Sunday, January 20, 2008

Collective Innovation

A project geared at sharing patents for environmentally sound technologies was announced last Monday. The initiative, led by IBM, hopes to create a community that fosters the sharing of ideas and innovations and that spurs even more growth. Companies can share their developments and use other companies’ technologies without fear of any participant imposing patent penalties. So far, 31 inventions have been put into the“Eco-Patent Commons" and will cover everything from “energy conservation or efficiency, pollution prevention (source reduction, waste reduction), use of environmentally preferable materials or substance, materials reduction, [and] increased recycling ability.” (more details from the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, which will be administering the commons)

Typically, the issue of the free-rider always comes up; but is the free-rider so bad in this case? Will companies continue to put the same amount of money into R&D for technologies that others can simply adopt? I think so. Surely companies will always have the incentive to minimize their own costs and increase efficiency, and will strive to be first in the market. The key to this new era of energy is options. Oil will never be out of the picture- it’s far too efficient- but people want an array of choices, and companies will continue to invest in developing new green technologies and more efficient exiting technologies, rather than just take ideas as they find them in this pool. I see companies “piggy backing” on each others’ ideas and continuously working to improve them. By participating in the program, companies can reap as many benefits as they provide to others.

The potential for developing countries is also huge. True, the technology alone won’t be a cure-all. Initial capital, management, and infrastructure are all necessary. But this reminds me of developing countries’ abilities to bypass some of the “developed” world’s technologies, as seen in the case of communications, where people in many developing countries bypassed landlines and went straight to cell phones. This sharing of environmentally beneficial and economically advantageous technology can definitely have an impact on the issue regarding emissions regulations of developing or undeveloped countries- an issue that always seems to be an obstacle during environmental conferences.

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