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We have to speed up energy innovation to the pace demonstrated in the growth of the Internet if we are to prevent irreversible climate disruptions that will irreparably harm the planet for our children's generation and all those that follow. The scale and speed of change required to ward off disaster cannot be achieved using conventional models. We need to constantly compress seven years of innovation into one - the pace described as innovating on "Internet time".

This requires government policy action now to drive the adoption of open source methods, and open standards that are essential for us to move quickly enough to ward off this crisis. These open models have proved themselves in creating the Internet and enabling the extraordinary pace of business and societal innovation around it.

This paper summarizes the results of sharing this point of view with 30 of the world's open source leaders at the NAPA Open Source Think Tank, which took place in 2009. It gathers the insights these leaders have learned through the transformation of the software industry by open source and open standards.

The Obama Administration Provides a Historical Opportunity to Create Successful Policy

The new U.S. Administration has demonstrated an immediate commitment to investing in green energy technologies and developing the new regulatory frameworks required to address the crisis of climate change. We have a unique historical opportunity to incorporate these open elements into the policy framework, but we must seize this opportunity now if we are to achieve the pace of innovation and adoption required to avert the climate change crisis. Government spending commitments and economic incentives of well over $100 billion for green technologies provide the necessary commercial leverage to drive an open innovation model, much as the U.S. Department of Defense's spending on computer equipment in the 70s enabled it to drive the adoption of the Internet Protocol that led to the modern Internet. This leverage needs to be exercised now while contracts and governance for these large taxpayer investments are still being put in place and while policy frameworks for regulation and market mechanisms are being detailed.

Combating Climate Change Requires Dramatically More Rapid Innovation and Change

Despite the fact that we are going through the worst recession in generations, we must focus on the scale and pace of climate change and recognize that the slow pace of conventional innovation and adoption will lead to disastrous climate disruptions.

Scientists have shown that our current path leads towards a doubling of carbon dioxide levels by 2050 and consequent massive climate disruptions from floods, droughts, hurricanes, rising sea levels and the elimination of critical ecosystems. It is widely recognized that to avoid this outcome we need to cut our carbon dioxide emissions  by 80% from current levels through conservation and clean energy. This is despite projections that during this period global energy demand will grow from 131 to 26 trillion watts. Generating just half this power - 13 trillion watts - with zero carbon footprint energy sources is equivalent to 13,000 new 1 GW green power plants - the construction of roughly one major plant every other day.

Contrast this with the history of the pace of energy innovation and adoption: according to Shell's corporate planners, it has typically taken even a commercially proven primary new source of energy 25 years to get to a 1% share of the global market2.

The Growth of the Internet Shows Rapid Change is Feasible

Now, if this seems an impossible task let's remind ourselves of the Internet phenomenon and its transformational impact on our world. The Internet was built on open standards and open source software that started with the U.S. government's open communications standards (Internet Protocol or IP) in the 70s, which were used by a decentralized global community of software developers who created and used open source software and open standards to create a global network that touched every corner of humanity. The "web" first became visible as a tool to enable communication among a worldwide community of theoretical physicists at CERN in 1995, and from that point forward, Internet browsers evolved rapidly. In the decade after 1997, the percentage of the developed world using the Internet grew from 11% to 62%, fundamentally changing the structures of business in the process, perhaps most obviously in shopping, entertainment and communications. Instant access to information had an explosive impact on politics, and work became increasingly global as knowledge workers in Bangalore competed and collaborated with counterparts across the world.

A quick roll call of the leading software used on the web shows that it is dominated by open source software components such as the Linux operating system, the Apache web server, Perl, Python and other scripting languages. Open source's success has also been founded on a set of open standards that have built from basic routing and communications (IP, DNS) all the way up to user interface and e-commerce standards. Low barriers to global entry have enabled Darwinian competition among new businesses; industry leaders like Google and Amazon are often the ones who adopted open source and open standards to innovate most rapidly and to gain widespread adoption most quickly. The early winners built the foundations for the next layer of software and business innovation. Thus did open source and open standards spawn the broadest and fastest innovation in the history of mankind.

