To accelerate and direct science toward the most important challenges of our time

It is my belief that the basic knowledge that we’re providing to the world will have a profound impact on the human condition … and [on] our view of our place on the biological continuum.

Craig Venter[ii]

We are living in a modern renaissance of science.

Whatever else business is good for, businesses bring the fruits of our deepest, wisest, and best scientific thinking to our simultaneously fast-evolving free-thinking diversifying consuming world.

Many of our existing businesses are structured around controlling and limiting access to their proprietary translations of science. These businesses create bottlenecks and an artificial scarcity of supply, and make their profits by selling only to those who can or must pay the most to satisfy their demand.

In the short-term this practice generates easy profits—albeit akin to that of a profiteer in a zone of humanitarian crisis. The comparison becomes especially apt as we move ever more deeply into climate change and planetary crisis.

Business tactics that establish artificial scarcity are at the heart of our current economy. Consider:

Patents that are used to exclude competitors, rather than being openly licensed;

Regulations that are shaped by established incumbents and that limit new entrants and new ideas.

Production capabilities that are limited to making a small range of designs determined by one owner, rather than acting as foundries and contract manufacturers for all;

Product pricing intended to maintain the highest feasible average selling prices in order to maximize profits on a limited segment, rather than developing many segments and reaching a broad customer base.

Our job in the great turnaround, by contrast, is to understand and amplify the best of science and social creativity.

We have two major social movements helping us; the first is open access science and engineering, and the strong desire to address the most important challenges. Open and free of charge scientific journals like POS are gaining ground, though journals as a group are still inaccessible. The basic sharing of knowledge that has traditionally undergirded science is now a subject of sociological and historical study, and of organization design. Most vitally in the long term, the substantive knowledge across the fields of science is expanding exponentially.

Consider a highly visible manifestation: Ray Kurzweil, Peter Diamondis, Steven Kotler and their Singularity University are highlighting some of the most promising areas of science and social change, making a future of abundance believable.

Peter Diamondis developed the X-Prizes to accelerate the achievement of scientific and engineering breakthroughs. He has brilliantly joined the power of difficult goals; attractive financial rewards; intense, open public competition. His work demonstrates the ability of focused competition to foster co-evolution and shared learning among participants and onlookers, and solve previously unsolvable problems.

In combination with the freeing up of science, there is a complementary social movement that helps us, and that we can find support from:

From the society side there is much progress in building out an inclusive society, and doing so informed by the best knowledge, science and engineering.

In the technology community this is most easily seen in the rise of the Maker movement—that is, the empowered tech customer who uses the products of science, by way of business products and services, to transform their own lives and those around them.

However, the Maker community is just one small part of a global social shift, from end-user as consumer, to end-user as DIY producer. Mohamed Yunus developed microfinance by organizing societies of the poorest people and enabling them to benefit from the science of finance, including the power of saving and lending, of pooled resources, of risk management across populations, and of payment systems.

Prior to microfinance, similar social organizing plus hybrid seed and fertilizer technology was used in the “Green Revolution” to end famines in most of the world. Simultaneous to it, the combination of wireless phones, and now smartphones and Internet access give the poor access to the most powerful communications technology available. Ethan Zuckerman, Andrew McLaughlin, the late Teresa Peters, Sam Pitroda and many others have dedicated themselves to this movement.

The open source movements in software, and more broadly the maker, open knowledge and DIY movements across society, are aimed at undercutting the profiteering business models and are expanding rapidly today. Indeed, they are a force equal to other business ecosystems, and will be considered later in this book in more depth, as Maker Ecosystems. Their campaigns are able to free secret, proprietary knowledge and radically empower participation. DIY is self-supporting and self-expanding as knowledge is shared.

Vital to the work, then, will be these peer-production, open source, knowledge-sharing DIY Maker Ecosystems, already spreading at an astounding pace around the world, and blending and blurring the lines between consumer and producer.

What we build for the great turnaround will interconnect user-led ecosystems with all manner of other businesses, including those that are capital intensive. Like the architect and design pioneer Chris Alexander teachers, our business architecture will be fundamentally mixed, with a range of sizes, types, shapes and functions.

Velocity, richness and widespread participation are our priority. We need, thus, business models that reward proliferation rather than scarcity.

How will we accomplish this? How do we begin? Who and how can we join with in order to strengthen our positions? How do we create the new while operating in the old, and how do we create the high-minded while dealing with the low?

The question under the questions, restated, is: How do we develop business models that fairly, and in many cases richly, reward those that resolve the dilemma of raising standards of living for people, and reducing our carbon footprint and, more broadly, healing and living comfortably with the Earth?

I believe that the most important answers to this question have, to date, come from the information technology sector. Other sectors such as Public Health have made profound advances as well, but as an industry community the technology community has been focused on the question for more than four decades, at least.

Technology is a good lab. It is complex, fast moving, and global. In addition, it lacks some of the inherent characteristics that make these issues harder to study in other sectors. The technology sector’s progress is easily measurable in the short and the long term, unlike, say education or community organizing. Information technology is comparatively free of regulation, especially of participation-limiting regulation, unlike telecom and health care. And the types of abundance technology creates are reflected quickly in both physical and economic terms, and thus are readily seen to pay for themselves and justify society’s support.

The technology sector is by no means the only sector providing new business models. It is one of many. However it is uniquely valuable as a laboratory.