Cosmo-localism and the futures of material production

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This exploratory essay posits the idea of ‘cosmo-localism' (or 'cosmo-localization') as a potentially useful concept in both explaining a new economic model and in formulating sustainable development pathways. It is a thought stimulation exercise that invites us to join a conversation about the design of a new political economy.

The essay begins by providing an overview of the idea for cosmo-localism. Then, following the Futures Triangle template developed by Inayatullah (2008), identifies 1) drivers of change potentiating cosmo-localism, then identifies 2) the obstacles and weights of history impeding cosmo-localism, and finally ends with an exploration of 3) the emerging images of the future that connect with cosmo-localism, in particular by using Dator’s (2009) four archetypal futures images as a scaffold.

Cosmo-localism draws from previous work on alternative globalization pathways, in particular popular discourses articulating relocalization, the global network society and cosmopolitan transnational solidarity (Ramos 2010), as well as the work of Bauwens and Kostakis (2014) in articulating commons-based peer production and Kostakis et al (2015) in developing the Design Global, Manufacture Local model (DG-ML). Finally, there are projects emerging around the world that exemplify cosmo-localism, such as the Fab City initiative.


In very basic terms cosmo-localism describes the dynamic potentials of our emerging globally distributed knowledge and design commons in conjunction with the emerging (high and low tech) capacity for localized production of value. It already exists today in many quickly maturing forms such as with Maker Bot’s Thingverse and the Global Village Construction Set, as well as medicines under Creative Commons licenses (which are then manufactured). Cosmo-localism takes place when easily accessible designs are paired with localized and distributed production capabilities using new breakthrough technologies that facilitate local manufacture / production.

As an emerging issue, cosmo-localism augurs an inversion. Traditional manufacturing and production located intellectual property within (usually) a single company, manufactured a product in a (relatively) centralized place (even if the raw materials were from elsewhere), and then exported this nationally or globally. The neo-liberal turn (starting in the 1970s) saw the emergence of the Global Factory; yet even with the globally distributed corporation, intellectual property is (usually) housed in a corporation (or sometimes licensed), and even while production can straddle a number of countries, assembly centers will then export their products nationally or globally. Cosmo-localism represents an inversion of this logic of production. With cosmo-localism, the intellectual property is available globally for all to use (or can be a Peer Production license). And distributed production centers utilizing new production technologies allow enterprises to manufacture and produce such items locally for local markets and specialized purposes.

cosmolocalism - logics table

Comparative logics - current production and cosmo-localism

The normative impetus for cosmo-localism is based on a number of as-yet unproven assumptions:

  1. that cosmo-localism can help drive the development of localized circular economies / industrial ecologies that can reduce or eliminate waste;
  2. that the localized production of critical products can make a city or region more resilient in the face of financial and environmental shocks;
  3. that cosmo-localism driven import substitution can generate local jobs and expertise and provide new development pathways;
  4. and that the reduction of imported goods from far away places will also reduce carbon and environmental footprints.

Such assumptions, if and when they are proven to be correct, would also represent the potential benefits of cosmo-localism.

Theoretically, cosmo-localism draws strongly from Bauwen’s (2006) long held argument that in today’s networked world, our economies falsely treat immaterial resources (knowledge / designs) as if they were scarce through restrictive global intellectual property regimes, and treat material resources (minerals, soils, water) as if they were abundant. Instead, Bauwens argues that immaterial resources can be shared at close to zero cost, boosting global knowledge and design capabilities, while material resources need true costings in the context of global to local sustainability challenges.

This can be extended through cosmopolitan theory, whereby a global justice imperative is applied to the heritage of the world’s knowledge and designs. If, as Hayden proposes (Hayden, 2004, p. 70) ‘all human beings have equal moral standing within a single world community’ the global design commons should be a human right, critical in addressing poverty, sustainability challenges, addressing social challenges and empowering grassroots enterprise and entrepreneurship. And likewise in the context of global citizenship it is our responsibility to extend, support and protect our global knowledge commons.

Secondly, cosmopolitan theory also posits the idea that, as we belong to a global community that shares the same global future (e.g. climate change will affect different nationalities differently - but all will be affected), we need to create new transnational governance structures and regimes that will ensure our global mutual wellbeing (Held 2005). This second strand puts forward the need for political projects to ensure the protection of global commons. In this way, we need transnational governance structures that protect and extend global knowledge and design commons, as a key pillar in addressing our shared sustainability challenges.

