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Ecuador Takes First Step Toward a Commons Economy

Government sponsors research on how to transition to commoning and open networks

(Photo by Martin Dewar under a Creative Commons license.)

The commons transition plan continues to move forward, most recently with a series of meetings held in late May.  Look for more coverage here in the near future.

In 2013, the government of Ecuador launched a major strategic research project to “fundamentally re-imagine Ecuador” based on the principles of open networks, peer production and commoning. Michel Bauwens, founder of the P2P Foundation would be leading the research team for the next ten months, and seeking to “remake the roots of Ecuador’s economy, setting off a transition into a society of free and open knowledge.”

The announcement of the project was made in September, 2013, by the Free/Libre Open Knowledge Society, or FLOK Society, a project at the IAEN national university that has the support of the Ministry of Human Resource and Knowledge in Ecuador. (FLOK stands for "Free, Libre, Open Knowledge", and the FLOK Society is a government-sponsored project to imagine how Ecuador might make a strategic transition to a workable post-capitalist knowledge economy.)

The research project is focusing on many interrelated themes, including open education; open innovation and science; “arts and meaning-making activities”; open design commons; distributed manufacturing; sustainable agriculture; and open machining. The research also explores enabling legal and institutional frameworks to support open productive capacities; new sorts of open technical infrastructures and systems for privacy, security, data ownership and digital rights; and ways to mutualize the physical infrastructures of collective life and promote collaborative consumption.

The FLOK Society project builds on a larger, preexisting national development vision that Ecuador has been pursuing. You should check out the impressive government report, National Plan for Good Living, 2009-2013 (pdf file) here.

Transition Plan

At the beginning of April, the FLOK Society released their transition plan accompanied by more than a dozen policy frameworks for specific social and economic domains.

The main document can be read here – and here is a series of specific sectoral policy proposals. This is an analysis of global trends in the production of knowledge and culture and a bold attempt to reformulate state policies to assure that maximum social benefits flow from them. The “advanced” industrial economies continue to cling to archaic intellectual property regimes that ignore network dynamics and prey upon the value created by nonmarket communities. But Ecuador’s path-breaking project seeks to go beyond neoliberal economics and policy.

A guiding idea in this effort is Buen Vivir (Sumak Kawsay) or “good living,” an indigenous peoples’ concept that refers to a life that balances material, social and spiritual needs and satisfactions (i.e., getting beyond compulsive material growth and consumerism). FLOK Society researchers realize that Buen Vivir is impossible without Buen Conocer (Sumak Yachay), which is the idea of “good knowledge.” Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa has personally urged young people to achieve and fight for this open knowledge society. The long-term challenge, of course, is getting governments to whole-heartedly embrace and ratify such visions and working out in detail how Ecuador and other nations might make a smooth transition to a commons-based peer production society.

Vision of a post-capitalist economy

As Research Director of the project, Michel Bauwens and his team are exploring the practical challenges of making commons-based peer production a widespread, feasible reality as a matter of national policy and law.

Four short videos describe the project to date – each four to six minutes in length.

Part I: The FLOK Society

Bauwens asks us to “imagine that for every human activity, there is a commons of knowledge that every citizen, business and public official can use.” This regime of open, shareable knowledge moves away from the idea of privatized knowledge accessible only to those with the money to pay for copyrighted and patented knowledge. The system can be adapted for education, science, medical research and civic life, among other areas.

What are the “feeding mechanisms” to enable and empower commons-based peer production? For open education, for example, open textbooks and open educational resources would help people enter into this alternative regime. However, there are both material and immaterial conditions that must be addressed as well.

One material condition is proprietary hardware, for example. If open systems could replace the existing lock-down of proprietary systems, all users could spend one-eighth of what they are currently paying, on average. Moreover, eight times more students as Bauwens points out, could participate in creating and sharing, which in itself would yield enormous gains. As for "immaterial conditions" that need to change, innovations like “open certification” are needed to recognize the skills of those who learn outside of traditional institutions, as in hacker communities.

