Open source started out as a simple idea: that the “source code”, or recipe, for computer software could be shared freely with everyone. To kick this off, the founders invented a special software license. Over time, a variety of other licenses have been created. Some of them use trademarks, while others use copyright or patent protection.

Although launched as a legal experiment, the primary feature of open source is no longer the license under which software is accessible — it is the community dynamics of those who contribute to it.
OpenStack, the open source community that I helped to start almost five years ago, is now one of the largest in the world.  It boasts more than 17,000 members across most countries on the globe.  And it is a dynamic mix of both individual contributors, and the world’s largest multinational corporations. Five companies have each committed more than $1 billion to OpenStack, with another 400 firms not far behind.

These open communities are no longer a sandbox for software research — they have become a crucial mechanism of the global free market.

The sharing economy

Open source communities are not the only radical agent in  the modern economy — they may be counted as one of many facets of the emerging “sharing economy” that also includes community fundraising tools such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo, microfinance organizations such as Kiva and the Grameen Bank, or even the darling of alternative societies, such as Burning Man — a week-long annual event held in Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada.

“The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

The sharing economy, and open source in particular, are innately Canadian: in a dynamic mix of cooperation and competition, they capture the best aspects of both socialism and capitalism. Muhammed Yunus won a Nobel Prize for applying this formula towards the improvement of developing economies, and we can now see the same amazing effects on the economies of the developed world as well.  From Facebook to Netflix to AirBnb, open source is rewriting the “winner-take-all” handbook of market success.

But not everyone is excited about this “campfire-kumbaya” version of tomorrow.

Revolution is terrifying. In the early days of the industrial revolution, terror was the dominant response. With every major step of the industrial revolution (steam engines, assembly lines, robots, and finally 3D printing) we saw massive workforces displaced, and entire industries wiped out. But after an initial period of chaos, there emerged larger, more well-trained and well-paid workforces that were created by the disruption.

The monopolies of today’s status quo are unlikely to survive this revolution. At current trends, 75 percent of the S&P 500 will be replaced in the next 15 years.

Who will be tomorrow’s “Captains of Industry”?

Tomorrow’s technology is already certain. It’s been under development for 10 years already, just as the early work on DARPA’s Arpanet project led almost inevitably to the global networking that powers today’s internet. As Canadian author William Gibson so aptly put it, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

But there’s nothing certain about who will profit from tomorrow’s technology. What role, if any, will Canada play in tomorrow’s open markets?

Canada is losing relevance in the global technology economy, despite major investments. Perhaps that’s because our investment is focused on the wrong things: on developing proprietary IP, instead of building meaningful communities.

We must move beyond talking about simply allowing federal agencies to purchase open source software. This is no longer the domain of long-haired Scandinavian university students wearing bathrobes. Open Source now powers every member of the Fortune 500.

Instead, we need to focus on investing in developing open source communities within Canada. This effort should span federal tax incentive programs such SRED, curriculum development at the secondary and postsecondary level, and the licensing models for federally-funded research. We have an “Open By Default” policy that applies to data, dialogue, and information. Why have we skipped open source?

Understanding open source is now more than a critical skill. It has become a matter of national policy.