Teymoor Nabili 0:42
My guest on this podcast today is Richard Jefferson, the CEO of Cambia, which describes itself as a nonprofit social enterprise creating new tools, technologies and paradigms to promote change and enable innovation. And far from being cynical about creativity, Richard is a passionate advocate of enabling innovation. He just thinks that ideas are only good if they prove themselves in the marketplace. And one of the new tools that Cambia has launched is called The Lens, which is basically an open source collection of existing knowledge, whether it be patent filings or research. And the philosophy of Lens is that making this knowledge available to diverse groups of individuals is a great way of inspiring useful innovation. Hello, thank you very much indeed for talking to me today,
Richard Jefferson 1:38
I’m pleased to be here. Thank you very much Teymoor.
Teymoor Nabili 1:40
The thing that I’m finding really interesting about your work is the basic proposition – and correct me if I’m misstating this or oversimplifying it – but the basic proposition seems to be that better innovation takes place in environments of open information and greater collaboration. Is that a fair way of putting it?
Richard Jefferson 1:57
Yes, it’s a fair way of putting it but I would extend that observation a little further. It’s about inclusivity. So let me walk it back a little bit and frame it for you if I may. One of my inspirations for what we’ve been doing for the last 30 years to try to make the innovation system more effective is Jane Goodall’s pioneering work in the early 60s, where she, as a comparatively untrained scientist observed for the first time primates, chimpanzees, making and using tools. And in the course of articulating that, she in a sense reframed what I think is the biological imperative to innovate that is intrinsic to higher primates such as ourselves. And we self accord ‘higher’ to us but we have yet to earn it. Nonetheless this drive to innovate, this drive to solve one’s problems, is part of our basic biology. And in a sense it is the foundational level from which all human rights really extend – the ability to solve your problems drives all other Sustainable Development Goals, all other human rights, because they’re all based around the idea of acquiring a better life for yourself.
Teymoor Nabili 3:03
Conflating there the concept of innovation and the concept of solving problems. Do you see those as being the same thing?
Richard Jefferson 3:15
No, I see that as being the virtuous definition of innovation. Some of the trivial forms of innovation that are used by many pundits and whatnot is ‘anything new’. So if no one has ever had a purple toothbrush, someone comes up with a purple toothbrush, they may find that an innovation but it’s not solving any problem except their ability to make a few bucks. So, I think we should be very cautious about two different elements of the word innovation. One is to conflate it with creativity, which it is most surely not. And the other is to create it with a lack of usefulness, which it often is. So we can ground those, in a sense, in the concept of problem solving. If you experience a lacunum in your life, something you need, some problem, then something that may be new to you but not to someone else is indeed an innovation, if it addresses that problem. So innovation is also not an absolute. Someone may reinvent the wheel many times if they haven’t had the wheel, it’s still an innovation to them. And it’s still useful
Teymoor Nabili 4:16
To parse the terminology a little bit more closely… You said innovation is not the same thing as creativity; differentiate those two.
Richard Jefferson 4:24
To call innovation ‘creative’ is missing a fundamental element of cooperativity amongst problem solvers. So let’s take the most topical thing of all, a Covid vaccine. Right now, everyone on earth is engaged in the issue of accessing or recovering from or denying the Covid vaccine use. The truth is, it does not take science and creativity, at least not alone. It does not take marketing alone. It does not take business alone. It does not take management alone. But any one of these features left out, and you simply will not have a vaccine. So if you assert that innovation produces a new thing that’s useful, new to you perhaps, then anything that constrains that production must be viewed as an essential component of the innovative process. Having an idea is not innovative. It’s an idea. That’s nice. But turning it into an outcome that is useful and testable by the marketplace – that requires alignment of diverse capabilities. Scientists, like myself, have always longed to think of ourselves as central to this process, and so we assign creativity to that component, which implies that someone who does manufacturing is not creative. And that is both pejorative and untrue. So what I would say is, let’s get away from creativity and that naive idea that, oh, there’s a spark of creativity and all the rest is just scut work. It’s not. Alignment is the key in innovation, and respect of all the different contributors is the key to innovation.
