Social change advocates have long dreamed of a day when corporate rivals might be able to collaborate, legally, to share some of their smartest ideas to fight social problems.
Sound pie-in-the-sky? Maybe so. But if GreenXchange gets off the ground, it would be a first big step in that direction. Launched last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, GreenXchange (GX) is being spearheaded by 10 companies and social enterprises, including Nike, Best Buy, and Creative Commons, the San Francisco nonprofit that works to expand the range of creative works available for others to build upon legally and to share. GreenXchange's seven other backers include Yahoo!, IDEO, Mountain Equipment Co-op, salesforce.com, 2degrees, the Outdoor Industry Association, and nGenera, a corporate strategy think tank.
GreenXchange is groundbreaking in that it would enable companies working to protect the environment to share their research -- legally -- for social good and mutual profit, and at a time when businesses everywhere are allocating larger shares of their investment dollars to social innovation.
Skeptical? To be sure, while rival companies in the same market may not want to share the research and patents they have, companies in different fields may benefit from that very same research without posing a competitive threat to each other.
Let's say, for example, that Nike has done extensive research on how to maximize the efficiency of air pressure in sneaker design. Why shouldn't a company that makes truck tires apply that patent in a way that creates a more eco-friendly product and doesn't harm Nike's sales? Nike would be able to draw up a contract letting the tire company take a peek at its patents in this area, but decide to exclude other sneaker makers.
Or, consider other examples. How about letting several companies that make sneakers team up to create a more eco-friendly shoebox that will benefit the entire sneaker industry? [Participants on any one project will be bound by contracts spelling out access and profit issues, among others.]
This type of collaboration is what GreenXchange has in mind, and backers hope to catalyze the concept of "innovation communities" within and across industries. The benefit: to know what knowledge is missing and where breakthroughs are already occurring. As more patents are added to the pool, backers say, the exchange could be used more widely for social innovation across multiple sectors.
For starters, GreenXchange backers are focused on the environment. "GreenXchange is all about using social networks and collaborative platforms ... as part of new thinking about open innovation and competitive strategies," says Don Tapscott, the chairman of the think tank nGenera Insight, an Adjunct Professor of the Rotman School of Management, and one of the catalysts behind GreenXchange.
To get things started, Nike has committed to placing more than 400 of its patents into the commons for research. Mark Parker, Nike president and CEO, acknowledged that at first, Nike's lawyers opposed the Xchange, "but they've come around, seeing that this could bring competitive advantage." Indeed, any improvements made to its patents will be available to Nike, Parker says. John Wilbanks, VP for Science at Creative Commons, says his interest in the concept is being fueled by a desire to end widespread duplication of effort and "wasted resources" by companies working on sustainability. "We need to make it easier for individuals, companies, academia, and researchers to collaborate and share best practices," he told the Davos gathering.
What do you think? Is it possible -- and/or desireable -- for companies to team up in this way for the common good? What could be the pitfalls?
Let us hear from you.
-- Marcia Stepanek
(This post first appeared on Justmeans.com and appears here with permission)
(Illustration by KYC Studio-Montevideo for istock.com)