The Future Economy — A “Thing Commons”

So let’s take a look at the future of manufacturing and production, what myself and others often refer to as “maker culture.”

To envision how a future economy will function, all we have to do is apply the principles of complex systems and panarchy and see what emerges:

  • Many to Many
  • Peer to Peer
  • Do It Ourselves

Many to Many

Many to Many means that participants in the network will not be connected to other participants in a hierarchical fashion. Instead, connections will span up and down a multiplicity of networks that operate at different scales.

Peer to Peer

Peer to Peer refers to the fact that many of the extra connectivity in the network is going to be horizontal, i.e. across networks. In other words, in order to communicate with nodes elsewhere in the network, it will not be necessary to first go up some hierarchical chain and then back down it somewhere else in the network. Many to Many means the avoidance of bureaucratic obstructions.

Do It Ourselves

Do It Ourselves means that rather than relying on large centralized institutions, a vast network of much smaller participants take on the active role of making things. This much larger community of participants is subsequently more diverse, a feature that is crucial to healthy complex systems (as Scott Page has noted in his book “The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies”).

Small Pieces, Loosely Joined

In keeping with the dynamic of “small pieces, loosely joined” (first articulated by David Weinberger), we can see how a future network will function. A large array of participants in “making” will constitute in an extended network of cooperative commons. As “small pieces” they will make less at a time, but the power of their making comes from the fact that they are “loosely joined” into a flexible decentralized cooperative network. They achieve this through communication, coordination, and what Howard Rheingold calls “technologies of cooperation.”

DGML — Design Global, Manufacture Local

Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis have a useful bit of coinage called “DGML” or “Design Global, Manufacture Local.” This dictum helps remind us that the mobility of bits is cheap, but the mobility of atoms is costly. In other words, rather than keeping the information local and making the thing, we can distribute the information and make the thing closer to where it is needed.

This is a reversal of traditional economics, about which Michel Bauwens once said (of my work on the transformation of Social Publishing):

Not “select, then publish,” but “publish, then select.”

And so for manufacturing and production we might also say:

Not “make, then distribute,” but “distribute, then make.”

Making the Thing Commons

The production of immaterial common pools is already regulated through mutual coordination…, i.e. coordination based on open and transparent signals of what is needed by the system; but physical production cannot be coordinated without similar signals…

There are two key infrastructures required for the Thing Commons.

First, there is the actual manufacturing or “making” infrastructure. This can range from larger factories, to medium sized “maker hubs”, to small personal-scale 3D printing devices. The primary empowerment of this infrastructure rests in making it easy for new entrants to join the existing network and extend and innovate the current tools and practices. Much of this exploration is already present in the global communities of “open hardware” and 3D-printing advocates.

Second, there is the information infrastructure, which (echoing Ostrom) consists of two layers of information tools: 1) information for making things, and 2) information for managing the community itself.

In practical terms, this means means building the infrastructure necessary for a healthy Thing Commons. For example, many manufacturing machines require older proprietary equipment and software which, in several cases are barely available from a rapidly disappearing cadre of developers. Often the only alternative is newer (but also proprietary) software and tools that are only available at very expensive prices, resulting in large barrier-to-entry into the market. Barriers-to-entry are the precise opposite of how to build a large scale open network.

As people like Yochai Benkler, Michel Bauwens, Eric Raymond, David Bollier, and others have shown, “commons-based peer-production” distributes and coordinates work, but also achieves efficiencies that traditional firm-based economic organization have failed to realize.

Imagine rather a global community of tinkerers, but also a global community of physical production houses, that can download the design and can produce things much more locally.

But, as complex systems scholar Stuart Kauffman has pointed out, systems change. At one level systems can adapt to be better. At another level they can improve how they adapt. And at even another level, they can adapt how they learn. All of these levels are present in a healthy making ecology.

Complex systems “explore and embrace” evolutionary pathways by allowing the parts to evolve and innovate, and then by adopting successful adaptations back into the system or organism as a whole.

Thus, the diversity of participants is acutely necessary to the future improvement of the system, which only cares about the value being brought into it by a multitude of diverse players, i.e. an “open value model”:

The open value network model abolishes the distinction between the commercial entity and the community!

What It Means For You (and/or Your Organization)

Given a picture of a future network of production and manufacturing, it becomes possible to subsequently envision various strategies for success.

The success of the Thing Commons requires (as pointed out by Nobel Economics recipient Elinor Ostrom) us to actively “govern the commons.” We have to do this on at least two levels: 1) manage the resource, 2) manage the community that uses the resource:

  1. “Managing the resources” means realizing that just as your inputs are some one else’s outputs, your outputs are someone else’s inputs. There is no such thing as waste. This means that connecting to other parts of the system that can effectively utilize your “waste” is crucial. Because wealth-generating ecologies: reduce, reuse, and recycle, these processes become part of the normal operation of the network.
  2. “Managing the community” means openness, transparency, and making available the rules and tools that allow for the governance of the resources and community. This refers to how decisions are made, how disagreements are resolved, and how institutional change is handled over time.

By far the largest crucial commons is the information infrastructure that fosters widespread network participation. As the success of open systems demonstrates, the route to a healthy commons is to create a network which will:

Promote Participation

This means that the system must encourage players to actively contribute to the commons. A crucial element of participation is not only contributing to the existing system but also being able to extend and innovate the network’s operations.

Prevent Depletion

This means that the rules of the system must secure the benefits of the commons for all participants, by excluding the capture of those benefits for someone’s gain at the expense of the commons. For some commons, unmanaged open-access can result in depletion, whenever inappropriate incentives interfere with the smooth operation of the commons.

The Success of Open Design

Anyone active in open source communities or in public domain science, also knows from experience that shared innovation is happening on a continuous basis in open communities.

The winning strategy then is one that I have termed “winning by playing.” The mechanism is as follows:

  1. Gather the potential participants who would benefit from the reduced costs and economic sustainability that results from building shared open infrastructure.
  2. Brainstorm, share, and test network designs, standards, schemas, structures, and rules, with those participants. Release early; release often. Faster cycles of exploration and adaptation equal rapid innovation.
  3. Let go. An ecology is not something you can control. As Tom Malone said in “Future of Work” the goal is to “coordinate and cultivate” rather than “command and control.”

In his “New Rules for the New Economy” Wired editor Kevin Kelly said “feed the network first.” The rules of software interoperability tell us “build your API first.” Either way, the message is clear:

Whatever persons, communities, organizations, industries, firms, and/or governments (most likely all of the above) facilitate the creation and evolution of the Thing Commons will gain the opportunity to be on the ground floor in establishing key rules and practices. These front-runners will find themselves in the best position to contribute, excel, and succeed in the future economy.


Some References:

Here are more insights on all of this from Michel Bauwens, Vasilis Kostakis, and Dmytri Kleiner:

Thanks to R. Keith Smith

To engage with the original please go to Panarchy 101: We Can Make It — Pioneering the Thing Commons by Paul B. Hartzog

1 Comment Panarchy 101: We Can Make It — Pioneering the Thing Commons

  1. Avatarmiguel novik

    great compendium in Pioneering the Thing Commons.
    In general in the ¨commons speeches¨ we talk about economy.
    But for some reason nobody talk about market.

    Could you find any reason??

    I feel very well represented by 2p2foundation ideas and vision. But because of my ¨professional distortion¨ I visualize that the commercial dynamics must change (because customers want to play another game), and make exchanges according to a peer-to-peer society with a “commons” conscience.

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