digital commons

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.

For anyone scratching their head about how to understand the deeper social and economic dynamics of online networks, a terrific new report has been released by Michel Bauwens called Synthetic Overview of the Collaborative Economy.  Michel, who directs the Foundation for Peer to Peer Alternatives and works with me at the Commons Strategies Group, is a leading thinker and curator of developments in the emerging P2P economy. 

The report was prepared for Orange Labs, a division of the French telecom company, as a comprehensive survey and analysis of new forms of collaborative production on the Internet.  The report is a massive 346 pages (downloadable as a pdf file under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license) and contains 543 footnotes.  But it is entirely clear and accessible to non-techies.  Unlike so many popular books on this subject that are either larded with colorful hyperbole and overly long anecdotes, or arcane technical detail, the Bauwens report cuts to the chase, giving tightly focuses analyses of the key principles of online cooperation.  The report is meaty, informative, comprehensive and well-documented.

Two paragraphs from the Introduction give a nice overview:

Two main agents of transformation guide this work. One is the emergence of community dynamics as an essential ingredient of doing business. It is no longer a matter of autonomous and separated corporations marketing to essentially isolated consumers, it is now a matter of deeply inter-networked economic actors involved in vocal and productive communities. The second is that the combined effect of digital reproduction and the increasingly 'socialized' production of value, makes the individual and corporate privatization of 'intellectual' property if not untenable, then certainly more difficult , and in all likelihood, ultimately unproductive. Hence the combined development of community-oriented and 'open' business models, which rely on more 'social' forms of intellectual property.

In this work, we therefore look at community dynamics that are mobilized by traditional actors (open innovation, crowdsourcing), and new models where the community's value creation is at its core (the free software, shared design and open hardware models). We then look at monetization in the absence of private IP. Linked to these developments are the emergence of distributed physical infrastructures, where the evolution of the networked computer is mirrored in the development of networked production and even financing. Indeed the mutualization of knowledge goes hand in hand with the mutualization of physical infrastructures, such as collaborative consumption and peer to peer marketplaces, used to mobilize idle resources and assets more effectively.

On October 11, I gave a talk at the "Economies of the Commons 3 Conference:  Sustainable Futures for Digital Archives."  My remarks were entitled, "The Great Value Shift:  From Stocks to Flows, from Property Rights to Commons."  The text is below.  A video of my talk (29:36 minutes) can be watched here.

This panel is supposed to focus on new forms of value creation in the “audiovisual commons.”  I am not an archivist and I’m not even a techie.  But I have studied the commons quite a bit.  Today I’d like to suggest how the idea of the commons can help us think more clearly how to manage sustainable digital archives in the future.  The commons helps us in a number of ways.  It gives us fresh philosophical premises, ethical principles, valuable legal models, and a worldview that can help us understand value in some new ways. 

A big part of our challenge is simply shedding the comfortable prejudices with which we have been brought up.  Let’s face it, we are creatures of the 20th century and its overweening faith in free markets, private property, technology as the path to “progress.”  It’s not easy to escape this mentality.  Or as John Maynard Keynes put it when trying to introduce his own new ideas to economics:  “The ideas which are here expressed so laboriously are extremely simple and should be obvious.  The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify…into every corner of our minds.”

The ideas behind the commons are actually quite simple and obvious.  It’s about access, sharing, fairness, collaboration and long-term sustainability.  It’s about protecting and expanding a resource.  But living in a culture that celebrates markets, large institutions and copyright has instilled some deep prejudices in us about how the world can and must work.  The language of the commons can help us re-think these assumptions by giving us a new vocabulary and perspective.  And if we’re ingenious enough, it may help us reinvent many contemporary systems of production and distribution as commons.

To traditionalists, the idea of self-organized governance may seem visionary at best and wacky at worst.  To the rest of us who are witnessing the slow-motion collapse of large, rigid institutions, the appeal of bottom-up, participatory systems of governance is obvious.  We need governance institutions that are trustworthy, effective and socially legitimate – descriptions that are not readily applied to many forms of government and policymaking. 

For huge segments of the population, it’s an open secret that the social contract is now a rigged game.  That's what the Arab Spring, the Indignados in Spain, the Internet protests against the proposed PIPA/SOPA laws, and the Occupy protests were all about.  While government suffers from lots of unfair criticism, governments are in fact plagued by political gridlock, legal complexity, bureaucratic limitations, the “pay to play” ethic, and the sheer expense of lobbying and litigating to advance one’s interests. No wonder so many people are disillusioned by the promise of "democracy."

The questions for our time are, Can we develop new institutions that work better and recover some measure of social trust and political legitimacy?  Can we forge a new social contract?  If government is unlikely to change much, can we move to new forms of governance?

As I see it, the chief challenge is not just to diagnose what’s wrong, but to build working alternatives and new grand narratives to help re-orient our thinking.  Given the ubiquity of digital technologies and especially the Internet, I think some of the most attractive answers are going to come from digital spaces.  The networked world keenly understands the value of open, participatory networks and the more efficient, socially legitimate outcomes it can produce. 

My friend and colleague John Clippinger, a leading tech thinker and entrepreneur, and I recently wrote a short paper suggesting that some sort of re-alignment in governance is inevitable:

As more of life and commerce is mediated by digital technologies and Internet platforms, the tensions between legacy institutions (centralized, hierarchical, control-based) and emergent social practices on open networks (distributed, participatory, emergent) are intensifying. For years, such tensions have been deliberately ignored or finessed – but that approach may no longer be possible. The structural deficiencies of existing online systems are spurring the search for better, more practical approaches to governance, law and policymaking in an age of open networks…..

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