Wikimedia Deutschland/Innovation Engine/Building an ecosystem to innovate in free knowledge

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With a clear and bold vision, with concrete recommendations and guiding principles in ‘our bag’, the Wikimedia Movement Strategy is undergoing implementation. In doing so, social and technical innovations are going to be crucial to master the challenges of today and tomorrow in order to equitably create knowledge. Strengthening the innovative capacity of the movement will be key to address gaps in knowledge equity, and therefore, to stay relevant and attractive as a movement in the future. But how to ‘innovate in free knowledge’?

The Innovation Engine Team at Wikimedia Deutschland developed this paper as a first attempt to map what initiatives, processes and structures already exist that will give an overview of how the Wikimedia movement currently ‘innovates in free knowledge’. It builds upon recommendation 9 “Innovate in Free Knowledge” of the Movement Strategy that calls for the exploration and expansion of free knowledge projects. In addition, this paper also calls for the creation of an innovation ecosystem. This means that we must take a more systematic approach in order to not only set selective and short-term impulses for innovations, but to create a long-term, sustainable impact with different actors and stakeholders as well as our actions.

A few caveats before we deep dive:

  • Examples below are far from exhaustive: It is not the intention of the paper to provide a comprehensive analysis or evaluation of all existing examples of innovative approaches in our movement. Rather, it seeks to provide a first glimpse into what exists so far and what is missing when it comes to driving innovation.
  • A map is only a representation: Any model by its nature will reduce the complexity of the situation into a few common variables. Don’t see this as the final and absolute version of the mapping. There are certainly other variables and dimensions to look at, including structural, organizational and geographic layers that involve different stakeholders. This map is one way to raise questions around the unknowns.
  • The space is evolving and this is one perspective: This perspective is one of many and represents a single point in time. In the spirit of collaboration and open innovation, we are calling for more perspectives, insights, and feedback from across the movement. You are welcome to add or remove pieces of this puzzle – this is where innovation could happen.
  • It’s a conversation starter with the prospect of more: We at Wikimedia Deutschland (WMDE) want to start the conversation around innovation and around how to innovate in free knowledge. However, WMDE does not ‘own’ this topic or recommendation 9. We want to raise awareness and make it become relevant in our movement. While WMDE seeks to play an active role in driving innovation, we also look for ‘partners in crime’ within the movement to jointly tackle the topic, move it beyond the conversation and become the catalysts for innovation in free knowledge.

Ways towards innovation[edit]

Innovation as a process[edit]

Innovation is often depicted as an almost magical process: breakthrough ideas coming from exceptionally brilliant people with a stroke of creativity. It is certain that innovation is rarely simple or predictable – it is a complex story of loops and jumps. However, when we look closely at what actually happens, the overall innovation process is structured and systematic: there are various stages that most innovations pass through (see image: Innovation stages). In this analysis, we are going to apply a very common innovation framework – defined, validated and continously developed – by Nesta (the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) and the Young Foundation.

The overall innovation process which is structured and systematic: there are various stages that most innovations pass through

Not every innovation moves through the seven stages sequentially – stages can overlap, some innovations skip the testing phase and jump directly into practice or even scaling. In general, the stages serve as a framework that provides a common language for thinking about how to support innovation more systematically – taking into account the different formats, techniques, tools, processes of support that innovators and innovations might require at each stage in order to grow. It is also important to note that each phase – regardless of its focus – requires three cross-cutting elements: 1) ideas or idea providers, 2) structures (e.g. support programs, people, technical means, etc.) and 3) funding (grant, loans, etc.). Without these three cross-cutting elements, no phase would work.

Based on this framework, the upcoming section will map out examples of how the Wikimedia movement ‘innovates in free knowledge’ – if and how each innovation stage is covered within the movement and what the current challenges within the stage are.

Mapping Wikimedia innovative capacity[edit]

Stage 1: Opportunities and challenges[edit]

This stage considers all factors that highlight the need for change: ranging from a crisis, over new strategic direction to creative imagination. This requires examining the root causes of a problem, framing the right question so that the root causes of the problem will be tackled, not just its symptoms, as well as identifying opportunities that a new change could bring about.

One of the striking examples for this stage within the Wikimedia movement is the open and participatory Movement Strategy process, which identified the needs and challenges of the movement as well as led to the creation of the strategic direction, 10 recommendations and underlying principles that outline a guide for change and pave the way towards Wikimedia 2030.

