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The Sustainability Commons: How Corporate Data Sharing Can Advance Sustainability

3p Contributor | Thursday November 5th, 2009 | 3 Comments

statue-333By David Witzel, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) Innovation Exchange

Several people pointed me to Mary Tripsas‘ post in the New York Times called “Everybody in the Pool of Green Innovation” this weekend – it really struck a chord. The article focused on two initiatives involving major corporations to share patents that protect the environment and foster new innovations. Through the Eco-Patent Commons companies like Xerox, IBM, Nokia, and Ricoh, working with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, pledge to make environmentally beneficial patents available in the public domain. The Eco-Patent Commons now includes 100 patents from eleven participating companies.

Meanwhile, Creative Commons, the innovative engine behind CC licensing for content sharing, is helping launch a new initiative to increase patent-reuse called GreenXchange. Partnering with Nike and Best Buy, they have a “vision of creating an open innovation platform that promotes the creation and adoption of technologies that have the potential to solve important global or industry-wide challenges” and are using their expertise in crafting licenses and legal language to both protect patent-holder interests while enabling easy reuse.

The motivation for these initiatives is captured in Mary’s quote of Dr. Sara Slaughter from MIT’s Sloan Sustainability Initiative saying “We all want to save the planet, and the problems are bigger than any one firm, sector or country.”

Indeed, we need to do a lot fast and being really good at sharing resources is critical – sharing within businesses, across businesses, across business sectors, between the private sector and the public sector, and across national boundaries. This sharing is enabled by what I call the “sustainability commons” – that virtual place where people and our sustainability resources interact. Patents are an excellent example of what can live in the commons and be shared – they represent certified knowledge and innovation though, of course, only cover a small portion of collective knowledge and innovation about sustainability.

In his post in March, Andrew Hutson talked about the importance of innovation exchange and the need to overcome fear of sharing. In addition to GreenXchange, he highlighted work being done in the Global Social Compliance Program and in multi- stakeholder forums, such as those hosted by Business for Social Responsibility.

What are the other resources we need to share, to enable rapid, widespread, green innovation in business? I think the list includes:

  • Data of all kinds – benchmarks, baselines, risk, and cost, and more;
  • Software to support modeling, analysis, workflow, and collaboration;
  • Ideas and knowledge to describe what we know and what we’re learning – research results, project designs, metrics being used captured as research papers, white papers, and blogs posts;
  • Training materials like “how-to’s”, syllabi, reading lists, lecture notes, and entire classes and courses;
  • Org-charts and descriptions describing who needs to do what work in what structure with what responsibilities and how long its going to take;
  • Contracts and licenses that align incentives to promote sustainability while preserving business interests;
  • Calendars so we know who is doing what when and if we should join; and…
  • [what else? - please add your comments below]

We also need the human bit. Smart, dedicated people contributing, using, filtering, and improving our shared resources. We need channels that allow us to discuss what we are doing and learning, ways to find each other, venues for small, private conversations as well as large, inclusive discussions. We need imaginative incentives that encourage widespread participation.

The Sustainability Commons represents aggregated public goods – social assets. These assets will create new business opportunities, giving companies a leg-up to “stand on the shoulders of giants” while we rapidly address the environmental challenges we face.

Note: This was also cross-posted on the EDF Innovation Exchange blog.

David Witzel serves as Director of the EDF Innovation Exchange, a dynamic global network facilitating the widespread adoption of environmental innovation in business. The EDF Innovation Exchange is also a 3p sponsor.

Image credit: skugga2shadow


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