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Towards Commons-Enabling Infrastructures: the challenges

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
29th August 2013


First part of a report by Silke Helfrich on what was said and thought on this issue during the Commons and Economics Conference in Berlin last May.

“Commons and Infrastructure. This is, IMHO, one of THE issues we have to deal with if we want to expand the commons. The following is a personal summary of the debates at the Economics and the Commons Conference (ECC, Berlin, May 2013). It will be published in two parts. The first one is based on the Keynote of the Infrastructure Stream at ECC (presented by Miguel Said Vieira; prepared by him & Stefan Meretz). While re-listening the keynote, summarizing their ideas and paging through my notes from the European Deep Dive, I added some of my own ideas and a few examples that came into my mind. The second one will be based on the discussions during the stream sessions.

Let’s start with a few quotes from the (pretty compelling) framing of the respective stream at ECC, which was called. „New Infrastructures for Commoning by Design“:

- „Commons, whether small or large, can benefit a lot from dependable communication, energy and transportation, for instance. Frequently, the issue is not even that a commons can benefit from those services, but that its daily survival badly depends on them. … When we look at commoning initiatives as a loose network, it does not make sense that multiple commons in different fields or locations should have to repeat and overlap their efforts in obtaining those services (infrastructures) independently…“

We need to sensitize commoners about the urgent need for Commons Enabling Infrastructures (CEI).

That is, we need infrastructures that

* can “by design” foster and protect new practices of commoning;

* help challenge power concentration and individualistic behavior

* are based on distributed networks (as extensively as possible)

* provide platforms which enable non-discriminatory access and use rights (for instance: a “ticket-free public transport system” is not cost-free, but it is designed in such a way, that the funding of maintenance is not tight to the traveller’s individual budget)

The good news is, that we don’t need to start from scratch (as we’ll see). Such infrastructures have always existed. They clearly CAN enable the creation and maintenance of commons, if they are designed for and if they are run by communities or networks. The problem is, that this crucial point is often dismissed – even amongst commons-sensitive communities. The talk delivered by Free Software advocate Eben Moglen at Re:publica 2012 shows in an almost dramatic way how even in the digital world we loose the fight on infrastructures.

- „But Freedom of Thought needs free media and free media needs free technologies.“ (Moglen).

It’s that simple. In other words: It is not enough to use free software and protect it by the General Public License. Legally protected Free Software remains technically and structurally vulnerable. If everything is run on enclosed platforms sooner or later these platforms (and those who run them) will cannibalize the freedom of users. Free Software needs free hardware and community controled infrastructures. If not, cooptation is right around the corner. (The Freedom Box project deals with this.)

To build commons enabling infrastructures,

- „there are at least four critical factors that must be properly structured for the instructures to succeed: the social organization of management systems, technical issues, system protocols and legal governance regimes. […] However, conventional economics discourse barely recognizes this distinction and usually treats infrastructure as a resource, pure and simple, with little regard for the actual or potential role of commoning.“ (from the Deep Dive protocol)

There are plenty of questions that arise when we think about Commons Enabling Infrastructures, questions such as:

* What could be the roles of the state – currently the main provider of infrastructures – and the market?

* How those actors conflict with commoning initiatives, and how could they be useful in infrastructures provisioning?

* While some emerging infrastructures have progressive dimensions (using distributed networks, promoting local access), they may be minor parts of larger, regressive infrastructures that still depend upon individual transportation, centralized power grids and concentrated industrial structures. Is this avoidable, and how so?

* Why is the issue so challenging? –> Because it is rather unexplored and because it transcends the issue of limits / size / scale.
… and many others, feel free to add in the comments.

But first and foremost the question is: What is infrastructure at all?

It is not a given, but historically/ socially constructed.

It is a system that enables activities of multiple actors, just as our veins, neuronal networks and musculature allow all parts of our body and elements within to act and interact.

„Why don’t we think of a single car as infrastructure?“ Because infrastructure is about something that lies infra > latin „beneath“ the single thing or activity p.e roads, traffic signals and traffic rules, that can by used by many actors –> Infrastructures are social systems.

It is usually too expensive to be paid by an individual.

It can be related to layers/ systems/ resources we all use (spectrum), or to things we value collectively (health, sanitation, education).

It is something we share, it has a social character and therefore, the potential to be commons.

Today, most existing infrastructures are related to commodity production, that is: they are market-logic driven, but the market provides only indirect (and very imperfect) indicators of societal needs; thus; many of the current infrastructures foster environmentally harmful and individualistic behaviour. The lack of certain infrastructures does as well; just think about the public transport system vs the highway system in Germany.

Most of these commodity driven and commodity reproducing infrastructures were built by States and not by private actors. In fact there is a trend towards mega-infrastructures (pushed by States and corporations), many of them related to energy-supply, mining and agribusiness companies.

- „These large energy, mining and infrastructure investments are frequently cross-border“ (Baker &Mc Kenzie) and set up as Public Private Partnership. This kind of infrastructure usually promotes and enables dispossession.

Therefore, the question is (again): How can the infrastructures be related to commons production? How can we promote and build commons enabling infrastructures?

And how can we deal with the following challenges:

* to turn existing infrastructures into commons: ? via appropriating existing, state provided infrastructures or (re-)designing CEI with the State? What are the limits of such infrastructures? (example: Does car-sharing spur the change of the underlying infrastructures?)

* to turn commons into infrastructures on a wider societal level, so that society is less dependent on commodities. Here the problem is the current ties of many commons to a region/ a territory within given boundaries.”

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One Response to “Towards Commons-Enabling Infrastructures: the challenges”

  1. Mike riddell Says:

    Such an infrastructure has to be paid for. Who pays for what? Where does the money come from?

    Until these questions are answered the commons will continue to be raped and pillaged.

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