Another example includes the Linked Open Data strategy that outlines opportunities of Linked Open Data for the movement and of how the further development of Wikidata and Wikibase ecosystem can 1) organize and link the world’s digitized knowledge in a machine-readable way, which enables knowledge provisioning in any format and makes knowledge more findable; 2) make data available to technology in a way that aims to represent the world equitably. This also strengthens the Wikimedia projects, especially smaller ones, by allowing efforts to be pooled and combined. Furthermore, it enables the analysis of data for gaps and biases; 3) create new opportunities for participation, thereby growing the movement.

But (co-)creating a desirable future of the movement is not necessarily limited to the Movement Strategy. We could certainly look more into the future and invest in the exploration of emerging trends related to free knowledge to identify the drivers shaping tomorrow – scoping out fields, topics and technologies which are new to the movement.

Stage 2: Generating ideas[edit]

Ideas derive from many sources. And the way an innovation is developed is just as important as the innovation itself. In most cases, tapping in the sources and engaging various stakeholders and interests will be key to the success of innovation. Over the last decade, there has been an explosion of methods designed to enhance co-creation (within the product development process) or to harness the distributed and collective intelligence of crowds (e.g. challenges, prizes and hackathons).

Within the movement some of these methods have been applied, among which are: the Wikimania Hackathon that gathers the technical community and onboards interested people from across the globe who would like to get involved in the development of MediaWiki and many other areas in the Wikimedia's technical ecosystem; or Coding da Vinci – a hackathon for open cultural data that brings together technophile communities, cultural enthusiasts and institutions of cultural heritage.

What about generating ideas beyond existing Wikimedia projects? One that goes into this direction is the potential user group Wikimedians Innovating New Genres (WING) that aims to develop genres beyond the traditional encyclopedia, including the incorporation of oral knowledge and other sources. Yet, this movement will need more generating ideas-focused formats. Formats and initiatives that gather people from across the movement and beyond to ideate and work on fresh ideas related to challenges of the future of free knowledge.

Stage 3: Developing & testing[edit]

Ideas develop through trial and error, and constant refinement. At stage 3 the focus lies on prototyping and moving quickly into practice, rather than spending too long developing detailed plans and strategies. There are various methods (e.g. accelerator programs) and funding tools (crowdfunding, small grants etc.) that can be used to drive innovation at this stage.

In 2020, Wikimedia Deutschland launched the UNLOCK Accelerator – an innovation-focused program that aims to promote free knowledge solutions that take up and further develop current Wikimedia projects or that are completely new to the free knowledge community. UNLOCK supports participating teams over a set period of time in validating, testing and further developing their project ideas in a structured manner with the help of coaching, events focused on exchange and collaboration, a network of experts and, if required, a scholarship. With UNLOCK, Wikimedia Deutschland contributes to the implementation of the Movement Strategy: It is currently the only chapter with such a program that is committed to increasing the sustainability of the movement by investing in communities who are working on new projects for free knowledge. Besides, this commitment strengthens the innovative power of the movement.

Running two UNLOCK editions clearly unfolded the potential of the program geared towards innovation: the Wikimedia Accelerator provided the participants with the necessary knowledge and skills-enhancing methods to drive the implementation of their projects forward in the shortest possible time. Further, the accelerator supported projects that created new impulses for the free knowledge movement through their different approaches by developing other formats and tools for consuming and contributing knowledge. They also reached new target groups with their solutions.

Stage 4: Making the case[edit]

Coming up with fresh, brilliant ideas for the next best solution can be an exciting venture for project teams. For those that do pass through a period of successful prototyping and testing, launching a service or product and making sure that it is feasible and viable involves many aspects alongside the core idea, including a business model, sources of finance, and people (in terms of product team or ‘staff’, stakeholders, experts etc.).

Validated ideas or prototypes that are related to existing Wikimedia projects can be more easily integrated into the existing ecosystem (if all requirements are met) due to structures that are already in place: dedicated product and technology teams, funding and other community-driven approaches (e.g. the Technical Wishes Project) that can take up prototypes, develop them further or accompany them in their further development and thus integrate them into the existing ecosystem.

For prototypes that do not have a ‘home’ yet, this is a ‘make or break’ stage where access to the right programs, tools, processes of support for innovators and innovation to grow is instrumental to sustain. With respect to the developed prototypes within the Wikimedia Accelerator UNLOCK, their continuation and sustainability highly depends on the follow up support they can receive. So far Wikimedia Deutschland offers follow-up support to selected projects that depict the most potential for impact. But the means are limited here. At this stage, most of them require funding or access to funding opportunities, product development support as well as access to or matching with experts on specific topics or potential partners. This system of support is not in place.

