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.

The backlash to the corporate “sharing economy” is gaining momentum, and one key player is the movement to develop “platform cooperativism.”  The New York Office of Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung has released a report critiquing the “sharing economy” and describing the alternatives.  It’s called “Platform Cooperativism:  Challenging the Corporate Sharing Economy” (pdf file).  and it’s written by Trebor Scholz, an associate professor at the New School. 

Scholz and journalist Nathan Schneider were co-organizers of a November 2015 conference that served as an historic flashpoint on this topic.  People are starting to realize the many anti-social effects of the “gig economy,” as typified by Uber, Airbnb, TaskRabbit and Mechanical Turk, but the development of workable alternatives is barely underway.

The first half of the report addresses the many deficiencies of the so-called sharing economy.  First of all, it’s not about sharing at all. It’s an “on-demand service economy” that relies on the same exploitative techniques of conventional capitalism, but with powerful tech enhancements. 

While the system delivers amazing convenience and efficiencies, it also preys upon those who cannot obtain good-paying stable jobs with benefits.  It re-introduces piecework on a massive scale, this time with sophisticated computer algorithms to ratchet down wages to below minimum wage.  Since everyone is nominally considered an independent contractor, corporate platforms can shrug and exonerate themselves by saying that everyone is “free to choose” their working circumstances, in Milton Friedman’s classic phrase. 

But as more jobs are sent abroad to countries that pay lower wages and have few worker protections, workers are in many cases victimized by a global race to the bottom.  Corporate platforms act as lucrative intermediaries that shed the costs of conventional businesses – the capital infrastructure, regular paychecks and employee benefits.

Can food be used as a way to bring strangers together, if only for a meal or two, and create the beginnings of a new type of community? Penny Travlou, a cultural geographer and ethnographer at the University of Edinburgh, decided to find out. In an interview posted on “Social Innovation Europe,” an EU website, she talks about her experience in co-organizing “pop-up dinners” that bring together immigrants with local Greeks in Athens. The idea is to use meal preparation and eating together as a way to break down cultural barriers and support migrant integration in Greece. 

Travlou’s specialty as a researcher is the collaborative practices of digital artists and practitioners. But recently she has been fascinated with “nomadic co-living communities, hackers and refugees.”  Syrian refugees of course face some very different challenges than hackers, makers and other nomads of digital culture. Yet they both are living a kind of “nomadic transient citizenship” that Travlou believes is changing Europe.  One might say that ad hoc cooperation based on mutual need, empathy and shared circumstances is a big aspect of modern life. 

In developing the idea of pop up dinners for refugees and local Greeks, Travlou had been inspired by Jeff Andreoni of the unMonastery, who had been organizing dinners in Athens for locals and immigrants.  Working with a professional cook, an Eritrean refugee named Senait, Andreoni and Travlou held a dinner for 100 people at a house in Athens.  As Travlou explained:

That made us think that such small-scale events can be a great way to give job opportunities to newcomers -- i.e., immigrants and refugees -- and get them feel part of the Greek society and culture. From that event onwards, we got collaborated with and participated in other immigrant collective pop-up events. In the summer, we set up the African Collective Kitchen “OneLoveKitchen” with a group of cooks from Senegal, The Gambia, Sudan, Nigeria, Eritrea and Ethiopia. We collaborated with the African United Women Organisation and Nosotros: the free social centre.

All our events have been self-organised without any formal funding. We have organised small pop-up dinners in houses and roof terraces, have served food in a solidarity economy festival and have catered for two conferences. Since September when a great influx of Syrian refugees has been arriving in Athens, some of us have also been involved in daily collective kitchens preparing food for a housing squat for refugees and other similar initiatives.

