digital commons

This is the third and final installment from my essay, "Transnational Republics of Commoning: Reinventing Governance through Emergent Networks," published by Friends of the Earth UK. The full essay can be downloaded as a pdf file here.

III.  Re-imagining the Polity for a Networked Humanity

However promising the new forms of open source governance outlined above, they do not of themselves constitute a polity.  The new regimes of collaboration constitute mini- and meso-systems of self-organization.  They do not comprise a superstructure of law, policy, infrastructure and macro-support, which is also needed.  So what might such a superstructure look like, and how might it be created?  Can we envision some sort of transnational polity that could leapfrog over the poorly functioning state systems that prevail today?

A first observation on this question is that the very idea of a polity must evolve.  So long as we remain tethered to the premises of the Westphalian nation-state system, with its strict notions of absolute sovereignty over geographic territory and people and its mechanical worldview enforced by bureaucracies and law, the larger needs of the Earth as a living ecosystem will suffer.  So, too, will the basic creaturely needs of human beings, which are universal prepolitical ethical needs beyond national identity.

It may simply be premature to declare what a post-Westphalian polity ought to look like – but we certainly must orient ourselves in that direction.  For the reasons cited above, we should find ways to encourage the growth of a Commons Sector, in both digital and non-virtual contexts, and in ways that traverse existing territorial political boundaries.  Ecosystems are not confined by political borders, after all, and increasingly, neither are capital and commerce.  Culture, too, is increasingly transnational.  Any serious social or ecological reconstruction must be supported by making nation-state barriers more open to transnational collaboration if durable, effective solutions are to be developed. 

While states are usually quite jealous in protecting their authority, transnational commons should be seen as helping the beleaguered nation-state system by compensating for its deficiencies.  By empowering ordinary people to take responsibility and reap entitlements as commoners, nation-states could foster an explosion of open-source problem-solving and diminish dependencies on volatile, often-predatory global markets, while bolstering their credibility and legitimacy as systems of power.    

But how might we begin to build a commons-friendly polity?  After all, the most politically attractive approaches have no ambitions to change the system, while any grand proposals for transforming neoliberal capitalism are seen as political non-starters.  I suggest three “entry points” that can serve as long-term strategies for transformation: 

1) begin to reconceptualize cities as commons;

2) reframe the “right to common” (access to basic resources for survival and dignity) as a human right; and

3) build new collaborations among system-critical social movements so that a critical mass of resistance and creative alternatives can emerge. 

These three general strategies are not separate approaches, of course, but highly complementary and synergistic.

New Forms of Network-based Governance

The text below is a second installment from my essay, "Transnational Republics of Commoning:  Reinventing Governance through Emergent Networking," published by Friends of the Earth UK.  The third and final part of the essay will appear next.

Digital Commons as a New Species of Production and Governance

 To return to our original question:  How can we develop new ways to preserve and extend the democratic capacities of ordinary people and rein in unaccountable market/state power?  There is enormous practical potential in developing a Commons Sector as a quasi-independent source of production and governance.  Simply by withdrawing from the dominant market system and establishing stable, productive alternatives – in the style of Linux, local food systems and the blogosphere – the regnant system can be jolted.

While many digital commons may initially seem marginal, they can often “out-cooperate” conventional capital and markets with their innovative approaches, trustworthiness and moral authority.  The output of digital commons is mostly for use value, not exchange value.  It is considered inalienable and inappropriable, and must be shared and copied in common, not reflexively privatized and sold.  By enacting a very different, post-capitalist logic and ethos, many “digital republics” are decisively breaking with the logic of the dominant market system; they are not simply replicating it in new forms (as, for example, the “sharing economy” often is).

Let us conspicuously note that not all open source systems are transformative.  We see how existing capitalist enterprises have successfully embraced and partially coopted the transformative potential of open source software.  That said, there are new governance innovations that hold lessons for moving beyond strict market and state control.  For example, the foundations associated with various open source software development communities,[17] and the wide variety of “Government 2.0” models that are using networked participation to improve government decision-making and services (e.g., the Intellipedia wiki used by US intelligence agencies; Peer to Patent crowdsourcing of “prior art” for patent applications).

Any serious transformational change must therefore empower ordinary people and help build new sorts of collaborative structures. Ultimately, this means we must recognize the practical limits of external coercion and try to develop new systems that can enable greater democratic participation, personal agency, and open spaces for local self-determination and bottom-up innovation.[18] The examples described below are embryonic precursors of a different, better future.

