Open Standardisation. My application to the Shuttleworth Foundation

The Shuttleworth Foundation was started in 2001 by Mark Shuttleworth, the founder behind the Ubuntu operating system. They look for social innovators who are changing the world for the better and could benefit from a social investment model with a difference.

The Foundation runs a fellowship to “fund people who are unafraid to reimagine the world and the way we live in it” to “build an open knowledge society with limitless possibilities”.

And this latter point is the key bit. They challenge the status quo of closed systems and IPR ownership to solve the world’s biggest challenges:

The fellowship is an incredible opportunity to make change happen on a global scale and since it’s its such a powerful programme the success rate for applicants is 1 in 100. Part of StandardsRepo’s vision is to be the catalyst for the open standards revolution, so I had to apply.

In the spirit of openness, here’s my application, which took the form of a number of essays and a video. This is the strongest I have publicly been about the vision behind StandardsRepo and there’s a postscript on that at the end of this article. There’s a strict character limit for each question, so you might find some of the answers a bit pacey.

1) Tell us about the world as you see it.*

(A description of the status quo and context in which you will be working)

Standardisation is a critical knowledge mechanism. But it’s closed.

Voluntary and regulatory standardisation processes aim to raise levels of safety and remove barriers to trade by promoting interoperability and a shared understanding of acceptable performance levels for anything that is designed, built or performed in the workplace. In many sectors, models for standardisation haven’t progressed since the International Standard Organisation was formed in 1947, but with the advent of the World Wide Web, digital sectors have adopted more open approaches to standardisation, for example by maintaining their standards on Github.

The production cost is high. Aside from the input from technical stakeholders, which is usually voluntary, there are costs for meeting rooms, project management, secretariat, conducting consultations, stakeholder management, typesetting and distribution, as well as making sure there is a defensible record of why the standard says what it does.

To cover these costs, traditional standardisation bodies use commercial models based on intellectual property ownership. By taking the IP of their volunteers and licensing it back to the communities at a cost of US$100–200/user/standard they can cover the costs of production, maintenance and distribution of standards.

Standardisation processes are stuck in the 20th Century. As a result, so are the commercial and distribution models which favour large players in developed economies. This needs to change.

2) What change do you want to make in the world?*

(A description of what you want to change about the status quo, in the world, your personal vision for this area)

Standardisation should serve the world, not reinforce entrenched commercial advantage.

Improved access to knowledge contained in standards and the decision making that goes into them.
Without understanding the “why”, users can find it challenging to implement the “what” that the standard prescribes. The high paywall to access content presents a barrier to small players whereas large organisations can purchase subscriptions to entire catalogues, which gives them a significant advantage in procurement and business management.

Easier participation in standardisation.
Whilst the process is designed to include stakeholder representatives, standardisation is essentially a closed process. Getting a seat at the table is difficult enough, but once achieved participants need to be able to self-fund their time and often travel. Again, this favours large incumbents who can afford to send their staff or specialists who have vested interests in influencing standards in a certain direction and limits the opportunities for great ideas to come from left-field.

Faster diffusion of innovation.
A consequence of the pay-per-standard model is that smaller players, who are more likely to be innovative and open to transferring knowledge across domains, don’t have the means to do so. A construction startup isn’t going to pay $200 to randomly access a medical standard, but it could just be the catalyst for radical innovation that makes the world better.

3) What do you believe has prevented this change to date?*

(Describe the innovations or questions you would like to explore during the fellowship year)

Standardisation bodies have not found a sustainable commercial model that isn’t based on IPR ownership and licensing. International and National Standards Bodies have a monopoly within standardisation, where even sector oriented standardisation bodies aspire to move their outputs into an international or national standards track as a measure of the impact and credibility of their work.

Standardisation bodies exist to implement their governance frameworks which are geared around the circulation of drafts within committees and working groups and receiving and responding to stakeholder comments. A new way of working which challenges that model, even superficially, is viewed through the lens of “how will it undermine the credibility of our process” which stops any progress before it starts.

Standardisation professionals fear this could be their moment of disruption. Rather than considering the upside of their roles changing from administrative functions to facilitative creators; they protect their closed models and argue the necessity.

Open source tooling is not oriented for users who are not prepared to learn command line tools. A simple, intuitive user experience is needed so that professionals can work in the open without needing to re-skill from basic word processing and document control tools. Effective tooling would have the additional benefit of dramatically reducing the costs of production and distribution, making open more commercially viable.

4) What are you going to do to get there?*

(A description of what you actually plan to do during the year)

I will start a conversation about open standardisation.