Teymoor Nabili 5:15
Let’s get back to the issue of collaboration then, and the issue of knowledge. Because where we began was to say, how is it that an open knowledge environment can play into that context that you just described?
Richard Jefferson 6:05
Well, first of all, you don’t understand how to form partnerships unless you know what capabilities each potential partner brings to the table. So I’ll give you an example from my own work as a molecular biologist. If I’m trying to invent a way to improve crops, and it requires capabilities that I don’t have, how will I discover who or what institution has those capabilities? The only way is if the ability to map those capabilities in those skills is an open facility. Otherwise, how do I do it? Well, I could do it by expensively sourcing closed knowledge. But that means that those problems I solve, having spent that much money, will be those that recover large amounts of money. Meaning they will not deal with climate change, they will not deal with Covid access, they will not deal with anything about social inequities, they will be driven by those who live in the world of closed, expensive, siloed data. If we want to make an inclusive innovation system, we actually have to open the ability to make decisions to more and different people.
Teymoor Nabili 7:03
One of the phrases I heard you use a while back was along the lines of – the most valuable tool in international trade has not been the camel or the train, it’s been the map. Explain the story behind that.
Richard Jefferson 7:20
Sure. Well, you can actually say that for 10, 20, 30,000 years in the development of human society, every society became dominant by the course of having success in trade; trade was the arbiter of their success. And the reason was, you would move a thing across space where it was more valuable. You would provide that thing, and the differential between what you paid, including the outlay of the trip, and what you gained was an economy. And you formed an economy based on those differentials. Now, we often think that the journeys of the great explorers and everything else, they were building the hegemony of the great empires. But actually it was the mapmakers that determined that they could do that. Because a map is the unsung hero of trade. A map is a de-risking tool. If I give you a map of Singapore, or a map of wherever, it presupposes nothing about what you will do with that map. It says little about what you will do with that map. It’s your business. But without that map, you will not find your way from point A to point B to conduct your business because there are too many risks. Now those risks are not necessarily whizzing taxis, they’re just as easily risks of a wrong turn. So a map allows you to make choices that are informed by evidence, but your journey is inspired by imagination. You want to get silk from China to Europe. but there’s lots of things in the way. If you have a map, it indicates where there’s water, where there’s hostile tribes, where there’s mountains to overcome, where there’s drought; any of these things you have to deal with are described in a map. Now, for the first 20, 30,000 years, that map was of things that you could actually see and measure. But then in the 1400s, the Portuguese and some others started sending their explorers out, beyond the realm of what you knew was there. Meaning into the great unknown, ‘here be dragons’, right? And they would carefully make observations and bring them back as a trade secret to Portugal. Prince Henry the Navigator was basically an investor in the schools of cartography. And when Portugal and Spain formed the Iberian alliance that lasted 100, I don’t know, probably 150 years, they together dominated global maritime commerce because they alone had serious charts or maps of the ways to the West and East Indies, the risks, the shoals, the currents, the reefs, the continents. So they dominated it, but it was a really awful domination because they could be monopolistic and they were. And so their terms of trade didn’t improve. They did not invent competitive new innovative ways of navigating or conducting business. Until our hero, Jan Huygen van Linschoten, a Dutch merchant and factotum, a businessperson, got a job working for the Portuguese Archbishop of Goa in India. Now, of course, Goa at that time was a Portuguese possession, as was most of the world. And he discovered in the back rooms of the archbishop’s very lush quarters, the entire lore of Portuguese and Spanish cartography, the guides for how you get here and there. And he did something utterly remarkable. He did the practical Dutch thing of copying them in beautiful longhand. And then he did something very Indiana Jones by weathering pirates and shipwrecks to take them back to Amsterdam, where he did the totally Un-Dutrch thing. Now the Dutch are a very pragmatic business community. You would have expected he would have flogged it off to a Dutch merchant house at the highest possible price. as a monopolist. He didn’t. He published it open access – open knowledge. There was no copyright law at the time. It was basically physical property. And he copied it and left the physical copy there. He developed this as an open access guide to the world, and it was published with no copyright law, but after Gutenberg press. So what happened? It was pretty exciting. Within a very short period of time, a couple of years, the Dutch East India Company was formed because they could. Before that, the idea of a joint stock company had never been contemplated. And this was the world’s first joint stock company, because small investors can take small losses, big investors can take big losses often. So, conventionally business was done by only the richest, but a joint stock company allowed all sorts of players to get into the business because they could measure their risk, because they could look at what the natural world was. If they sent an expedition out, they had some way of measuring their risk. That also was the beginning, not only of a joint stock company, but of insurance. And it also started international competition, because the British East India Company known as the John Company, or English East India Company, was formed at the same time because of translations of his work. So here you had dueling rapacious capitalists, heading off to the world to wend their nasty ways. But at least the competition caused dramatic change in the quality of shipbuilding, of navigation, of legal instruments, of financial instruments, of countless things.
