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Interview with Henri Verdier: Director of Etalab, Services of the French Prime Minister.

C&S: Henri Verdier, you were co-author of L'age de la multitude ("The age of the multitude"), which explains how individuals, outside organisations, are now crucial to creation and growth. Do they play a particular role in the process of innovation of products and services?

Henri VERDIER: Certainly.

Their first role, as we often forget, is to choose, from among all the inventions, the ones that they will make true innovations. That is to say, the ones that will be transformed into progress, both because the audience has adopted them and because of the uses it will make of them. It is in this sense that we speak of "use-driven innovations": not because they are driven by the value of use, as marketing sometimes imagines, but because they are driven by "usage patterns and customs", by the manner in which society organises itself with these innovations.

But this isn't something that dates back only to the beginning of the digital age--it is the common law of innovation in Humanity. What has changed of late is the number of individuals who are educated, equipped and connected, who, by virtue of the sum of their creations, or even their small contributions, can support radical innovations as we see on the internet.

This is rather good news. But at the same time, we must be aware this "free labour" of internet users, whether they are active (voluntary contributions) or passive (through data or even usage history), can also be monopolised by major platforms. Most of the time, internet users feel that the service rendered to them by these platforms is only worth the contribution they are able to make. But it is clear that this can raise a few questions, in terms of protection of privacy and international taxation. Thus Nicolas Colin, coauthor of L'Age de la multitude, was tasked with reflecting on the tax implications of this new means of creating value.

Are the social networks the nexus of this open innovation, driven by users?

Yes, if you accept a broad definition of "social network". The big social networks are of course major players in digital. But the phenomenon goes far beyond what happens on Facebook or LinkedIn...

It is quite easy to see that most of the major digital applications have a social dimension, even if you wouldn't call them "social networks" per se. Such is the case of Flickr, digital cameras that automatically connect to YouTube, Google searches, etc. The famous online teaching service, Coursera, probably owes its success not to the quality of its courses (other prestigious universities had already launched similar services), but rather to the power of interaction it affords among students. Someone had this say: "People had never seen an educational project that delegates part of the work to the students themselves."

More broadly, one could say that communities are the basic unit of the internet. The fact that you have friends, belong to a community, share your interests, support a cause, etc. make you a stakeholder in the internet. There are therefore social networks beyond the realm of Facebook and Twitter. The great experiences of crowdfunding, crowdsourcing, viral communication, etc. do not necessarily go through the social networks. So we mustn't neglect any of the networks that emerge on the web: massively multiplayer games, virtual campuses, virtual currencies with their user communities, NGO activists--all of these have the potential to greatly empower the individual.

What is your take on the living labs, which hope to bring users together upstream in the innovation process?

It's an excellent approach when it doesn't get caught in the rut of being an overly utilitarian "test bench". Living labs, as with all those third-party spaces that are fond the digital ecosystem (coworking spaces, Fablabs, etc.) are fertile when they are alive. They must leave room for the unexpected, for creative randomness ("serendipity"), develop subtle listening, propose new formats of interaction, find co-creation strategies, etc.

You also presided over the "Cap Digital" Centre for Competitiveness. How can companies rethink their innovation processes to take advantage of this new situation? In particular, how do you see the future of R&D in big companies?

Firstly, I think it is essential that the major technology companies pursue and intensify their R&D efforts. The basic materials of innovation come from research and development, and if there is one characteristic of our times, it is that the pace of innovation continues to accelerate.

One should not, however, confuse R&D with innovation. Innovation is not the natural continuation of R&D. There are big innovative companies that do not have R&D, particularly in the fields of service, content publishing and communications. And where innovation is concerned, every company should learn to better harness the strength of the multitude. Such as by involving their own employees in the multitude. The formats of open innovation, listening and working with one's market, and incorporating design into the heart of the decision-making process are starting to become rather well documented methods.

Does this vision of "open innovation" imply a change in the way intellectual property is managed?

This is a complex question.

Since the internet has become popularised, it is caught between the opposing forces of openness, open source, and being free, on the one hand, and closure, protection and privatisation on the other. This tension is structural. One the one hand, there wouldn't be any progress, perhaps even a company, without information commons (what would science be if the results of research weren't accessible to other researchers?). At the same time, we are well aware that most economic sectors need clearly defined assets to prosper. It is likely that the best answer is to strike a happy medium.

But, personally, I think nowadays there is a tendency to broaden the scope of application of intellectual property too much. Copyright was originally intended for intellectual work which was a creative expression of the author's personality. That is to say, work from his very soul, as it were. I'm not so sure that people have put their soul into all the creation for which this type of copyright protection is being claimed.

You are now the director of Etalab, the agency responsible for promoting open data in France. Could one say that shared data is the prerequisite of open innovation?

Yes, that is what I believe.

This is not the only reason it is good to open up and share public data: citizens also have a right to demand the accountability of authorities, which is the hallmark of democracies. And there are innovation strategies for the administration itself, since creating large open repositories is often a guarantee of improving an organisation's efficacy.

But supporting innovation is clearly a key component of opening up public data. The services developed by citizens, individuals or companies using such data are impressive. We see them at every edition of the Dataconnexion event launched by Etalab, and they are really quite impressive.

The opening of public data will increasingly become a springboard for industrial policy. It will become a strategy for attracting innovation to one's territory (since these creators work in the territories that have published data), even transforming public action into a platform and preventing these innovations from becoming monopolised by other players.

Is the opening of data often associated with public data? Should companies be encouraged to share their data more? How?

In this respect, the State began before the business, which is understandable. The right of citizens to access public information dates back a long time. It is enshrined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and has been part of French legislation since the CADA Law of 1978.

The debate on the opening up of public data has therefore not been too concerned with data held by companies. But I think the question will arise one day.

It will be raised because large companies too will discover the potential to boost efficiency by placing large repositories online and increasing their transparency. It will also be raised since companies will one day likely have to identify the "information commons" that it owns and which must be made accessible to all. This will probably happen when the big data collectors reach such monopolistic proportions that States are forced to require that they open up these new kinds of infrastructures to competition.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts with our readers.

Conducted by Gilles FONTAINE

IDATE, Montpellier/Paris, France
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Title Annotation:Dossier: Open Innovation 2.0: Co-creating with users
Author:Fontaine, Gilles
Publication:Communications & Strategies
Article Type:Interview
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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