Open source during the recession: Insights from the World Open Innovation Conference
Cailean Osborne | 21 March 2023
The 9th Annual World Open Innovation Conference (WOIC) was held in mid-November 2022 in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, with the theme “The Human Side of Open Innovation.”
During the conference, Hilary Carter and Cailean Osborne of the Linux Foundation led a challenge session to explore the concept of “Open Source Innovation as a Potential Lever for Economic Recovery,” pressure-testing the idea with roundtable-style discussions that included academics, innovators, and policymakers.
The session aimed to discuss how or whether there was a potential and meaningful role for open source software (OSS) to mitigate the effects of the current economic downturn and, if yes, how organizations from various sectors could benefit from it.
Introducing the LF’s challenge session
Hilary Carter opened the session by highlighting the current state of the economic downturn, along with a number of strategies that organizational decision-makers have deployed to remain resilient in past downturns and, where relevant, remain competitive. While leveraging digital tools has historically been an effective tactic to remain competitive, Carter invited the session participants to consider the role(s) that OSS can play in the modern-day context, where war, inflation, and climate threats have collided.
Before the roundtable discussions kicked off, Dr. Paul Wiegmann from the Technical University of Eindhoven provided an academic reflection on Carter’s challenge. Wiegmann encouraged participants to take note of the wider societal and environmental problems that we face, from global warming to the consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and to consider how open source innovation can contribute to realizing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
Professor Henry Chesbrough, a renowned scholar in the field of open innovation from UC Berkeley and Luiss University, also participated in the challenge session. Chesbrough shared his thoughts on the significance of the WOIC as a forum to solicit expertise from innovators, academics, and policymakers who specialize in open innovation on whether, how, and why OSS may act as a potential lever for economic recovery.
Interesting and pertinent insights emerged from the subsequent roundtable discussions, which lasted for over one hour.
Consensus from the roundtable discussions
The roundtable discussions revealed six key themes that supported Carter’s hypothesis:
- OSS is a low-cost, high-quality alternative to closed source software for digital innovation. Participants made the case that by adopting OSS, organizations can reduce costs when their budgets are shrinking, and economic pressures are mounting. However, participants acknowledged that OSS does not come “off the shelf,” and often, organizations struggle to “package up” OSS into high-performing digital products or services, which requires in-house technical expertise and investment in OSS.
- OSS has potential in the public sector but faces many barriers. OSS can support the development of cost-effective solutions for public service delivery and tackle vendor lock-in problems during times when tax revenues are constrained. However, common roadblocks to OSS adoption in the public sector include the need for OSS leadership, OSS policies, investment, and technical expertise. Establishing Open Source Program Offices (OSPOs) can effectively facilitate OSS-friendly cultures in the public sector.
- OSS is digital infrastructure, and we must invest in it. OSS is a key part of our digital infrastructure that anyone can use, modify, and innovate on top of. Like any type of infrastructure, we need to invest in its development, maintenance, and security. Since the challenge session, think tanks such as Open Future and Atlantic Council have argued similarly about the urgency of funding OSS as digital infrastructure. The German government’s Sovereign Tech Fund, Open Tech Fund’s FOSS Fund, and the EU’s Next Generation Internet initiative are promising policy developments in this direction.
- We should build more OSS as shared solutions to societal problems. Participants suggested that OSS can be an effective approach to developing shared solutions to societal and environmental problems. One area may be climate technology, considered a “recession-proof” domain of the technology sector, which in 2022 received more venture capital investment than in previous years and has support from government budgets, such as the new U.S. climate bill. This represents a major opportunity for OSS developers to build and share OSS in the common interest of tackling climate change.
- Education will be key for scaling open source adoption. A key roadblock to increasing open source adoption by organizations, which are not already active adopters or contributors to OSS, is a lack of institutional knowledge about how to get involved in a manner that is cybersecure, sustainable, or beneficial. There is a need for education about the value and security of OSS to increase adoption. The establishment of OSPOs can be an effective way to facilitate such cultural shifts within organizations.
- Companies must reciprocate their fair share to OSS communities to ensure their sustainability. Participants discussed the concern amongst developers that companies disproportionately benefit from OSS without adequately reciprocating to the developer communities. Participants highlighted the need for companies to provide adequate support to the OSS projects that they rely on and benefit from. Companies can support OSS projects in many ways, from providing sustained community funding to encouraging their employees to make technical contributions during working hours.
Insights resonate with research findings on OSS trends in Europe
These key themes resonate with findings from our "World of Open Source: Europe Spotlight 2022" research report with ScottLogic, which provides insights into OSS trends in Europe.
One key common point is the imbalance between the use of and contributions to open source by organizations. We found that this gap is the widest in the public, telecommunications, and financial services sectors. The result is that many organizations “take” more than they “give,” which challenges the sustainability of OSS projects. It underscores that many sectors, particularly the public sector, are not yet fully capitalizing on the benefits of OSS.
We also found that open source leadership pays dividends. Organizations with a structured approach to OSS through an OSPO or leaders who support OSS tend to have a culture that encourages employees to contribute to open source. Interestingly, we found that organizations at the two extremes of the scale (<10 or >10,000 employees) tend to have an OSPO or OSS-friendly leader, while mid-sized organizations lack both. There is potential for these organizations to follow in the footsteps of small and large organizations. If this applies to you, we recommend you consult the TODO Group’s Resources to advance your OSPO journey.
Finally, our research found that open source can be an apolitical key to fostering digital sovereignty by providing the tools for individuals and organizations to develop software without relying on or being locked into the systems of a few dominant companies. Open source is a powerful mechanism for collective value creation and bringing the vision of the “digital commons” to life. This resonates with the view that OSS is a key part of our digital public infrastructure, and we must do more to fund its development, maintenance, and security.
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