Open Source and the Future of Capitalism

A new book sheds light on how capitalism is changing and the impact those changes have on small businesses.
Q4 Sales
April 26, 2012

MIT physicist Richard Morley once quipped how innovation happens: “In order to see the solar system as it is, Copernicus had to be standing on the sun.”

That analogy serves as the title of the book Standing on the Sun by Christopher Meyer and Julia Kirby, which gives a big-picture view on how capitalism is changing and how those changes are impacting businesses. Even though the book seems to focus on large markets and corporations (and reading this text can feel like heavy lifting), there are nonetheless some profound points that small business owners can use to prepare for coming changes.

Here are a few key points from the book.

Open Source Doesn’t Equal Free

If your company is in the software or hardware development game, open source may feel like a drag on your profitability. But according to Meyer and Kirby, although open source software and hardware often follows a "freemium" model, that doesn't mean you can’t make money. There are lots of software companies that have an open source product and then build on it with a more advanced version that customers purchase.

Standing on the Sun, espouses this collaborative, interconnected way of the future by citing numerous international examples of technology being used in unexpected ways. For example, it shows how mobile phones “power” a village by giving merchants access to local and national markets. Another example is the U.S.-based small business Adafruit, a DIY electronics kit maker, which encourages its community (with a cash reward) to hack the Microsoft Kinect system with an open source driver. Microsoft objected at first until it realized this sort of collaboration could benefit its systems, too. You can read the full post here.

Faster Product Development via Makerspaces

Another way the open source movement is benefiting small business is in prototyping. The good news is that you don't have to invest $20,000 in a laser cutter or high-end 3D printer for prototyping. You can join a makerspace, hackerspace, or an open access public workshop like TechShop (although there are only five across the country right now). Many start-up small businesses are leveraging these technologies by purchasing, leasing or joining a community space where they get access to tools and machines.

Square, the credit card processing device for mobile phones, was prototyped in the California TechShop in about two weeks. This is also an example of “reshoring,” where large and small companies bring their manufacturing operations back to the United States from China. Prototyping the Square device overseas would have been both cost- and time-prohibitive for the inventors. Thus we are seeing an evolution toward small urban manufacturing that makes it easier to produce locally. (Check out my OPEN Forum post 13 Ways to Create Products in Real Time, for more on devices that help you create prototypes or even working products.)

Using Hashtags in Your Marketing

Tagging content on your site makes it possible for like-minded individuals to connect and makes tracking social media a bit easier. Not to mention that like open source software, it is free to employ. Meyer and Kirby suggest one or two hashtags in each chapter to spur online conversation. Think about your marketing pieces, your blog posts, your events and how you could add simple hashtags for people to use on Twitter and Facebook.

The world economy, like everything in life, is always in motion and always changing. We don’t always notice it until enough change has taken place. Thanks to Standing on the Sun, we can catch a real glimpse of the future of capitalism and small business.

What sorts of small business trends are you seeing as you look around the globe? Are there unique ways your business could leverage small urban manufacturers or makerspaces?