Inclusive Governance and Generative Value in Knowledge Commons

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* Master's project: Inclusive Governance and Generative Value in Knowledge Commons. Two Normative Concepts for Successful Commons? By Guillaume Pitiot. EDHEC Business School, August 2018



"We give a theoretical framework for studying commons from E. Ostrom’s theory. We adapte this theoretical framework to knowledge commons in order to conjured up their specificities. Starting with this overview of knowledge commons, we question the relevancy of Ostrom’s definition of commons. We point out two dark zones in the theory : power relationships and value capture. From these two dark zones, we hypothesize that we can construct two norms that qualify commons in a normative way : inclusive governance and generative value. We analyze these normative concepts through two cases study : Wikipedia and Enspiral. We draw recommendations to implement inclusive governance and generative value in knowledge commons."


Master thesis question

Guillaume Pitiot:

"Advocates of commons, and more specifically IC, are underlining the very specificity of commonig as a new type of organization very different from the usual organization. By its self-organization attributes and polycentric governance, commons appear to be more efficient in terms of economics but also in terms of social equity. Thanks to their bottom-up aspects they seem to be, in this perspective, more able to adapt themselves and evolve from their external environment. In addition to this resilience virtue -the capacity to adapt from external choc, as the “institutional arrangement” set up by commoners is built in a fail-and-learn loop, commons would be able to obtain better trade-offs between personal interests of the member of the community and the general interest (Weinstein, 2015). These reasons, amongst others, explain this enthusiasm around the concept of commons. Some scholars are even highlighting how commons could lead to a Post-Capitalist society (Gunn, 2016; Kostakis, 2018; Macias Vazquez & Alonso Gonzalez, 2016; Mediapart, n.d.).

This general enthusiasm is, nevertheless, facing a main difficulty. Informational commons are usually nested in a more global system. How do commons interact with the market? When it comes to scaling-up, it is this imbrication inside a global system and the relationships with other actors, like for-profit organizations that is determinant.

Actually, if commons want to increase their impact and develop themselves, how should commons act and grow within our market capitalist society? This is the crucial question that a lot of scholars underline (Bauwens & Kostakis, 2014; Bauwens & Niaros, 2017; Weinstein, 2015). The commons ‘imbrication with the market, generate effects in both governance and the value created inside commons. Indeed, the value created inside commons can be captured by external actors which impede commons’ sustainability and growth. In addition to value capture, power capture can also occur in commons. The general definition given by Ostrom as a self-organized community and self-governed may mask power relationships that exist in all organizations. However, power relationships can compromise the democratic governance. An internal subgroup of the commons can conquest a powerful position which threatens the existence of the common.

Therefore, this master thesis will try to underline these 2 issues – power relationships inside commons and value capture --and their consequences.

Regarding these two issues, the paper will hypothesize that the emergence of two norms –

  • a) an inclusive governance
  • b) a generative value creation – could characterize successful commons and in the meaning time

could be an idealistic norm for democratic and sustainable organizations.

Therefore, the efficiency of this work will be determined if

  1. it is able to confirm or deny this two norms has part of successful commons
  2. it gives recommendations or criteria in order to implement these two norms."

Key Concepts

Inclusive Governance

"This concept of “inclusive governance“ thus highlights the mentioned tension between, on one hand, the efficiency in operations, and, on the other hand, the democratic roots and goals of commons. This concept takes into account the power relationships that are always present in organizations. Even in self-organized and self-governed human communities like commons, there are power relationships. Instead of masking power, the inclusive governance concept is a way to appreciate its distribution. It is a way to consider that inside communities are gathered individuals with different levels of cultural, economic and social capital. In order to achieve a full democratic and collective decision-making process, commons have to take into account these differences, include them. In addition it is a concept that can build a narrative and assess the capabilities to integrate newcomers in the structure of governance.

Being a normative concept, it allows us to differentiate different degrees of inclusiveness in commons and generally in organizations. Plus, it might be set up in organizations and knowledge commons as a skyline to reach. For instance, Enspiral has formalized all its governance mechanisms in 2013, i.e. 5 years after its creation. We think that inclusive governance should be implemented as a core goal when creating a common.

Therefore, in order to sum up, inclusive governance underlines three points:

  1. the capacity to appreciate power relationships and overcome them in order to have a real bottom-up and self-governing institutions
  2. the capacity to deal with internal tensions so as to increase efficiency in operation without losing this self-organized and bottom-up aspects
  3. the capacity to fully integrate newcomers inside the operation and governance of the common."

Generative Value

"In order to define once for all generative value we will shortly quote Marjorie Kelly speaking about generative ownership: “[I]n their animating intent and living impact, these ownership designs are aimed at generating the conditions where all life can thrive. From the Greek ge, generative uses the same root form found in the term for Earth, Gaia, and in the words genesis and genetics. It connotes life. Generative means the carrying on of life, and generative design is about the institutional framework for doing so. The generative economy is one whose fundamental architecture tends to create beneficial rather than harmful outcomes. It’s a living economy that has a built-in tendency to be socially fair and ecologically sustainable.” (Kelly, 2012, p. 11-12). In short, generative value is a normative way to address value for creating the conditions of life for many generations to come (Kelly, 2012)

The authors also defines extractive ownerships: “These designs [generative ownership] are in contrast to the dominant ownership design of today. To make the distinction clear, that design also needs a name. We might call it extractive, for its focus is maximum physical and financial extraction. Our industrial age civilization has been powered by twin processes of extraction: extracting fossil fuels from the earth and extracting financial wealth from the economy. But these two processes are not parallel, for finance is the master force. Biophysical damage may often be the effect of the system’s action, yet extracting financial wealth is its aim.” (Kelly, 2012)


As described above, generative value and extractive value concepts are a way to differentiate two different behaviors from external actors. Extractive value is a behavior which tries to capture the value made by stakeholders without any counterpart. Uber, for instance, is extracting value from the peer-to-peer exchanges made on its platform. On the contrary, generative value strives to enhance and regenerate value for its stakeholders.

