The principles of ‘open source’ - collaborative forms of creating knowledge pioneered in software development - look set to have a transforming impact on many areas of business, government and daily life, according to a report published this week by the independent think-tank Demos and the Young Foundation.

New open methods that make use of the Internet are just beginning to influence fields as diverse as biosciences, the news media and politics.

Written by Geoff Mulgan, Director of the Young Foundation and former Head of Policy in the Prime Minister’s Office, and Tom Steinberg, Director of mySociety, Wide Open: Open source methods and their future potential argues that many of the principles of the open source model could have radical implications for governments, citizens and businesses.

The report examines open source methods of software development, which have achieved remarkable success using an open, co-operative approach to produce much of the software that the world’s computers and the web now run on, as well as projects like the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia. It finds that a wide range of fields - from law to the arts, from academia to social innovation - could be revolutionised by open source methods.

“The future potential of open source methods is such that they will soon become commonplace in our lives”, say the report’s authors Geoff Mulgan and Tom Steinberg. “Just as it is now impossible to think about getting things done without considering the role of the Internet, so will it soon be impossible to think about how to solve a large social problem without considering the role of open methods.”

“In defiance of the conventional wisdom of modern business, open source methods have led the main underlying innovations around the Internet. Already, wider applications of the open source idea have produced significant results in the biosciences, political campaigning, social networks and employee organisations.”

“As has happened with the web - those cities, organisations and nations that move fastest to embrace open methods are likely to benefit in all sorts of ways - economic, social and cultural. There is also a deep political and moral imperative to make the most of open methods since they are one of the most important ways to make a reality of such much-abused words as ‘empowerment’.”

The report argues that the future potential of open source principles are wide reaching, and that they could be applied in a many areas including:

  • The Media - Open source methods could be the underlying principle of an Open Commission for Accuracy in the Media (OCOM) funded out of a tiny slice of the BBC licence fee, to promote accuracy across all mass media. One of its major tools would be a web-based open system which would keep track of formal Press Complaints Commission complaints and adjudications and complaints by members of the public. Its structures and tools would allow all parties involved in complaints to submit evidence, to discuss, and to escalate to adjudication panels. The adjudication panel and processes could themselves be determined by the participants.
  • Academia   - Replacing peer review by academics with open methods of comment, assessment and scrutiny to reflect the porous boundaries between professional and amateur scholarship.
  • Policymaking - Many governments have moved towards the use of pre-legislative scrutiny as a tool to improve the drafting of legislation. But open systems could be used to break down the barrier between publishing legislation and debating it. A collaborative system would not be a free-for-all - contributions could be categorised, allowing citizens, academics, judges, politicians and so on to comment and have their contributions clearly marked. Parliamentary processes could even be adapted to make consideration of the contributions via the open system obligatory before a vote was permitted to take place.
  • Social Innovation - mySociety.org is already leading the way by building websites which deliver simple, tangible benefits to the civic and social sides of people’s lives, such as FaxYourMP.com and TheyWorkForYou.com. It operates an open team-working model of software development, releases code under open source licences, and is building some open knowledge sites, for example PledgeBank.com.   The Young Foundation will be using open source methods to build on the legacy of Michael Young - widely recognised as the world’s most successful creator of new public and civic organisations.

Notes to editors

  1. Wide Open: Open source methods and their future potential is published by Demos and the Young Foundation on Wednesday 20th April 2005. Copies can be downloaded from www.demos.co.uk/publications/wideopen or ordered from Central Books on 020 8986 5488.
  2. Geoff Mulgan is Director of the Young Foundation, and was formerly Head of Policy in the Prime Minister's Office and Founder and Director of Demos. Tom Steinberg is Director of mySociety.org. Omar Salem is a student at Oxford University and an intern at the Young Foundation.
  3. Demos is an independent think-tank with a long-standing interest in more open forms of collaboration and decision-making in politics and society.
  4. The Young Foundation (formerly the Institute of Community Studies) is an independent non-profit social research organisation. It was founded in 1954 by Michael Young (Lord Young of Dartington), who served as its Director from 1954 to 2001.