Infrastructure Commons

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Charlotte Hess:

"This sector is inspired by Frischmann’s work on infrastructure as a commons. Frischmann uses the term “infrastructure commons” to describe physical resource systems made by humans for public consumption. He includes “a list of familiar examples: (1) transportation systems, such as highway and road systems, railways, airline systems, and ports; (2) communication systems, such as telephone networks and postal services; (3) governance systems, such as court systems; and, (4) basic public services and facilities, such as schools, sewers, and water systems” (Frischmann 2007; see also Frischmann 2005a&b).

The electromagnetic spectrum is a primary example of a new commons created from the capabilities of new technologies. It is also a part of the global commons and related to the knowledge commons. Along with many other scholars, Benkler (1998) urges the regulation of wireless transmissions as a public commons, as we today regulate our highway system and our computer networks. The choice we make among these alternatives will determine the path of development of our wireless communications infrastructure. Its social, political, and cultural implications are likely to be profound. A small sample of the spectrum and wireless communication commons literature includes Benkler (1998, 2002b); Benjamin (2002, 2003); Brennan (1998); Brito (2007); Buck (2002); Daniels (2007); Ikeda (2002); Rheingold (2002); Snider (2002); Soroos (1982); Sur (2003); Thompson (2006); and Wellenius and Neto (2007). Werbach (2004) writes about “supercommons”—collections of wireless devices can share spectrum effectively without exclusive rights.

Golich, writing in 1991, drew from Soroos (1982) in considering the domains of the communication commons to include satellite orbital slots and the electromagnetic spectrum. “They are unique,” she wrote, “because, unlike minerals and forests, they have no physical mass. It is impossible to deplete these resources permanently or to damage them and render them useless to future users. It is, however, possible to diminish the usefulness of these spaces through overcrowding or interference. . . .” Other works on telecommunications are Aufderheide (2002); and Thümmel and Thümmel (2005). Steemers (2004) writes about the “digital cultural commons” of the BBC and public broadcasting.

Little (2005) examines the issue of public services (telecommunications, electrical power systems, gas and oil, transportation, and water supply systems as an infrastructure commons with an eye toward sustainability in the context of classic commons dilemmas.

Several have written about transportation systems as commons. Oakerson did his seminal dissertation on Kentucky coal-haul roads and the commons problem in 1978. Van Wugt did his on social dilemmas and transportation systems. Gutscher et al. (2000), Rosin (1998), and Alatoree (2004) have delved into the issue of speed reduction and street congestion as commons problems.

Internet infrastructure as a commons has been a topic of considerable importance (Huberman and Lukose 1997; Bernbom 2000; Hess 1995; Benkler 2003). Cotter and Bauldocks (2000) overlaps with the knowledge commons sector but deserves to be mentioned here. They write: “A vast amount of biodiversity information exists, but no comprehensive infrastructure is in place to provide easy access and effective use of this information. The advent of modern information technologies provides a foundation for a remedy.” Their paper outlines some of the essential requirements and some challenges related to building this infrastructure.

Drawing from the traditional commons theory, Sened and Riker (1996) write about air slots as common property. Studying seaports as commons, Bowden and deJong (2006) investigate privatization of infrastructures; while Selsky and Memon (1997) study conflicts arising in urban seaport development.

Budgets can also be seen as falling under the infrastructure sector. Baden and Fort (1980) looked at the federal budget as a commons. Shepsle (1983) wrote about overspending a budget as a commons problem. Hurley and Card (1996) make a case for global physicians’ budgets as a commons. Brubaker (1997) applies the tragedy of the commons to budgets." (

Source: Hess, Charlotte, Mapping the New Commons (July 1, 2008). [1]


Sam Rose and Paul Hartzog offer the following typology for Commons based on different distributed infrastructures:

  1. Energy Commons
  2. Food Commons
  3. Thing Commons
  4. Cultural Commons
  5. Access Commons

"Creating an infrastructure commons around the above needs will create what we are calling a "wealth generating ecology".

"Wealth generating ecology" is what I offer to people when they ask me to create an open source business model for them. I tell them that they don't need a "business model" they need a "wealth generating ecology" that generates multiple types of wealth, defined by what the people and systems in the ecology decide is 'wealth'. (For instance, in Adam Arvidsson's "Ethical Economy", sound ethics and actual trust are one of the highest forms of "wealth" in the system. )

Energy and Food commons are self explanatory (in fact if you really think about it, food is actually part of the energy commons, as food is transformed and stored energy for human physical systems) "Thing Commons" above is what some people call "means of production". Open license machines, designs, materials, etc. This is probably going to be Paul's offering to the group. But, we'd work on it with you ahead of time either way.

"Access Commons" is our current place holder for access to data flows, designs, networks, resources, anything that is a building block towards basic survival. Plus, it addresses the encirclement of concepts and resources which were never meant to have access blocked off from (like atomics particles and compounds, genes, etc that otherwise naturally flow and evolve freely within systems)." (p2presearch list, August 2009)


Commons-Based Welfare Infrastructures in European Cities

by Daniela Patti and Levente Polyak:

"In the course of the economic crisis, many European cities witnessed the emergence of a parallel welfare infrastructure: the volunteer-run hospitals and social kitchens in Athens, the occupied schools, gyms and theatres of Rome or the community-run public squares of Madrid are only a few examples of this phenomenon. European municipalities responded to this challenge in a variety of ways. Some cities like Athens began to examine how to adjust their regulations to enable the functioning of community organisations, others created new legal frameworks to share public duties with community organisations in contractual ways, like Bologna with the Regulation of the Commons. In several other cities, administrations began experimenting with crowdfunding public infrastructures, like in Ghent or Rotterdam, where municipalities offer match-funding to support successful campaigns, or with participatory budgeting, like in Paris, Lisbon or Tartu. Yet other public administrations in the UK, the Netherlands or Austria invited the private sphere to invest in social services in the form of Social Impact Bonds, where the work of NGOs or social enterprises is pre-financed by private actors who are paid back with a return on their investment in case the evaluation of the delivered service is positive.

