Sustainability in the Cathedral and Bazaar

One of the problems with expecting technological innovation to solve social problems–like expecting energy research to solve the energy crisis–may be our perpetual confusion between the means and ends. It’s alright to have a moonshot goal (the end-game), but the means for getting there need not, and likely should not, be NASA-scaled, centrally-controlled, and monstrously-funded projects.

Thomas Friedman, for example, recently described Texas Instrument’s green chip factory in Richardson, Texas recently (A Green Dream in Texas). TI’s plant was designed and built in a “cost-saving, hyper-efficient green manner.” It’s not clear how efficient is efficient but, in any case, what’s interesting is how Friedman uses the green factory to call for an “energy independence” moonshot:

In 1961, when President Kennedy called for putting a man on the moon, he didn’t know how – but his vision was so compelling, his expectations of the American people so high, that they drove the moon shot well after he died. The Bush-Cheney team should be inspiring our generation’s moon shot: energy independence. But so far all they’ve challenged Americans to do is accept a tax cut.

Friedman supports the goal of moonshot. The end he has in mind is exactly what we need. But in reality, what’s harder–putting one man on the moon or a million men and women into hydrogen-powered cars? And why?

Governments are organized well to build cathedrals, but not bazaars. Unfortunately, some of the greatest leaps forward are too complicated to be solved by one single project or person; instead they take place over time and across countless, nameless people (as Jean Henri Fabre once said, “History records the names of royal bastards, but cannot tell us the origin of wheat”). Throwing money at creating the single best solution, like building one rocket, or one bomb, is easy compared to creating a technological revolution that requires an accompanying social revolution to succeed. For these problems, it’s better to build bazaars–the open source communities where ideas and behaviors co-evolve. And from which spring the real revolutions.

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