business models

While it may be tempting to divide the world into two separate camps, market and commons, some of the most interesting territory lies in the spaces in between – namely, in the non-capitalist, commons-based marketplace.  In France, they call it the “social economy” – the segment of commerce serviced by cooperatives and mutual enterprises.  Such companies meet their members’ commercial needs while also trying to address broader social, ecological and democratic concerns.

I spent the past three days at a gathering, the Mont Blanc Meetings (Les Rencontres du Mont-Blanc) dedicated to exploring how economic efficiency and social equity can be balanced through coops, and how the social economy can be a political force for a new vision of society.  The Mont Blanc Meetings have been held every two years since 2005 as a kind of alternative to both Davos (World Economic Forum) and Porto Allegre (World Social Forum).  The Mont Blanc Meetings are the social economy’s attempt to build an international identity, collaborate on practical projects and promote a new political vision. 

I must say, the organizers certainly chose a lovely place to meet – Chamonix, France, a small resort village nestled in the shadow of two majestic mountain ranges that tower more than two miles above the 3,000-foot valley floor.  What a combination:  European charm, good food, scenic beauty and bracing political discussion.

In the latest American Prospect, Harold Meyerson tells a good morality tale about how certain types of businesses can succeed only if managed as public trusts, if only in spirit.  He documents the ignominious decline of the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Dodgers after each was taken over by men "so venal, cynical, incompetent, and egomaniacal that they gutted them in just a couple of years.”  Both Sam Zell (who acquired the Times after buying the Tribune Company) and Frank McCourt (a Boston parking lot mogul) treated the revered corporate institutions that they bought as personal piggybanks.  The public was a mere afterthought -- helpless dependents on seemingly impregnable monopolies.

While the idea of running one’s business as a public trust has historically gotten a lot of lip service, at least in the newspaper business, today the barbarians who pass as CEOs and investors virtually go out of their way to flaunt their coarse, selfish personalities.  The schadenfreude at the fall of Zell and McCourt is therefore deeply satisfying.  Writes Meyerson:

Zell installed talk-radio executives who knew nothing about newspapers. He derided the editorial staff at the Timesand the Tribfor not producing the kind of copy that would turn the industry's fortunes around, and made clear that editors and reporters concerned with editorial autonomy and quality journalism were elitists who were no longer to be indulged. He instituted layoff after layoff, so that the Times, which had had an editorial staff of 1,200 in 2000, saw its ranks reduced to roughly 500 today. A little more than a year after his purchase, with the recession clobbering revenues and Zell's executives still clueless about how to run a newspaper, Tribune entered bankruptcy proceedings, where it remains mired to this day.

The debate over the commons used to focus on how to protect shared resources from private predators.  Now, increasingly, the focus is shifting to how the commons and market forces can constructively work together while preserving the integrity of the commons.  That is to say, the focus is on how to preserve the social relationships and free flows of information that constitute the commons while permitting some sort of monetization and/or developing external revenue sources. 

I consider this whole conversation is a significant “developmental stage” in the evolution of the commons:  how to develop a sustainable balance between commons and markets?  This sort of talk was much in evidence at the Free Culture Forum in Barcelona in late October; at the International Commons Conference in Berlin on November 1-2; and most notably at the “Economies of the Commons” conference hosted by the De Balie Center in Amsterdam on November 11-13.  The tagline for the latter conference put it well:  “Paying the cost of making things free.”

The Commons as a New Sector of Value-Creation

Remarks by David Bollier


“Economies of the Commons:

Strategies for Sustainable Access and

Creative Reuse of Images and Sounds Online”


De Balie Centre for Culture and Politics

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

April 12, 2008


            I start with a bit of wisdom I once picked up from Thomas Berry, an historian of cultures, who wrote:  “The universe is the communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” 

As commercial interests try to convert what has essentially been a commons into a total market order, the Internet is experiencing a mid-life crisis.  The open Internet is in the process of being enclosed by a variety of commercial forces.  The struggle for political and creative freedom is getting more urgent and complicated as commercial forces try to “develop” the Internet.

The challenge for people who believe in free culture is to reinterpret the core values of the Internet and somehow develop new ways to protect them in today’s more complicated environment.

So what the some of the key macro-economic trends of our time?

Ready to Share: Fashion and Ownership of Creativity

Ready to Share: Fashion and the Ownership of Creativity, edited by David Bollier and Laurie Racine
(Lear Center Press, 2006)

More than any other industry, fashion treats a far larger portion of its creative output as a commons – shared resources that can be freely reused and transformed by other creators. In some ways, the history of fashion is the simultaneously whimsical and serious story of an industry that continues to grow and prosper via Sir Isaac Newton’s maxim, "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." This book draws together several essays and the proceedings of the Norman Lear Center's 2005 conference, Ready to Share: Fashion and the Ownership of Creativity."

The Rise of Open Source Hardware

It may be too early to declare it a runaway trend, but it is clear that businesses dedicated to producing "open software hardware" are gaining a foothold. In a short video, Phil Torrone, editor of MAKE and Limor Friend of Adafruit — two leaders in the field — give a quick run-down of thirteen companies that are now earning more than $1 milion in revenues from producing open-source hardware products. Most of these companies are in fact approaching the $5 million revenue mark, according to Torrone and Friend, who count about 200 open source hardware businesses right now, and predict 300-plus in 2011. (Thanks to Boing Boing and P2P Foundation for bringing this to my attention.)

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