadrant, where the profit-motive is conspicuously absenst; indeed, most profitable ideas have built upon the platforms and ideas that came from here (think of Google, Facebook, satellite TV, etc.).
So when it comes to making the world a better place, we should be even more open and collaborative. Why should every non-profit have to build its own customized database? What if Capital Good Fund spend $100,000 to build a fantastic database, and then shared it, for free, with 100 organizations? Well, there would be the lost revenue–we could charge, say, $100 per organization as a licensing fee, and maybe that would be a good strategy. But those 100 organizations could then use that tool to understand their own data in a way that could provide insights on how to solve all sorts of social problems–and if they shared that data, then society would be better off. This should be eminently obvious, since non-profits are designed to exist for social benefit, yet even in this sphere there is a lot of secrecy. Well, Capital Good Fund will not be like that. Yes, we want to be given credit for the ideas and innovations we come up with; but we also want for others to be able to build on those ideas and take them a step further. We want to see society change, whether or not we are the ones that do all of it! (obviously, that sentence speaks to a larger truth: we can never change all of society ourselves, so we need to rely on the good ideas and practices of others; to the extent we can influence that, we can further increase our social impact).
These are my initial thoughts on how I can apply the book I just read to Capital Good FUnd. Of course, I have a ton of ideas about Wikileaks, its implications for society and the reactions of government, media and society to them, but I will save those for another time!