4 open practices for a sustainable technology transition

Open principles amplify the transformation towards a sustainability-driven economy.
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A transformation to a sustainability-oriented economy will confront all subsequent generations with enormous challenges over many decades. Given the complexity of the changes required, global and open collaboration is essential.

Here are four reasons why a transition to sustainable technology should follow open practices:

1. Transparency and trust

A sustainable economy requires a shared understanding of how our actions affect the environment. It is about what practices and technologies are sustainable to conserve our natural resources in the long term. In practice, many solution paths have a high degree of complexity, and it is not always certain whether a solution will be economically, environmentally, or socially sustainable. Can solar cell recycling be done in an economical way? Can carbon capture and storage be an economically and environmentally viable alternative to avoiding carbon dioxide altogether? Is the land used to produce biofuel crops competing with food production?

Open practices can be critical to ensuring transparency and trust in the search for answers to these questions. Open datasets, models, and access can create a global discussion without running the risk of being influenced by single interests. This open mindset has already created a global scientific consensus on the human impact on climate change with replicable outcomes. 

Another challenge is to create a common understanding of what steps are needed to address this problem. Tools such as open life-cycle assessments play a central role in measuring the environmental footprint of products and services. Using public data and open models create transparent metrics to have a more comprehensive sustainability impact assessment. This practice builds widespread trust and encourages consumers and businesses to adopt sustainable behaviors.

2. Knowledge evolution and adaptation

The digital tools we use today to develop new technologies are the result of centuries of collaboration. They emerged in the form of mathematics, algorithms, and programming languages. Today, 70% of the world's codebase is open source, and software development has become one of the most innovative industries. The results are revolutionary and groundbreaking developments in robotics, artificial intelligence, and blockchain, to name a few. What today is called open source in software development has been practiced by scientists for centuries through the methods of "Standing on the shoulders of giants".

With advances in global communications, we can apply the creative methods behind software development to more traditional fields. With knowledge accessible to everyone, people will be able to maintain and adapt technology by themselves. For example, open agriculture can be adopted by farmers to decrease the environmental impact in their farming techniques. Practices like these enable faster global change that is responsive to local conditions and cultural needs.

3. Collaborative innovation

In his 2003 book Open Innovation, Henry Chesbrough first coined the term open innovation as a novel innovation strategy. Initially, it meant a straightforward contradiction of the traditional and secretive R&D mindset towards corporate innovation. However, the trend for openness and collaboration between and within companies has rapidly expanded.

Over time, it has become an active innovation-seeking path for the whole ecosystem that further pushes technological development and knowledge boundaries. Most importantly, this collaborative approach is crucial when considering the ever-increasing product complexity, making it difficult for even the largest companies to carry out the whole development process in-house. In particular, innovations in the mobility, food, and housing require individual and cultural needs to be considered throughout the whole product development process included right from the beginning. Otherwise, we run the risk of developing sustainable solutions without taking people's lifestyles into account.

Two evident benefits of adopting an open innovation strategy are setting up a common language between the contributors and standardization of ways to collaborate. This, in turn, translates into substantial competitive advantages from the commercial perspective: better adaptation for new business opportunities, increased flexibility in developed solutions, and a faster and cheaper route to launch a product into a market. Most importantly, by integrating users into the design processes, the idea of partnership towards a larger and shared goal also brings new ways of doing business.

4. Open business models

Free and open practices emerged with the idea of strengthening freedom for all users. The benefits of cooperative software development for common standards and higher code quality also became obvious. What seems unimaginable to many is developing a profitable business based on free and open practices. Nonetheless, over the past decade, multiple companies have demonstrated with great success how sustainable and open business models can look. Open Core, as one of the most well-known open business models, combines the practices of customization, transparency, and collaborative innovation, and has created a new way to involve users directly in core development. 

Out of this, a new billion-dollar business methodology has emerged that provides the foundational infrastructure for our digital world.  What initially seemed possible only for software development is now being applied to new domains, as can be seen in the development of semiconductors with the advent of the RISC-V initiative. Hundreds of organizations are working together to create an open ecosystem that will ensure free and open designs of computer architectures and processors in the future. The same mindset can be applied to other sustainable technologies that define our lives.

Accelerate the open sustainable transition

The benefits of open practices in developing sustainable technologies are now clear. The foundation for their development has been laid by many projects and is now visible in the projects listed on OpenSustain.tech. It is now up to us to see if we can apply the practices that have brought us the most innovation to the problems that challenge us the most.

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Founder of opensustain.tech, an open accelerator platform for free and open climate technology. He works as a software developer and aerospace engineer in climate research at the Juelich Research Center.
Alejandro Aristi
A knowledge freak who loves to jump from one topic to another and find connections. Firm believer in openness and collaboration to achieve greater goals. After a decade of travel in the advertising and technology scenes, I am currently exploring the intersection between open source development, innovation and sustainability. I love travelling, hiking and cycling.
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Hi, I am Tjark, a mechanical engineer from Germany and work mostly in product development. In my opinion Open Source and Open Source Hardware are keys to battle the ongoing crisis of Climate Change and any of the problems emerging from it.

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