David Bollier on commons-based innovation

But the commons is showing that you don’t need markets or government to create something that has great value. The commons is, in fact, a very different value proposition, one that is dedicated to generating indivisible, socially embedded common wealth. The commons are not “tragic,” but highly generative – it’s just that the common wealth is not necessarily privatized and monetized.

Excerpted from a great lecture by David Bollier:

“Over the past two decades, the commons has moved way beyond the dry abstractions of the social sciences. It has become a robust, highly diversified transnational movement. I’d like to give you a sense of its breadth – and then circle back to explain why the commons is such a powerful vehicle for innovation – and how it differs from market-based innovation.

Let’s start first with the diverse commons of nature. There are an estimated two billion people whose daily survival depends upon access to fisheries, forests, irrigation water, rivers and lakes, wild game and farm land that are managed as commons. Yet amazingly, the popular introductory economics textbooks by Samuelson & Nordhaus and by Stiglitz & Walsh entirely ignore the commons!

Of course, this should not be entirely surprising. For the past sixty years, the so-called “developed” nations of the world have sought to integrate the peasants and indigenous peoples of the world into global markets. The basic idea is to convert them into employees and consumers. This is supposedly how they will “develop” and escape hunger and poverty, and come to know the glories of entrepreneurialism and consumerism.

The whole enterprise of “development” has been a mixed success at best, and a disaster in so many other cases. It has left poor people at the mercy of volatile global markets and speculators without really solving hunger, poverty or inequality. Worse, the former commoners have been cut off from their traditional sources of culture and mutual support, and stigmatized as losers in the marketplace. That is why, for example, some 200,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide over the past decade – a story that gets very little coverage because it conflicts with the business narrative of India as a fierce economic tiger.

So this is the real cost of enclosure: The connections that bind a community together – its control of resources, traditions and rules – are destroyed. When the U.S. Government tried to vanquish Native Americans in the 1800s, the first thing that it insisted upon, as a legal precondition for U.S. citizenship, was that Native Americans abandon their common ownership regimes, and assign individual property rights to everyone. I can think of no better way of destroying a people.

So rather than focusing primarily on capital-driven types of innovation, which require us to become creatures of the market, I think we need to pay more attention to commons-based innovation. The results are more likely to be socially and ecologically benign, if not more effective over the long term. Let me give a few examples.

This is a photo of Rajendra Singh, the founder of Tarun Bharat Sangh (or TBS, which stands for Young India Association). Singh and TBS has healed the local ecosystem in Rajasthan – where several rivers had completely dried up – by applying some near-forgotten indigenous Indian knowledge about hydrology. His idea was to treat the groundwater and rivers as commons, subject to community stewardship and participation, and to re-instill a sense of sacred obligation to the water.

By building small dams with water reservoirs, TBS was able to bring the Arvari River and four other once-dry riverbeds back to life and to raise groundwater levels by 20 feet. The soil has become more fertile and wetter, too, which means that people who once abandoned the area are moving back to farm and start businesses.

I was in India in January, so I have another such story of how a self-organized commons overcame free-market pathologies. In the small village of Erakulapally some two hours west of Hyderabad, a community of rural, poor women from the lowest caste in the country – so-called dalit – used to be bonded laborers working on a landlord’s farm. They earned only enough to eat one meal a day. Then they came up with the idea of searching for and regenerating dozens of traditional seeds, seeds that their ancestors had grown for centuries and brilliantly adapted to the semi-arid ecosystem and climate of Andhra Pradesh.

By finding and then sharing the seeds among themselves rather than buying proprietary modern seeds, the women were able to resurrect their more sustainable, nutritious agricultural crops. They were able to grow the food themselves and emancipate themselves from a market economy that was never going to serve their interests because they would never earn enough money. I might add, these women achieved food security without relying upon outside experts or government subsidies. This model has spread, and there are now some 5,000 women in 75 villages who share seeds and farming advice with each other. (Remarkably, the women, who are not literate, use camcorders to make homemade videos of their farming methods and advice.)

What’s really interesting is how the Internet is now helping to take this model of “cooperative innovation” to new places. The System of Rice Intensification, or SRI, consists of hundreds of farmers in 40 different countries, from Cuba to Sri Lanka to India, who are using the Internet to improve the growing of rice. Rather than adopting the conventional farming practices promoted by seed and pesticide companies – and rather than use GMOs, chemicals, and monoculture planting – rice farmers have formed their own bottom-up global social network to trade farming insights and increase the yields of indigenous rice varieties. It’s a kind of “open source agriculture” based on some ancient principles of cooperation.