Transnational Republics of Commoning

I am often asked what the commons has to contribute to solving our climate change problems.  Since most commons are rather small scale and local, there is a presumption that such commons cannot possibly deal with a problem as massive and literally global as climate change. I think this view is mistaken.

The nation-state as now constituted, in its close alliance with capital and markets, is largely incapable of transcending its core commitments to economic growth, consumerism, and the rights of capital and corporations -- arguably the core structural drivers of climate change. But these allegiances artificially limit our options, if not dismiss the kinds of interventions we must entertain. The market/state simply command and coerce its way to success in arresting with climate change; it will require the active, enthusiastic contributions of everyone, and it must command social respect and political legitimacy.

A new vision and popular energy from the outside must arise.  But how?  And how could it possibly expand to a meaningful size rapidly enough?  I think that the Internet and other digital networks offer a fertile vector in which to develop new answers. I explore the speculative possibilities in this essay written for Friends of the Earth UK, published as part of its "Big Think" essay series.  Because the piece -- "Transnational Republics of Commoning:  Reinventing Governance Through Emergent Networking" -- is nearly 14,000 words long, I am separating it into three parts.  You can download the full essay as a pdf file here.


Four days after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the pilot on United Airlines Flight 564, going from Denver to Washington, D.C., came on the intercom:      

The doors are now closed and we have no help from the outside for any problems that might occur inside this plane.  As you could tell when you checked in, the government has made some changes to increase security in the airports.  They have not, however, made any rules about what happens after those doors close.  Until they do, we have made our own rules and I want to share them with you …

Here is our plan and our rules.  If someone or several people stand up and say they are hijacking this plane, I want you all to stand up together.  Then take whatever you have available to you and throw it at them … There are usually only a few of them, and we are two-hundred-plus strong.  We will not allow them to take over this plane.  I find it interesting that the U.S. Constitution begins with the words, “We the people.”  That’s who we are, the people, and we will not be defeated.

As recounted by journalist David Remnick, passengers “were asked to turn to their neighbors on either side and introduce themselves, and to tell one another something about themselves and their families.  ‘For today, we consider you family,’ they were told.  ‘We will treat you as such and ask that you do the same with us.’”[1]

The City as Platform

In the age of ubiquitous Internet connections, smartphones and data, the future vitality of cities is increasingly based on their ability to use digital networks in intelligent, strategic ways. While we are accustomed to thinking of cities as geophysical places governed by mayors, conventional political structures and bureaucracies, this template of city governance is under great pressure to evolve. Urban dwellers now live their lives in all sorts of hyper-connected virtual spaces, pulsating with real-time information, intelligent devices, remote-access databases and participatory crowdsourcing. Expertise is distributed, not centralized. Governance is not just a matter of winning elections and assigning tasks to bureaucracies; it is about the skillful collection and curation of information as a way to create new affordances for commerce and social life.

That's the opening paragraph from my new report for the Aspen Institute, “The City as Platform: How Digital Networks Are Changing Urban Life and Governance.”  (pdf file download here). The report synthesizes discussion at an Aspen Institute Communications and Society conference last July. About thirty technologists, urban planners, policy experts, economic analysts, entrepreneurs, and social justice advocates shared insights into how networking technologies are transforming urban life, commerce and government.

I wrote the report as a rapporteur, not a commons advocate, but it’s abundantly clear that the sharing and collaboration facilitated by digital networks are spawning all sorts of new commons and hybrids (e.g., government/commons and government/corporate collaborations). The focus of the conference was mostly on US cities, but these things are happening worldwide, especially in cooperation-minded global cities such as Amsterdam, Barcelona and Seoul.  In the US, San Francisco and Los Angeles are in the vanguard, in part because of San Francisco’s proximity to Silicon Valley tech firms and in LA, because everyone there lives on their smartphones.

Universitat de Oberta Catalunya -- Open University of Catalonia -- just published the following essay of mine as part of its "Open Thoughts" series.  The UOC blog explores the benefits and limitations of various forms of peer production: well worth a look!

From open access platforms to managed digital commons: that is one of the chief challenges that network-based peer production must meet if we are going to unleash the enormous value that distributed, autonomous production can create.

