Questions of Commons and Inclusion – conference report

A commons represents a model of social ownership and management. It is a way of owning and managing resources that is neither public nor private, but rather is based on the direct involvement of people in owning and managing a specific resource. Medea’s PhD candidate Anna Seravalli reports from the Economics and the Commons conference in Berlin.

Text: Anna Seravalli

The Economics and the Commons conference gathered activists and researchers working with commons in diverse fields in different parts of the world. The aim was to collect knowledge and practical insights about working with issues of shared ownership and distributed governance, with the final aim of starting a discussion on a ”realpolitik” of commons and, specifically, how to establish an economic system based on the commons paradigm.

The conference was a great occasion to dig into the commons paradigm and meet people working with it in different ways. The ideas presented sometimes seem quite close to my way of working inside the Malmö Living Labs, leading to some reflections that I’ll try to share in this post.

What is a commons?
Before discussing this issue, it’s necessary to specify the way in which commons were defined in the conference. Commons has to be understood as a third way of owning and managing resources, a way that is neither public nor private but rather is based on the direct involvement of people in owning and managing a specific resource. It, basically, represents a model of social ownership and management.

Commons and Participatory Design: a matter of giving voice
It is possible to see a connection with the basic concern that has driven Participatory Design, and is at the core of Malmö Living Labs, that is who is influenced should have a say. Malmö Living Labs aim at enlarging participation in exploring and making decisions about diverse issues: from the publishing sector, to public services delivering, from production of material goods, to city planning. The concern is always the same: how to provide to speech-less stakeholders the possibility to have a voice and to get visibility, as well as how to facilitate new forms of relationships between already established actors and emerging initiatives.  Commons, in this perspective, can be read as a way of regulating and ensuring – in a long-term perspective – that the right to participation and over decision-making is kept.

Commons as infrastructures, infrastructures as commons
An interesting point brought up by Stefan Meretz in the infrastructure stream was related to the double way in which commons and infrastructures are related. Commons can be looked as infrastructures empowering their participants, (e.g. the shared space and equipment at Fabriken, providing possibility to produce objects and participate in discussions around production/consumption) which brings to the inevitable question about what infrastructures could be commonified, and in which ways.

This second issue, which is definitively a design issue, resembles some of the challenges that have been faced in the Malmö Living Labs regarding how to open up diverse fields and sectors, by infrastructuring; that is, trying to establish new relationships between top-down institutional stakeholders and bottom-up grass-roots initiatives in an on-going process of renegotiation of roles, and consequently also issues of ownership and access.

Commons and Things: who and what is involved?
The idea of commons seems to be quite close to the idea of Things, which is often used at Malmö Living Labs (editor’s note: for an introduction to Things, see Ehn’s Participation in Design Things). When discussing how to design Things, the concern is how to bring together human and non-human actors involved in a specific issue and how to support a collective design process where diverse agendas can find a space. When it comes to involving non-humans actors, the commons field has a long tradition in discussing how to ensure a voice to nature, as law professor and expert in commons, Stefano Rodotá, pointed out in his opening speech. A fascinating example in this direction is Ecuador where nature’s rights are recognized by constitutional law.  Commons can be looked upon as a way to govern Things to make them last on a long-term perspective.

Beyond open access
An argument that was brought up several times at the conference was the necessity to move beyond open access: since it does not guarantee in a long-term perspective that things will stay open (as recent happenings in the 3D-printing field has showed). Commons, in that sense, becomes a way to ensure that things will stay open, that access will remain open.

This could be further expanded with questions that are quite close to the Malmö Living Labs way of working: access for who, and under which conditions? These are questions strongly related to the experiences and learnings from Malmö Living Labs where we could see how participation and collective ownership is not a matter of openness but rather needs to be constructed and supported through design.

Commons as new medievalism, the tension between local and global
Even if commons are concerned with how to provide involved actors the right to decide, it is not always clear about who should be involved. While the idea of Thing stresses the importance of creating an agonistic space where diverse agendas can meet, promoting the encounter between top-down structures and grass-root initiatives, commons are not necessarily carrying this inclusive/universal perspective. Some of the participants were actually looking at commons as a way to move beyond the state as a form of grass-root self organization that eliminates the need for a centralised and public structure. This however, opens for some issues.

As pointed out in the keynote by Rodotá, the risk with the commons paradigm is to have a nostalgic approach and moving from a distributed society to a fragmented society, where local entities based on commons are in conflict with each other, leading to a new institutional medievalism. The double nature of commons, being a possibility for self-organization but also risking becoming a way to create close and oppressive communities, was also brought up by several participants, who pointed out how the public sector (or state) could play a role in avoiding this. This leads to a very interesting challenge between the local and the global, i.e. how to balance the necessity to focus on local interests and autonomy on a local scale and at the same time do not end up in closed communities.

Related publications
– Seravalli’s Prototyping for Opening Production
– Björgvinsson et al Design Things and Design Thinking