Commons Economy and Value Systems
By Herman Mitish:
"If we search for “Sharing Economy” topic in Google Trends, we can see exponential growth of interest in it starting from the year 2012. Nowadays we can often hear that notion, together with “commons economy” (Bauwens & Niaros, 2017) in a very different contexts and regarding different spheres of our life. We can hear about it in a discussion on Uber services, fab-labs, 3d printing, bikesharing, Couchsurfing or Airbnb, self-driving cars, distributed energy production, crowdfunding initiatives or any other peer-to-peer based sharing of access to goods and services. The fact is that we are witnessing the rise of a new socio-economic paradigm. One reason could be that with improved means of communication we finally started to realize, that we share the same needs and intentions, and we can better realize them in cooperation. Another could be of purely economic nature, related to economic advantages of such modes of production and use. As a matter of fact, cooperative practices globally have a revival, boosted by development of technology and ICT.
According to Jeremy Rifkin (2015) and his book The Zero-Marginal Cost Society (Bauwens & Niaros, 2017, p. 12), the trend of decommodification which is best seen in intangible realms such as software or social networking now extends to innovative ‘material’ production. Once the initial investment is made, either in a renewable source of energy or 3d printer, an abundant flow of output product destroys its own monetary value. Hence Rifkin predicts a future economy of demonetized collaborative commons where market functions operate only at the periphery. Paul Mason (2015) in his book Post-Capitalism, argues that when software and design produced through open and collaborative commons, that can be abundantly replicated , then it should be considered as ‘virtual machine’. This means that, once labor is used to produce new software, very little new labor is needed to reproduce it, and therefore, the input of labor is minimized (Bauwens & Niaros, 2017, p. 12). Thus, in order to fit modern reality and to make maximal impact, the model of value production of collaborative commons will be the major economic model for the subject of this research. All the ideas, programs and designs cooperatively produced inside of the ecosystem will be publicly available and free for use and modification for all the members of community, to generate returns for the common value and not for the benefit of few.
The big challenge though is that the world is currently facing the ‘value crisis’. It is when in “open and contributory systems many contributors co-create value as a commons which can be used by all those that are connected to networks, but the income is generated by a fraction of the contributors connected to the marketplace, … that do not re-invest sufficiently in the social reproduction of the commoners” (Bauwens & Niaros, 2017, p. 2) In instance we can identify such a crisis in its peak destructiveness in the realm of today’s urban planning, when social and cultural value produced by creative citizen communities is then expropriated by the landowners during fully legitimate procedures of gentrification. Or when socially valuable landscapes, public spaces or historical buildings are legitimately demolished to be replaced with a high density real estate for the benefit of construction developers. The same happens even within paradigm of sharing economy, as, in instance, in case of Airbnb. Landlord who uses Airbnb may have unfair advantage over the neighbors, when extensively uses housing and urban commons to serve his tenants and do not reinvest sufficiently back, generating returns only for himself. To overcome such a value crisis, we need to step beyond capitalist understanding of value and to choose new orienteers and operating principles for our society, rather than resource extraction. We need to consolidate around new commonly affirmed value system and to establish new social contract on its basis.
One particularly interesting idea was suggested by ecologist John D. Liu (Bauwens & Niaros, 2017, p. 14) on how to link the value to its expression in the common monetary system for the sake of humanity: “If we say that money comes from ecological function instead from extraction, manufacturing, buying and selling, then we have a system in which all human efforts go toward restoring, protecting and preserving ecological function. That is what we need to mitigate and adapt to climate change, to ensure food security, to ensure that human civilizations survive. Our monetary system must reflect reality. We could have growth, not from stuff, but growth from more functionality. If we do that and we value that higher than things, we will survive” (Groome, 2016). This seems to be a promising sustainable standpoint to resolve the value crisis and to manage global problems of humanity. But in order to use this model the notion of sustainability must be elaborated and negotiated through, from environmental, economic, social and cultural points of view. “The current format of ‘netarchical capital’ - in which capital no longer produces commodities for sale through commodified labor, but ‘enables’ peer to peer commons production ... to extract rent from it - is similarly ‘socially’ unsustainable” (Bauwens & Niaros, 2017, p. 15). Just recalling phenomena of failed states and overly uneven capital distribution within global world we get to understand how far of economical sustainability are we, when dominant economies legitimately keep extracting resources from the minor states. Just realizing the scale of socially accepted modes of discrimination in the modern societies, when dominant identities keep self-affirming their dominance by resource extraction from the minor groups, we get to understand how unsustainable is the modern culture. Thus the solution for new sustainable model must outline the whole spectrum of considerations from all of these spheres, defined in the process of constructive inclusive deliberation on the global level. “The key underlying shift needed from extractive models, practices that enrich some at the expense of the others, to generative value models, practices that enrich the communities, resources etc., to which they are applied” (Bauwens & Niaros, 2017, p. 3). This is what Bauwens & Niaros call the Value Shift.
