Saturday Series: An Interview with Ken Dabkowski

By Molly Redfield

In our new Saturday Series, we interview inspiring people that our readers have nominated. These people are working on the frontlines to improve the global food and agricultural systems. Want to nominate someone?  E-mail your suggestions to Danielle Nierenberg!

Name: Ken Dabkowski

Affiliation: M·CAM/Global Innovations Commons

Bio: Ken has been a part of M·CAM and the Global Innovations Commons (GIC) initiative for about 3 years. At M-CAM he helps the organization with its communications and foreign affairs. The key concept behind all M·CAM initiatives is the idea that while everyone on the planet does not have access to the same resources, everyone does have access to creativity. By expanding common threads of knowledge through GIC and connecting creative collaborators, people can bring viability to an idea. Prior to working with M·CAM, Ken worked at The Arlington Institute, a future technologies think tank located in Virginia. His work at the Arlington Institute consisted of formulating different scenarios related to the government, economy, environment, and security for communities, companies, and governments.

What exactly is the Global Innovations Commons?

The Global Innovation Commons is a worldwide repository of innovations primarily focused on agriculture, clean water, health, and clean energy. The open source repository allows anyone to compile a library of innovation that can then be applied to a greater scale collaboration either locally or globally. These innovations and ideas are then open to the rest of the world. The idea is to create a place where anyone can come in, learn about something, and then share it. That’s how all of the participants start to build a larger knowledge base. Much of what is posted includes innovation artifacts that have expired, are invalid, abandoned, or have limited geographic coverage. When descriptions of these technologies are listed, the contact information of the innovators is included. That way there can be collaborations on these new applications. One of the open source tools embedded within the Global Innovation Commons is a tool called Integral Accounting. This assessment tool takes into account different aspects of value, such as cultural value, commodity, wellbeing, technology, knowledge, and environmental impacts. Communities that want to develop certain capacities can inform their decision making process with value already present in their community and align these values with their expectations of well-being. The Integral Accounting tool is being deployed in several communities globally and provides the vital foundation for all collaborations.

How is the GIC managed? Is it a participatory process for those who provide knowledge as well as those who share it?

The technical part of GIC is developed and managed by M·CAM but is open for collaboration. GIC is open for everyone to participate in and use. Logging in is free of monetary charge. M·CAM feels that everyone should have access to the innovation legally stewarded by the public, and there should not be barriers. With an account you can see the entire library. It is designed to be as simple as possible. The GIC license states that GIC is free to use, but when people use something from the repository, they are expected to share how they used it. The only way to keep a knowledge base growing is to participate and share. Innovations develop when people share how they’ve used them and the context in which they’ve used them.

What kinds of innovations are featured in the GIC?

The GIC features innovation from four major areas, clean energy, agriculture, water and health.  It also forms and makes available innovation sets that deal with current global issues such as disease outbreaks and natural disasters.  The platform is open for the community to submit open source projects as well.  Several community projects have been posted to date.  One particularly interesting project that has been posted is a project in Papua New Guinea where a community used high-grade steel from old military torpedoes to build a distiller for spices. This shows how the knowledge, applied to materials sourced from the abundance of resources in an area, makes many things possible.

The GIC mentions how in the past patents have both abused and stifled innovation. How is the GIC’s “open source” repository a response to these previous circumstances and how does it work to avoid these issues?

Intellectual property rights come out of basic property law. People are allowed to stake verbal claims on certain ideas to secure a limited monopoly and exclude others from potential benefits.  To obtain a patent, an innovator must describe a technology, prove that it’s novel, non-obvious to someone skilled in the art, and then build a working model of it (reduce it to practice). Recently, quality around these standards has diminished.  It is now much easier to obtain patents because the reduction to practice requirement has become less stringent. Inventors are granted a monopoly (in the case of a patent) for about 20 years.  After the patent expires, the technology enters the public domain and the content within the claims cannot be re-patented.  Historically individuals and groups have stifled innovation by taking several actions.  First, companies often patent ideas not for commercialization, but rather to block competing ideas from coming to market.  In other cases, “innovators” illegally double patent their technologies to extend the term of their monopoly.  Others plagiarize ideas and make slight variations to language to camouflage infringement.

The Global Innovation Commons addresses these issues by bringing transparency to the complexity of the system.  In the cases where the public has the right to steward innovation in the public domain, the GIC ensures equivalent access to the information.  In traditionally ignored markets, the GIC raises awareness about knowledge immediately available for use.  For example, technology with proprietary restriction in the U.S. and E.U. may not have restrictions for use in Africa, South America and Asia. Therefore, innovators from these areas can use the information present in the GIC to connect with the innovators and deploy the knowledge.

How can the GIC model be used to address some of the most pressing issues of our time, such as the impacts of climate change on agriculture and the increasing food insecurity many nations are now facing?

In the recent cases of agricultural genetically modified seed infringement, some companies own exclusive rights to genetic code and are allowed to increase prices for their products as well as sue others for patent infringement. In cases such as the Basmati rice dispute, proprietary blockades on sourcing and distribution have scaled into national issues.

Of all existing patents, 95 percent have never been commercialized.  Many high quality technologies have long since expired into the public domain.  Many current technologies are not covered internationally. The GIC can address the most pressing issues we have by deploying existing knowledge.  There is no reason to spend billions of dollars researching solutions to problems that have already been solved.  The GIC connects collaborators who would be interested in developing technologies and can be used to build the “Freedom to Operate”.  Deployment of technologies can then be used to improve situations. Using the GIC, people can find recognition and value in ideas and innovations that haven’t been extensively applied before. They can also make human connections that they had not thought of before as they collaborate to come up with solutions to certain problems. Some of these innovations include agricultural solutions, medicines, and clean energy technologies that can really improve people’s lives.

What kind of challenges does the GIC confront and how can it better deal with these issues in the future?

One of the issues that M·CAM faces is communicating the complexity of a system that prevents the development and adoption of innovation. Employing the GIC framework requires a different way of thinking about innovation, property, trade, and procurement. It’s looking at information in ways where we can actively engage it and get the word out about how it can be used. It’s a different style of information processing. The work M-CAM does is not something we advertise or impose on systems. By creating a process in which people can freely engage, reference, and share their knowledge M·CAM invites more involvement, more examples, and more communities to participate.

Molly Redfield is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE.

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