ISO and others are looking into open-source as a model but they are not positioned to deliver this change. I want to move the conversation beyond open standards for software and data. It needs an outside facilitator/antagonist to catalyse, find a ground-swell of professionals and stakeholders who want to be part of a new way of working and guide the incumbents to a new world.

We have already built StandardsRepo, a platform for more efficient standards development that supports open working. Now we need to get people using it. We need to prototype new processes, organisational and governance models for delivering standards projects in the open. We need to face the IPR/commercial model conundrum head-on.

In practical terms, the first stage will be establishing a community of open source standardisation professionals, creating connections between digital sectors and digital industries and looking for opportunities to pilot standardisation in the open.

This is as much a stakeholder engagement campaign as it is about undertaking practical action. This will fail if we don’t bring existing standards bodies and key stakeholders along with us. Whilst recognising that open models do bring their own challenges we need to demonstrate that open does not equate to chaos or losing control.

In providing the mechanisms, case studies and space for a professional community to develop, a bow wave of momentum will develop.

5) What challenges or uncertainties do you expect to face?*

The biggest challenge will be inertia. Few things are harder to move than the processes that underpin the governance of global trade and technical regulation. In running pilots, we will only make baby steps compared to the global standards catalogue and so resilience is essential.

Alongside the organisations are the volunteers who sit on technical committees and working groups and have developed reputations based on their association with standards. There will be a fear that this will undermine their status and authority within their profession. They can have a loud voice within standardisation bodies and industry alike.

Key to this will be identifying people outside the open software standards/data communities who are willing to give this a try whilst keeping standards bodies sufficiently engaged without decelerating progress to a standstill. Expectation management, clear communication and openness in our own approach will help manage some of the fears of stakeholders.

Uncertainty and standardisation are often seen as incompatible, but that is what we will need to deal with as we progress.

I have been conditioned to behave as a consultant, but now I want to mobilise a movement. I am a strong influencer at an individual level, but I need to develop a new skillset to make change at scale.

I’m going to learn as I go. My vision is clear, but I don’t know how this actually gets implemented and there are many details that will need to be discovered and resolved as we progress.

6) What part does openness play in your idea?*

I’m a believer in standardisation, I’m not a believer in how it’s done today.

Standardisation is essentially just agreeing how something should be done. If it is open, standardisation has the opportunity to be a key enabler in a world with accelerating rates of change. If it is closed, it will only serve to perpetuate inequality.

We are approaching increasingly uncertain times, therefore enabling collaboration and innovation will be essential to deal with huge global challenges, from population increase, climate change and artificial intelligence.

My idea is all about exploring how anyone can inspect and enhance standards to improve the impact of their own work and of standards as knowledge artefacts on the world. The infrastructure of knowledge should be open.

Standardisation is already auditable (anyone can question a standards body and ask how stakeholder comments were addressed or who was involved), but it needs to be open.

To do this, I will need to be open myself. Success hinges on this being owned by the movement. The definition of “open standardisation” will develop and my role in its implementation will change with time too. I will need to challenge myself and continuously learn from the foundation, other fellows and the community.

This is all about consensus and there will be people who disagree with me, both fundamentally and subtly, and being open to them all is part of the journey.

10) Who are your current or potential key partners?*

Standards bodies who are already embracing openness such as OASIS and W3C will be essential partners in providing case studies to others that this approach is viable. We already have good links into these organisations which will be a strong baseline against which to bring national and international standards bodies on a journey.

We are organising a conference in the UK in October to bring standardisation professionals together to explore better engagement with stakeholders. We are targeting this event at professionals who do not work for formal standard organisations, but instead represent sector, professional or corporate standards. From this, I hope to identify organisations who are ready to explore more openness in standardisation and provide case studies and lessons for progressing our understanding of the value and challenges.

I believe there are independent individuals and organisations across the world who will form the basis for an open standardisation community, I will find them and mobilise a movement. Together we will define what open standardisation means and how it will be implemented.

The video

P.S. Personal reflections

With StandardsRepo we are at a stage where we have a working version 1.0. We are actively selling it to anyone who has efficiency or engagement problems in their standardisation processes. The challenging thing for me, who usually lives in the world of consultancy or, latterly, sales, is that this application was neither of those things. It’s a call to arms for those who think the world could and should be different.

How utterly liberating to talk about vision in a completely unrestrained way.

What we are doing might scare some people (though I don’t think it should) and we will definitely encounter nay-sayers. But that’s the point.

We are going to take on the way standardisation works. We are going to help communities feel more empowered, more knowledgeable and more engaged. We are going to make standards work for everyone, not just those who can afford them.

Future posts are likely to return to a more balanced tone, but if you share my vision, let’s talk.

Co-founder and CEO at — helping experts to reach consensus faster.