Open Data: To Improve Innovation, Do We Need to Share?

A French view on the evolution, efficiency and challenges of intellectual property

General Public

Last 5th and 6th of June, for the first time, the French Ministry of Research gathered researchers and experts to discuss and reflect on the topic of open data in science.  The “Open Science/Open Society” colloquium was co-organized by the General Board for Research and Innovation (DGRI, in French) and Etalab, the unit responsible for open data under the supervision of the French Prime Minister  (the schedule of the colloquium is available in French here). One session focused on open innovation: led by manufacturers and researchers, innovation is facing the issue of intellectual property, its evolution and its efficiency.

Cet article existe également en français :  Open data: faut-il partager pour mieux innover ?  (Traduction/translation: Audrey Risser Abby Tabor)

Open Science Logo / gemmerich / CC BY-SA


Sharing is ideal: welcome to the world of the geeks

Cooperation or individualism, that is the question! The event was introduced from the point of view of the social sciences with a presentation by Jacques Dubucs, head of human and social science at the General Board for Research and Innovation (DGRI). “We are living in a brutal world,” he began, before offering a glimmer of hope to the audience: “The emergence of the geek mindset is giving us a glimpse of a more philanthropic version of human nature.” Cooperation between individuals does not abide by the same rules in the material world and that of information. An explanation for this is that, in the physical world and without communication, “cooperating on the individual level is irrational” (a reference to the prisoner’s dilemma). In short, “It is safer to start a war before being betrayed and safer to betray than to cooperate.

On the contrary, in an ideal vision of data sharing, “Informational betrayal brings you nothing … The group that cooperates knows more than any member of that group before sharing information.” The production of scientific knowledge is based on this very rule and that is why researchers publish the results of their research. But some situations favor asymmetrical sharing of information, which makes the situation more complicated. There may be good reason to keep certain information to onself, like on the stock exchange or in technological innovation. Concerning personal data, one might well not want to reveal the code for their debit card or the state of their health. Information is not neutral and individuals can sometimes have different interests.

What about the geeks, do they share? Before an assembly of researchers and others curious about the subject, the morning was punctuated with insistant references to that almost mythical figure, the geek, defined several times as a modern, philanthropic, digital enthusiast who produces and uses a great deal of data. Let’s skip the semantic debate opposing geeks and nerds: what struck me that morning was the depoliticization of the geek as an individual. Far from the image of a citizen with a high technological capital, the geek, as described that morning, looks more like the typical super-consumer who informs, as much as possible, the Internet giants and nosey companies of all their comings and goings. A pure being without ideas.

Yet individualism exists in the world of geeks, as well. Bill Gates and Linus Torvalds are both geeks, but Windows and Linux are very different political projects. Information has value, even for a geek. To share or not to share. This decision depends as much on political or philosophical considerations as on a very down-to-earth need: efficiency.


Sylvain Allano on 19th April 2011, at the4ème Rencontre Nationale des Directeurs de l'Innovation / Pierre Métivier / CC-BY-NC

Sharing is efficient: intellectual property leaves room for cooperation

Cooperation and sharing make an effective cocktail to face the economic and technological challenges of the market economy. Pooling information can indeed make one more competitive and improve the innovation process. Though it is, of course, out of the question for manufacturers to let go of all intellectual property rights out of pure philanthropy: they still need to create value.

Sylvain Allano, head of science and future technologies at PSA Peugeot Citroën was present that morning to introduce the strategy of open innovation of the group. “The car industry is facing huge challenges that will change it completely in some years,” he said. The evolution of urban mobility, protection of the environment, and users’ new expectations are all part of these challenges to come. “The ones courting us nowadays are people from Silicon Valley, like Google and Facebook.” Why are these huge internet firms interested in PSA? Tomorrow’s connected vehicles will become clusters of information, sucking up data as they carry people, energy and information.

To imagine that vehicle of the future, PSA established a policy of open innovation 5 years ago, which was made concrete with open innovation centers, in France and abroad, in partnership with universities. The economic crisis and increasingly complex technological challenges are so many reasons to integrate actors from outside the company into the innovation effort: “Before, we needed to look for specific knowledge to solve a technical issue. Today, the game is not so much about finding solutions as asking the right questions. That is why we are looking elsewhere, opening a very broad scientific field.” Open innovation thus needs a collaborative spirit to exist, leaving the doors open to creativity, from the academic world, scientific institutions and independents.

The question is not about open source, but, indeed, open innovation. Intellectual property is still topical, yet collaboration is called for: “Everyone has to win: academics and companies. We share the intellectual property on the results we get.” These modernized patents are licensed in patent pools, foundations that manage industrial property rights. “It is useless to keep these patents for yourself. We renounce our intellectual property and the pool manages the rights.” For instance, the VeDeCoM Institute (Véhicule Décarboné Communicant et sa Mobilité in French, meaning carbon-free, communicating vehicle and its mobility) gathers local authorities, research institutes and car companies (including PSA and Renault) around the main issues facing the future of the car industry.

The boundary between open innovation and open source is not impossible to cross for everyone: Elon Musk, the very high-profile CEO of electric car manufacturer Tesla Motors has just announced that the company is renouncing the exclusivity of its rights on its patents. Once again, such a decision is not insignificant as, by doing so, Tesla aims to boost the electric car market.


TeslaMotors headquarters at Palo Alto / Tumbehaur / CC BY-SA 3.0

Sharing is dangerous: Keeping an eye on markets and jobs

 The morning closed with a presentation by Marie-Pierre Van Hoecke, research and innovation advisor with the Interministerial Delegation on Competitive Intelligence. Very quickly, she set the tone: “I live in the real world, with real problems and real question. Let me bring you back to Earth.” For the former director of the CNRS office in China, the economic and industrial recovery of France is at stake; we have to stop living in a fantasy world. Marie-Pierre Van Hoecke cited the French-language Wikipedia page for “open innovation”: compared to the English, Italian or Dutch versions, the French is the only one to associate open innovation and open source, making reference to the social and solidarity economy. “You can look in every language, the French are the only ones who talk that way.”

Open innovation must, therefore, be viewed as a controlled opening: information has value that is at the heart of the competitivity of national companies. France must not be the happy fool who shares everything, so that others can profit off its work. Some researchers in France campaign for the independence of public research and the dissemination of knowledge under open licenses. On the one hand, we can understand that what is financed by public money should be distributed freely. On the other hand, specialists of competitive intelligence will object, saying that foreign companies will be able to take it, steal the market, and deepen the abyss of unemployment in France. “I’m going to talk to you about employment. … The average citizen feels they are participating in funding research and that they’d like to benefit from it, too.

 The Fioraso law on higher education and research, voted in less than a year ago, emphasized policies favoring the transfer of public research results toward the economy. In keeping with this context, Marie-Pierre Van Hoecke urged the researchers in attendance to think twice before distributing scientific and technological knowledge to any and all takers. “If industry has a social responsibility, researchers have an economic responsibility.” The paradox is clear: the notion of sharing is at the core of the innovation process, but the economy, at once globalized and very national, necessitates the protection of one’s own interests.


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