Finally, cosmo-localism draws from, but also critiques and extends relocalization theory. Relocalization advocates argue for the need to eliminate imported goods and relocalize trade and production for a variety of reasons (Hines 2002; Cavanagh and Mander, 2003). First, because of transport costs and associated high carbon / environmental footprints, secondly the need to decouple from what is seen as an unstable, volatile and predatory global capitalist market system, and finally as a way to prepare for what is seen as an inevitable energy descent (the end of fossil fuels) and deal with the effects of climate change. They also argue relocalizing economies (e.g. through sharing systems) can build community solidarity, knowledge and rebalance the effects of consumer homogeneity by cultivating local culture and connection, making communities more resilient (Norberg-Hodge, 1992).

As a counterpoint, I argue that we have emerged into a global knowledge laboratory, where millions of communities are experimenting with change initiatives and sustainability efforts, and that we need to leverage off each other’s experiments and successes, often applying one community’s innovations into a new context. Decoupling from a global knowledge / design commons would therefore be fundamentally detrimental to the very goals of localized sustainability efforts. A relocalization which does not draw from a global knowledge and design commons and which is relegated to only local knowledge can at best produce ‘life boat’ relocalization and at worst will not produce basic sufficiency. Secondly, the systems and structures that allow for a healthy subsidiarity (devolution of power to the local) are mediated at state levels, nationally and through global trade regimes, and therefore the very goals implicit in the relocalization agenda require political and social action at national and transnational scales.

Drivers of change enabling cosmo-localism

In this next section I discuss the critical drivers of change enabling the potential for cosmo-localism:

  1. Global knowledge and design commons
  2. Consumer manufacturing technology
  3. Maker movement
  4. Urbanization and mega-city regions
  5. Economic precarity
  6. Resource impacts, scarcity, and circularization of economies

Knowledge and design resources for a variety of critical support systems are now available in the distributed web under open licenses (creative commons / gnu / copy left), which include: pharmaceutical drugs, food production systems, machinery, automobiles, 3d printed products, robotics, and in many other areas. Literally millions of designs are available under open licenses that allow people to do local 3-D printing, build machinery, robotics and micro-controller systems (Arduino and Raspberry Pi), and food production and agricultural systems, medical applications and medicines, and even the building of electric cars, for example the farm hack project.

A second driver of change potentiating cosmo-localism is the reduction in costs of certain manufacturing equipment. Technologies such as 3d printers, micro-controllers (Arduino/Raspberry Pi), laser cutters, and CNC Routers, that have traditionally been too expensive for individuals to own have more recently become affordable. 3D printing has gone from an expensive hobby that would have cost someone $30,000 ten years ago, and $4000 three years ago, to about $500 for a home kit today. The same cost shift is happening with other machinery. The underlying technologies that drive these machine applications are microcontroller systems, which are now cheap and accessible (also central to emerging Internet of things). While currently we can only do 3D printing with relatively small objects, there are already a number of large-scale 3D printing systems for printing houses and other items. In China inventors have 3D printed houses in under a day. And Wikispeed have developed new ways to produce open sourced cars. Enterprise 3D printing is well-established with the printing of space modules as well as engine aircraft parts. Finally new advances in distributed energy production and storage mean that cosmo-localism may locate across urban, peri-urban and rural forms.

A third factor driving the potential for cosmo-localism is the maker movement. The maker movement is a very broad church and includes everything from preindustrial handcrafts such as jewelry making (e.g. the Etsy marketplace), textile making to well-established industrial crafts such as metal foundry work, power-based woodwork and welding, but also straddling the high-tech end of the spectrum. The grassroots maker movement has a strong commitment to open source and knowledge justice approaches, localization, community learning and sustainable closed loop / circular economy strategies. Reuse, repair, repurpose are common words. The potential of the maker movement for cosmo-localism lies in this broad church beginning to learn from each other’s knowledges and capabilities and to collaborate on the design and manufacturing of things that require a high level of coordination or organization. At the moment the maker movement is a fluid network, dynamic, creative and explosive, but not yet coordinated toward mainstream material production. To make things for commerce requires disciplined coordination and organization, more typical of industrial models.

The fourth major factor driving the potential for cosmo-localism is rapid urbanization, and along with this the emergence of mega-city regions. The rise of mega-city regions potentiates cosmo-localism, because cities are locales of diverse production capacities, knowledge / expertise, human, natural and built resources, as well as diverse needs and markets. Mega-city regions have scales which allow for localized production capacities to cater to large populations. Because of proximity, a city can develop circular economies and close resource and waste loops easier than perhaps far flung regions (however acknowledging that regionally disparate locales can still be critical in closing resource loops). Cities would not be able to produce all the things they need, and many things would still need to be imported through trade and the global economy. Yet emerging creative industry and demands for urban sustainability and economic inclusion may drive cities and especially mega-cities as locales where cosmo-localism is developed.

