Open Food Network as a Case Study of Commons Based Peer Production

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* Article: Open Food Network – A Case Study of Commons Based Peer Production. By Theresa Schumilas.



‘Commons based peer production’ is a form of participatory governance that embodies voluntary social interactions, where common value is created and circulated in the form of information (i.e. Wikipedia) and open source software (i.e. Wordpress). This paper examines the articulation of this governance approach in the ‘open food’ movement. Beginning in 2015, the Open Food Network (OFN) is now a global community, working outside of formal state structures to “turn the food system on its head” by enabling networking and digital transformation of movements for fair and sustainable food around the world. OFN believes that technology, if rooted in an ethic of putting people first, can help unite the many small-scale, local, green and fair farms and food initiatives that are emerging around the world.

Based on a year of participatory engagement in the OFN, this paper explores how commons based peer production (CBPP) as a mode of governance articulates in this global civic network and explores the possibilities for extrapolating this software governance mode to material food networks and sytsems ‘on the ground’.

The analysis proceeds as follows. First, I describe CBPP as currently theorized. Second, I introduce the Open Food Network and examine its governance processes by following a particular ‘thorny’ challenge the network faced in early 2017. Finally I extrapolate from the use of CBPP in OFN software production, and suggest implications of this governance approach in terrestrial (on the ground) food networks and systems."


From the 'Conclusions and Implications'L

"The internet (and associated its communication technologies) is frequently depicted as a super highway on which communications, commerce, politics and governance processes all drive. The highway circulates all our messages about what to eat and avoid for our health, how food is produced and by whom, the ecological, economic and cultural impacts of our choices, and who to praise or blame for any positive and negative effects. As such, the ICT highway shapes our ideas about food systems as both problems and solutions. Further, in a material sense, the highway facilitates trade and strongly shapes which foods are available where and when, from whom and at what price. ICT is part of the complex of social-technical practices that surround food.

However, this ICT is rapidly consolidating into a big toll road that serves to marginalize those without the requisite skills or ability to pay. The Open Food Network is a new global civic community building a set of open lanes alongside the tolls. These lanes are the beginnings of a new public infrastructure upon which food initiatives, networks, systems and movements can assemble, link together, proliferate and engage in both commerce and advocacy for food system transformation. The construction has only just begun. In this paper I have offered an early glimpse into the ways in which the global OFN community uses a commons based peer production and governance approach.

OFN and its articulation of CBPP, like other governance processes described in this issue, offers a promising and hopeful way forward for sustainable food networks and initiatives. Yet, while OFN demonstrates a governance approach that emphasizes solidarity and cooperation over self-interest and competition, it is also a space of political struggle and there are some contradictions to be worked through. This analysis challenges the dichotomy between the material and the immaterial. On one hand, OFN is governing an immaterial ‘knowledge commons’ of code and software. But the global OFN project was initiated in order to assist sustainable food initiatives and networks ‘on the ground’ in their very material work of producing, trading, storing, inventorying, transporting actual food products. What can we learn from this digital co-production and commons based governance that might inform the sustainable and fair production and distribution of tangible goods in ‘terrestrial’ food systems? Further, how might CBPP help with food system transformation?

First, OFN, as described here, manifests and responds to commercial pressures of capitalist economy. Placing privately paid developers alongside volunteers creates the same tensions (such as limited volunteer time) in CBPP as it does in ‘alternative’ food networks operating in physical spaces. The OFN case however, gives hope as it reminds us of how self-directed, variously motivated people can galvanize together in response to challenges. The attention OFN gives to ensuring modularity and granularity of projects, accompanied by a meticulous attention to documenting processes in order to deepen community engagement, might be instructive to food system projects trying to avoid precarious volunteering and volunteer burnout.

Second, while OFN’s governance manifests forms of power and authority that rival ‘command and control’ approaches, at the same time we’ve seen how the leadership can be tempted to default to ‘benevolent dictatorship’ for the sake of efficiency. Yet, the OFN global community is cautious and strongly reflexive about this process. In reflecting on these challenges, participants arrived at a compromise where time consuming deliberation and consensus processes are reserved for important decisions that ‘bind’ or limit possibilities for future participants. But, decisions and actions that don’t eclipse future openness for users can be made expediently by such benevolent dictators. Further, these ‘leaders’ choose to limit their own power by protecting the OFN platform (from their own actions as well as actions of leaders yet unknown) with open source license. In the absence of either private or public ownership, there are few long term assets for the OFN ‘leaders’ to ‘control’ even if individuals were so inclined.

Third, at times a ‘digital utopia’ narrative loosely permeates OFN discourse, and this raises a contradiction (perhaps the ‘elephant in the room’) that was not evidenced in posts or discussions in the US-deployment example. While OFN has based its governance processes on social justice and sustainability values, all the physical infrastructure that enables the OFN (e.g. computers, servers) embodies social injustices and ecological instability characteristic of mining and assembling work in the global South (Fuchs, 2013, 2014). Not confronting this contradiction suggests the belief that software development is a symbolic, non-material exchange, independent of exploitation relations and bio-physical constraints in the ‘real’ world (Pasquinelli, 2008). A non utopian perspective would see the struggle for a free democratic internet and software resources and the struggle for ecological resilience and labour justice as one and the same. Indeed as the OFN expands and deepens engagement with sustainable food initiatives globally, I suspect they will help OFN name and discuss the elephant. Finally, this case shows how placing resources (in this case the OFN platform) into a peer-governed commons, and protecting that commons with clear license, sets up a project that ensures participation, democratizes engagement and buffers against enclosure by capital. The ‘copyleft’ licensing is a legal mechanism that enforces sharing not exclusion (Kloppenberg, 2010). Kloppenberg (2014) goes on to describe how the creation of an enforced seed commons is a basis for food sovereignty, since seed is the basis of all food production and harvest. In the age of ubiquitous internet, where all our information about food comes digitally and food-related knowledge and data are increasingly enclosed, I suggest that sovereignty over code, that is, creating a food technology commons is equally important and hence shares a conceptual space with seeds as components of global food sovereignty. In this sense, we can understand farmers and software developers to be in the same struggle for sovereignty over their inputs and creative processes, and code-savers like OFN participants, struggling for a digital commons are tackling the same problems as seed-savers struggling for a natural commons."