The bottom line? In a little more than a decade business transacted over the Internet has grown to $6.8 trillion or 15% of global GDP. This is the scale of transformation that is required to combat climate change.

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Rapid Change is Required in Both Innovation and Adoption

In order to transform our world fast enough to avert catastrophic climate disruption, we must use open standards and open source models because they alone will enable the rapid innovation required, and they alone will drive the broad and rapid adoption of these innovations. There are four critical domains where we need these open approaches:

  • Innovation. We need hundreds of thousands of innovators delivering innovations in conservation and clean energy and we need this innovation "on Internet time". We need innovation in hardware and software for products ranging from genetically engineered bio-fuels and improved photo-voltaic chips to wind and wave technologies. Energy conservation techniques are another critical category and can deliver big results with relatively simple and inexpensive changes. Open source is thought of as an approach to producing software but all these engineering fields capture key intellectual property in software artifacts that can be shared and distributed openly via the Internet. These software artifacts range from engineering diagrams (CAD) and genome maps to chip logic, engineering test suites and code to control machine tools. The use of these software artifacts to coordinate engineering activities across complex global multi-company projects like airplane and chip manufacture has been proven by private companies for many decades. More recently, public projects have used open source approaches to collaborate on hardware and software designs for all manner of fields, including genetics, prosthetics, numerical machine control systems, car designs and unmanned drones3.
  • Adoption. We must radically compress the adoption curve so that a technology, once proven, can rapidly be adopted by a million other participants in full confidence that they will reap similar economic and environmental benefits. This requires that businesses, consumers and government entities share their results in an instantaneous and transparent way that captures the lessons learned about the technology, environmental and economic benefits and the softer "human factors" that are crucial for adoption. The rate of adoption is as important as the rate of innovation, because if every corporation or government entity takes a year to pilot, and then 3-7 years to roll out every new innovation, then we will still hand our children a wreck of a planet. Adoption must be accelerated by the sharing of real-life business cases under an open source license, which makes it easier and faster for the next adoption project to be approved - and the license must place an obligation on that next project in turn to share their results. This transparency will support the democratic processes that are essential to amplify and channel public concern about climate change and so overcome the "Not in My Back Yard" (NIMBY) politics that frequently make the approvals process far more time-consuming than the construction process in the United States.
  • Market Mechanisms. Applying the right market models is critical to our success and innovation, and improvement in these models has an enormously leveraged effect. The current consensus around the "cap and trade" market model is that it starts from a clear environmental objective (the cap on emissions) and then creates a trading system that harnesses the "animal spirits" of the market to rapidly create the technological and business innovations that drive the most efficient path to that objective. Here more than anywhere the devil truly is in the details of the market and it is essential that we have complete transparency in the rules and operations of these markets because initial designs and regulations will be imperfect and improvements will be critical. Also, with billions at stake in these new carbon markets, some participants will inevitably be tempted to "game the system" through regulatory arbitrage4 that generates profits without the desired environmental benefits. The open source model can harness millions of citizens both to participate in micro-markets that generate millions of small improvements as well as to police the macro-markets to ensure that they actually generate their advertised benefits.
  • Measurement and Modeling. We keep score in the world of business with a set of commonly understood metrics such as revenue, profit, and market capitalization that are backed by a well-established set of accounting norms and a professional class to enforce them. Measuring success or failure in climate change is both less established and much more complex, and in one empirical sense, can only be done by observing climate disruption over many decades. That clearly doesn't provide the feedback loop that we need to make decisions month by month and year by year. We therefore work with models that assess projects through intermediate results, such as the impact of a change on levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and then aggregate these impacts into complex climate-change models. It is critical that all these models be totally open and well documented to enable critical review and avoid well-meaning policies with disastrous unintended consequences. For example, for many years the Dutch government subsidized palm oil because it was regarded as a "biofuel" and one model showed it would reduce carbon dioxide emissions. An unintended consequence of this policy was the wholesale clearing of Indonesian rain forest and the drying out of peat bogs that led to the creation of 30 times the carbon dioxide than the biofuel saved and led Indonesia to become the third-largest carbon emitter after China and the US5. The lack of an open published model for the palm oil subsidy that could be freely challenged and improved by scientists and environmentalists substantially delayed the suspension of this disastrous incentive. Economic incentives must be made conditional upon the environmental models being published on the Internet and regularly updated with implementation data and scientific results. Further, the continuation of incentives needs to be made dependent on the environmental results continuing to be beneficial, and the contracts need to be designed to recognize and deter the powerful political and business interests that will assemble and lobby for the blind continuation of subsidies.

