I think it’s fair to say that many of us are inspired by things like Wikipedia and other forms of online peer-production where information is created, shared and distributed for common good and without profit, voluntarily by contributors to Wikipedia. That’s not to say that Wikipedia is perfect by any stretch of the imagination (its organisation is still quite hierarchical), but nevertheless the goal and the results are impressive. The reason anything like this is possible is because the cost of online infrastructure is cheap enough that it can be maintained primarily through good will donations and a bit of nagging.
So we’ve established that we can have people voluntarily create information just so that they can contribute to a commons of information that everyone can readily access.
Similarly, we are also inspired by the Free software movement that successfully grew a massive and widely used ecosystem of technology which would be incredibly expensive to replicate - and it managed to do that largely through clever licensing and ingenious software development which has grown an amazing, diverse commons of software. A great example of this as a success is GCC which as we know has an amazing variety of backends developed by companies that needed to target various architectures.
We’ve also now established that we can make profit-making companies contribute to a commons if we give them a tasty enough carrot (GNU) and a hard enough stick (GPL).
What about the physical world, though? We’ve looked at examples of this happening on computers, but can it happen in the physical world? It may be possible to create, for instance, a local system of “peer maintained” fruit and vegetable patches. Come and pick your own afterwards. This has happened in a small way, for instance a few years ago I volunteered with the charity Trees for Cities, and planted a nut-bearing tree in a park near Barking/Ilford along with many others planting a variety of fruit and nut bearing trees with the hope of creating access to free, healthy food for visitors to the park.
This is possible because, like with Wikipedia, we had access to the park and the maintenance costs are relatively cheaply covered by the local council which would have to tend the land anyway and the trees themselves were picked to grow well in the UK’s climate.
There are of course problems with schemes like this: For instance, it relies on volunteer labour - so nobody is going to get paid for this, and the network of ‘commons’ resources are not nearly enough to survive on. Much has been said about the extractive nature of ‘digital labour’ on private platforms like Youtube and so some consideration has to be given to avoiding situations like that. Volunteering on something like this is something you can only do with the privilege of some free time, of course. The GNU project solved this by forcing people to contribute if they wanted to take advantage of their software.
I think that perhaps technology co-operatives have a role to play in this. How do you intentionally create commons as a side-effect of a business in the current world while paying people doing the work? How do you identify situations where things like this might work and expand? If it’s not possible to expand on this, then why not? Answering these kinds of questions could lead to solutions.