The Open Source Solution To Climate Change

I think I’ve discovered the solution to climate change, or more accurately, the paradigm through which innovative solutions will be widely implemented around the world that reduce our collective impact on the environment.   No it is not a “tech fix” in the form of new gadgets that people use.  Nor is it a piece of legislation that places a price signal on carbon emissions (although that remains essential as part of the restructuring of our economic systems as we transition to sustainable models).

Simply put, it is a way of sharing good ideas so they spread far and wide.

The Story of Discovery

To understand what I am calling The Open Source Solution it will help to know the back story.  It all began a decade ago when I entered a graduate program in atmospheric sciences to study the formation of complex patterns and, in particular, the physical dynamics of clouds.  Because my focus was on pattern formation, I dug deeply into the theoretical properties of all complex systems.  The patterns of economic and political systems were just as intriguing to me as those in physics and chemistry.

I soon realized that the most important patterns were in the realm of human actions.  I discovered deep drivers of large-scale human behavior in the institutional structures, cultural narratives, and social norms of global civilization as the most critically important patterns to be changed.  And so I left the Department of Atmospheric Sciences and began six years of independent study in the cognitive and behavioral sciences to build a foundational understanding for this new arena of complexity.

It was during this exploratory period that I stumbled upon the solution.  There I was, sitting in my living room in December of 2007, reading a book by Stephen Weber called The Success of Open Source.  On the first page he distinguished between two conceptual frames for ownership that he called The Right to Exclude and The Right to Distribute.  A bolt shot through me and I realized that this was the missing piece I had been looking for.  Everything came together in an instant and I knew that I had made a major discovery.

At the time I was working as a research fellow at a think tank called the Rockridge Institute in Berkeley, CA.  My job was to apply insights from cognitive linguistics to political discourse, helping progressives identify useful semantic frames and alter our nation’s political discourse.  So I brought to my readings on open source software a depth of knowledge about the nature of human cognition.  It was immediately clear to me that the mental models for wealth, value creation, and ownership lay at the heart of problems behind global warming.

Let me explain.  In legal theory, property is thought of as a bundle of rights held by the owner.  Building on the thinking of Enlightenment philosophers (and particularly the writings of John Locke), this mental model for ownership places emphasis on the right to exclude others from accessing the benefits of owned property.  So if I own a piece of land, I can exclude you by posting a No Trespassing sign or putting up a fence.  This is the central idea behind proprietary software, where the owner charges a licensing fee to get access to the benefits of the software.  It is also the mode of thought that has driven privatization as the dominant paradigm for economic development over the last 300 years.

This property right has been used in a very clever way by proponents of open source software to create an extremely valuable information commons.  They realized that if anyone can be excluded by the property owner, then those who refuse to share can be excluded as well.  So they subverted the meaning to become a right to distribute that places ownership in the community of users who have come together to create the software.  This is the primary legal mechanism behind the Creative Commons licensing model.

It was this strategic act of legal jujutsu that caused my epiphany.  I knew immediately that the only way to build a capitalist system that retains innovative routes for entrepreneurship while also protecting all our vital commons was through this shared ownership paradigm.

Laying Out The Solution

The primary cause of ecological damage is in the governing dynamics of capitalism.  As the following diagram shows, breakthrough ideas are unable to spread effectively in the closed ownership paradigm because the only metric for declaring an idea to be “good” is its inherent profitability.  Private investors only support those ideas that generate a direct monetary return (and put their money into ideas that give maximal return, regardless of societal impact).  As a result, the adoption space is narrowly defined and the innovation gets boxed in.

By contrast, in a shared ownership paradigm the worth of a breakthrough idea is measured by many different metrics to determine its social value.  Those ideas that preserve or increase our common wealth create positive social impacts.  And because the ownership is built on a right to distribute, the demonstrated value of the idea increases as the breakthrough idea spreads and gets implemented in many places.

Since that fateful moment in late 2007, I have been actively testing this solution in the real world to see if it works.  I have now launched three social enterprises based on this shared ownership paradigm – Cognitive Policy Works, Seattle Innovators, and Chaotic Ripple.  I have researched the deep trends in our global economy to reveal the emerging Open Collaboration Paradigm for economic production.  And I have facilitated two successful crowdfunding campaigns to identify the modes of leadership, governance, group facilitation, project management, and engagement that unleash the power of crowds to cultivate collective impacts using the concept of shared ownership.

The next step is to implement this solution in our corporations, government agencies, and education institutions.  This has already begun, albeit in a manner that does not articulate just how deeply open innovation principles disrupt the status quo.  We are now in the midst of seeing the rise of collaborative consumption, what Clay Shirky calls “the power of organizing without organizations” in Here Comes Everybody, and the more general phenomenon of crowdsourcing.

A Call For Help

My research and entrepreneurial efforts over the last decade have been highly successful at revealing profound insights and identifying many of the new “best practices” that must be widely shared if we are to transition our global economy such that it promotes ecological restoration and community resilience.  Where I have been less successful is my lack of ability to bring these discoveries into the operational world.

So I need your help.  I am seeking institutional support to take all of this learning and put it to use for the betterment of humanity.  This could take the form of being hired by an innovative and forward-looking organization, securing funds to continue developing tools and techniques that prove effective, and forming partnerships with individuals who are also working in this space.

While my knowledge has become greatly enriched along this journey of discovery, I have done nearly all of this work without financial support — getting by on the occasional consulting gig and training workshop.  It has not fit in well with the funding priorities of foundations.  Nor has it been recognized as an established hiring position for tech companies, non-profit organizations, and government agencies.  And yet it remains absolutely vital to continue along this highly productive line of inquiry.

Will you help me find the support I need to continue implementing system-level solutions to our planet’s most pressing problems?  This is my deep passion and the moment of urgency is upon us all.  Now, more than ever, we need to identify and rapidly deploy viable approaches that lead to new solution spaces like the one I have shared here.  I want to continue and must also feed my family.  The trailblazing has created a new path.  Now is the time to build bridges back to the old world and start the massive migration to the new one.

In kindness,

Joe Brewer
Innovation Strategist and Change Maker

Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.