Part II: Traditional Knowledge

A special set of challenges arise in protecting the benefits of knowledge-sharing for traditional societies. Such communities have shared their knowledge internally for generations, but in recent decades multinational corporations have taken this knowledge without compensation to produce patented seeds and other proprietary products. So traditional and indigenous communities are understandably wary of the idea of a “sharing economy.” They've done it forever, and the practice is highly vulnerable to ripoffs by big market players ("biopiracy").

One solution, says Bauwens, is for communities to introduce “reciprocity-based licenses” and create their own “ethical market entities” that serve the community on their own terms. “The peer production license,” said Bauwens, “is a type of license in which only other commoners, cooperatives and nonprofits can access and use the licensed material." The licenses would prohibit commercial entities from making profits from the commons without explicit reciprocity.

Part III: Value regimes

Bauwens describes different types of “value regime” for producing and allocating wealth. The dominant model of our times is “Cognitive Capitalism”, in which surplus value is extracted from intellectual property, which is controlled by big companies whose products are sold for a big markup. Only one-fifth of the capitalization of large companies consists of identifiable material assets, and the rest is a matter of some speculation. This means that there is a lot of “missing value” that has intangible dimensions. And a lot of this clearly stems from the social cooperation that is involved in value-creation.

Another value regime Bauwens calls “netarchical capitalism.” This is the hierarchy of open networks used by capitalists. Facebook is a prime example. Its massive stock values stem from the user community, whose self-organization and sharing create “attention capital,” which Facebook then sells to the advertising market. “We see an exponential growth of use-value produced by users themselves,” said Bauwens, “but the monetization is only through large, proprietary platforms like Facebook.”

This amounts to another form of exploitation of the commons. The value of crowdsourcing, for example, has been estimated at $2 per hour, which is far below the minimum wage for conventional work. “People are free to contribute,” said Bauwens, “but there is no democratization of the means of monetization.”

The alternative that we should be building, he urged, is “a civic P2P economy where the value returns to the value creators.” We need to develop new sorts of ethical market entities that can produce “cooperative accumulation” instead of “capital accumulation.”

Part 4: Technological Regimes

It seems clear that P2P networks are going to expand in the future, but it remains problematic whether commoners will be able to reap the benefits of their own work. That’s because the very design of the technology can affect who may benefit.

Bauwens shows a chart with four quadrants. The quadrant for “netarchical capitalism” has centralized control of the backend design of the system, the privatization of users’ personal information, and private profitmaking. “This value-regime is inscribed in the very design of the technology,” Bauwens notes.

Another quadrant is “anarcho-capitalist design” – capitalist, but distributed, not centralized. However, because there is still an artificial scarcity in accessing resources (e.g., Bitcoin), there are still artificial limits on who may benefit.

Another is “local and distributed,” which provides for-benefit sharing for everyone. Examples include bike-sharing, car-sharing, and the open sharing of knowledge. This value-regime, exemplified by the local resilience and Transition Town movement, is certainly an improvement over cognitive and netarchical capitalism, but it has limits because it is only local. It does not connect with the global.

The most desirable quadrant for the future, says Bauwens, is the quadrant that combines local production with global commons for the benefit of everyone. The idea is that what is heavy (physical production) should be local, but what is light (design, knowledge) should be global. Examples include FarmHack, Open Source Ecology and other distributed design systems for agricultural equipment – “open hardware.”

This value-regime in its very design would support distributed networks of micro-factories where product designs could be downloaded and produced for roughly one-eighth of the cost of conventional, proprietary products. This infrastructure would support local domestic production of appropriate technologies for family and indigenous farms, for example. Needless to say, this tech design regime is quite different from the centralized control and proprietary expense that corporations like Monsanto and Del Monte are seeking to impose on localities around the world.

Of course, making this vision a reality will entail all sorts of additional work in elaborating realistic pathways forward, and in building the political and social infrastructure.

This is excerpted from Bollier.org, featuring news and perspective on the commons from David Bollier. He is author of the new book Think Like A Commoner: A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons (New Society Publishers). The founding editor of OnTheCommons.org, Bollier now works on a variety of commons projects with international and domestic partners.