Travlou and Andreoni are now setting up a new project, Options Foodlab, which is a professional kitchen and co-working space for food training.  Travlou said that food is a great way to bring people together: 

What I always say when people ask me why I got involved in such a project is to think of where the words ‘company’ and ‘companion’ come from. They both derive from the Latin word ‘companio’ which means one who eats bread [pane] with you. Thus, food making and sharing is a social act and a means of exhibiting respect for an existing or future relationship of reciprocity. Food making is about hospitality and connectivity. There is not a better way to bring people together: you don’t need linguistic cues to connect with others. With this perspective, we can think food as an object of exchange, a gift that can be shared and exchanged.

An inspiring project!  You can read the full interview with Travlou here.

One of the more complicated, mostly unresolved issues facing most commons is how to assure the independence of commons when the dominant systems of finance, banking and money are so hostile to commoning. How can commoners meet their needs without replicating (perhaps in only modestly less harmful ways) the structural problems of the dominant money system?

Fortunately, there are a number of fascinating, creative initiatives around the world that can help illuminate answers to this question – from co-operative finance and crowdequity schemes to alternative currencies and the blockchain ledger used in Bitcoin, to reclaiming public control over money-creation to enable “quantitative easing for people” (and not just banks). 

To help start a new conversation on these issues, the Commons Strategies Group, working in cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Foundation, co-organized a Deep Dive strategy workshop in Berlin, Germany, last September.  We brought together 24 activists and experts on such topics as public money, complementary currencies, community development finance institutions, public banks, social and ethical lending, commons-based virtual banking, and new organizational forms to enable “co-operative accumulation” (the ability of collectives to secure equity ownership and control over assets that matter to them).

I’m happy to report that a report synthesizing the key themes and cross-currents of dialogue at that workshop is now available.  The report is called “Democratic Money and Capital for the Commons:  Strategies for Transforming Neoliberal Finance Through Commons-Based Alternatives,” (pdf file) by David Bollier and Pat Conaty.

You could consider the 54-page report an opening gambit for commoners to discuss how money, banking and finance could better serve their interests as commoners.  There are no quick and easy answers if only because so much of the existing money system is oriented towards servicing the conventional capitalist economy.  Even basic financial terms often have an embedded logic that skews toward promoting relentless economic growth, the extractivist economy and its pathologies, and the notion that money itself IS wealth. 

That said, commoners have many important reasons for engaging with this topic.  As we put it in the Introduction to the report, “The logic of neoliberal capitalism is responsible for at least three interrelated, systemic problems that urgently need to be addressed – the destruction of ecosystems, market enclosures of commons, and assaults on equality, social justice and the capacity of society to provide social care to its citizens. None of these problems is likely to be overcome unless we can find ways to develop innovative co-operative finance and money systems that can address all three problems in integrated ways.”

Every time Uber, the Web-based taxi intermediary, enters a new city, it provokes controversy about its race-to-the-bottom business practices and bullying of regulators and politicians.  The problem with Uber and other network-based intermediaries such as Lyft, Task Rabbit, Mechanical Turk and others, is that they are trying to introduce brave new market structures as a fait accompli. They have only secondary interest in acceptable pay rates, labor standards, consumer protections, civic and environmental impacts or democratic debate itself. 

Rather than cede these choices to self-selected venture capitalists and profit-focused entrepreneurs, some European cities and regional governments came up with a brilliant idea:  devise an upfront, before-the-fact policy framework for dealing with the disruptions of the “sharing economy.”

If we can agree in advance about what constitutes a socially respectful marketplace – and what constitutes a predatory free-riding on the commonweal – we’ll all be a lot better off.  Consumers, workers and a community will have certain basic protections. Investors and executives won’t be able to complain about “unlevel playing fields” or unfair regulation. And public debate won’t be a money-fueled free-for-all, but a more thoughtful, rational deliberation.

Now, if only the European Union will listen to the Committee of the Regions (CoR)!  The CoR is an official assembly of regional presidents, mayors and elected representatives from 28 EU countries. It routinely expresses its views on all sorts of major policy issues that may have local or regional impacts. In December, the CoR submitted a formal statement about the “sharing economy” to the EU in an opinion written by rapporteur Benedetta Brighenti, the deputy mayor of the municipality of Castelnuovo Rangone, in the province of Modena, Italy. 