The open platform delusion
We are accustomed to regarding open platforms as synonymous with greater freedom and innovation. But as we have seen with the rise of Google, Facebook and other tech giants, open platforms that are dominated by large corporations are only “free” within the boundaries of market norms and the given business models. Yes, open platforms provide many valuable services at no (monetary) cost to users. But when some good or service is offered for at no cost, it really means that the user is the product. In this case, our personal data, attention, social attitudes lifestyle behavior, and even our digital identities, are the commodity that platform owners are seeking to “own.”

In this sense, many open platforms are not so benign. Many of them are techno-economic fortresses, bolstered by the structural dynamics of the “power law,” which enable dominant corporate players to monopolize and monetize a given sector of online activity. Market power based on such platforms can then be used to carry out surveillance of users’ lives; erect barriers to open interoperability and sharing, sometimes in anticompetitive ways; and quietly manipulate the content and “experience” that users may have on such platforms.

Such outcomes on “open platforms” should not be entirely surprising; they represent the familiar quest of capitalist markets to engineer the acquisition of exclusive assets and monetize them. The quarry in this case is our consciousness, creativity and culture. The more forward-looking segments of capital realize that “owning a platform” (with stipulated terms of participation) can be far more lucrative than owning exclusive intellectual property rights for content.

So for those of us who care about freedom in an elemental human and civic sense — beyond the narrow mercantilist “freedoms” offered by capitalist markets — the critical question is how to preserve certain inalienable human freedoms and shared cultural spaces. Can our free speech, freedom of association and freedom to interconnect with each other and innovate flourish if the dominant network venues must first satisfy the demands of investors, corporate boards and market metrics?

Today's post is the third in a four-part series derived from my strategy memo, "Reinventing Law for the Commons."  This excerpt continues with Part II, "Legal Innovations in Beating the Bounds," with "clusters" #5 through #9. The collection of entries here are now posted on a Commons for the Law wiki hosted by the Commons Transition website.

5.  Co-operative Law

There are a number of legal and organizational innovations transforming co-operatives these days, making them moreoriented to commoning and the common good than just marketplace success. However, these innovations are geographically dispersed and not necessarily widely known, even within the co-operative movement.  One of the most notable new organizational forms is the multistakeholder co-operative (or “social and solidarity cooperative”), which has been rapidly proliferating in recent years.  It got its start in Italy in 1963 when families in Italy joined forces with paid care workers to develop co-operatives to provide social care, healthcare and educational services. This new paradigm collectivizes and centralizes basic overhead services (administration, personnel, accounting, etc.) and in this way empowers smaller social economy ventures (similar to “omni-commons,” see section #8 below). 

In a sense, multistakeholder co-ops regularize governance for co-stewardship of commons spaces and moves away from rigid bureaucratic methods that increasingly don’t work.[1]  Multistakeholder co-ops now employ more than 360,000 in paid jobs, including the disabled, the formerly imprisoned and marginalized people, and more than 40,000 volunteers.  Social co-operatives have spread to all regions of Italy and today number more than 14,000, making it a significant sector of the Italian economy that is neither market- nor state-based.  Today there are multi-stakeholder co-operative movements in Quebec in Canada and in a wide number of countries in Europe including France, Spain, Poland, Hungary, Finland and Greece[2].

Our knowledge about what makes digital commons work is terribly under-theorized.  Yes, there are famous works by Lawrence Lessig and Yochai Benkler, and there are lots of projects and websites that are based on commoning such as like Wikipedia, free software, Arduino, open access journals, among countless others.  But can we identify core principles for organizing digital commons?  Can we use that knowledge to engineer the evolution of new commons?  Identifying such principles just might let us move beyond “openness” as the ultimate goal of online life, to a more sustainable goal, the self-governed commons.

It has been a pleasure to discover that some computer scientists are actively exploring how Elinor Ostrom’s principles for successful commons might be applied to the design of software.  Consider this intriguing essay title: "Axiomatization of Socio-Economic Principles for Self-Organizing Institutions: Concepts, Experiments and Challenges,“ which appeared in the ACM Transactions on Autonomous and Adaptive Systems, in December 2012.  

