About Commons Network
“The biggest ‘tragedy of the commons’ is the misconception that commons are failures”
Commons Network promotes access to knowledge and other social and ecological causes from the perspective of the commons. We engage in policy formulation as well as public debate, promoting the common good through commons-based solutions. We cooperate with civic initiatives, translating ideas and concerns into broader policy initiatives.
The Commons Network is a civil society initiative and think-tank working on a local, national and European level. We feel a new balance favoring the common good needs be found in many different spheres of society. The challenge is to create political will and institutions that facilitate and allow for this. The commons approach allows for a comprehensive way to confront this challenge.
We are also an access to knowledge advocacy initiative with a social justice and sustainability approach. We aim to overcome the tension that at times exists between a strict individual rights approach, often embracing a narrow atomistic view of society, and the defense of collective social equity and ecological protection. While also adamant in our defense of individual rights we go beyond this point of view and aim for broader socially just policies that promote fair institutional frameworks for the generation and management of knowledge.
The Commons refer to shared resources yet maybe more importantly to a new perspective. The commons are diverse; they include knowledge and water, software and cultural works as well as the social fabric of our society. Furthermore, the commons refer to a domain that is different both from the market and the state.
When we take the commons perspective we start see that the commons underlie everything we do. All human activity, including all our economic activities, relies upon the world’s natural wealth as well as our inherited knowledge and social norms. The perspective of the commons makes us conscious of the interdependency between people, as well as the dependency of people on social structures and nature that are in principle, all shared. It leads one to consider the world as having a set of resources that are to be shared equitably while all bear a responsibility for their governance.
A new balance favoring the common good needs to be found. Our current economic culture has focused on the advantages of privatization and the incentives for wealth creation that it brings. However, the excessive privatization of the natural world as well as human-made resources such as ‘knowledge’, have led to the depletion of the commons. Increased social inequity seems to be an inevitable result of the current economic system. At the same time many of our common life support systems like water, rainforests and the atmosphere are under deathly threat. In the knowledge sphere, intellectual property protection such as patents and copyright, designed to provide incentives for the production of knowledge, also create scarcity. This has resulted in people being excluded from access to for example research or medicines when priced out of their reach.
The commons perspective suggests other ways of complementing and moderating those centered on private property to organize our world. Environmental sustainability, equity and fairness are core values and not just externalities to be dealt separately with end-of -the pipe solutions. Commons-based solutions are distinctive innovations and policies that help people manage resources cooperatively and sustainably, while ensuring equitable access. These solutions can be small or large scale across many spheres of our society. They can concern the way we organize pharmaceutical research, how we manage our water, how we manage our local parks and schools or elderly care. The prime commons example of our time is the Internet where all can take part and co-produce, although increasingly colonized by private parties.
The commons approach is not only an economic perspective about fair distribution; it embraces community as a goal in itself, small or large. Citizens’ initiatives like collaborative consumption, sharing initiatives and time banking where people engage with their local community, as well as global initiatives such as open access publishing and open source software all embrace the commons.
Institutional space needs to be created for the development of these new ways of organizing economies and societies. There is a role for governments to establish institutions and implement laws that facilitate the creation and maintenance of our commons. Clearly governments already do this to a certain extent, in providing public goods like education and healthcare just as they play a large role in protecting private property. The challenge is to create political will and to design appropriate laws and institutions. The commons approach allows for comprehensive way to confront this challenge – leading us to a society favoring participation and cooperation as well as sustainability and equitable access to common goods.
The Knowledge Commons
With knowledge we refer to all types of understanding gained through experience or study, which includes scientific, scholarly and indigenous knowledge as well as music and the arts. Looking at knowledge as a commons—as a shared resource—allows us to understand both its limitless possibilities and what threatens it. A knowledge commons perspective offers a way forward for designing institutions that sanction and facilitate equitable access to knowledge goods. In the age of information and knowledge economies, access to knowledge has become one of the key social justice issues of our time. The rapid advances in technologies of the past two decades have significantly altered and improved the ways that data and information can be produced, disseminated, managed, and used in science, innovation, culture, and many other spheres.
Intellectual property rights have been designed to provide incentives for the production of knowledge. Yet, at the same time knowledge is now subject to limiting enclosure through those intellectual property rights. Most notorious enclosures of knowledge – and therewith the exclusion of many- are related to the struggles for access to health, education, science and food. Monopolies pricing essential medicines out of reach for the majority of the world’s population are accepted as a necessary evil of the pharmaceutical innovation system. Subscriptions to scientific publications crippling universities budgets, slowing down innovation and making it impossible for those in developing countries to have access are the norm. Increasingly we see life forms like plant seeds and genes being aggressively patented. Also, in many of these cases public money made a large contribution to the producing of the knowledge`, in universities or research institutes and with grants or subsidies.
Sharing valuable knowledge enhances socially useful innovation and can further the social, economic and environmental wellbeing of all. The design, production and governance of knowledge goods and systems have to take this into account. Institutional set ups need to allow for a further exploration of models that promote open and collaborative innovation; models that ensure broad access to public knowledge goods such as medicines, educational resources, creative works and research data. Knowledge commons can allow for collaborative and decentralized production, now made possible by the advancement of technology. There has been a revolutionary rise of effective cooperative efforts- peer-to-peer production of information, knowledge and culture – typified by the emergence of free and open source software. Wikipedia and 3d printing are illustrative examples, but we also see increasing open source and collaborative initiatives in biomedical development, or the rise in importance of crowdsourcing platforms and citizen journalism.
Furthermore, access to knowledge enables participation and voice – knowledge commons provide shared spaces that enable free speech and democratic processes. Here, transparency of public institutions and decision-making is key. Currently, a lack of social awareness and citizen engagement exists regarding the importance of access to knowledge in many spheres of our lives. At the same time there is a need for careful thought on the challenges, contradictions and ideas surrounding the commons and access to knowledge. One obvious challenge is that of privacy regarding data such a health data and how to reconcile that with the public benefits of open data policies. It is critical that a broad social consciousness emerges on the knowledge commons that appreciates the different access to knowledge issues and their broader social justice implications.
Find out more about Commons Network by visiting their website