Digital Social Innovation and the commons

A new vocabulary of peer production and the commons emerges from the need to converge the work of a growing network of socially oriented organizations, companies, and individuals. In the new DSI4EU project, these movements are studied and supported through the lens of ‘digital social innovation’.

Digital social innovation enables people to co-create knowledge and solutions for a wide range of social needs at a scale that was unimaginable before the rise of internet-enabled platforms (Bria, 2015). While business innovation is generally, directly or indirectly, driven by profit maximization, digital social innovation serves to describe a nascent field where digital technologies are used to address societal challenges while circumventing the reliance on both financial incentives and the centralization of information, data, and resources in the hands of a few big players. The keywords of twenty-first century welfare politics include participation, sustainability and trust – qualities that have proven to be difficult to engender given the prevailing state-market dichotomy in European society. This underlines the need for a renewal of civic engagement. Here digital social innovation has a prominent role to play – in a way, it seeks to reinstate the primacy of what has in the past decades been called the ‘third sector’.

Digital social innovation takes off within a broader movement of theory and practice revolving around peer cooperation and the pursuit of social goals. A word associated with institutions found in days long gone has come to stick to this movement: the commons. Originally pointing to communally managed meadows and farmlands, the term ‘commons’ gained broader meaning through the work of economic historians who used it as an analytical tool to understand how members of communities together create, own and sustain their shared resources (see for example Elinor Ostrom’s seminal Governing the Commons, 1990). Sociologists and governance scholars, stumbling on this literature, then found it a helpful concept to explain the workings of collective action. In particular, thinkers and scholars started seeking application of the commons vocabulary in current governance challenges such as social and ecological sustainability in modern, global society. These complex and high-risk challenges need unprecedented forms of cooperation between growing numbers of actors in order to get ‘unstuck’ and move forward.

One might wonder why precisely the commons – with their local, bottom-up nature and seemingly limited institutional scope – are looked at for the necessary rejuvenation of governance. Two main reasons may be supplied here.

Firstly, the commons are a source of inspiration and zeal. Seeing the struggle of states and markets in keeping society on track, people are eager to get organized and contribute to issues that influence their lives and that of their children. Many problems our society encounters also echo the history of the commons of old. From urban issues such as pricey housing and residential stress, to the ‘global commons’ of climate, oceans and terrestrial landscapes: collective goods are under pressure everywhere, and citizens want to engage. As if awoken from an idle dream consisting of mere private and bureaucratic relations, people see that most of what is valuable should be considered wealth produced and held in common; “the gifts of nature and society we inherit or create together” (Peter Barnes, Capitalism 3.0, 2006). In ‘the commons’ people find ideas on what their roles can be and what language they can use to connect with other people. For example, 2016 saw the launch of the European Commons Assembly, a network geared to exchange experience around modern-day commons initiatives and advocate for policy change in advance of ‘commoning’. In their words:

“Civic and community initiatives are working to vitalize our urban, rural, scientific and digital commons, and promoting a future guided by democratic participation, social equity and environmental sustainability. At the heart of these acts of ‘commoning’ are satisfying, joyful social relationships that regenerate our interpersonal and physical surroundings.” (European Commons Assembly, 2017)

Secondly – and here we return to our subject matter – with the Internet, the commons can be big. Digital infrastructure not only enables the organization of social, collective action on the scale needed for present-day challenges, but also sparks the creation new kinds of goods and benefits that are generated by the users themselves. Code, artwork, apps, online tools and knowledge are being created and shared in astronomical volumes since the computer and the web became household technologies. Some material is commercial, but peer production particularly allows non-commercial production to thrive – open for anyone to use and improve. It is no coincidence that one of the main resources of the Internet age goes by the name of Creative Commons. In this vein, information society theorist Yochai Benkler coined the term ‘commons-based peer production’ to describe the new mode of value creation in digitally networked, non-commercial environments. Bauwens and co-authors pick up on his current of thinking and explain that

“In the realm of information that can be shared and copied at low marginal costs, the P2P [peer-to-peer] networks of interconnected computers used by collaborating people can provide vital shared functionalities for the commons. However, P2P does not only refer to the digital sphere and is not solely related to high technology. P2P can generally be synonymous with ‘commoning’, in the sense that it describes the capacity to contribute to the creation and maintenance of a shared resource.” (Michel Bauwens, Vasilis Kostakis, and Alex Pazaitis, forthcoming)

The ‘commoning’ definition of peer production should be considered normative rather than self-evident. For example, peer-to-peer techniques are amply found in commercial web-based services, such as audio and video streaming platforms. But more prominently, we have the ‘great disruption’ of hospitality and taxi services by P2P platforms Uber and AirBnB. The familiar debate these players have caused need not be repeated, but the message to be taken to heart is: P2P innovations span a wide gamut, ranging from the hyper-social to the hyper-commercial, and the implications for value creation and the sharing of benefits versus burdens are significant. Our concern is, on the one hand, the ability of policymakers and civil servants to ‘read’ what is going on, and on the other, the ability of ‘commoners’ to communicate their own experiences and interests. The DSI4EU project aims to help practitioners measure and discuss digital social innovation activities in ways beyond conventional economic or administrative gauges, which fail to capture much of the soul of commons-oriented DSI initiatives.

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