XPRIZE's Jono Bacon on the next great challenge

jono bacon
Credit: Swapnil Bhartiya

"...anybody can play a role in a bigger picture."


Jono Bacon, the former Community Manager of Ubuntu, changed tracks last year when he quit Canonical and joined XPRIZE, a company not very well known within open source circles. Even after leaving Canonical, Bacon remained extremely active in the Ubuntu community and is often part of community related events. I met him last year at LinuxCon, just after he joined the XPRIZE Foundation as Senior Director of Community. But those were early days for him settling down at the new company; I met him again at LinuxCon Seattle and we sat down for an interview to understand what an open source guy is doing at this company.

Following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Can you tell us a bit about XPRIZE, what do they do?

XPRIZE is essentially an organization that has a simple but very large mission. The mission is to incentivize the creation of technology that solves the grandest challenges that we have in the world today.

So if you look at the world there is this kind of fabric in this patchwork of of issues—we have issues around education, around energy, clean water, ocean health, space exploration, and things like that.

The philosophy of XPRIZE – which comes from our founder Peter Diamandis – is that technology exponentially doubles every year. So in 2025 a $1,000 computer will be as powerful as the human brain. In 2050 that $1,000 computer will be as powerful as every human brain on the planet because of exponential growth curve. But that doesn't just apply to computing power, there is growth in the access to the Internet and the other range of technologies – there is 3d printing, drones, big data, cloud, and stuff like that.

So the idea is that if you have a market failure, such as the lack of literacy in the world, then you can incentivize people to build technology solutions that console those market failures. But, there has to be large incentives and those incentives come in the form of XPRIZES, which are basically competitions that challenge teams to do this thing and we will pay you X amount of money if you accomplish that thing. And then there is testing and all kinds of stuff to make sure that the right person or the right team wins that.

So, as an example, the Global learning XPRIZE is a $15 million competition and one of the largest contributors is Elon Musk. It challenge teams to build an Android app that will teach a child to read, write and perform arithmetic fully autonomously, with the piece of software. And there are lots of different XPRIZES around them.

From what I see XPRIZE isn't a tech organization like Canonical; it's more about social issues. So how much technology is involved at XPRIZE?

There are very technology oriented prizes. I mean all of them are. It’s about building a piece of technology, whether it’s software or hardware or a mix of the two, to solve a particular problem.

I gave an example of Global Learning XPRIZE; there are over 250 million children today that can’t read and if you want to teach that many kids today, with the traditional education system you need something like 31 million teachers. It’s an infeasible task to achieve that.

So that's an area where technology is ripe to solve the problem. But the XPRIZE forms the perspective that what are the problems we have in the world and then we look at the growth curve of computing, the growth curve of the access to the Internet, to these different technologies. Then say what is a bold and ambitious, but an achievable goal, that we could incentivize to solve that particular problem. And it really does center around market failures— traditionally where there is a market failure the government typically steps in and invariably governments are slow and they are inefficient. XPRIZE isn’t there to build a better app, it’s really there to build that will have that kind of substantive impact.

So what is an open source guy who deals with community doing at XPRIZE?

It’s a killer question. I was at Canonical just under 8 years and I felt like I had done about everything I could do -- I had a great team that was up and running; I had a great relationship with Mark Shuttleworth, Jane [Silber], with my boss Rick Spenser.

I felt like the challenges were kind of being sucked out a little bit because things were taking over and I really wanted a new challenge. I kind of wanted to break away from open source a little bit, just to kind of sharpen my skill set.

I am conscious of the fact that when you do anything for about 7 years, I think, it's easy to start to get a bit lazy. I don't think I was lazy but I was becoming a bit stagnant. I wanted a new challenge that would stretch me. I felt like getting out of open source but something still technology related. It was really more about the challenge than the area.

I have always been passionate about having broader impact and that’s why I am passionate about growing community leadership in the world as it affects governments, businesses and technology. And XPRIZE was kind of breaking that mould. And be careful what you wish for because it has been challenging for me, in a good way. I feel that I have learned more in the last year and a half than, I think, I learned in the last five or six years in terms of community as well as working in a different type of environment.

I recently talked to Robin Chase and she also gave a keynote at LinuxCon where she talked about collaboration and sharing and how it’s changing our world. If you look at what Chase has done with Zipcar and her Peer Inc idea, it’s not about software development but it’s very close to the concept of open source—sharing knowledge, ideas, resources. So if someone asks you to implement open source model beyond software, in social issues, what’s your perspective on that?

I think we are seeing this amazing time in what you could refer to as collaboration economy that’s happening right now, which is a bit of a buzzword but I think it’s accurate.

I gave a keynote last year at LinuxCon and one of the points I made was open source is where I believe society, kind of, innovates. Years ago back in the early days of open source it’s where people got together online, in a collaborative environment and tried to figure out tools and processes and how they are going to work together, when they are not connected in same room, when they are connected electronically. And we learned a lot about that and it gave birth to modern era of community leadership.

There are two kinds of communities—read communities and write communities. Read communities are fans, we get together to consume together and there is a pleasure in consuming with people who are like minded. And these are very straightforward communities to set up: You basically bring people together and you give them stuff to do, ways they can be creative with each other.

But write communities are the kind of communities where people can impact the thing that brings them together; some good examples are open source and Wikipedia. What we also seeing now is crowdsourcing. So Uber, Zipcar, Lyft and all these sorts of things are where the community becomes the supply chain, it’s different than the read and write communities. Because in read/write communities, there is an engagement between different community members whereas with crowdsourcing there is not really an engagement between one Uber drive and another Uber driver. So it’s not really a community but it’s another way in which people can drive value and innovate in different ways.

What I think is missing is that knowledge of how you bring the crowd together to collaborate to create these things. And I still think we are at very early stage of community renaissance that I have been working on. I think we have got a lot to learn but it’s a really exciting time to be involved in these kind of things.

Let’s talk about if the open source model can be implemented beyond software. Are there any examples at XPRIZE where you see they are using a similar model

An XPRIZE competition is 3 to 5 years long, it requires you to essentially set up a start-up; it requires a long commitment -- in terms of financial commitment, commitment in terms of work and only so many people can dedicate time to do it. But the actual mission of XPRIZE is much broader: It’s to solve the grand challenges facing humanity. Now if you look at open source the thing that is beautiful about open source is that anybody can play a role in a bigger picture. So you can be a 14 year old kid in Alabama and you take an interest in the Linux kernel and you can earn your way to be a respected committer. And my view is that we can apply the same ethos and to do that.

Because this is the formation of a new community [at XPRIZE], we have really done it in couple of primary areas. One is to get people together on forums, so there are people collaborating on existing prizes. The second is setting up what we call XPRIZE Think Tanks, which is local community groups that are spread out all across the world, where people get together to share information about exponential technology, grand challenges but also that they are there to collaborate as well.

We have groups in Shanghai, Bangalore, London and San Francisco, all over the place. And it’s about more than hanging out and watching presentations. It’s about how we get this group of people, this diverse melting pot of people, to work together on something that benefits the world.

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