Cooperative Innovation in the Commons: Rethinking Distributed Collaboration and Intellectual Property for Sustainable Design Innovation

Sawhney, N. "Cooperative Innovation in the Commons: Rethinking Distributed Collaboration and Intellectual Property for Sustainable Design Innovation"


Addressing global design challenges in the environment and underserved communities requires a cooperative approach towards sustainable design innovation, one that embraces multidisciplinary expertise, participatory design and rapid dissemination of critical innovations in the field. How can a rural farmer in Botswana cooperatively develop appropriate solutions for his community with external research expertise? How can a doctor in Sao Paulo access a network of medical device companies to help manufacture her design innovation? While there is a great emphasis on large breakthrough R&D innovations, there is often little support for developing and disseminating small-scale, affordable, and locally sustainable designs.

The open source phenomenon has been influential in the software community, however distributed collaboration in engineering design requires awareness and sharing of physical artifacts, design tools and working environments as well as novel mechanisms to support social norms, communities of practice, and intellectual property rights for product innovations. ThinkCycle was created as a web-based collaboration platform with tools and shared online spaces for designers, domain experts and stakeholders to discuss, develop and peer-review evolving design solutions in critical domains. Over 2000 users worldwide access and contribute hundreds of concepts, resources, projects and publications on the site. ThinkCycle is emerging as a collaborative platform, open design repository and global community for innovations in sustainable design:

Studies were conducted on the nature of design interaction, learning and intellectual property emerging from studio courses run at MIT in 2001-2002. Cooperative design is best understood when viewed as a "social process", which is better sustained in online settings by peer-review from remote participants. There is a need for lightweight asynchronous interfaces with existing modes of communication like email. Social inquiry into notions of intellectual property reveal a typology of patterns with distinct forms of protection and disclosure, including patents and open source, adopted under different conditions. However, there is much ambiguity and conflict regarding how to deal with cooperative innovations as they evolve from being subpatentable learning experiments to functional and commercially viable solutions with potentially great social impact. The thesis provides a framework within which we can begin to explore these challenges.

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