The piece is by British electrical and electronic engineer Jeremy Pitt and two co-authors, Julia Schaumeier and Alexander Artikis. The abstract is here.  Unfortunately, the full article is behind a paywall, consigning it to a narrow readership.  I shall quote from the abstract here because it hints at the general thinking of tech experts who realize that the social and the technical must be artfully blended:

We address the problem of engineering self-organising electronic institutions for resource allocation in open, embedded and resource-constrained systems.  In such systems, there is decentralised control, competition for resources and an expectation of both intentional and unintentional errors.  The ‘optimal’ distribution of resources is then less important than the sustainability of the distribution mechanism, in terms of endurance and fairness, based on collective decision-making and tolerance of unintentional errors.  In these circumstances, we propose to model resource allocation as a common-pool resource management problem, and develop a formal characterization of Elinor Ostrom’s socio-economic principles for enduring institutions. 

When I was in Berlin, Matthias Spielkamp of, interviewed me about the commons, especially the fate of various digital commons such as free software and the future of the Internet itself. is a German website that covers digital and intellectual property issues.  The video of that interview is now online – a short version (6:56) and a long version (24:37). 

Our conversation started with “What is the commons?” and moved on to such questions as “Free software often is a niche product.  Has it been a success?”.... “Can there be a regulation for the benefit of the commons?”.... and “Has governing the Internet become a public issue….or is it limited to specialized circles?” among other questions. 



For years I have been the rapporteur for the Aspen Institute’s Information Technology Roundtable conference, which every year brings together about 25 technologists, venture capitalists, policy wonks, management gurus, and others to discuss topics of breaking concern.  The most recent topic was the “power curve” distributions that tend to result on open network platforms.

This is extensively discussed in my just-released report on the conference, Power-Curve Society:  The Future of Innovation, Opportunity and Social Equity in the Emerging Networked Economy.  The report notes how a globally networked economy allows greater ease of transactions but also requires fewer workers at lower pay, which tends to aggravate wealth and income inequality.  As I write in the introduction to the report:

Although the new technologies are clearly driving economic growth and higher productivity, the distribution of these benefits is skewed in worrisome ways. Wealth and income distribution no longer resemble a familiar “bell curve” in which the bulk of the wealth accrue to a large middle class. Instead, the networked economy seems to be producing a “power-curve” distribution, sometimes known as a “winner-take-all” economy. A relative few players tend to excel and reap disproportionate benefits while the great mass of the population scrambles for lower-paid, lower-skilled jobs, if they can be found at all. Economic and social insecurity is widespread.

The report also looks at Big Data and the coming personal data revolution beneath it that seeks to put individuals, and not companies or governments, at the forefront. Companies in the power-curve economy rely heavily on big databases of personal information to improve their marketing, product design, and corporate strategies. The unanswered question is whether the multiplying reservoirs of personal data will be used to benefit individuals as consumers and citizens, or whether large Internet companies will control and monetize Big Data for their private gain.

Josh Wallaert, writing at the Places Journal (at the Design Observer Group) – “the online journal of architecture, landscape and urbanism,” has a wonderful post about nominally public spaces on the Internet.  The post, called “State of the Commons,” notes:

….Flickr has become a ghost town in recent years, conservatively managed by its corporate parent Yahoo, which has ceded ground to photo-sharing alternatives like Facebook (and its subsidiary Instagram), Google Plus (and Picasa and Panoramio), and Twitter services (TwitPic and Yfrog).  An increasing share of the Internet’s visual resources are now locked away in private cabinets, untagged and unsearchable, shared with a public no wider than the photographer’s personal sphere. Google’s Picasa and Panoramio support creative commons licenses, but finding the settings is not easy. And Facebook, the most social place to share photos, is the least public. Hundreds of millions of people who have photographed culturally significant events, people, buildings and landscapes, and who would happily give their work to the commons if they were prompted, are locked into sites that don’t even provide the option. The Internet (and the mobile appverse) is becoming a chain of walled gardens that trap even the most civic-minded person behind the hedges, with no view of the outside world…..Canton Public Library, 1903, Canton, Ohio; entry in the Wiki Loves Monuments USA contest. [Photo by Bgottsab], from

For better and worse, public-making in the early 21st-century has been consigned to private actors: to activists, urban interventionists, community organizations and — here’s the really strange thing — online corporations. The body politic has retreated to nominally public spaces controlled by Google, Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, which now constitute a vital but imperfect substitute for the town square. Jonathan Massey and Brett Snyder draw an analogy between these online spaces and the privately-owned public space of Zuccotti Park, the nerve center for Occupy Wall Street, and indeed online tools have been used effectively to support direct actions and participatory democracies around the world.  Still, the closest most Americans get to the messy social activity of cooperative farm planning is the exchange of digital carrots in Farmville.

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