Distributed Innovation

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By John Wilbanks and Carolina Rossini:

"In a distributed, networked context, knowledge can be created without a central authority assigning tasks and without the maximalist approach to intellectual property associated with traditional forms of innovation diffusion and exploitation. Rather, the communities are formed by many different individuals, participating for very different sets of reasons and incentives13, who self-organize around challenges and tasks. This type of knowledge creation has been named “distributed innovation”14 and is most easily seen in peer-produced systems like the Wikipedia online encyclopedia and the Linux operating system, both of which are built for “free” by thousands of individuals, connected by the Internet.

Distributed innovation (DI) examines the power we see in Wikipedia and Linux development, in which a collected set of individuals each donate individual actions to a collective work which then “snap together” into a coherent group through standard technical systems, digital networks, and a community-born set of norms and rules16. This is a novel ecosystem for knowledge creation and presents both challenges and opportunities for the traditional, print-based knowledge governance systems still common in the academy. DI brings a significant increase in individual empowerment to participate directly in knowledge governance through membership in multiple distributed knowledge communities as part of the move to network forms of knowledge product creation. These communities exist outside the traditional confines of the academy and are difficult to assign value to, and have yet to be addressed by most institutions which remain resolutely focused on traditional metrics of citation in “high impact” scholarly journals, patents acquired and licensed, and so forth.

However, as easy as it is to recognize distributed knowledge creation when we look at Wikipedia or GNU / Linux or some initiatives on open educational resources17, it is incredibly difficult to “program” distributed innovation. Participants in the knowledge creation must agree on a standard method to publish knowledge, and there must be significant infrastructure to support the evolution, distribution, storage, search, retrieval, and verification of knowledge created. As this kind of agreement is hard to achieve, it is far easier to note examples of distributed knowledge creation than it is to spark the creation of a new one ex ante." (http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/commonsbasedresearch/sites/commonsbasedresearch/images/Genomics_Knowledge_Governance.pdf)


Why is distributed innovation not taken up in academia?

By John Wilbanks and Carolina Rossini:

"Why then has distributed innovation in knowledge creation not taken root in academics the way it has in encyclopedias and software? One key reason is the lingering effect of the technology of paper in which academic scholarship developed. 22The print culture is embedded deeply into the academy and represents a major blocking agent to the adoption of distributed innovation. Rewards, incentives, and metrics for academic professionals are deeply tied to print based metrics like citations, references, and impact factors. The existing systems of knowledge governance and credit allocation are not well aligned with a distributed knowledge creation environment, and the kind of authority rewarded in academia (typically resulting from award of advanced degrees) is not always the same kind of authority rewarded in a distributed knowledge system.

An institution or group of institutions wanting to enable true distributed knowledge governance would face a socio-technical set of challenges to implementation, from the difficulty of rewarding participation in peer production of knowledge, the difficulty of defining knowledge into forms that work on wikis and other new modes of knowledge creation and distribution, on the complexity of curating data and databases, and on the limitations of library capability in the long-term storage and preservation of data – to name but a few.

There is a key lesson for educational institutions aiming for distributed knowledge creation to draw from the technical world: the idea of interoperability. Interoperability allows unrelated systems to communicate and function in ways unexpected by their designers. The idea of interoperability as something that scales from technology to knowledge itself has emerged alongside the rise of the digital commons in culture and software. In this view, it is not only computer networks that must interoperate, but intellectual property rights and semantic understanding, so that distributed peer production of knowledge can make the leap from an encyclopedia into the sciences and other research disciplines." (http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/commonsbasedresearch/sites/commonsbasedresearch/images/Genomics_Knowledge_Governance.pdf)

More Information

Governance, Globalization 2, no. 3 (summer 2007).