When Ostrom Meets Blockchain: Exploring the Potentials of Blockchain for Commons Governance, a working paper/preprint by David Rozas, Antonio Tenorio-Fornés, Silvia Díaz-Molina and Samer Hassan. Universidad Complutense de Madrid (UCM).
Blockchain technologies have generated excitement, yet their potential to enable new forms of governance remains largely unexplored. Two confronting standpoints dominate the emergent debate around blockchain-based governance: discourses characterised by the presence of techno-determinist and market-driven values, which tend to ignore the complexity of social organisation; and critical accounts of such discourses which, whilst contributing to identifying limitations, consider the role of traditional centralised institutions as inherently necessary to enable democratic forms of governance. Therefore the question arises, can we build perspectives of blockchain-based governance that go beyond markets and states? In this article we draw on the Nobel laureate economist Elinor Ostrom’s principles for self-governance of communities to explore the transformative potential of blockchain. We approach blockchain through the identification and conceptualisation of affordances that this technology may provide to communities. For each affordance, we carry out a detailed analysis situating each in the context of Ostrom’s principles, considering both the potentials of algorithmic governance and the importance of incorporating communities’ social practices. The relationships found between these affordances and Ostrom’s principles allow us to provide a perspective focussed on blockchain-based commons governance. By carrying out this analysis, we aim to expand the debate from one dominated by a culture of competition to one that promotes a culture of cooperation.
In November 2008 a paper published anonymously presented Bitcoin: the first cryptocurrency based purely on a peer-to-peer system (Nakamoto, 2008). For the first time, no third parties were necessary to solve problems such as double-spending. The solution was achieved through the introduction of a data structure known as a blockchain. In simple terms, a blockchain can be understood as a distributed and append-only ledger. Data, such as the history of transactions generated by using cryptocurrencies, can be stored in a blockchain without the need to trust a third party, such as a bank server. From a technical perspective, blockchain enables the implementation of novel properties at an infrastructural level in a fully decentralised manner.
The properties most cited by blockchain enthusiasts at this infrastructural level include immutability, transparency, persistency, resilience and openness (Underwood 2016; Wright & De Filippi 2015), among others. Certainly, some technical infrastructures could previously provide these properties, e.g. the immutability and openness provided by content repositories like Github or Arxiv.org, or the persistence and resilience provided by large web services such as Amazon or Facebook. However, the implementation of these solutions relied on a trusted third party. There have been other decentralised technical infrastructures with varying degrees of success which also reflect some of these properties, e.g. the Web has been traditionally shown as an example of openness, although with uneven persistence (Koehler 1999), or BitTorrent peer-to-peer sharing networks are considered open, resilient and partially transparent (Cohen 2003). However, none of the existing decentralised technologies have enabled all these properties (and others) at once in a robust manner, while maintaining a high degree of decentralisation. It is precisely the possibility of developing technological artefacts which rely on a fully distributed infrastructure that is generating enthusiasm, or “hype” according to some authors (Reber & Feuerstein, 2014), with regards to the potential applications of blockchain.
In this article we focus on some of these potential applications of blockchain. More precisely, we reflect on the relationship between blockchain properties and the generation of potentialities which could facilitate governance processes. Particularly, we focus on the governance of Commons-Based Peer Production (CBPP) communities. The term, originally coined by Benkler (2002), refers to an emergent model of socio-economic production in which groups of individuals cooperate with each other to produce shared resources without a traditional hierarchical organisation (Benkler, 2006). There are multiple well-known examples of this phenomenon, such as Wikipedia, a project to collaboratively write a free encyclopedia; OpenStreetMap, a project to create free/libre maps of the World collaboratively; or Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) projects such as the operating system GNU/Linux or the browser Firefox. Research carried out drawing on crowdsourcing techniques (Fuster Morell et al., 2016a) found examples of the broad diversity of areas in which the collaborative work on commons is present. This includes open science, urban commons, peer funding and open design, to name but a few. Three main characteristics of this mode of production are salient in the literature on CBPP (Arvidsson et al., 2017). Firstly, CBPP is marked by decentralisation, since authority resides in individual agents rather than a central organiser. Secondly, it is commons-based because CBPP communities make frequent use of common resources, i.e. shared resources which are openly accessible and whose ownership is collectivised. These resources can be immaterial, such as source code in free software, or material, such as 3D printers shared in small-scale workshops known as Fab Labs. Thirdly, there is a prevalence of non-monetary motivations. These motivations are, however, commonly intertwined with extrinsic motivations. As a result, a wide spectrum of motivations and multiple forms of value operate in CBPP communities (Cheshire & Antin 2008), beyond monetary value, e.g. use value, reputational and ecosystemic value (Fuster Morell et al., 2016b).
The three aforementioned characteristics of peer production are in fact aligned with blockchain features. First, both CBPP and blockchain strongly rely on decentralised processes, thus, the possibility of using blockchain infrastructure to support CBPP processes arises. Secondly, the shared commons in CBPP corresponds to the shared ledger present in blockchain infrastructure, where data and rules are transparent, open, collectively owned, and in practice managed as a commons. This leads to the question if such blockchain commons could host or support commons resources, or “commonify” other features of CBPP communities, such as their rules of governance. Thirdly, CBPP relies on multi-dimensional forms of value and motivations, and blockchain enables the emergence of multiple types of non-monetary interactions (sharing, voting, reputation). This brings about the question of the new potentials for channelling CBPP community governance.
Overall, we strongly believe that the combination of CBPP and blockchain provides an exciting field for exploration, in which the use of blockchain technologies is used to support the coordination efforts of these communities. This leads us to the research question: what affordances are generated by blockchain technologies which could facilitate the governance of CBPP communities?