Therefore, these concepts are a way to differentiate the so-called sharing economy in two categories regarding their purpose: extractive (extract value from the community) and generative (generate value for the community).

In addition, this concept tackles not only the issue of the purpose but also the means implemented to reach this purpose. Generative value as a concept underlines the relations that have an organization with its external environment – its external stakeholders. External environment, indeed, is about ecological environment, social environment and economic environment. More globally, it is the relation of the organization with its territory of action. The question therefore for assessing external effects is : “do activities of this organization have a positive impact for its external stakeholders?” Generative value highlights also the effects that have an organization towards its internal stakeholders – workers. Effects regarding their livelihoods but also their capabilities as defined above and their possibility to decide the purpose of their activities. Therefore, generative value is a concept which takes into account externalities of the value creation, purpose of the value creation, and repartition of the value created.

Thus, generative value appears for us as a methodological concept to distinguish organizations. It underlines the purpose of the activity and the congruence of this purpose with the core artefacts and components of the value creation inside and outside the organization. Therefore, generative value is underlining the congruence between, on the one hand, the social and ecological aim of an organization, and on the other hand, the means to reach this goal. It can be applied not only to commons but also to other organizations: we suppose that it might even be applied to assess CSR policies for companies.

Regarding commons, this generative value concept cannot be separated from the ability to reach a value sovereignty. Sovereignty is the ability of a group to decide and implement its decision about the value created. Commons are therefore claiming to reach this value sovereignty in order to decide what is the purpose of their activity but also to allocate the value created to this purpose. “In short, value sovereignty means the ability by productive communities to decide themselves what value is for them, and to distribute proceeds accordingly.” (Michel Bauwens's interview, appendix 3)

Commons need to achieve this value sovereignty in order to be able to reinvest the surplus of their activity. Knowledge commons by their non-rivalry and non-excludable production should therefore pay attention to the question whether the organizations participating in the common create a generative value, i.e., they contribute to the commons. In other terms, they need to avoid a value slippage towards extractive organization. Thus, for us, generative value is an adequate concept to assess the purpose and the mean of a common – but also for other organizations. It is a useful normative concept which underlines what the goal of commons should be to sustain their growth: reaching value sovereignty and allocate this value to generate and regenerate its external and internal environment.

This normative concept is also useful in order to distinguish predatory organizations from commons. Therefore, it is an effective concept which can give guidelines in order to have fair partnerships between commons and companies.

Once more, generative value is a useful normative concept for commons because it highlights:

  • the type of value that should be produced in commons in order to fulfill their social mission and create livelihoods for commoners
  • the conditions to select other organizations which want to participate into the common."

From the Conclusion

By Guillaume Pitiot:

"We have tried to give an overall review of the theory of commons, based on the academic work of Ostrom. Explaining its major concepts (bundle of rights, eight design principles, arena of collective choice, polycentric governance) was essential in order to provide us with a theoretical framework.

Starting from this general theory, we have examined the specificities of knowledge commons: the specific elements of their resource, which is knowledge, but also the key governance concepts around CBPP.

Then, we have described the commons' dark areas that have yet not been questioned by scholars. First, the question of power relationships which is implied in the Ostrom’s theory but never explicit. We have tried to describe it as an essential element to implement fair and efficient governance. The second dark area in the general theory of commons is linked to the question of value capture and more generally to the question of the relationships between the commons and the markets. We have expressed it through the prism of value slippage and thanks to key concepts like use-value and exchange value. We have shown that inclusive governance and generative value might works as norms so as to understand these issues and maybe solve them.

These questions have led us to our two detailed case studies: Wikipedia and Enspiral. Regarding Wikipedia, we have underlined the tension between the inclusiveness of the governance and its efficiency. We have examined the phenomena of bureaucratization and its consequences for the governance, especially the emerging class of administrators. The Enspiral case allowed us to explore a coalition of social entrepreneurs operating a CBPP.

They have created some mechanisms to create an inclusive governance and to avoid value capture. These mechanisms enhance the social value implied by their purpose. These case studies have led us to discuss inclusive governance and generative value as two normative concepts.

It appears that an inclusive governance requires the double ability to operate with efficiency while fairly distributing power inside commons. It is also a condition to integrate newcomers in the governance and to overcome the rise of a new hierarchy In addition, a generative value allows to create livelihoods for commoners while accomplishing the social mission. Such normative concepts coupled with value sovereignty might actually solve the issue of capture value. Indeed, it implies a value reciprocity to benefit the commons.

Therefore, a normative criteria may help us to understand how companies and entrepreneurs can benefit from the common while generating and improving the common value.

Generative value and inclusive governance may therefore be described as two normative ways to define commons that go beyond the dark zones of Ostrom’s theory."

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