Ideas do not belong in Zoos.

Ideas have a life of their own. 

I first came across the notion that we don’t have ideas but rather that they already exist and find us in Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Big Magic“. Although the concept seemed romantic, it made sense to me. Ideas have always appeared in clusters, from flight to light bulbs. It’s how we progress. 

The suggestion that ideas find us and stay with us a while but will abandon us if we don’t do something with them also appeals. How many times have we seen something appear and said, “But I thought of that!”

At some point, though, that idea finds a host who does something with it. It gets articulated and materialised and handed over to its keepers in the form of intellectual property lawyers. It gets caged, put on display, and we have to pay if we want to see it. It no longer gets to visit other people who might help it grow. 

Extending the “ideas as being” metaphor, I also think they speak different languages. The same idea speaks differently to artists and scientists. Those like Einstein, Bohm, Feynman and, latterly Brian Cox, are amongst only a very few who are multilingual and appreciate the beauty, the power, and the mystery of an idea. 

Ideas, like vaccines, are public goods. They do not belong to individuals or even companies. We might be the first to encounter them, but that doesn’t mean we should cage them for decades. If we meet it first, we need to do something with it or let it free to find someone who will. 

As we approach the multiple, complex systemic challenges of the next few short decades, we need ideas to find the people they need, not cage them up awaiting the best profit opportunity.

Ideas do not belong in intellectual property zoos.

High Five to Johnnie Moore for exploring this idea in an unhurried conversation this week.

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