Stage 5 & 6: Delivering & scaling[edit]

Stage 5 & 6 may be considered separately (as done in image 1 above), however, the combination of the two stages is not uncommon as they often overlap and innovation support may be applied to both. ‘Delivering & scaling’ represents the stage in which the solution becomes everyday practice. There is a range of strategies for growing and spreading an innovation – from organizational growth, (open) licensing to collaboration and looser diffusion. Indeed, most social ideas and innovations are spread in a more organic and adaptive manner as they have less compulsion to organizational growth and more towards inspirations or collaborative networking as a way of sharing innovation.

Wikidata and Wikibase Ecosystem are two great examples of innovation at this particular stage. They have successfully moved through the previous stages and become everyday practice across the globe and across a large user and contributor base.

In order to truly innovate in free knowledge the movement needs to expand its existing support structure and resources to new free knowledge projects as well. In this way, we can follow up on the efforts of the previous stages more efficiently and avoid ideas or prototypes disappearing into ‘drawers’ or even being developed in vain.

Stage 7: Changing systems[edit]

Systemic innovation involves the transformation of systems on which we – as users, citizens, communities or societies – depend. It disrupts concepts and mindsets as we start to think and see in new ways. It also brings along power shifts, replacing prior power holders with new ones. Systemic innovations can be suddenly triggered by a crisis or a disruptive technology. More often, they result from slow but cumulative processes entailing changing infrastructures, behaviours, and cultures.

Wikipedia is one of the systemic innovations of the last two decades and it is currently the only Wikimedia project within the movement that has reached this stage. The complexity of systemic innovation makes it hard to define specific tools which can advance it. Every system has some unique characteristics, and unique power structures. And there are invariably many elements and aspects that made Wikipedia become a systemic innovation, among which are the ‘wiki’ principle (in terms of technology and governance); a new and collaborative culture of how knowledge can be produced, made accessible and shared; or the gathering of free knowledge enthusiasts (beyond pure consumers) committing their time and energy to not only contribute to the development of the encyclopedia but also to form a social movement for free knowledge.

This movement for free knowledge has the great potential to drive systemic change even further. However, this requires not only the development of existing Wikimedia projects, but also the promotion of new ideas, new forms of knowledge, new products that bring underrepresented communities and knowledge to the center.

Building an innovation ecosystem[edit]

Mapping the Wikimedia movement innovation capacity along the innovation process and related stages.

What will be Wikimedia’s next systemic innovation that fundamentally changes how human knowledge is produced, made accessible and shared? Following the 2030 recommendations, systemic change can happen through the development of existing Wikimedia projects as well as through the promotion of unfamiliar novel ideas for free knowledge.

To prepare for the implementation, communities and affiliates chose eight major initiatives and initiative clusters as priorities for global collaboration. Among these are innovation-focused initiatives aiming to improve the user experience of existing tools and platforms as well as initiatives that are not focussing on product innovation per se, but seek to drive innovation on a structural and organizational level, equally needed for the movement to evolve, grow and to become sustainable. While recommendation 9 (Innovate in free knowledge) is not among the global priorities, it was still prioritized by communities that are currently underrepresented in the movement. One way to interpret this is that the underrepresented communities have an appetite for change and are looking for new ways to represent and access knowledge, while the current majority in the movement, whose forms of knowledge are well represented in Wikimedia, did not prioritize innovation in the same way. Wikimedia Foundation funding is currently only available for initiatives that have been prioritised for global collaboration and there is no official grant program to fund local or regional priorities. That means the affiliates and communities favouring recommendation 9 will have to come up with their own ideas and processes to innovate in free knowledge.

Maybe we do not have to reinvent the wheel but also start looking outside our own ‘bubble’ and into other innovation ecosystems. Among which are tech4good and civic tech, social startups and enterprises, education sector as well as impact-related programs, funds and government funding. What can we learn from them, where are potential synergies we can build upon or how can we join forces to diversify and enrich the movement through sharing experiences and thereby driving building an innovation ecosystem for free knowledge.

The journey towards Wikimedia 2030 requires a more holistic and systematic approach in order not to only set selective and short-term impulses for innovations, but to truly ‘innovate in free knowledge’. For this, we need:

  • an open mindset towards change and innovation;
  • the courage to experiment, fail and continuously learn;
  • a movement-wide commitment to innovation and, therefore, prioritizing recommendation 9;
  • commitment and resources to expand the innovation stages and build an innovation ecosystem; and
  • involvement of movement stakeholders and of other mission-aligned innovation ecosystems across all stages of innovation.