Teymoor Nabili 12:18
I mean, what you’re basically proposing is that the map represents knowledge in general, and that today we would generate the same kind of explosion of productivity, of innovation, of development, if we were to make all other knowledge available to the broader community, and allow them to innovate on the back of it.
Richard Jefferson 12:38
Let me put a finer point on that. It’s a little bit of a nuance, perhaps, but it’s important. You might say that a map of the world be reduced to an Excel spreadsheet of latitude and longitude. So every single point in the world could be described by a massive spreadsheet describing the latitude longitude – rock, latitude longitude – water, latitude longitude – building, whatever. In a sense, that’s open knowledge. But it’s not a map. A map is actually a decision support tool that is built from that. The number of people that could navigate the world with an Excel spreadsheet is tiny, it’s negligible. It’s basically no one. But from a map, it’s different. So when we use the term knowledge, we have to talk about it as actionable knowledge, which is what a map is. So it’s integrating data. So there’s a lot of open data stuff. It’s all very well and fine but it’s still only empowering those people that are data scientists. We need to empower normal people.
Teymoor Nabili 12:32
So how do we do that? I get your point on the differentiation and the nuance there. But how do we take the knowledge that we have – given that today we do have copyright law, given today that we do have a business environment in which placing knowledge, innovation, understanding, all these things into silos and guarding them and monetizing them for monopolistic purpose is the tendency for most of the way that we operate – how do we use the analogies and the lessons that we learned from this in today’s environment to try and create better outcomes?
Richard Jefferson 14:03
Okay, that’s an exceptionally germane question. Very good and right to the heart. There are several ways forward with this. First of all, let’s say what is the largest body of non-copyrighted literature that is enabling in the history of humankind? Strangely enough, it’s the patent system. The word patent comes from the Latin word patere, which means to lay open. The original bargain that gave rise to the modern patent system by my illustrious forebear Thomas Jefferson, was to actually state that only if you as an inventor disclosed in exactly copious detail how to make your invention, would you be given a limited right to exclude – for a limited time. But that meant the purpose of the patent system was to teach everyone what you’d invented so people could build on each other’s ideas. And the way you secured an advantage was a limited right in a very limited way to exclude people for a short time. What’s interesting is that the patent system, which comprises about 120 million documents, is generally viewed as being without any copyright whatsoever. So the largest body of nominally enabling text because almost every invention in the world, from vaccines and biomedical and cancer to solar cells, is described in it. But it’s amongst the greatest misunderstood bodies of knowledge in the world, largely because its syntax is tortured and twisted so only lawyers can understand it. Access to it, even though it is not copyrighted, has been jealously guarded because people could. And so up till now, corporations have been held hostage by extremely expensive access to closed data. Rather like the Portuguese and Spanish using their own closed data to map the world was not effective, but aggregating everyone else’s was fast and easy. So, our job over the last 20 years has been to democratize access to this enormous enabling facility. And then to mine the momentum that the open scholarship community has, in getting metadata – the authors, the institutions, the abstracts and whatnot – to find the relationships in this and, wherever possible, with open access. So, our facility The Lens is built explicitly to start allowing a uniform code. Now, this is important. If you make a map, and one party measures depth and fathoms and the other measures it in gawinklesnatchers, and you don’t have a gawinklesnatcher-to-fathom conversion, you can’t add each other’s data. So it’s critical that you have shared metrics and identifiers. Each point cannot be mapped on another map, unless there’s an agreement for what the terms mean and what the identifiers are. So what we have done is generated what we call a meta record, that builds a unique identifier to the context around every one of these artifacts. So we can start pulling in patents and scholarly finds, link them together in interesting ways based on citations and content, and provide it as a global open resource by which this identifier allows anyone to produce new maps. Which is a fascinating way to expose something critical. A patent and a scholarly work are not just filled with knowledge about a feature they’re studying, it is also filled with metadata about who’s doing it and what institution is doing it. So this metadata allows partnerships to be surfaced. Potential partnerships. That’s the difference.