There are some great examples of communities around the world that already operate on the basis of new value systems, in different ways embedded in the current global market economy context. We would like to mention here some of those, listed in Bauwens and Niaros, 2017, that potentially can be used as prototypes for our own proposal, or some concepts or ideas of which could be borrowed for our purpose. First example will be the open value network dedicated to the open-source hardware development under the name Sensorica OVN. It rests on a techno-social infrastructure in order to reinforce decentralized self-organization and render the network creative and productive. This infrastructure comprises three main interlocking systems (Sensorica, 2016): (a) a Value Accounting System (VAS), which records and evaluates every member's input and calculates revenues in proportion to each contribution; (b) a reputation system, which determines the behavior within the community and attributes merit in accordance with the collective interest; and (c) a role system, which allocates the arrangement and interrelation of the different activities among the agents, based on their skills and interests (Bauwens & Niaros, 2017, p. 28). This system seems to be logical and pragmatic, thus some elements of it can be borrowed for the development of our artifact. Value Accounting system in our case would be needed to establish fair relational economy, e.g. with any voluntary work being accounted and attributed. Reputation system is important for communities to build trust and long term commitment amongst its members. Role system might be helpful in our effort to formalize processes of self-organization, though we don’t know yet what effects it may cause. At least using it in case-specific fashion can be a good idea for better distribution of responsibilities. The other good example of such a unique community would be the Enspiral Network which was created to make “social enterprise ventures and social entrepreneurs work together with shared vision and values” (Enspiral, 2010). It is famous for many things but one in particular is it’s incredible open-source freeware toolset for collaborative decision-making and co-budgeting, Loomio and Co-budget, which they until nowadays actively develop and use.
Another particularly interesting approach for Value Accounting System we found in the work on technology assisted crowd-scale deliberation and decision-making, in (Klein, 2017). There author suggests deliberation mapping (also known as argument mapping) for crowd-scale negotiations, which is “a simple but powerful approach wherein deliberations are captured as topically-organized tree structures made up of questions to be answered, possible answers for these questions, and arguments (statements that support or detract from an answer or argument)” (Klein, 2017, p. 5). So for the value accounting he suggests mechanics of a system called Deliberation Task Marketplace: “Crowd members can submit a wide range of deliberation tasks in a Task Marketplace, e.g., to formalize some free text into the deliberation map, check whether a new map post is correctly structured, fact check posts, contribute arguments for/against an idea, mentor a peer, and so on. Each task will include a virtual currency ‘bounty’ conditional on it being performed properly… Markets provide a natural incentive for mutual support amongst deliberation participants: if they want to benefit from the crowd, they need to contribute to others as well. In order to maximize their income, participants are incented to bid to take on the tasks that are most important (i.e., have the highest bounties) and that they can perform quickly and well, thereby actualizing an effective taskperson matchmaking process. We can manage priority across different activities simply by adjusting budgets: contributors with bigger budgets can offer bigger bounties and get quicker results.
