NOTE: Post inspired by a discussion on the Holochain Forum. This is the third revision, already passed the first draft stage. The text will continue to evolve based on feedback from readers, using the comments below or on various social media channels and forums. You can now share it with friends on social media.
Elinor Ostrom got the Nobel prize in economics for her work on commons, emphasizing on the role of governance to distinguish between community shared resources and open access resources. In essence, she demonstrated that in all cases of successfully stewarded commons, community members, the stakeholders, agree on some basic rules that regulate the use of the shared resource. These rules come from past observations and experience and are designed to preserve the share resource or to maximize the community's benefits from using it. They can take the form of rules, social norms, local customs or other cultural artifacts. But can any resource, currently under any form of property be turned into commons? For some type of resources governance in the commons property regime becomes too complex, difficult to implement and/or enforce, or too costly. Currently, these type of resources are manageable under private or public property regimes and cannot be, in practice, taken over under a communal stewardship. New technologies promise to change that.
Until recently, material commons could only exist in simple forms. The classical example is the pasture shared among a number of herders. It is considered a simple instantiation of the commons form of property because all the stakeholders have very similar motivations, they value the same aspects of the shared resource, and they make a very similar use of it. This type of resource is rivalrous and requires maintenance or replenishment. To avoid the tragedy of the commons for a shared pasture, it is not difficult to conceive a set of rules to govern its use in a sustainable manner, based on the shared reality of animal farming, using some simple metrics. For example, the herders can agree on a time-sharing scheme based on the type of animals and the headcount in everyone's herd. All herders value the shared pasture for its capacity to feed their animals, the metric being the quantity of nutritious grass per year, which can be easily estimated by all herders to avoid depletion.
In recent years, we've seen the emergence of digital commons and of commons-based peer production of digital goods and services, a new collaborative and commons-centric mode of production described by Yochai Benkler. In this particular case, the shared resources are non-rivalrous and exhibit very low costs of maintenance and reproduction. The abundant and almost maintenance free nature of these shared resources makes it easy to manage them and to coordinate economic, cultural and social activities around them. Based on these conditions, digital commons-based peer production can flourish.
The rapid expansion of digital commons-based peer production has inspired many to dream about a future post-capitalist and post-socialist society. P2P Foundation is a leading think tank that paints the p2p vision and maps commons-based and p2p initiatives across the world.
At the core of any economic model lies a property regime, which is designed to incentivize social, economic and cultural participation, to reduce friction in production processes, and to allow an efficient allocation of resources in society. The current economy is built mostly on the private and public forms of property, and their derivatives. The commons form of property is only marginally present in the current economy. These property regimes are intimately meshed with other elements that form the current economic paradigm. A commons-centric p2p economy or society cannot be achieved simply by enlarging the pool of commons. The entire system needs to be adapted, to be able to function efficiently based on commons. It is highly expected that capitalism preys and encloses the commons that commoners create. This property regime is incompatible with the capitalist system, it can be tolerated but it can never become central in a capitalist society.
The p2p society project needs to
- demonstrate that we can steward complex forms of commons
- propose a sound socioeconomic system that mostly relies on commons
The second point is for another post, we'll only focus on the first one.
As we mentioned earlier, simple forms of material and rivalrous commons (the pasture) are manageable and they do exist. Digital commons are also manageable and they are flourishing. But what about resources that exhibit more complexity for their use and maintenance? We find most of them today under the private and public property regimes. Is that by accident, by greed or enforced by shadow forces? It's always a combination of many things, in different proportions, but the main reason, in my opinion, is that they simply cannot exist as commons because they are unmanageable, we cannot coordinate use among peers in a sustainable way, or it is too costly to do so. The only way to maximize benefits that we can extract from these resources is to manage them privately or publicly, taking into consideration the adverse effects that these property regimes can generate. Nothing is perfect and most things are the way they are because they represent the best compromise.
Generally speaking, resources that exhibit a more complex structure do not have simple governance solutions as commons, therefore the tragedy of the commons cannot be avoided. These resources essentially become open access systems and are likely to be abused, since it is more difficult to get an insight into their use and their degradation or depletion. You can be a militant Marxist and believe that capitalists are to blame for the failure of commoners. In fact, this is less about class struggle and more about our inability to manage complex commons. Let's illustrate that with an example.