We’re also seeing the invention of some new institutional forms to protect traditional commons. Ten years ago, the Peruvians created the Potato Park as a “landscape conservation” commons. The indigenous tribes of the Andes have full stewardship rights over a tremendous diversity of native potato species and varieties. This is important because some multinational agro-biotech firms have shown an interest in acquiring patents on the potatoes that their ancestors developed over thousands of years – a model of collaborative innovation. The Potato Park is a regime that lets the natives continue to control some 900 varieties of native potatoes while recognizing them as a “collective biocultural heritage” deserving of protection from international patents and trade.

Let me quickly add that institutional innovation to protect the commons is not confined to impoverished countries. In Phoenix, Arizona, the so-called Solar Commons project is building solar energy panels on public rights-of-way. It then plans to sell the electricity to businesses and channel the revenues into a trust that will kick off dividends to support affordable housing. The Solar Commons is neither a municipal agency nor a private business. It’s a commons-based trust – a new vehicle for innovation and social equity.

Perhaps the most powerful force propelling the commons paradigm forward is the Internet, which amounts to a colossal hosting infrastructure for commons. As I describe in my book, Viral Spiral: How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own, the rise of the World Wide Web in 1994 unleashed an incredible wave of innovation, much of it driven by self-organized social commons.

One reason: the Internet allows low-cost social communication and organization on a global scale. This has enabled digital communities to undercut the enormous overhead costs associated with conventional markets. The commons out-compete by out-cooperating. I call this “The Great Value Shift,” a term that points to a deep structural change in how value is created for commerce and culture.

Markets require multiple layers of expensive overhead in the form of bureaucracy and lawyers, talent recruitment and talent promotion, branding and marketing, complicated financing, and much else. Now imagine how a social community of trust and cooperation working on a light-weight software infrastructure can just do lots of similar work for free or at very low cost.

Harvard Law Professor Yochai Benkler has written in his landmark book, The Wealth of Networks, “What we are seeing now is the emergence of more effective collective action practices that are decentralized but do not rely on either the price system or a managerial structure for coordination.” Benkler’s term for this phenomenon is “commons-based peer production.” By that, he means systems that are collaborative and nonproprietary, and based on “sharing resources and outputs among widely distributed, loosely connected individuals who cooperate with each other.”

Open platforms on the Internet are forcing a shift not only in business strategy and organizational behavior, but in the very definition of wealth. On the Internet, wealth is not just financial wealth, nor is it necessarily privately held. Wealth generated through open platforms is often socially created value that is shared, evolving and non-monetized. It hovers in the air, so to speak, accessible to everyone. Think of the hundreds of millions of photos on Flickr or the millions of Wikipedia entries. Think of websites like WikiLeaks, which has no paid staff and no physical headquarters, and think of the humble origins of many popular blogs and Web archives.

Socially created value has always existed, of course, but it hasn’t always been culturally legible or consequential. Conventional economics literally doesn’t “see” it because it is not quantifiable or monetized. Socially created value doesn’t contribute directly to anyone’s bottom line. So markets have generally ignored it. The whole idea is confusing to traditional economists because socially created value is not encased in private property rights….so how could it be valuable? It can’t be traded in the marketplace. It has no price tag.

This is a serious innovation – not innovation as a cool new technology or product, but rather, innovation as a worldview and socio-economic management paradigm. The commons is a new/old way of generating value. It accomplishes useful things outside of the marketplace and government. It’s a kind of do-it-yourself project and policy platform that can interconnect with other commons and begin to challenge “real world” institutions.

The bestiary of commons is now so large and varied that there is what amounts to a Commons Sector – a distinct realm of commons that revolve around knowledge, culture and creativity.

There is, for example, the vast network of free and open source software programmers who created GNU Linux and thousands of other shareable software programs which are vital elements of the Internet, enterprise computing and personal computing. We see the commons among the 91,000 volunteer-Wikipedians who have contributed more than 17 million entries in more than 270 different languages.

There are millions of digital artists and authors in more than seventy countries who use Creative Commons licenses to signal that their works can be freely shared, without permission or payment. You see the CC licenses on blogs, remix music, video mashups and many academic journals.

There are now more than 6,200 open access scholarly journals owned and controlled by academics themselves. Historically, academics have produced mountains of great research, then peer-reviewed it and handed it over to commercial journals who then claim the copyright in everything and charge ridiculous subscription prices. Now academics are discovering the virtue of publishing their works online under Creative Commons licenses, making them free to everyone in perpetuity.

