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Great Read: Tim O’Reilly on How the Web is a Sustainability Platform

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Next month’s GreenBiz Innovation Forum focuses on the intersection of sustainability and innovation, including how innovation happens inside large companies. Tim O’Reilly, one of the “innovisionaries” to be featured at the event, has been thinking about such things for a long time. He is largely credited with driving both the open source and web 2.0 technology movements into mainstream concepts. Tim’s long-term vision for his company is to change the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators. In addition to O’Reilly Media, Tim is a founder of Safari Books Online, a pioneering subscription service for accessing books online, and O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, an early-stage venture firm.

Recently, Greener World Media president Eric Faurot chatted with O’Reilly about the web as an innovation platform.

Eric Faurot: You have been at the forefront of both the open source and Web 2.0 paradigm shifts. Do you see any parallels to the current sustainability movement?
Tim O’Reilly: One is that the Web represented a complete sea change in the media world. People were in denial for a long time and most companies completely missed the opportunity because they tried to marginalize it. In a way sustainability is an even greater change in the world of consumer products. People are still in denial. I think one of the big lessons from the Web is that things that seem to start small can actually be utterly transforming.

EF: How does the Web change the way we should think about sustainable innovation?
TO: Self-service is one of the big elements of the Internet that I think people haven’t fully come to grips with and part of the potential of in the sustainability movement. People helping each other. People collaborating. It’s like collective action to create certain kinds of efficiency in a system.
For example, eBay and Craigslist are self-service platforms for small sellers to move their stuff. They created new markets. There is a creative destruction here: Craigslist has decimated newspapers and yet a Craigslist world is actually a better, more efficient world for consumers. So when we think about what really happens when the world becomes more sustainable we think of all the things that we stop doing.

EF: Won’t that sound scary to some people?
TO: If you think of the world as zero-sum game then you’re afraid of the future because all you can see is this new thing is coming and it makes you less. But if it’s not a zero-sum game and it’s really about creating value then when you stop doing something that’s less valuable that frees up resources to do something that’s more valuable. That’s how societies get richer.
EF: Can you elaborate on what you mean by “platform?”
TO: All of the great Internet success stories are platform stories in one way or another. A platform is a set of mechanisms that allow other people to use what you do to create value for themselves and for everyone else in the marketplace.

EF: So, Apple’s App Store is a good example of a “platform?”
TO: Absolutely. They are also a great example of a big company that reinvented itself. Apple created new markets where there is consumer demand, where there is this classic sort of American consumer culture world and yet it’s much more sustainable. You can consume new music, new books, and new apps on the same device. In a world of digital goods that’s perfectly okay.

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