The city of Montreal is pierced at its center by an ancient volcano, which is now the Mont Royal city park, a place for recreation, sports and cultural activities. The green mountain has an impact on may people's lives. Neighborhoods surrounding the park benefit from fresh and cool air during the summer. The wooded slopes absorb the city noise. On the top, the majestic viewpoints delight the tourists, and at the bottom the Tam Tams wraps them up in the local alternative culture. Beaver's lake is where Montrealers prefer to go for picnic. The park is also a playground for animal lovers. In winter, the mountain is crisscrossed by skiers, hikers and jogger, and resonates with the laughs of kids on sleds.
Needless to say, Mont Royal park is administered by the City of Montreal as public property. It is maintained with the assumed intention to maximize collective benefits, fixing roads, building and repairing installations, cleaning the forest, cutting the grass, removing trash and snow, etc. Additionally, the park needs to be well governed. Since we are in a multi stakeholder context (many categories of individuals with specific interests and needs) the municipality has created a set of rules to minimize abusive use of the park, enforced by a mounted police force. Is everyone happy? Hmm... not really.
People accept the situation because that's the way it is, that's how it's done in other places too, and they don't know any better. But if you really ask around, you'll find lots of people with lots of ideas about new things to do in the park, if only they could cut through the red tape. You'll also find some pretty happy people that had the privilege to get a maintenance contract or a license to operate a business in the park, and the unhappy ones that have been refused. Probably the best illustration of how new marginal activities can creep into the landscape is the history of the Tam Tams. There are tensions around a complex shared resource.
Let's suppose that we take the municipality out of the equation and turn Mont Royal into a commons. This means that we put all the stakeholders in charge. They need to find a way to provide access to use the park while maximizing the collective benefits. They also need to find a way to collectively maintain the park, to provide all the labor and the materials required. Maintenance needs to be done in a way that maximizes everyone's benefit as well. If one stakeholder group needs more grass space and another one needs a larger forest area the governance should provide a solution to compromise. Furthermore, suppose that the forest maintenance is passed to a "cleaner" stakeholder who's incentive is to sell the dead wood extracted from the park. What stops the "cleaner" from over exploiting the forest to the detriment of other stakeholders? Suppose there's an "animator" stakeholder who organizes cultural activities, music, dance, food, ... How can we make sure that noise pollution is kept at an acceptable level for the nearby residents?
Treating the park as a public property is probably the best compromise to maximize public benefits. Private property can also work, if the park is managed by a philanthropist that has the public interest at heart. The advantage of traditional property regimes is the centralized authority associated with them, the owner's exclusive rights for access and maintenance of the resource, which in turn reduces governance costs. These costs increase drastically in the more complex multi stakeholders commons situation.
The Mont Royal park is a simple example of more complex and unmanageable commons that would effectively become an open access system. In this scenario, we have multiple uses of the same shared resource and every stakeholder group has its own reality. We’re far from the more uniform example of the pasture, used by a number of herders that share the same interests, and value the same aspects. Technology is advancing and the costs of coordination have dropped drastically. Are there new tools that a diverse group of stakeholders can use to steward a complex shared resource and avoid the tragedy of the commons? One family of such tools is called network resource planning (NRP). We've already used them at a smaller scale and we are convinced that they do work.
NRP is for open networks what ERP is for a traditional enterprise. It allows peers to co-manage a peer production process, resources, activities, transactions, etc. As peers in a peer production process use the system to coordinate their activities they create data that can be used to visualize resource flows within the network and to better plan and coordinate activities. The system also captures various type of contributions to processes and projects, and offers a layer for benefit redistribution, which are algorithms that feed on the contributions data to allocate access to various forms of benefits.
