A major theme that came up throughout our first School of Commoning workshop with Michel Bauwens concerned the need to co-create sustainable commons based institutions. The overriding sentiment was to create institutions that are commons and are therefore inherently sustainable by their nature. In the transition to these commons based institutions Michel spoke of the kinds of actions we will need to take. The rest of this post highlights what was discussed by Michel and our workshop on this important next step we must take.
Virtual Commons: The Need for a Shift in Priority
Following on from the Furtherfield event in which Michel spoke ofthe three key peer to peer developments that have unfolded starting with open sharing, open code and more recently open design, Michel built on this the following day, in our workshop:
“The virtual commons is a social advance and we have won, free software is there and its not going away. Open design is getting stronger and stronger and so the next step is how we make it sustainable and we’re not very far away from that.”
So what is it that isn’t sustainable exactly about this virtual commons? While elaborating on the current state of affairs for virtual commons within our current system Michel answered:
“The virtual commons are in a codependency with the current system, so we create all this value together most of it for free and its great but we don’t capture the value. It escapes to existing companies and the people don’t get any return for it. I’m not suggesting it should be turned into a commodity because that would destroy the commons but we have to find ways and means through which we can protect and nurture the commons.”
One way to overcome this is to only provide virtual commons to what he refers to as non-profit maximizing, mission orientated companies and their creation. This would be achieved at a structural level, by constitution, principles and charter, which obliges them to take care of the commons, and where the profit is subsumed into the larger whole. This would represent a shift in priority where we decide to support and create institutions that protect the commons. The challenge lays ahead of us.. can we achieve this, instead of, or as a compelling alternative to the institutionalization of greed and self-interest that manifests under a capitalist market-state system, that somehow, as if by magic believes it will benefit everybody. Michel went on to state we need more than the invisible hand:
“At the same time we need to create something new, whereby market entities are actually constrained structurally. Not to rely on an invisible hand but also a visible hand of ethical commitment and legal commitment to the interests of particular commons.”
Institutions for the Commons are already here..
There is much encouragement by the rise of alternative forms of institution which can begin to hold commons based production processes within a commons property and governance framework. Michel highlighted the use of foundations and an ecology of players around free software as a key workable alternative:
“If you observe today how the free software communities operate you have at the core a commons of code, that communities either wont use or they are paid by companies. Companies accept to work with that licensetherefore contribute to that commons. They have collaborative platforms which allow them to work together. Whereas in intellectual work its enough to have a brain and a computer, collaborative work is costly i.e. wikipedia costs $20m just to operate the server, so they have foundations (e.g., Wikimedia, Gnome foundation etc), which are for benefit institutions that maintain the commons infrastructure. Then there is an ecology of players which can either be classical companies i.e. IBM with Linux or small business like Drupal where there are thousands of programmers working with Drupal. This seems to be working quite well in the free software world.”
Not only did this highlight that alternatives are already here for Commons, Michel then invited us to imagine this form of governance structure as applied to the whole maturing civil society:
“And so by leap of imagination what if society would work like that. Civil society at the core as a commons, with its trusts, foundations and non-profits that represent the infrastructure of these commons. That constrain a new type of (for benefit) market entities which are no longer for profit maximizing (pathological because they are structurally unable to take into account externalities)… Society needs its own institutions, it doesn’t need to be the same bureaucratic privatized thing – no. It does need some kind of institutional framework, which basically enables and empowers social production to occur.”
In regards to funding for non-profit making commons groups, the traditional charity donation based model is no longer sustainable. It became clear from our conversations that the Commons group of the 21st century would adopt either the free software governance/property structure outlined by Michel and/or look into alternative methods such as the leveraging of the crowd via emerging Crowd-Funding platforms such as Kickstarter. It was then suggested that if this practice could be combined with the earlier mentioned power in gamification, we could leverage a very powerful tool for funding our commons based approaches.
Enhancing Democracy within Existing Organizations
In regards to influencing the decision making of large private companies and institutions generally, who otherwise may choose unsustainable and/or unjust means of growth, the rise of an enhanced collective voice can make all the difference. An example of this is the meteoric rise of the online campaigning group Avaaz and its overwhelming success stories on largely issues that speak directly to the human heart rather than any left or right wing sentiments. We then discussed how this collective voice could be brought into our everyday working lives and our online lives when relating with existing private or state organizations. One example on how this might happen was discussed in relation to the social networking giant Facebook as we discussed how during the royal wedding celebration some 40 leftist groups were censored from its website. In response Michel said:
“At some point maybe we can turn around and say we are the workers, its ours, we create the value so why should it be owned by shareholders…We have to work with them and create a Facebook User Union”
This reflects the need that while as creative commoners we must co-create alternative commons based systems there is a definite need to ensure we protect the inherent rights of all that continue to work in private and public sectors. (Literally as I put the finishing touches to this blog post I found this http://facebookusersunion.ning.com pretty cool huh!?
What do you feel can build on the developments in commons/p2p governance structures and funding strategies?