Teymoor Nabili 17:17
Let me ask about that relationship that you posited earlier on between the spreadsheet and the action plan, the spreadsheet and the map. What you’re presenting, The Lens solution, seems to me, as an outsider who is not very good with spreadsheets, that what you’re presenting is exactly that. I mean, we’ve got hundreds of millions of pieces of data and information, and many multiples of that in how they connect and the relevance and the connectivity between them. How do I, as an innovator who is not necessarily particularly good at researching, turn that from that spreadsheet into a map?
Richard Jefferson 17:58
Well, that’s the facility we provide at The Lens. We pride ourselves on not being a back-end data harmonizer, though we have to do that. We pride ourselves on presenting a user experience that’s human scale, that is also parenthetically designed for all the institutions that every user accesses. So it doesn’t matter in some ways, if you’re in Uganda, Singapore, the United States, all of us rely to some extent on institutions. Institutions of government, businesses, universities, whatever else. And institutions acquire the unique ability to hire people who do know how to interpret – the clergy. But many of them are associated with the public good. So if you look at what governments are charged with doing, what development banks are charged with doing, what almost any substantial public enterprise is charged with doing, it actually can afford to bring the experts together on an open canvas like this to enable maps of particular domains. So let’s take solar cells as an example. How do you find out who are the masters of solar cells and who are the right ones with right ascending technologies and the ones that are declining technologies? Well, this platform will help but this platform used by an institution that you liaise with will help even more. If you as a Singapore resident were to take a specialist you might meet within the Singapore government or within National University of Singapore and say, ‘can you help me understand this?’ And by using these tools, they can help co-create – and this is important – a map that allows decisions to be made. So if you have money and you’d like to be a small investor in a solar company, you establish what the terms are. Where you want a company that’s on the bleeding edge, but it’s new and you have certain parameters; well this type of map lets you find potential investments. Similarly, if you are a purchaser, this lets you find cutting-edge companies that might be in the jurisdiction that you wish to purchase from. So the idea of co-creation of these maps is critical. It’s not done just by experts. It’s done by experts in concert with people who need to know and institutions whose job is to provide that knowledge.
Teymoor Nabili 20:20
Even though the value of what you’re doing with The Lens is fairly apparent, at least to me, the whole IP system, as you alluded to earlier, has developed to be more of a guarding mechanism than it has been from its original status as Mr Jefferson, your illustrious predecessor, had set it up. So just tell me about the problems that occur, and the obstacles to your vision and how we might get past them?
Richard Jefferson 20:27
Well, they’re not small, you’re right; there are serious issues. What is good, is the trends in open access – that is, the open accessible publication of scholarship that derives from public funding – are in the right direction. Things are changing rapidly – 20, 30 years ago, 40 years ago, when I was starting as a molecular biologist, every piece of scholarship was only available by subscription. That said, there were informal mechanisms. We would always be sending notes asking for preprints or reprints from labs. So, there have always been informal mechanisms of sharing the knowledge. Those are now becoming more formalized, and so we have reason to be optimistic. The other aspect is interesting. Using machine learning and tools like that we can often surface knowledge that has previously been opaque because of such things as copyright. But copyright is not our only problem. The business models that gave rise to them are, in my view, somewhat archaic, and they are slowly changing, not as fast as we’d like. So one of the ways to deal with this is to have informal groupings of mappers, some of whom have access to this copyright, who can actually summarize it. Now remembering that copyright is a specific aspect of the way of expressing a creative thought or a new thought. So it’s not the thought, it’s the way of expressing it. So if you were taking notes, or in fact, this video you’re recording right now will be subject to copyright, presumably by you as a generator of it. If I say the same things in someone else’s video, you can’t assert rights over me, just this video, the way of expressing it, the particular artifact. So what’s interesting is, by forming informal communities of those who have access, can read and interpret, and those who may not yet have it, we can build maps where interpretation is provided by parties with access, and the interpretation can be truly open. This is a very, very remarkable reason to have collaborative communities formed around mapping key elements. Some will have access, they can interpret it. share the interpretation.
