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Open Source for Human Development
Ilkka Tuomi, Institute for Prospective Technological Studies. Spain

Open source development projects provide a rich empirical basis to study some of the fundamental theoretical issues in economics, organization science, sociology, evolution of socio-technical systems, innovation theory, product development, and political science. Open source projects have reminded us that economy is about collective production, not about money. The creative use of copyrights in open source projects has highlighted problems in the current theories on intellectual property. Geographically distributed open source projects have revealed important aspects of virtual collaboration, organization, and knowledge creation. Failed and successful open source projects have experimented with different coordination, control, and conflict management approaches, reinventing and implementing alternative theories of democracy, power, trust, security, social transparency, identity, ownership, and ethics. These experiments have wide potential implications in the global information society.

All these theoretical lines of research are important. Open source projects, however, have relevance that goes beyond theoretical questions. Below I focus on one practical issue, which will generate several important lines of research. Instead of asking what open source is and how and why it is developed, my question will be how the open source model could be used to address some of the key challenges of social and economic development in the global information society.

A core success factor in the open source development model has been its effective combination of social learning with technology production. Relatively incompetent and formally uneducated novices have often been able to generate complex and high-quality open source products. In the process, the developers have become world-class software experts. The history of Linux is an example here.

The open source model enables effective competence creation for several reasons. First, the social interaction in open source communities occurs on the internet, creating traces of organizational memory that novices can use to speed up their socialization and competence development processes. Second, a deep understanding of technical systems requires understanding how they break down, and the open source development model allows the developers to acquire and share such knowledge. One important reason for this is that open access to human readable source code creates soft module boundaries that can be penetrated when the system doesn’t work.[1] Third, software is a unique technological artifact as its implementation equals its description. Fourth, the distributed character of many open source development processes enables effective use of local and situated knowledge. The distributed and user-centric innovation model that underlies many open source projects means that people who have extensive tacit and explicit knowledge of the issue at hand are often able to both define and solve problems. In this process, the articulation of problems and skills that are needed to solve problems co-evolve. Utilization of such stocks of knowledge improves the learning processes and leads to improved competencies both at the individual and social levels.[2]

The relevance of the open source development model, therefore, extends beyond software development. Learning opportunities and the ability to mobilize social resources increasingly define the life opportunities of people. Open source projects have shown that informal competence creation can effectively occur on the net and that it can lead to socially important products. They have shown that this can happen to a large extent without moving money and with little accumulated capital.

Effective competence creation, knowledge sharing and global collaboration are at the core of the emerging information society, both locally and globally. The vast majority of world population lives in countries that have limited access to educational institutions and capital. Development of human and social capital and utilization of context-dependent knowledge are keys for social and economic development. In a laboratory scale, the open source model has apparently solved some of the most challenging issues of development.

We may therefore ask whether this model could be used to improve competencies and capabilities that are critical in the global information society and whether it works also outside the domain of software development. Could the distributed open source model facilitate collective production of socially useful knowledge, artifacts, and practices also when money does not well signal preferences, priorities or needs? Could the open source model be used to produce knowledge content and situated interpretations that integrate local knowledge with global networks of production. Such questions have relevance for discussions on regional socio-economic development, digital divides, regulation and standardization, and, for example, reformation of intellectual property legislation, policy process, and educational systems. Such questions have obvious importance in an increasingly interdependent world where different cultures interact and where a major challenge is to facilitate access to socially and economically meaningful interactions.

Research on such topics requires a practice-oriented research methodology. Such a methodology fits well with the culture of open source development. The goal of open source developers has not been to understand a given world but to make a difference in it. This, indeed, has been one important motivating factor in open source projects.

Research on the possibilities to use the open source model for human development is inherently interventionistic. It is based on ecological experiments where new systems and practices are developed and taken into use. It, however, also needs a solid theoretical and empirical basis. Relevant theoretical traditions range from educational theory to technology and innovation studies, organizational and institutional studies, developmental economics, and theories of justice, ethics and politics. Obviously, such research is multidisciplinary. This, in itself, is an indication of the fact that something qualitatively new can be said by studying the open source development model from the human development perspective.

Tuomi, I. (1999). Corporate Knowledge: Theory and Practice of Intelligent Organizations. Helsinki: Metaxis.
Tuomi, I. (2000). Learning from Linux: Internet, Innovation and the New Economy. Part 1: Empirical and Descriptive Analysis of the Open Source Model. http://www.jrc.es/~tuomiil/moreinfo.html.
Tuomi, I. (2001). Internet, innovation, and open source: actors in the network. First Monday, 6 (1) http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue6_1/tuomi/index.html
Tuomi, I. (2002). Networks of Innovation: Change and Meaning in the Age of Internet. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[1] The characteristics of modularization and the development model of the Linux operating system have been discussed in Tuomi (2001) and, more extensively, in Tuomi (2002). The latter work studies open source in depth, including issues that relate to intellectual property rights, economics, and organizational forms. The structural analysis of the evolution of Linux and its development community was originally presented in a working paper (Tuomi, 2000), distributed in Berkeley and Stanford in April 2000.
[2] I have discussed social learning, organizational memory, knowledge creation, and knowledge-based organizational forms in, e.g., Tuomi (1999).