Another fascinating offshoot is the Open Educational Resources movement, which creates and shares open textbooks and curricula and learning materials. So, for example, there is MIT’s Open CourseWare, which has put all of MIT’s curricular materials online for free. MIT’s innovation has profoundly influenced the teaching of physics and other scientific fields in China and in smaller, isolated countries. It has also spawned a OpenCourseWare Consortium that now has more than 120 member universities and educational institutions around the world.

A key reason that the commons is so innovative is that it is able to draw upon social behaviors that the mainstream economy rejects as trivial or irrelevant. In typical markets, you’re supposed to be a hard-bitten, competitive rationalist seeking to maximize your material self-interest. On the Internet commons, you’ll get skewered and ostracized for such behavior. Because in a commons, what is valued is friendship and cooperation. It’s all about social reciprocity and trust. People who are affirmatively helpful to the community will rise to the top – because that way, everyone is better off.

Here’s another reason why commons can be so innovative. They can tackle projects that markets consider to be too marginal or risky. Precisely because a commons is not organized to maximize private profit, its members are willing to experiment and innovate. New ideas can emerge from the periphery with barely any financial support. Value is not created through the power of money, but through individual self-selection for tasks, passionate engagement, serendipitous discovery, experimentation and peer-based recognition of achievement. Human curiosity and community needs can drive new innovation. Private capital no longer has a monopoly on the future of innovation.

One reason that digital commons can incubate a more diverse range of innovation than the market is because a market needs to sell product. A commons needs only meet people’s needs in a socially attractive, practical way. A company can innovate only by drawing upon its own employees and resources. But a digital commons can draw upon the talent of the entire world.

Consider, for example, the Blender Institute, an Amsterdam nonprofit that produces computer-generated animated films. This is a still from one of their films, Big Buck Bunny. The Blender Institute productions are as technically sophisticated and creative as anything put out by Pixar, but its projects draw upon a global corps of talent who have utter creative freedom. The films are released under open source licenses and can be downloaded for free, but the enterprise makes money by selling official DVDs, complete with outtakes and the open-source code.

Or consider the Open Prosthetics Project, which invites anyone to contribute to the design of a prosthetic limb or the specification of limbs that ought to be designed even if they don’t know how to do it. This has generated such unexpected innovations as limbs specifically designed for rock-climbers and an arm designed for fishing.

Or consider the Crisis Commons, a global network of “barcamp” and “hackathon” events that bring together volunteer techies who specialize in crisis-response innovatation. So, for example, after the Haiti earthquake in 2009, thousands of volunteers stepped up to deal with the humanitarian crisis there by building Web-based translation tools, people finders and maps showing routes to empty hospital beds.

One of the leading gurus on this bottom-up style of innovation is Professor Eric von Hippel of M.I.T., the author of a book called Democratizing Innovation. Von Hippel has spent much of his career documenting how consumers – and communities of users – are among the most powerful sources of innovation. It’s wasn’t some corporate R&D department that came up with the idea of center-pivot irrigation sprinklers used in the West, or Gatorade, the mountain bike, desktop publishing, email, and the sports bra. Those innovations were all dreamed up by ordinary, individual users.

Von Hippel estimates that 77 percent of the innovations in scientific instruments originates from users. Sports enthusiasts like windsurfers, cyclists and fly fishermen are the ones who tinker with their equipment and come up with new product ideas. Ice climbers came up with the idea of putting a leash on their ice-picks so that they could hang on them while climbing frozen waterfalls. The commoners, in short, are co-producers and co-innovators.

There is now a burgeoning movement to bring open source principles to the physical world. Community networks like Open Source Ecology and the Open Source Hardware and Design Alliance are working to develop replicable, shareable equipment for modern off-the-grid “resilient communities.” Open Source Ecology writes:

By our analysis, most of the technologies needed for a sustainable and pleasant standard of living could be reduced to the cost of scrap metal + labor. There is immense potential for social transformation once this technology is fully developed for building interconnected self-sufficient communities, since people will be freed from material constraints and able to seek self-actualization.

One of the more interesting prototypes is the LifeTrac, a low-cost, multipurpose open source tractor that is intended to be modular, inexpensive and easy to build and maintain — in other words, not complex, expensive and proprietary. I know of several projects attempting to build open-source automobiles.

While many initiatives are local, they are starting to inter-connect and cross-fertilize each other via the Internet. This is how many local, physically based commons may go viral. There are a whole range of what I call “eco-digital commons,” in which Internet technologies are being used to help monitor and manage the environment.”

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