Teymoor Nabili 22:22
What do you see as the evolution of this model? I know you’ve been doing this for a while but the model itself and the tool that you’ve developed is still relatively young. What do you think might be the natural next steps that can be taken that can drive this into an ever bigger audience and an ever more lay audience if you like?
Richard Jefferson 22:45
Okay, well, the first of them is that if you look at some of the large platforms on the internet, they work because of what we call network effect. So Amazon and eBay, you couldn’t really have 10 different auction sites and expect to be able to be efficient. But eBay because it got in early and did a good job is generally referred to as the principal auction site in the world, certainly in the English speaking or Western world. And that’s because it’s the go-to place performing an asymptote of the value. That is, you can assume that if you offer a Martin guitar of a particular vintage on eBay, it will ultimately approach asymptotically to its true market value in the bidding. That happens because there’s a network effect – many, many seekers and many offerors of services are there, so it forms some degree of validation of a value proposition. The future for The Lens is that it becomes a de facto meeting place. I wouldn’t call it a marketplace, but a meeting place for all the actors we need to coordinate, and they can find each other. So let’s imagine right now we have scholarly work and patents, right? But patents are drafted by law firms. Now, law firms are producing a valuable service to those who seek patents by taking an invention and turning it into a disclosure that hides almost everything and gets the most rights. Okay, that’s the downside, but they’re still very skilled at it. So let’s imagine I’m at a university. Let’s imagine that at the University of Wisconsin, I’ve come up with a remarkable new way of churning butter, because they have a great dairy system there. Now, you go to your university, and you say this is going to make us millions, only if it’s patented. Well, so how do you find the right patent attorney? Well, it turns out, we’ve gotten lists in our system of thousands and thousands of attorneys that have actually worked in different fields, including those of butter making. So in our system, the idea is a services tab will become populated, where you can find institutions and people that can further your ambitions. Now, let us imagine then we take this further, and we find that there’s a company that has a test manufactory that can try out new churning methods for butter, and you discover that on our system, and then you discover all these other things and you can start pulling partnerships together because the maps, the charts, are critical to expose partnerships and build bridges between these different cultures. So, whatever your purpose of using it is, the idea is that it will come closer and closer to meeting that need by surfacing the parties you need to bring together to solve a problem. So the logical evolution is we use knowledge artifacts, not just as a bolus of thoughtful treating of that subject of cancer, whatever else, but also a way of showing who’s doing it, what they can bring to the table, what they offer, both as an institution, as a person. Those can be surfaced, and they can be recombined by forming partners. So, that services component can be of extraordinary value. Let’s take a Covid example. What if the patent waiver discussion is useful mostly as an extreme nucleation point for people to reconsider the innovation system that causes most of the developing world to be completely dependent on large manufacturers? Well, people will often say, quite rightly, that there’s a lot of know-how in vaccine manufacturing, and only the big companies have it. Well, that’s where it’s not altogether true. Lots of the alumni of big companies have it, lots of smaller companies have it, but how do we find them? So let’s imagine a development bank, let’s say an African Development Bank or Asian Development Bank whose job it is to stimulate economic vibrancy within a particular region, set commissions, landscapes around each topic for which they wish to see it, including vaccines. And the services tab is there, we can find small entities that don’t have a vested interest in keeping a high barrier to manufacturing that would like to collaborate with a domestic entity. And then we find segmented markets, because remember, patents are only effective in the jurisdiction in which they’re granted. In my view, this is the key element of innovation, to redefine it, to encompass all of the generative elements to produce the product. If you don’t, you will not get innovation into the real world, which is my version of innovation.
