Axiomatization of Socio-Economic Principles for Self-Organizing Institutions

* Article: Axiomatization of Socio-Economic Principles for Self-Organizing Institutions: Concepts, Experiments and Challenges. By Jeremy Pitt, Julia Schaumeier et al. ACM Transactions on Autonomous and Adaptive Systems, December 2012.

Comments excerpted from David Bollier:

“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.

There are lots of technical formalisms in the paper that I don’t understand, and to my mind the paper does not actually identify the “secrets” to engineering digital commons. But that’s okay. What is more important to me, for now, is that there are computer scientists deliberately trying to figure out how to engineer “planned emergence,” as Pitt et al. put it. The scientists envision “a new type of intrinsically adaptive institution” that can adapt to rapid changes in the social, technological and physical environment (unlike contemporary government). They also seek to combine “top-down control and coordination [with] bottom-up emergence and adaptation” in order to create hybrid institutions.

One of the most significant changes in software design is the growing recognition that it must take account of the open, emergent properties of the platform. It’s not just code; it’s a socio-technical system. As Pitt et al. put it: “Traditionally, the role of a software engineer has been to apply some methodology to implement a ‘closed’ system which satisfies a set of functional and non-functional requirements. Our problem is to engineer ‘open’ systems where the primary non-functional requirement, that the system should endure, is an emergent property, and is a side-effect of the interaction of components rather than being the goal of any of those components.”

Designing a system so that it can adapt and evolve, and deal effectively with both errors and malevolent behaviors, is very difficult. But one might say that this is the essence of designing a commons. The code can’t solve all contingencies, but it must design as if human beings actually have some creative agency….because they do! Why turn users into automatons when they can become collaborative geniuses?

What I find exciting is the self-conscious attempt to devise “morphogenetic engineering” methods that use biological systems as a template for designing digital systems. This is not entirely new, of course, but the rise of electronic networks has made it both more attractive and feasible to pursue this line of software design. Just as ants or insects exhibit remarkable degrees of “undirected coordination and stigmergic collaboration,” as Pitt and his colleagues put it, so individual agents on open networks show remarkable capacities for such coordination and collaboration. (“Stigmergic,” as Wikipedia describes it, is the principle by which “the trace left in the environment by an action stimulates the performance of a next action, by the same or a different agent. In that way, subsequent actions tend to reinforce and build on each other, leading to the spontaneous emergence of coherent, apparently systematic activity.”)”

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