A new anthology of essays, Build the City: Perspectives on Commons and Culture, powerfully confirms that the “city as a commons” meme is surging. This carefully edited, beautifully designed collection of 38 essays shows the depth and range of thinking now underway.  The book was published by Krytyka Polityczna and the European Cultural Foundation in September as part of ECF's Idea Camp convening

Thinking about cities as commons is so compelling to me because it gives a structured framework for talking our moral and political claims on cities. It helps makes our entitlements as commoners visible, as well as the scourge of enclosure – two concepts that are not particularly welcome topics in respectable political circles.

The essays of Build the City celebrate the idea that ordinary people – tenants, families, artists, the precariat, migrants, community groups, activists – have a legitimate role in participating in their own city.  The metropolis is not the privileged preserve of the wealthy, industrialists, investors, and landlords. It is a place where commoners have meaningful power and access to what they need. In developing this theme, this book is a timely complement to the Bologna “The City as Commons” conference in November.

You can download a pdf of the book here – or you can order a hard copy here. Besides ECF and Krytyka Polityczna, the book is a collaboration with Subtopia (Sweden), Les Tetes de l’Art (France), Oberliht (Moldova), Culture2Commons (Croatia) and Platoniq (Spain), all of whom are partners in the action-research network Connected Action for the Commons.

If there is one recurring theme in this book, it is that commoners must devise the means for more open, inclusive and participatory models of democracy in cities – and that art and culture projects can help lead the way.

“Cultural initiatives that challenge the extremely individualized model of the world are worth closer attention,” writes Agnieszka Wiśniewska, a Polish member of the “Connected Action for the Commons” network, “as they may help us re-esetablish social ties and our trust in others.” The real challenge, then, is how to devise effective new structures that can empower commoners in improving governance, building social connection and democratizing power.

For authors and their reader-communities, has conventional book publishing become obsolete or at least grossly inefficient and overpriced?  I say yes -- at least for those of us who are not writing mass-audience books. The good news is that authors, their reader-communities and small presses are now developing their own, more satisfying alternative models for publishing books.

Let me tell my own story about two experiments in commons-based book publishing.  The first involves Patterns of Commoning, the new anthology that Silke Helfrich and I co-edited and published two months ago, with the crucial support of the Heinrich Böll Foundation. The second experiment involves the Spanish translation for my 2014 book Think Like a Commoner. 

Whereas the German version of Patterns of Commoning was published with transcript-Verlag, a publisher we consider a strong partner in spreading the word on the commons, for the English version, we decided to bypass commercial publishers.  We realized that none of them would be interested – or that they would want to assert too much control at too high of a price.

We learned these lessons when we tried to find a publisher for our 2013 anthology, The Wealth of the Commons.  About a dozen publishers rejected our pitches.  They said things like:  “It’s an anthology, and anthologies don’t sell.”  “It doesn’t have any name-brand authors.”  “It’s too international in focus.”  “What’s the commons?  No one knows about that.” 

It became clear that the business models of publishers – even the niche political presses that share our values – were not prepared to support a well-edited, path-breaking volume on the commons.

In general, conventional book publishing has trouble taking risks with new ideas, authors and subject matter because it has very small economic margins to play with.  One reason is that commercial book distributors in the US – the companies that warehouse books and send them to various retailers – take 60% of the cover price, with little of the risk. They are the expensive middlemen who control the distribution infrastructure. Their cut leaves about 40% of the cover price or less for the publisher, author and retailer to split. 

This arrangement means that book prices have to be artificially higher, relative to actual production costs, to cover all the costs of so many players:  editors, marketers, publicists, distributors, retailers.

