If you have a problem … ask everyone

Did you catch this NYTimes article on open-source science and seeking collaborative solutions to new challenges? “If You Have a Problem, Ask Everyone”.

The process, according to John Seely Brown, a theorist of information technology and former director of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, reflects “a huge shift in popular culture, from consuming to participating” enabled by the interactivity so characteristic of the Internet. It is sometimes called open-source science, taking the name from open-source software in which the source code, or original programming, is made public to encourage others to work on improving it.

The approach is catching on. Today, would-be innovators can sign up online to compete for prizes for feats as diverse as landing on the Moon (space.xprize.org/lunar-lander-challenge) and inventing artificial meat (www.peta.org/feat_in_vitro_contest.asp)

The big idea is that answers and innovative solutions can come from anywhere and from people not directly connected with the work. In other words cross-disciplinary problem-solving from a wide variety of sources and some of them unexpected. This of course is a well known classroom phenomenon. Allow a bunch of kids to start speculating and proposing solutions to a challenging problem and all kinds of ideas emerge from unexpected sources.

The further the problem was from the solver’s expertise, the more likely they were to solve it, often by applying specialized knowledge or instruments developed for another purpose.

For example, the brain might be thought of as a biological system, but certain brain problems may not be solvable by taking a biological approach. You may want to cast it as an electrical engineering approach. An electrical engineer will come in and say, ‘Oh, here’s the answer for you.’ They have not thought of themselves as being neuroscientists but now they can approach the problem from the point of view of electrical engineering.


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