Alternatively, some cities chose to support local economy and create more resilient neighbourhoods with self-sustaining social services through grant systems. The City of Lisbon, for instance, after identifying a number of “priority neighbourhoods” that need specific investments to help social inclusion and ameliorate local employment opportunities, launched the BIP/ZIP program that grants selected civic initiatives with up to 40.000 euros. The granted projects, chosen through an open call, have to prove their economic sustainability and have to spend the full amount in one year. The BIP/ZIP project, operating since 2010, gave birth to a number of self-sustaining civic initiatives, including social kitchens that offer affordable food and employment for locals or cooperative hotels that use their income from tourism to support social and cultural projects. In 2015 the experience of the BIP/ZIP matured in a Community-Led Local Development Network, as identified by the European Union’s Cohesion Policy 2014-2020, which will grant the network access to part of the Structural Funds of the City of Lisbon. The CLLD is a unique framework for the democratic distribution of public funds: it foresees the management of the funding to be shared between administration, private and civic partners, with none of them having the majority of shares and votes.

While, as the previous cases demonstrate, the public sector plays an important role in strengthening civil society in some European cities, many others witnessed the emergence of new welfare services provided by the civic economy completely outside or without any help by the public sector. In some occasions, community contribution appears in the form of philanthropist donation to support the construction, renovation or acquisition of playgrounds, parks, stores, pubs or community spaces. In others, community members act as creditors or investors in an initiative that needs capital, in exchange for interest, shares or the community ownership of local assets, for instance, shops in economically challenged neighbourhoods. Crowdfunding platforms also help coordinating these processes: the French Bulb in Town platform, specialized in community investment, gathered over 1 million euros for the construction of a small hydroelectric plant in Ariège that brings investors a return of 7% per year.

Besides aggregating resources from individuals to support particular cases, community infrastructure projects are also helped by ethical investors. When two artists mobilised their fellow tenants to save the listed 10.000 m2 Rotaprint in the Berlin district of Wedding, they invited several organisations working on moving properties off the speculation market and eliminating the debts attached to land, to help them buy the buildings. While the complex was bought and is renovated with the help of an affordable loan by the CoOpera pension fund, the land was bought by the Edith Maryon and Trias Foundations and is rented (with a long-term lease, a “heritable building right”) to ExRotaprint, a non-profit company, making it impossible to resell the shared property. With its sustainable cooperative ownership model, ExRotaprint provides affordable working space for manufacturers as well as social and cultural initiatives whose rents cover the loans and the land’s rental fee.

Creating community ownership over local assets and keeping profits benefit local residents and services is a crucial component of resilient neighbourhoods. Challenging the concept of value and money, many local communities began to experiment with complementary currencies like the Brixton or Bristol Pounds. Specific organisational forms like Community Land Trusts or cooperatives have been instrumental in helping residents create inclusive economic ecosystems and sustainable development models.

In Liverpool’s Anfield neighbourhood, a community bakery is the symbol of economic empowerment: renovated and run by the Homebaked Community Land Trust established in April 2012, the bakery – initially backed by the Liverpool Biennale – offers employment opportunities for locals, and it is the catalyst of local commerce and the centre of an affordable housing project that is developed in the adjacent parcels. Similarly, a few kilometres east, local residents established another CLT to save the Toxteth neighborhood from demolition. The Granby Four Streets Community Land Trust, with the help of social investors and a young collective of architects (winning the prestigious Turner prize), organised a scheme that includes affordable housing, community-run public facilities and shops.

The economic self-determination of a community has been explored at the scale of an entire neighbourhood by the Afrikaanderwijk Cooperative in Southern Rotterdam. The cooperative is an umbrella organisation that connects workspaces with shopkeepers, local makers, social foundations, and the local food market: they have developed an energy collective in cooperation with an energy supplier that realises substantial savings for businesses in the neighbourhood; a cleaning service that ensures that cleaning work is commissioned locally; and a food delivery service for elderly people in the neighbourhood.

With community organisations and City Makers acquiring significant skills to manage welfare services, urban infrastructures and inclusive urban development processes, it is time for their recognition by established actors in the public and private sectors. The EU’s Urban Agenda, developing guidelines for a more sustainable and inclusive development of European cities, can be a catalyst of this recognition: it can prompt the creation of new instruments and policies to enable such community-led initiatives. While the Cohesion Policy 2014-2020 has developed the CLLD framework, not many Member States chose to use this instrument. The Urban Agenda could therefore envision the adoption of more methods to be experimented by City Administrations, to allow for a more sustainable and inclusive allocation of resources. Whether through matchfunding, grant systems, or simply removing the legal barriers of cooperatives, land trusts and community investment, municipalities could join the civil society in developing a more resilient civic economy with accessible jobs, affordable housing, clean energy, and social integration." (

More Information

  • Mapping the New Commons
  •, c'est un partage de matériel de manuels de gestion et d'organisation d'infrastructures.