Generating Systemic Wealth — Part 8: The Fourth Wealth-Generating Source, Ideas

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

The value of ideas as a wealth-generating instrument is apparent but often goes unnoticed. Some businesses are built around selling a given idea or set of ideas again and again — publishers, film studios, or certain kinds of consulting companies are examples.

Ideas can generate value in three different ways. First, they can introduce something genuinely new. Second, they can be aggregated in ways that make them more useful. Third, they can be reshaped to serve modern times or a specific situation.

A closed system view of ideas attempts to hold and guard them as proprietary property. Many of the nonsensical court battles over who owns the right to a particular pop music hook, or which mystery writer owns a particular plot device, derive from this worldview. Even more insidious are lawsuits by biotech companies seeking to control ownership of proprietary genetic material that has escaped into and contaminated open pollinated crops.

One of the characteristics of a closed systems approach is that very little consideration is given to an idea’s ramifications. For example the media, when offering its products, generally fails to ask, “Will there be user impacts beyond those that are intended?” This sets the stage for ongoing battles, like those the video-gaming community faces over targeting children with violence-filled entertainment. A closed systems perspective forces such industries into narrow (and often fact-free) arguments over whether the impacts are real or lasting,

A company that adopts an open systems view of ideas operates in a world of shared intelligence legacy, where ideas arise from and contribute to the flow of human thought. At this level, businesses organize themselves around adapting that larger world of ideas to a specific purpose or situation. The work of a physician, coach, or attorney depends on the ability to draw from extensive education and experience, as well as a body of professional contacts and opinion, to serve a client’s specific needs at a specific time and under specific conditions.

Red Hat successfully grasped the open system nature of a business built on ideas. The open source movement in the software industry provided a shared, free, and continually evolving legacy of well-designed ideas. The brightest and best were volunteering their time and experience to build Linux, so that anyone who desired could access top-of-the-line software with very few downsides. Red Hat’s founder, Bob Young, had the insight that this free-wheeling open source world would introduce the need for a new class of consultants to help businesses and individuals adapt it to their needs — and he assembled many of Linux’s creators to offer the customization and maintenance support that were required.

From a living systems view, ideas are used to evolve whole communities or whole systems, rather than serve just a specific client or stakeholder. For example, the idea of integrative medicine — which brings together the best of “alternative” and “conventional” medicine — is intended to help everyone achieve better health, and to help all doctors, and the health care system as a whole, become more holistic in practice. At this level, corporate consultants view the whole stakeholder system as their client and work with a corporation to generate ideas that will enable it to operate accordingly.

In its work on community development, Regenesis uses the idea of place to help people understand the dynamic exchanges that are always occurring between people and nature in a specific community. The idea of place as a living whole provides communities with a means to reconcile what have usually been seen as intractable issues. It provides them with a foundation for economic development based on local realities and potential. It gives them a way to move into the future — through settlement, social programs, cultural endeavors, and business development — consistent with who the natural patterns and cultural stories that make them unique.

New forms for making ideas available, such as “creative commons licenses” that allow free use with different sets of stipulations, have been developed by innovators like the photo-sharing site Flickr. Open source operating systems like Linux make possible many other offerings, thereby building a community’s capacity (including that of the creators) to generate wealth from the idea. The very idea of open source arose from a living systems view, creating more wealth-generating capacity for an entire field. Moving to the living systems level can be a challenge, but many leading edge thinkers suggest it is the way of the future.



About Carol Sanford

Carol Sanford is a regenerative business educator, the award winning author of The Regenerative Business: Redesign Work, Cultivate Human Potential, Achieve Extraordinary Outcomes, and executive in residence and senior fellow in social innovation at Babson College. She has worked with fortune 500 executives and rock star entrepreneurs for 40 years, helping them to innovate and grow their businesses by growing their people. Learn more about Carol and her work at her website.