How Communities Foster Innovation

Todd Moses
Mar 6, 2019 · 5 min read

February 2019 marked the end of the most successful mission in NASA history. After more than 14 years of exploring the Martian Surface, the rover named Opportunity has stopped responding. It landed on the surface in January of 2004 with the mission of discovering signs of past life on the planet. Instead of lasting the planned 90 days, It survived longer than any other unmanned surface vehicle.

The team behind Opportunity and its partner, Spirit spanned multiple generations. Those running the project at the end were just finishing High School when it was launched. There is no one person or even small team that can take sole credit for the success. Instead, there are thousands of people within a passionate and dedicated community that worked together for this accomplishment.

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A Community of Innovation

Many of these same traits can be found in successful Open Source projects. Consider Linux, the Operating System running on most of the world’s servers. It was started in 1991. Since that time, many generations of Engineers have improved upon it. A number of which were not even alive when it was first released. The reason for the longevity is a strong community dedicated to achieving something greater than any member could do on his or her own.

A large number of companies also practice this community approach. Organizations needing to achieve beyond their intellectual capital often utilize an Open Source model of development. The reason is to connect diverse groups of people around a common goal greater than what is possible with their internal resources.

In researching Open Source, it became clear that the number one indicator of success is an active community. Once that dies, the project soon goes with it. In turn, this community goes through phases of growth. During development, this community is centered around the creators. However, the community expands during release to include the users. This group is the one that drives innovation while giving it value through documented experience.

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Building a Community

A surprising discovery is that many of the tech giants are using Open Source incorrectly. Instead of harnessing the power of community to drive product development, they are using Open Source as a gift to their users. While it is great to have so many powerful tools for free, the opportunity to work on Google, Facebook, or Microsoft challenges as an outsider is still not occuring.

On the other hand, IBM has championed Open Source as a tool to drive innovation. They seek out experts beyond their organization through a volunteer model. Directly partnering with and in some case acquiring Open Source organizations. Thus, augmenting their intellectual capital while building a loyal user base and earning trust from the Open Source community as a whole.

The recent IBM purchase of Red Hat did not have the same reaction from the Open Source Software Community as did the Microsoft purchase of GitHub or the Oracle purchase of MySQL. There was no large scale backlash like in the previous situations. Instead, the community moved on with little evident concern.

Using Open Source as a gift never creates a community of innovation. Instead, it just fosters the traditional maker / user relationship. An innovative community requires creators and active users that also create. To accomplish this, a company must give up some control and provide exciting challenges to solve for those outside of the organization. Only then, can an innovative community form.

At a most basic level, it is when consumers and creators work together that a community forms. A scenario that blurs the line between user and developer. Giving each a distinct role dependent on the relationship with the other. How this looks in reality is up to the community.

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Fostering Innovation

Having a community means that no one person or group of people can derail the project. Case in point, take a look at GitHub to see many inactive projects. Some of them are excellent examples of technology but all of them are dead. The reason is lack of community. A healthy community has people joining and leaving all of the time with the total trending upward.

This community is critical to the project’s success and can be founded by individuals or an organization. Regardless of how such a community was formed, each party should have a symbiotic relationship with one another. Because each part needs the other to grow the project from idea to viable achievement.

Not surprisingly, the most successful Open Source communities have corporate sponsorship in some form to provide money, people, and/or marketing. Whereas the most innovative companies have Open Source to build products greater than what is possible with just their internal teams.

Individual contributors within the Open Source community are rewarded by seeing their work in successful products. Users of the project contribute back with feedback, documentation., and money to foster continued growth. Corporate sponsors provide infrastructure and distribution for the community. Giving all involved a role within the community.

Remove any element in the community and it will quickly need to be replaced. A project without users is dead. Corporate sponsorship without developers is a waste of resources. Even a great product without documentation is not going to survive. When all parties are present and dedicated to the goal, a vibrant community can provide exponential accomplishments.

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While not Open Source, the Curiosity Rover’s success came down to community. A closed community with a sponsor, users, and developers in a symbiotic relationship. For example, the team to launch the rover into space were Rocket Scientist. Their users became the team of Mechanical Engineers that built the rover. The Rover Team’s users were the Software Engineers writing the code. Their users were the Mission Specialist controlling the rover from Earth. Their users were the Public Relations teams granting interviews and supplying photos of the Red Planet to the press.

No single group or individual could make the mission a success. Instead, it took everyone working together and in turn forming a community of innovation. All with a really big sponsor in the Federal Government. Thus, every part of a innovation community was present and the mission became a success.

While most of us will never get the opportunity to work on a NASA project, each and everyone one of us can join an Open Source community as a developer, user, and/or sponsor. It is not even limited to software. Currently, there are Open Source projects around Hardware, Data, Biology, and Knowledge.

If you want help with finding or creating an innovative community, visit

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