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Two Proof Points

Businesses must adopt these proven open practices if we are to innovate at the speed required to ward off disastrous climate disruptions. Some businesses have an entrenched belief that protecting their innovations is essential to maintain their competitive advantage. It's promising to see a success story that required no government intervention. The Eco-Patent Commons is an initiative6 undertaken by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development which pools participants' patent assets that can further the cause of sustainable development. The participants range across numerous, diverse industries and include many of the world's leading companies, such as Pitney Bowes, Bosch, DuPont, Taisei, Ricoh, Xerox, IBM, Nokia and Sony. Most of these companies had relatively little experience with open source but were able to see the benefits of pooling their intellectual property in this "commons" and opening it up to the world on a royalty-free basis. A logical next step for this group is to add to the commons their other relevant intellectual property which isn't patented.

Knowledge sharing on a massive scale among many different communities that unite the talents of both professional and volunteer participants will be required to meet our planetary challenge. One excellent proof point for this is Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia created entirely by unpaid community members that now rivals the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica for both scope and quality. Wikipedia was incorporated in June 2003, and has since expanded from 135,000 articles to more than 2,800,000 English articles today7. The ability of this project to create a truly high quality reference work through the spontaneous organization of hundreds of thousands of unpaid contributors in an enormously diverse set of knowledge domains demonstrates the opportunity to tap the global interest in climate change and green technologies to create and share knowledge using volunteers as well as professionals.

Policy Prescriptions for the Obama Administration

The massive new funding for green technologies, which includes $94 billion in the 2009 stimulus package, provides a historic opportunity for the U.S. government to drive two critical policies:

  • Government funding for clean energy initiatives must be tied to a requirement that they share their intellectual property (IP) using an open source license. The license must be a reciprocal one, such as the GPL, meaning that users of the IP must in turn contribute their own improvements and experiences by openly posting them on the Internet.
    • The IP should include all technical designs, market models and implementation experiences. Implementation experiences will include technical, environmental and economic results. This road map will enable vastly faster improvement and adoption by other organizations than could be conceivably accomplished using the traditional closed source model.
    • These documents cannot be dumbed-down or sanitized versions but need to be the actual working documents and software artifacts in use on the project. To use a software analogy, these working documents are the equivalent to the source code, specifications and test results that are constantly being created and improved as an open source software project progresses.
    • Critics will say that this IP is private property and that 17-year-plus monopolies provided through patent protection are essential to encourage private investment, but given the scope of the current climate crisis, government investments should not subsidize companies that choose this "beggar thy neighbor" approach. Subsidies are optional!
  • Public energy utilities should be held to the same open standards for their green energy and conservation investments and be required to use standardized open interfaces to the new "smart grid".
    • One widely adopted standard is critical to the creation of a thriving market for a "smart grid" into which consumers and businesses plug their appliances, heating and ventilation systems and renewable energy sources.
    • This "Energy Internet"9 has the potential to dramatically reduce the costs of lowering emissions by managing demand as well as supply. For example, a washing machine can be programmed to run when low cost renewable energy is most available, air conditioning can be controlled remotely by the utility to moderate short-term peaks in demand and thousands of hybrid cars can plug in to receive and store energy from the grid at the most efficient times.
    • The rapid creation of a global standard for the "Energy Internet" is critical to provide a large market for innovators worldwide. The Internet Engineering Task Force has shown how such global standards can be effectively created by collaboration amongst the leading practitioners.

These critical policy prescriptions will provide a framework within which a global wave of innovation will give us a fighting chance to ward off the catastrophic floods, droughts and rising sea levels that global climate change will otherwise wreak on our communities and descendants.

Please join in and share your ideas as to how to improve and support these ideas by commenting below.

Roger Burkhardt
CEO, Ingres Corporation