In 1991, Linus Torvalds released the Linux kernel on the Internet and invited anyone who wanted to download, use and modify it. In an amazingly short amount of time, a community built up around Torvalds’ initial code and their contributions transformed it into an operating system that rivaled those of even corporate giants like Microsoft.
Even now, it seems somewhat of an unlikely story that such a fledgling effort could make such a transformational impact. Yet today, open communities have become so pervasive that the term “proprietary,” to a large extent, just means the stuff we build on top of open source software. And we’re just beginning to scratch the surface.
Today, we’re entering a new era, where open platforms are going beyond just software and starting to take hold in everything from scientific research to manufacturing. In fact, as our ability to connect to information continues to increase exponentially, the solution to many tough problems is becoming more social than technical.
Linux With A Bounty
When Alph Bingham first began his career as a research scientist in the late 70s, he immediately realized it would be much different than graduate school. As a student, he and 20 others were working on the same problems and coming up with varied approaches, but as a professional scientist he was mostly on his own.
By the late 90s, the Internet was becoming a transformative force and Bingham, now a senior executive at Eli Lilly, saw an opportunity to do something new. He envisioned a platform that would work like “Linux with a bounty” by putting problems that his company had been unable to solve on the web and offering rewards to anyone who came up with an answer.
The program, called InnoCentive ,was an immediate success and Eli Lilly spun it out as an independent company. To date, it has solved hundreds of problems so difficult that many considered them to be unsolvable. In fact, one study found that about a third of the problems posted — many of which had been around for years or even decades — are solved.
The key to InnoCentive’s success has to do with an observation Bingham and his team noticed early on. The solutions almost never came from the field in which they arose. So, for example, chemistry problems were rarely solved by chemists. Yet by opening up the problem to others in adjacent fields, such as biologists and physicists, they became more tractable.