Sensorica is a network of makers and collaborative entrepreneurs that share a physical space in Montreal. The Montreal lab is administered as a commons. It is legally represented by a Trust, a non profit organization called CAKE, also called the Custodian. But CAKE does not own the lab. Over the years people have made multiple uses of the lab: a place for coworking, meetings, prototyping, events, education, etc. These uses have been championed by groups of stakeholders who have specific interests and value the lab space in their own way. But the lab is a rivalrous shared resource: a public event can disrupt coworking or prototyping activities; some prototyping activities are noisy or dusty or smoky, which can interfere with meetings and coworking activities. Lab users have built tools and found ways to compromise. The lab is a shared resource listed on Sensorica's NRP. The NRP is used to plan and manage tasks within projects, which can be: offering educational courses, organizing public events and prototyping some hardware. The NRP is used by peers to log various individual contributions to projects, as well as the the use of shared resources, which includes the use of the lab. If a planned use enters in conflict with another one the system's internal logic should provide a way to resolve it. But most importantly, the system provides transparency into its multiple uses by multiple stakeholders. We can, for example, compare the use of the lab by those who engage in prototyping and those who organize events, and reason about what could be a fair use, in the context of the entire network. We can also interrogate the system about who is contributing more to paying the bills, cleaning, purchasing of equipment and materials. Extraction and contributions are made transparent. Moreover, a benefit redistribution algorithm is used to gamify access to the resource based on contributions to maintain or replenish the resource, and based on the respect or the harmony of use.
Sensorica is one network using one economic model, based on one economic reality, allowing peers to share resources and to engage in peer production. The NRP that sensoricans rely on is designed as a traditional server-client service (or app). Today, distributed ledger technologies (DLT) do to applications what the Internet has done to content. Many organizations that operate on specific realities and that are using specific economic models can use interoperable distributed applications (dapps) across the web. Thus, multiple stakeholders can intimately interact via dapps and steward their commons on which they base their production. In other words, if sensoricans can steward a lab as commons, using a server-client application, Montrealers can steward the Mont Royal park using a public blockchain-based dapp.
The NRP absorbs the complexity inherent in some resources and hides it behind a user interface. This diminishes the cost for stewarding complex commons. Thus we can expand the pool of commons in society, to include more complex types of resources. The very possibility of pulling resources out of the public and the private regime opens the door for large scale commons-based peer production. In my opinion, this is desirable because it leads to a better allocation of resources in society, more sharing, lower redundancy and fewer externalities.
Some preliminary thoughts about how to continue the development of tools to steward commonsWhat do we value?
The tools need to map the different stakeholder groups, based on what people value in a particular resource? In the case of the pasture (traditional manageable commons case) every herder values the same thing, the capacity of the pasture to feed the animals. In the case of the Mont Royal park, multiple stakeholders values a different things. The "cleaner" values the dead wood that he can sell. The " animator" values the scenery, the shadow of the trees, some installations. The local residents value the capacity of the forest to absorb sound and to refresh the air.
What do we measure?
The tools should be able to capture quantitative aspects about the resource's state and use. In the case of the pasture, the quantity of nutritious grass produced per year. In the case of the park, different stakeholders measures different things.
Governance and benefit redistribution / gamification
In the case of the pasture, the herders can agree to a time sharing scheme based on the type and number of animals that everyone owns. In the case of the park, by trial and error, stakeholders can reach a consensus if they base their reasoning on what everyone values and on everyone's metrics. The consensus is a compromise that brings more satisfaction than harm, it is formally implemented into the tool. An equilibrium can be maintained if metrics are used to keep what everyone values within the levels of acceptance. Once data about use and replenishment is captured and made available one can build all sorts of symbolic systems on top of it to nudge behavior and increase synergy. NRPs open a new space of possibilities. The tool can signal to stakeholders how to conduct their activities.
Interaction between traditional property regimes and commons
From Samuel Joseph: We see informal commons spring up in both private and public property. On Mont Royal, for example, there is a complex set of mountain biking trails which have been created and are maintained by users. In this case it seems the city turns somewhat of a blind eye to the situation. Indeed, I would suggest that it would be more complex for the city to govern those trails, because of liability, paying for staff, etc. So here we see a nice example of how the commons can in fact turn elements of a public resource into a commons.
If you find this interesting, please engage in a discussion below. Come back later, this post may evolve based on yours and other people's feedback.