Science of the Commons?

English: ARDX - Arduino Experimentation Kit (I...

ARDX – Arduino Experimentation Kit (Inside the box) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We progressives and activists often do a better job at describing problems than crafting solutions. The best way to get at solutions is a rigorous program of empirical experimentation. The contemporary dialog on the commons gives us some hypotheses to work with (although they are mostly old fare), but that’s about as far as it goes. Even when people act together and implement various ideas (collectives, coops, ecovillages, etc), a decade or two later that group or project may be gone, leaving very little for us to analyze as to the reasons for its failure. Or it may still be going strong but we may have little real understanding of why.

Does it replicate?

Throwing down the gauntlet

Throwing spaghetti at the wall is an experiment, but what we need are longitudinal studies and comprehensive programs of progressive, coherent, controlled experimentation.

I also suggest the discourse on the commons should center on in vivo and in situ cases rather than on theories or principles. When we look at cases we see things we like and dislike, even if we may not know why. Theories and principles can help us explain what we like and don’t like, but seldom help us recognize it. The problem with reinventing the wheel ex nihilo is that you might end up with a better wheel or a worse one. A better approach is to start with a sample of existing wheels and try to understand the advantages and flaws of each.

If the current commons movement really represents something new, it should philosophize less and say more about how it is going to create a scientific framework for its program.

Information Technology

One step in that direction involves information technology. I am imagining an information system of commons practice and research. The P2P collaborative economy, free culture, and new commons movements are creating a lot of digital content. Most is in discursive and narrative form that is time consuming to read. Among this volume of content are case studies in a variety of formats (many very informal), business plans, proposals, and presumably many legal documents (charters, agreements, etc.).

I am imagining a semantic ontology according to which the key ideas and data of this content could be parsed and tagged to form a distributed database using open linked-data structures. This would help transition the collective knowledge base of the research, activist, and social entrepreneur communities into a machine-readable, semantically linked, searchable form.

Much of the digital content of interest is already in “wiki” form. The P2P Foundation Wiki is an excellent searchable resource, and perhaps the semantic wiki extensions for the wiki engine could eventually be applied. “A semantic wiki is a wiki that has an underlying model of the knowledge described in its pages. Regular, or syntactic, wikis have structured text and untyped hyperlinks. Semantic wikis, on the other hand, provide the ability to capture or identify information about the data within pages, and the relationships between pages, in ways that can be queried or exported like a database.” (Wikipedia/Semantic_wiki)

A fringe benefit of creating such data structures for existing content would be to provide common templates for future content creation and data collection.

Moving Forward

The “old ways” often had utility, but as a result of eons of trial and error which seldom had much more than temporal correlation with the prevailing philosophies, ideologies, myths, and intellectual fashions of the times. “Creating those attractors authentic to a population’s readiness” (Bruce Kunkle) is a good idea as well as a well-turned phrase. So I don’t mean to dismiss the importance of rhetoric and public relations, but if we are to have something truly worthy of communicating we need for the science and engineering (R&D) to keep pace with the philosophy and rhetoric.

A new science of the commons needs to go beyond the old narratives of economics, sociology, and even traditional ecology. I highly recommend the following topics:

We don’t have eons to muck around any more. I say this respectfully as a commoner, communitarian, conservationist, and all-around activist who has been mucking around for decades.

Poor Richard

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3 Responses to “Science of the Commons?”

  1. P2P Foundation's blog » Blog Archive » Building a dictionary for an economics of the commons Says:

    […] Science of the Commons? (Poor Richard’s Almanack 2.0) […]

  2. Mark Magnuson Says:

    T. Dietz “The Darwinian trope in the drama of the commons: variations on some themes by the Ostroms” Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization uses this interesting term “Science of the Commons” Who do I cite for its use here?

    • Poor Richard Says:

      Thanks for reading, Mark, and for pointing out the Dietz article. I’m sorry I can’t give you anything less anonymous to cite for the present use of the term “science of the commons” in this post. It just came, as they say, off the top of my pretty little head.


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