Participants will have a natural incentive to acquire the skills (e.g., by taking additional training) needed to fill critical (and thus potentially) lucrative gaps in the market. “ (Klein, 2017, p. 11) Accordingly, this kind of VAS motivates its users to engage in the process of sensemaking, critical analysis, constructive deliberation and negotiation and also learning, developing persons’ own intellectual skills. “If moderation could be crowdsourced i.e. broken down into a series of easyto-do micro-tasks that are distributed redundantly to regular crowd members “ (Klein, 2017, pp. 10– 11) then members of the network would generate value for the whole community also by performing those accountable routines. Thus the value would be linked directly to the processes of sensemaking and knowledge sharing, to transparency contributions and education. It would potentially lead us to the society where above all stands a common sense and well informed decision making, and where fairness and legitimacy become paramount - and this would be a reliable fundament for mitigation of climate change, and solving any of our global societal problems. This mode of value production, by the means of making meaningful contributions into general discourse, also fits to post-structuralist understanding of the process of ‘gaining power’. According to Murdoch (1995, p. 748) and Thrift (1996, p. 25): “Those who are powerful are not those who hold power but are those able to enroll, convince and enlist others into networks on terms which allow the initial actors to ‘represent’ these others. Powerful actors ‘speak for’ all the enrolled entities and actors and control the means of representation.” (Boonstra, 2015, p. 121)
In regard to economy of our future digital platform or economy of commons in general, it would be appropriate to mention the concept of local exchange trading system (abbreviated LETS). “It is a locally initiated, democratically organized, not-for-profit community enterprise that provides a community information service and records transactions of members exchanging goods and services by using locally created currency. LETS allow people to negotiate the value of their own hours or services” (W.A. Government, 1990). One interpretation and inspirational example of it, is an emerging social media network under the name Nimses, that was developed and launched in Ukraine on the beginning of 2017. It is location based application, where users can post any kinds of media with attachment to their geolocation, as well as to read and interact with the posts and other users in the near proximity. All the interactions inside of Nimses are based on a virtual currency called “nims”. This name for currency hypothetically could be the reference to the New Associationist Movement known from Kojin Karatani, with its NAM currency, though we have no verified information on it. According to the authors and official website (Nimses Inc., 2018) the name “nim” is inherited from inverted word “min”, i.e. one minute, as one unit of currency is being unconditionally issued to every active user every minute. This way the currency represents the value of a time of human life, which is an interesting example representing ‘value shift’ in action. This way the issuance of a currency is limited and conditions are equal for everyone and predictable. Nims could be used to create location-based posts or to like posts generated by other users nearby, or, alternatively, to advertise or to buy local goods and services, which is basically tangible and intangible realms of the same matter. Therefore, the users collaboratively define value of various community generated posts and goods within ecosystem, while app developers benefit from entrepreneurs, having rent for extended target marketing features. Application developers also promise functionality to convert nims to the real currencies, after the initial coin offering takes place.
The fact is that the system is working for more than a year and users can buy goods and services from number of sellers and entrepreneurs with nims currency, so far mostly in Ukraine and Eastern Europe. It does have more than 4 million of users and it’s being in active development stage yet. The system has its own social ecology along with economic system, and outlines 12 principles of community, which encompass ideas on empathy, care, respect, value of human life and its purpose. Just observing notable progress of this experimental project, we can state, that carefully designed location-based social media network, combined with a virtual exchange trading system, can embody very lively and sustainable value system, even when integrated in global socio-economic context. This also fits to the conceptual framework from Kojin Karatani (2014), which describes four fundamental modes of exchange in their evolutionary chronology. Briefly these are: the mode of community, based on the reciprocity of the gift or ‘pooling’ through commons; the mode of state, based on ruling and protection, ‘plunder and redistribute’; the mode of market, which represents commodity exchange and capitalist market; and the mode of association, which transcends the other three - the return of community mode at a higher level of complexity and integration (Bauwens & Niaros, 2017, p. 17). He posits an ongoing transition towards mode of association, which is a mode of exchange that integrates the preceding ones, but is dominated by the pooling that was originally dominant in the early nomadic groups, and calls this modality ‘associationism’. “This opens up thinking about the value shift or value transition, not just as the replacement of one system by another, but as an ongoing inter-modal struggle. The question then becomes, how can we think about a commons transition as a way for the commons to engage the other modalities? Just as the logic of capitalist markets attempts to commodify, the logic of the commons is an effort to commonify. There is evidence of this type of value shift in the current practices of peer to peer based, commons-producing communities“ (Bauwens & Niaros, 2017, p. 18). This evidence we can find in Nimses, as well as in majority of commons systems, described above. Following evolutionary logic that we found in the historical process of development of participatory planning, we need to realize that it is our responsibility to take part in the design of our digital environments as well as physical urban environments. In best case scenario we must develop our own platforms, that would fit our needs best. This way we avoid situation when third parties extracting rents from our communities, at zero marginal cost of a service, as existing social media platforms do, and this way we are able to reinvest all the returns into further development and the common value. And this is how we get to the main idea and the purpose of this thesis, which is to develop conceptually and practically self-made adaptive technological artifact, that would facilitate the emergence and becoming of bottom-up civic initiatives. The main function of it would be to identify convergence amongst our own demands and intentions, and to inform ourselves about potentials for local cooperation in particular cases of interest. If in some of these cases such cooperation consequently emerges and different cooperatives find efficient legitimate ways to collaborate and to manage inevitable conflicts amongst themselves, then it logically leads us towards the system of complete self-governance." (https://dspace.cc.tut.fi/dpub/bitstream/handle/123456789/26735/Mitish.pdf?)
* Article: Do it ourselves: Digital platform for self-organisation in urban planning - research through design. By Herman Mitish.