When it takes a pandemic ...

2021-05-25 18:12
to understand the speed of innovation.

2020 was a special year for all of us - with "us" here meaning the entire world: Faced with a truly urgent global problem that year was a learning opportunity for everyone.

For me personally the year started like any other year - except that news coming out of China were troubling. Little did I know how fast those news would reach the rest of the world - little did I know the impact that this would have.

I started the year with FOSDEM in Brussels in February - like every other year, except it felt decidedly different going to this event with thousands of attendees, crammed into overfull university rooms.

Not a month later, travel budgets in many corporations had been frozen. The last in person event that I went to was FOSS Backstage - incapable of imagining just for how long this would be the last in person event I would go to. To this date I'm grateful for Bertrand for teaching the organising team just how much can be transported with video calls - and I'm still grateful for the technicians onsite that made speaker-attendee interaction seamless - across several hundred miles.

One talk from FOSS Backstage that I went back to over and over during 2020 and 2021 was the one given by Emmy Tsang on Open Science.

Referencing the then new pandemic she made a very impressive case for open science, for open collaboration - and for the speed of innovation that comes from that open collaboration. More than anything else I had heard or read before it made it clear to me what everyone means by explaining how Open Source (and by extension internally InnerSource) increases the speed of innovation substantially:

Instead of having everyone start from scratch, instead of wasting time and time again to build the basic foundation - instead we can all collaborate on that technological foundation and focus on key business differentiators. Or as Danese Cooper would put it: "All the boats must rise." The one thing that I found most amazing during this pandemic were moments during which we saw scientists from all sorts of disciplines work together - and doing so in a very open and accessible way. Among all the chaos and misinformation voices for reliable and dependable information emerged. We saw practitioners add value to the discussion.

With information shared in pre-print format, groups could move much faster than the usual one year innovation cycle. Yes, it meant more trash would make it as well. And still we wouldn't be where we are today if humans across the globe, no matter their nationality or background would have had a chance to collaborate and move faster as a result.

Somehow that's at a very large scale the same effect seen in other projects:

  • RoboCup only moved as fast as it did by opening up the solution of winning teams each year. As a result new teams would get a head start with designs and programs readily available. Instead of starting from scratch, they can stand on the shoulders of giants.
  • Open source helps achieve the same on a daily basis. There's a very visible sign for that: Perseverance on Mars is running on open source software. Every GitHub user, who in their life has contributed to software running on Perseverance today has a badge on their GitHub profile - there are countless badges serving as proof just how many hands it took, how much collaboration was necessary to make this project work.


For me one important learning during this pandemic was just how much we can achieve by working together, be collaborating and building bridges. In that sense, what we have seen is how it is possible to gain so much more by sharing - as Niels Basjes put it so nicely when explaining the Apache Way in one sentence: Gaining by Sharing.

In a sense this is what brought me to the InnerSource Commons Foundation - it's a way for all of us to experience the strenght of collaboration. It's a first step towards bringing more people and more businesses to the open source world, joining forces to solve issues ahead of us.