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Understanding the importance of economies of scope for the commons

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
24th May 2013


Michel Bauwens: “My short definition of Economies of Scope is very simple and should be understandable I think: “doing more with less”; and this is mainly achieved by mutualizing infrastructures, both immaterial (open source knowledge, code, design) and material (co-working, fablabs, carsharing, idle-sourcing …); for contemporary implementations we should add: using distributed machinery in distributed workplace to allow local production in microfactories, through the process of manufacturing on demand, while achieving scope through the global immaterial cooperation on both the design of the products, the design of the machinery to produce them, and even the processes through which to make both the previous aspects (ex. the xtreme manufacturing methodology of OSE/WikiSpeed).”

In the forum of stream 5 of the Commons Economics conference, dedicated to infrastructures for common making, Anna Seravalli gives a summary of her insights on commons-based production and governance:

“my name is anNa and I am Interaction Design PhD candidate, who is working with a practice-based project on infrastructures for common making (fablabs, maker-spaces, hackers-space). I am looking forward to meeting all of you in a few days, in the meanwhile I would like to propose a topic for discussion related to possible ways to frame and understand these spaces in looking for possible models for their long-term sustainability.

My research is based on the direct involvement in the setting up and running of Fabriken, a maker-space in Malmoe (Sweden), and so far I came out with some concepts/ideas that I would like to share and discuss with you.

Infrastructures as time and local based, from the experience with Fabriken, it emerges a way to understand infrastructures which is close to the one proposed by Star and Ruhleder (1995), according to who infrastructures become such in their ability to support the emergence of local practices. As a consequence, infrastructures should not be understood as a matter of ”what” but rather as a matter of “when”.

Commons as a mode of governance, what I noticed in Fabriken (but also in other similar spaces) is how production processes are seldom generating commons. Commons, in these spaces, can be rather understood as a mode of governance for the space and the machineries, which become shared resources managed together by the participants, allowing for diverse kinds of activities.

Economies of scope, when it comes to long-term sustainability, the commons-based governance allows to introduce the idea of economy of scopes. Instead of writing off the costs of machineries and the space by scaling one or few similar practices (economies of scale), an alternative is to create an ecology of activities (and scopes) where sustainability is reach through diverse uses.

In the light of these three concepts, some possible recommendations for setting up and running these spaces seem to emerge:

- the importance of building a strong relation with the local context, in setting up Fabriken it has been particular rewarding to work together with local actors and considering the specific characteristics of the context, instead of parachuting a pre-determined standard model about what a maker-space is (what kind of machines and practices it supports). It has also been important to create a space that has the possibility to change over time in order to support diverse practices.

- looking for scopes, in Fabriken it has been particularly important to open up the understanding of what a maker-space is and what kind of activities it can support (from building robots, to skate-roller training, from hosting temporal cafes to knitting courses). This has been particularly rewarding in terms of participation and financial sustainability of the space.

- Ostrom’s design principles, a major problem in Fabriken has been related to how to make participants understand and accept the commons based governance model. Particularly it emerged the importance of having a robust and transparent way of communicating rules, and the centrality of rewarding the most engaged participants as well as “sanctioning” misbehavior.”

Here is an additional excerpt on the topic from Tom Atlee:

“ECONOMIES OF SCALE (ground economics in “growth” – i.e., efficiently produced and monetized mass commodities which leave people hungry for more and more as they produce and consume more and more). This involves making lots of stuff at a cheap per-piece rate and getting everyone to buy it all so you make a good profit (partly to pay back the infrastructure investment required to make lots of stuff cheaply and massively). Externalize costs wherever possible, so you can continually profit while degrading society and nature wherever you deem it necessary for your business. Make things that break down so people have to buy replacements. Maintain a sense of scarcity: Make people feel inadequate (intrinsically or in contrast to others) and don’t truly satisfy their deep needs, but keep them coming back to buy temporary pseudo-satisfyers (your products and services). Get people working at jobs they may not like in order to get money to buy the stuff you make, which they often buy to counter the stress they have accumulated doing their jobs. Privatize all parts of the commons you can manage so that people have to pay you to use them. Ship things from cheap-production areas to expensive consumption areas – even if they must be shipped great distances – to improve your profits (which works as long as you can externalize the environmental and social costs of all that transformation). Design machines and create technologies to facilitate mass production, to increase per-person “productivity” and to replace expensive human labor – and thus increase profits. Set up a massive financial industry to profitably manage the movement of money and to facilitate bets on the ups and downs of the resulting out-of-equilibrium economy. Use GDP as the primary economic indicator to keep the focus on the flow of money and the growth of consumption. The “efficiency” of such economies of scale lies in the monetarily cheap per-piece rate achieved by the mass-productivity and cost-externalization in the system as a whole.

ECONOMIES OF SCOPE (ground economics in the free creative participation of everyone, in the true satisfaction of deep needs, and in the natural abundance of peer production, immateriality, community, creativity and the commons). Make only the “stuff” your community really needs to function. Focus on satisfying deep personal/interpersonal needs using primarily non-material aspects of life like spirit, learning, beauty, community, relationship, nature, activity, conversation, creativity, games, celebration, and other forms of deep enjoyment and mutual pleasure that involve little material or money. Share ideas, culture, designs and all other immaterial knowledge, resources and enjoyables freely. Set things up so that people can meet most of their material needs through sharing and gifting networks: This vastly reduces how much “stuff” they and their community need to have on hand, thereby reducing environmental impact (less material flow-through) and making up for the possibly higher per-piece cost of locally producing smaller quantities of needed “stuff”. Set things up (with, for example, guaranteed minimum income for everyone) so that people tend to do productive work that they enjoy; their productive activity then becomes part of their high quality of life, rather than a drain on it. Design machines and technology to facilitate on-demand local production and for replacement of unpleasant human labor to free people up to do what they want, thus enhancing quality of life while reducing environmental impact. Use quality of life/sustainability statistics as the main economic indicator(s) so that monetary considerations do not trump the long term (sustainable) satisfaction of deep human needs. Minimize the financial sector that does little truly productive work, freeing up resources for productive work and lessening the danger of arbitrary financial colonization or collapse. Likewise, minimize bureaucracy. The “scope” of economies of scope embraces the scope of participation and the depth, breadth and longevity of the needs met. The “efficiency” of such economies of scope lies in the lower costs (financial, social, and environmental – all!!) of reduced material consumption in the context of a refreshed sense of abundance and quality of life.” (email: march 2013)

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