This post by TACSI chairman Dr Nicholas Gruen was originally published on his blog.

Readers of this blog will be familiar with Family by Family, the service which matches families up with other families in coached, mentoring relationships to help families through tough times and lower the risk of them falling into crisis with all the implications that has for the well-being of the kids and for government budgets if governments are forced to remove children from their parents. There’s another similar program The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI) developed a year or so after Family by Family called ‘Weavers’.

Observing the low levels of well-being and high levels of stress and consequent ill mental and physical health, we built Weavers as a means of connecting carers who were on their own – often first time carers – with experienced carers or Weavers to provide peer support. ‘Weavers’ help carers navigate the service maze, stay connected and involve others, work through emotional challenges and keep things together emotionally – a big challenge if you put yourself in carers’ positions. The program was designed and trialled with carers in South Australia and has won an Australian International Design Award.

We’ve persevered with it even though it’s languished a little compared with Family by Family unsure of what kind of business model it should have. Should we seek government funding to deliver the service in return for the benefits it delivers to governments’ bottom lines (particularly by delaying the move from home into institutional care) or could we sell it to those who provide services in relation to ageing.

Anyway, what we’ve done is to ‘open source’ it. So if you go to the Weavers’ website, you’ll be able to sign up and access all our hard work – for free! Is there a catch? Well no, but a better question is ‘how do we make a return on it?’ since TACSI isn’t in receipt of funding from anyone – whether government or philanthropy – except for services rendered. The answer is that we’re giving away what we know (to the extent it can be codified) as a benevolent act, but also like Red Hat and any number of other vendors of open source software, we distribute a codified product for free and then charge for providing services like consulting and further development of the codified knowledge to organisations that use it.

A couple of the outsize commercial advantages of distributing open source material are that vendors can try before they buy, that they know our services are on the level – we’re not trying to lock them into buying our services. So in a complex market where firms are wary of buying stuff they can’t be sure will work for them, these things can be very valuable. Certainly, we’ve had a lot of interest shown in Weavers and acquired our first paying customer for our consulting services within a couple of weeks of open sourcing it.

It’s all part of the doing well by doing good playbook. If things work out, the program grows its own ecosystem in which the codified knowledge we open source is complemented by a community of practice of growing size, diversity and sophistication. What’s there not to like? As I argued regarding the value of openness online:

Free rider opportunities now so dominate free rider problems that some of our most successful companies provide their wares as public rather than private goods. Google and Facebook could have marketed their products behind a pay-wall to monetise more of the value they generated. But seizing the free rider opportunity and, instead, providing their services as free, public goods, led to such vast value creation that monetising a small fraction of that value via advertising has lifted their combined market capitalisation to over three quarters of a trillion dollars.

We’re not imagining that we’re Google or Facebook, but you get the idea.

Further the relationship between the codified knowledge and the uncodified knowledge is also worthy of reflection. As theorists from the left like Michael Polyani and the right like Friedrich Hayek have stressed, to function well, a ‘knowledge economy’ must integrate both the systematic knowledge we’ll seek to embody in the open sourced part of the program and also the local, practical knowledge of how it’s applied and how practitioners learn by doing.

Why is the integration of these two kinds of knowledge so poorly managed in our own society and economy? Firstly because it’s a damn difficult thing to do – requiring lots of improvisation and experimentation and how do you then capture that knowledge for others? Secondly, as I’ve documented elsewhere, systematic knowledge is lionised in our society and economy – it’s where the big bucks and careers are – while practical knowledge is a low status activity. As Hayek put it in the late 1940s (thinking of the tyranny of central planning and the practical knowledge of the trader):

Today it is almost heresy to suggest that scientific knowledge is not the sum of all knowledge. But a little reflection will show that there is . . . a body of very important but unorganized knowledge: . . . the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place. [In this] respect . . . practically every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active coöperation. We need to remember only how much we have to learn in any occupation after we have completed our theoretical training, how big a part of our working life we spend learning particular jobs, and how valuable an asset in all walks of life is knowledge of people, of local conditions, and of special circumstances.

I thought of this as I read Fred Chaney’s striking words in the Australian lastSaturday thinking of indigenous policy:

Think of the challenge of school attendance. This looks straightforward. But in practice the causes of non-attendance are many and varied. Here are some: mobility of families, deaths, funerals, sorry business, violence in the communities, sporting events, carnivals/shows, overcrowding, street parties at night meaning children do not get sleep, other cultural practices. A list of critical factors could be grouped at least into family, community, school, governmental, cultural, economic, and other categories.

An approach that will work in Alice Springs is most unlikely to work in Redfern or Aurukun. Contextual factors will be critical. This is one reason local engagement is essential. The chances of there being anything even remotely resembling universal “best practice” are zero. This would throttle effective local service design. This is not to say that there will not be opportunities for learning and for the exchange of experience. But the learning that will apply across sites will be adaptive — not technical or codified.

In a context in which experience accumulates and circumstances change, learning will be continuous and dynamic. The surrounding system needs to enable these processes on an ongoing basis. It has to be based on learning by doing.

Weavers operates in a less fraught area than indigenous policy, but the principles are the same. At least in principle, open sourcing Weavers offers an exciting way to prototype a new ecology between the systematic knowledge codified in the program and the tacit, local practical knowledge needed for that knowledge to bear fruit in the world. How do you ‘scale’ practical knowledge? The short answer is ‘imperfectly’. We can help foster the community of practice and it may be possible to partially codify the practical knowledge we acquire. One other thing I think would be very interesting would be to provide an IT service around the product – paid or unpaid. I can see all sorts of intriguing commercial and informational possibilities there, but we can do that in the future when we know more about what is being made of our product.

It’s an exciting development and I’ll be letting you know how we go.

Nicholas Gruen is a widely published policy economist, entrepreneur and commentator on our economy, society and innovation. He is CEO of Lateral Economics and Chair of The Australian Centre for Social Innovation and The Open Knowledge Foundation (Australia). He has had regular columns in various daily papers and has published numerous essays on political, economic and cultural matters. He writes regularly on his blog, Club Troppo.