Teymoor Nabili 26:52
Explain a bit more what you mean by redefine. How do we redefine it? What will that look like?
Richard Jefferson 26:58
Well, we have to claim the high ground and say that innovation is not creativity. Innovation is the manifestation of novelty in practical terms for people to solve problems. If it doesn’t actually meet the marketplace, it is not, in my view, an innovation. But the marketplace must be defined broadly, to include market failures. So, the marketplace is not just loud market signals. It’s also weak market signals such as a commons approach and climate challenges. So as long as we define the marketplace correctly, and not say it’s the trivial economic marketplace of loud market signals of cash, then we have to say, if it’s new and it solves problems, it can be assessed in a marketplace, then it can be called an innovation. Now, again, novelty is conditional. So to say that it’s new is interesting, because it turns out that the old literature – old can be five years old, and in patents – is extraordinarily powerful to solving real problems. And to many people, it is completely new. So it could be a complete innovation to resurface a 1950s patent on treble pumps for small villages in Africa that had never used a treble pump. That is an innovation in their lives, and it’s perfectly fine and it’s justifiable, and that means that surfacing knowledge, not just the newest stuff but all knowledge, is critical. The way as Australians we think of it is the following. In spite of my accent, I’m Australian. We like to talk about surfing, it’s one of our national pastimes. But in looking at the surfer moving at the edge of the wave, what we often neglect is that the back of it is an ocean filled with richnesses and interesting things. Well, the cutting edge of science and the cutting edge of what’s patented is what draws our attention, it’s the cool kids stuff. But behind it is a wealth of largely unexplored largely unoptimized or opportunistically engaged stuff. So we like to think of it as ‘surface and repurpose’. And basically, within that corpus of massive knowledge are the germs and sometimes the full articulation of solutions to people’s real world problems. So, we can have new businesses formed from that, we can have new enterprises formed. They don’t have to be latest and greatest. That’s not always the best. It’s just fashionable.
Teymoor Nabili 29:02
We do live in an age where the pharmaceutical companies will resist the idea of sharing knowledge because their profit, irrespective of the value to humankind, is primary in their mind. I mean, do you see this as being a straight-on battle with the existing system of proprietary knowledge, of intellectual property, of big business?
Richard Jefferson 29:23
Well, no, because here’s the basic issue – the proprietary knowledge and intellectual property are basically tools in their real goal, which is to be profitable. So let’s ask, are those tools fit for purpose in the modern age? Ultimately, they will lose control of the trade secrets because basically, people can reinvent. You know, patents were also invented to pull things out of secrecy. So, the trade secrets, the idea of keeping it all secret and not putting in a patent is quite vogue and it always has been amongst quickly-moving organizations. But they are facing the reality that there’s lots of smart people out here and lots of new enterprises and new and emerging economies that can compete with them. So they’re not on a winning streak. In terms of the trajectory in society, there will be many many parallel inventors, many many parallel discoverers, alumni who know things and share them. So ultimately, if they keep their focus on their main goal – not on the tool they use to get there – which is profitability, they themselves will leverage open innovation practices and more open practices because it’s rapid. And if it’s cheaper, it means that the margins they must abstract, the margins they must source to be profitable can be smaller. So if they become more nimble, more agile, they will source smaller, less blockbuster, but also less vulnerable marketplaces and markets. So I’m not particularly viewing this as antithetical to large corporations making money. I view it as antithetical to large corporations charging monopolistic prices, which are unhealthy, but that means there’s just a very, very powerful role for governance. We need regulation all over society and including various carefully asserted monopoly controls, in which we always consider what are we forgoing by forgoing that monopoly and if it’s productivity, we have to ensure we have investment in alternative production methodologies. So we can’t do one without the other. Regulation without alternative ways of solving problems is not a wise way forward. Regulation with coincident ways of enabling or encouraging alternative modalities that really work is the solution. But we need regulation.
Teymoor Nabili 31:33
It’s a compelling argument and a compelling vision, Richard. Thanks very much indeed for chatting about it, and best of luck with the development of the process.
Richard Jefferson 29:23
Thank you very much, Teymoor, it’s an honor to be included in your broadcast. Thank you.