I always appreciate it when interviewers force you to articulate things that lie just below the surface. That’s what happened when Cat Johnson of Shareable recently talked with me about Patterns of Commoning, the new book that I co-edited with Silke Helfrich that profiles dozens of notable commons around the world. Here is an excerpt:

Shareable: In the book, you and Silke focus on what is described as the consciousness of thinking, learning, and acting as a commoner as the heart of the commons movement. What does this mean to you?

It means breaking down some of the dichotomies that we take for granted, such as between public and private, between collective and individual, between rational and nonrational. In the commons, they start to blur.  You have to start talking about the commons as this organic whole, and not as this machine you can break down into parts or dissect. It’s a living organism and that’s precisely what needs to be studied: its aliveness.

Conventional, modern science refuses to explore aliveness, and instead has a lot of reductionist categories that don’t really get to the essence of, not only what it is to be a living human being, but a living human being on a living earth. I think the commons wants to speak to those kinds of concerns and, not surprisingly, it won’t fit into a lot of the conventional, intellectual boxes that academics, in particular, like to use.

A point in the book that I find very interesting is that policymakers and experts can’t design and build commons in a top-down fashion and expect them to thrive. Commoners must do this work themselves. What distinguishes an organic commons from a manufactured one?

The institutionally sponsored commons cannot have the same bottom-up sense of commitment, ownership, co-creation. To that extent, they will be subjects in somebody else’s drama with outside directors, as opposed to expressions of a creative upswell from people themselves, that serves their interests, their needs, their inner lives.

Commons Strategies Group: The Website!

I’m thrilled to report that the Commons Strategies Group finally has its own handsome, up-to-date website!  Whenever anyone asks me about the commons work that I’ve been doing over the past five or six years – and that of my dear colleagues Silke Helfrich and Michel Bauwens – I can now point them to this beautifully designed site.

Since 2009, Silke, Michel and I have collaborated on a variety of irregular projects under the banner, The Commons Strategies Group. Silke is a commons activist and scholar based in Jena, Germany, and Michel is a Belgian living in Thailand who heads the Peer to Peer Foundation.

The three of us founded CSG in 2010 as an independent activist and research driven collaboration to foster the growth of the commons and commoning projects around the world.  We’ve seen CSG as a way to seed new conversations to help everyone better understand the commons.  We also convene key players to explore the future of the commons and identify strategic opportunities.  In practice, this mission has led CSG to organize two major international conferences, many strategic workshops, and to publish dozens of reports, book anthologies and essays and give public talks.  

For years, all of the materials that the three of us have created as CSG were scattered across the Web and our personal websites, and sometimes buried amidst lots of other materials.  Now, thanks to the wonderful design work of Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratrel of Guerrilla Translation and the P2P Foundation, with backend assistance from the P2PF's Javier Arturo Rodriguez, the more notable CSG initiatives have been brought together and artfully presented.

While much of the momentum to fight climate change is focused on political channels, there are parallel efforts using law to force government to take specific, enforceable actions to reduce carbon emissions. It’s a difficult battle, but in recent weeks two notable initiatives have gained further momentum – a court ruling relying on the public trust doctrine and a new human rights declaration that has broad international support.

The court ruling is related to a series of lawsuits brought by young people invoking the public trust doctrine to force governments to protect the atmosphere. Orchestrated by the advocacy organization Our Children’s Trust, the Atmospheric Trust Litigation suits have been filed in all state courts and in federal courts.

On November 19, one of those lawsuits succeeded. A superior court judge in Seattle issued a ruling that strongly recognizes the public trust doctrine as a applying to the atmosphere.  The case sought to uphold science-based plans for carbon emissions reductions developed by Washington State’s Department of Ecology, as a way to protect the atmosphere for eight young people (the plaintiffs) and future generations. 

The ruling is especially significant because it echoes a recent ruling by a New Mexico court that also strongly upholds the constitutional principle that the public trust doctrine applies to the atmosphere.

COP21 negotiators, are you listening?

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