Openness is at the heart of truly worldchanging systems. Transparency of process, connections and results make open systems more reliable, more accessible, and better able to be connected to other systems; it also encourages collaboration and the input of interested stakeholders. This is perhaps most tangible in the world of technology, particularly information and communication technology (ICT); open ICT systems are increasingly engines of innovation, and are clear catalysts for leapfrogging across the developing world, via reduced costs, potential for customization, and likely interoperability with both legacy and emerging technologies.
Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society has just published something they call the "Roadmap for Open ICT Ecosystems" (PDF), a guidebook for policymakers, business strategists and technical specialists looking to implement open information and communication technologies around the world. The Roadmap doesn't focus on any single type of open ICT, but on the greater value of the open approach, and the ways in which open systems encourage collaboration and innovation using "a potent combination of connectivity, collaboration and transparency."
One aspect of the Roadmap that I find particularly compelling is that, although it speaks only to information and communication technology needs, the majority of the principles and ideas considered could apply more broadly -- to other kinds of technologies (such as biotech and nanotech), and even to political and social systems (such as voting methods and urban planning).
It's this broad approach that allows the concepts to apply to more than ICT. Consider, for example, the Roadmap's list of Guiding Principles of Open ICT Ecosystems:
An open ICT ecosystem should be:
Interoperable – allowing, through open standards, the exchange, reuse, interchangeability and interpretation of data across diverse architectures.
User-Centric – prioritizing services fulfilling user requirements over perceived hardware or software constraints.
Collaborative – permitting governments, industry, and other stakeholders to create, grow and reform communities of interested parties that can leverage strengths, solve common problems, innovate and build upon existing efforts.
Sustainable – maintaining balance and resiliency while addressing organizational, technical, financial and legal issues in a manner that allows an ecosystem to thrive and evolve.
Flexible – adapting seamlessly and quickly to new information, technologies, protocols and relationships while integrating them as warranted into market-making and government processes.
With a few slight adjustments to the phrasing, the same list would apply well as guidelines for a distributed energy network, or as guidelines for a transportation system, or even as guidelines for cooperative biomedical research. This isn't because the guidelines are vague or overly-broad, but because many infrastructure and service systems ultimately have similar needs for sustainable success.
That said, the Roadmap does give ample detail about the particular value of open information and communication technologies. Most useful, perhaps, is the section on how open ICT ecosystems can evolve. The Roadmap authors pointedly do not expect governments and organizations to shift to an open approach in one great leap; rather, the move to openness requires a great deal of rapid prototyping and incremental adjustments, to allow the particulars of the implementation to match the organization's context. That's the corollary to the low-level similarity of needs across disciplines: the specific circumstances of each case will be highly variable. The guidelines and the Roadmap don't tell you the answer, they help you find the answer.
This is one of those documents where the short length -- it's well under 50 pages -- belies the richness of the material. Open ICT systems have a definite value for development efforts, in terms of both leapfrogging and local/regional economic regeneration (it would be useful, for example, for the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast to keep the principles of open systems in mind). Even more useful, at least for me, is the degree to which the Roadmap triggers further consideration of how the open system concept applies outside of the realm of information and communication technology. The core principles of "connectivity, collaboration and transparency" have far broader application than just ICT; they are at the heart of a robust, flexible and sustainable model of society.