The Commons as Innovation Engine

David Bollier took Illahee attendees on a comprehensive tour of the commons, and made a case for the commons as an engine of innovation. It’s worth reading the text of Bollier’s Illahee talk. Or listening to it  here. His thesis resonated with Richard Jefferson’s talk in March. Remember how, once global maps were opened up to explorers everywhere in the late 1500s, exploration blossomed? Bollier makes much the same case for all sorts of resources, with one caveat, which Jefferson would also stipulate: the commons must be carefully managed with the consent of the commoners (that would be us).  With that one check on our use of the commons, we’re less likely to experience Tragedies of the Commons, which result from flawed governance structures. Bollier distinguishes “growth/efficiency innovation” from “commons innovation,” that is, innovation for public good.

David Bollier

Multinational beverage companies are sucking up groundwater and selling it back to us with sugar added. Biotech companies block innovation by patenting human genes that could be used by diverse entrepreneurs to attack diseases. Foreign investors have begun a global “land grab” forcing subsistence formers into cities (much like the ‘enclosure’ process in feudal Europe). And our cultural commons are under attack (ASCAP has tried to shake down summer camps for signing copyrighted songs; the Olympic committee has a trademark on the word Olympics). Do any of these actions really help our economy and culture?

But there is an alternative, or suite of alternatives, to this kind of innovation through ownership of common resources. Bollier presented examples from farmers cooperating to manage water, fishers to manage fisheries, code jockeys to share computer code like LINUX, and internet users to create shared information resources like Wikipedia. Bollier presented many more examples, and sumed up the commons as not just “a thing or a resource.  It’s a resource plus a social community and the social values, rules and norms that are used to manage the resource.” Most crucially, Bollier sees the commons “as an important scaffolding for reinventing governance and economic thought.” Bottom line, the commons is about having a stake in the game, or to quote Cicero: “Freedom is participation in power.”

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