Richard Jefferson – Enabling Open Source Innovation to Feed the World

Richard Jefferson and colleague, Illahee board member Susan Bragdon

Richard Jefferson, the founder of Cambia, spoke in Portland on 28 March, about intervening in innovation systems. He began with the fundamentals: consider evolution. As everything we do is a reflection of the ultimate innovation system, evolution, we need to understand the collaborative nature of evolution, in addition to the competitive component that has been the focus of most biologists for the last 150 years.

Jefferson outlined his hologenome theory of evolution, inspired by the early 20th century natural and social thinker Pyotro Kropotkin, a Russian prince turned anarchist, who wrote “Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution.” The basic idea was that in situations in which environment is the main challenge, cooperation would be a key advantage leading to evolutionary persistence.

Now as molecular biologists have a better understanding of genome and function, it turns out most of the stuff of “us” when you puree and sequence it, is not just your genetic material, but a suite of microbes.  In other words it’s a collaborative community, a “mircrobiome.”

And it turns out that things like mate choice and fertility and health is mediated by bacteria. There are thousands of microbiomes everywhere: your skin, lungs, feet, hands, upper intestine, lower intestine, etc. So we think we’re individuals (see Monty Python’s Life of Brian). But we collaborate with microbes all the time. You’ve grown up with them. They are you, as much as your parental chromosomes, resulting in the complex resilient system that is you.

So the hologenome theory: Natural selection has operated at the level of a complex community. Microbes are not just opportunistic passengers in our lives. There never has been selection at the level of a single isolated genome. Bacteria themselves exist in these complex communities.

Let’s extrapolate that to another level.  Let’s talk about performance as persistence over time (kind of like sustainability). What makes things persistent? Resilience and networks. Almost any large monolithic entity will be fragile. What makes a system robust is the network, and not just the node, but the connections. A node that has many connections and that is generative has the opportunity to form many junctions and transmit information across those junctions. If one implodes, others can take its place. That’s how neural networks work. Resilience comes from complexity and complexity comes from transactional networks. Networks are how living systems perform and persist.

It’s why most living systems are microbes. Their generative rates and changes are so much faster than ours. You don’t intersect with anything in the universe, except maybe light, that doesn’t first pass through microbes. So to alter performance, alter the microbes.

Can we draw lessons from biological systems to social systems?

Jefferson described his early – and quite brilliant – work as technically and socially dumb. He and his lab were creating tools because they could. It was a rush. And the reward for many in the lab, who were often from the developing world, was that rush, then publishing the paper, then landing a job back home in an air conditioned office, then getting another fellowship to work for someone like Jefferson again. Rinse, repeat.

The tools they created were prescriptive but not very adaptive. They weren’t nimble. They were cumbersome. Plus they were all being constrained from being disseminated and from being used through intellectual property systems.

At a certain point in his career Jefferson began to think that social, technical and socioeconomic issues could be addressed in a concerted effort, by an initiative to target the development of tools that would have intrinsic change capability, made available and co-developed with people who had a vested interest in seeing it used, and under a legal and normative process that would allow them to take the ball and run with it.

What Richard was developing was open source, and pre-ordained by 4000 years of agriculture. But it was different from open source software. Software engineers scratch their own itch. They use the tools they create. But in agriculture and natural resources, researchers don’t use the information they create. Malaria researchers and corn geneticists don’t develop a tool (Chloroquine, mosquito nets, Roundup Ready corn) in order to use it themselves.

So there’s this innovation ecosystem. But it’s slow. It’s stupid. It’s not working.  There are lots of moving parts: Intellectual property. Capital recruitment. Due diligence. Risk mitigation. Can we develop a better innovation ecosystem to deal with all this? Jefferson had been operating in the public sector of agricultural innovation, which had all the fun of like private sector, but without consequences. Create a tool, write a paper, move on.

To get to that private sector, where stuff happens on the ground we need one more story. The single biggest breakthrough in the history of economics was the opening up of global trade by – no, not Columbus – by a Dutch merchant, Jan Huyghen van Linschoten. He breached the single biggest barrier to exploration: the lack of maps. Trade has always been key to economic development. Maps tell you where the risk is (and where the treasure is). A map is a risk mitigation tool. From the 1400s to 1596, the Portuguese monopolized trade because they had the maps. They knew where the reefs and shoals were.

Then in 1596 van Linschoten published top secret maps he had copied from his Portuguese employers in Goa, India. Note, he didn’t sell these maps to a few rich guys for huge profit. He published them widely and blew open the business. And that’s where we are right now with biotechnology. (Think of Monsanto and a few hundred other companies as the Portuguese.) So where are the reefs and shoals? Markets and development used to be all about trading and transporting STUFF. It’s not the world of stuff anymore; it’s the world of ideas, which are rife with currents, shoals, rocks, hostile tribes etc. We need maps of the danger areas in the intellectual property system, which is presently a self-created minefield. When information is obscured it’s bad. When it’s open, it’s great.

So Jefferson’s nonprofit, Cambia, has been acquiring intellectual property information over the last ten years, and synthesizing it in an open not-for-profit patent search facility, pooling together as many patents as they can, merging this with all sorts of business literature information, making it available as a global public good, to create an area where opportunistic self-interest can play the game – a community-owned map of the idea space. So anyone can get a sense of who’s a good partner, what are the compliance issues, what are the constraints, what’s the state of the art, where are the jurisdictions, who has vetted their ideas, how far along they are (i.e., who, what, when, where, why).

Jefferson believes the future of agriculture is in biotechnology, but it doesn’t look anything like the biotechnology we have now. It’s a biotechnology that is humane and local in scale. It’s biotechnology driven by evidence but inspired by imagination. But that imagination has to come from those who actually practice agriculture. We need a massive breakthrough in performance in agriculture, not just in yield, but in resilience, and it won’t come from conventional biotechnology. It will come from this new scientifically rich, open source driven, more humane and local biotechnology.

Jefferson is passionate about science but passionate about people too. And the one thing that keeps them apart is the lack of these global maps that provide people with the who, what, when, where and why. After twenty years of work, Cambia is ready to launch this open source system.

Historically, patents were viewed a tool for disclosure, for getting your idea out. But people also wanted to make a buck off their tool, so there was a compromise. If you told the world about your idea, you could have a few years of exclusive use. But people forgot about the sharing part; patents have gotten increasingly opaque and protected. There are millions patents out there that can be used for good, pushing back the frontiers of ignorance. Right now we have an obscured cumbersome, opaque, exclusionary innovation system, which makes it very difficult small creative entities to exercise their creativity, and we’re not just talking about an entrepreneur or a business, we’re talking about communities.


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