Economic precarity has hit many countries, for example Argentina after their 2001-2002 financial crisis, the US after the Global Financial Crisis, the Eurozone after the Eurozone crisis, Venezuela today and in many other regions. This has had a particularly devastating effect on young people. Where people are excluded from the dominant market system, they must create alternative subsistence systems. Castells sees the emergence of ‘new economic cultures’ from populations which, in addition to looking for ways out of the dominant economic system, simply cannot afford to consume goods from the dominant system. In terms of cosmo-localism, both values and need drive a new type of social actor which can leverage the global design commons and community maker space-based production in ways that can produce agency, empowerment and livelihood for people in need. Cosmo-localism potentially creates enterprise opportunities for those people out of work to create livelihoods, or at least to begin to experiment with new production potentials. To the extent that cosmo-localism is seen as a way to support citizen livelihoods, we may see cosmo-localism taken up as state or city supported process.

The final factor that potentiates cosmo-localism relates to ecological crisis and the need to create breakthroughs in innovating closed loop and waste eliminating modes of production. As resources become more and more scarce into the future we will need to become much more adept at upcycling and repurposing things in general. Mapping, collaboration and sharing platforms are helping localities to develop exchange ecosystems which provide new foundations for localized resource exchanges, the development of ‘circular’ economies and more ambitiously industrial ecologies. Cosmo-localism includes the potential to map and activate local resource ecosystems and combine new production capacities with urban metabolic flows that can reduce or eliminate waste. Localized industrial-urban metabolisms may be key to generating environmental integrity outcomes.

Weight of history and obstacles to cosmo-localism

  1. In addition to drivers potentiating cosmo-localism, there are equally powerful ‘weights of history’, legacy systems, cultural factors and other obstacles to cosmo-localism. These include:
  2. Platform oligopolies
  3. Economic incumbents
  4. Intellectual property regimes
  5. Consumer culture

Platform oligopoly is the first challenge to cosmo-localism, the power of the big Silicon Valley enterprises to monopolize and potentially suppress the potentials for cosmo-localism. Big platforms, like Facebook and Google, but now sharing platforms like Air BnB and Uber derive value from our practices of relationality. There is great value in the things that they have innovated, and yet the monetary value generated by users on these platforms through their sharing and interactions are not shared for social reinvestment back to the user's communities.Michel Bauwens calls this ‘netarchical capitalism’, whereby platforms get wealthy at the expense of contributors, who enter into a form of economic dependence / precarity with such platforms. Cosmo-localism relies on supporting a global knowledge / design commons while supporting investment in localized maker enterprises. Cosmo-localism based on extractive platforms would be stunted, as cosmo-localism requires systems for localized re-investment that are now being discussed as platform cooperativism.

Another major obstacle is political in nature. What we consume is based on the legacy of industrial production, and there are many economic incumbents that do not want to lose business. As with resistance to AirbnB and Uber, incumbents may lobby governments vigorously to make life more difficult for cosmo-localism start up enterprises. In the US, policymaking has been co-opted by moneyed interests, to a large extent. For cosmo-localism to work it has to go beyond the local, and the state should not be abandoned as a locale in the adjudication of power. To counter this, there will need to be alliances of commons-based enterprises that work together to form cosmo-local public advocacy that is able to create favorable policy conditions for it. Bauwens has argued we need to create a “partner state” model where governments actively support localized commons-based peer production and cosmo-localism. Recently he has pioneered such a model through the FLOK project in Ecuador.

The third obstacle relates to intellectual property. The global policy pushed through the WTO TRIPS and now the Transpacific Partnership all have a common aim of enfolding joining nations into the Western European intellectual property regime based on positivist law. Positivist law in the most basic terms is simply contractual law. It does not acknowledge contextual, ethical, cultural or historical dimensions in the use or possession or governance of a thing; it simply says, if you signed a contract - hand it over or else. This is why when certain companies can buy a life support resource from a government, such as when Bechtel bought Cochabamba’s water supply, and then hike the price for water for locals. Buying and selling life support systems is perfectly ‘just’ within the framework of positivist law, but it is often in contradiction to the living conditions and needs of people. Today there are people dying from diseases around the world because they cannot get access to cheaper versions of the medicines that would cure their diseases. This is because certain intellectual property regimes do not allow people to produce local versions. A global neoliberal push that envelops the world in an intellectual property regime that treats knowledge as scarce, and based purely on the logic of investment and return, will harm the possibility of cosmo-localism. We need to normalize knowledge and design commons through our own work, and develop knowledge / design sharing and licensing systems that frees knowledge to transform the world in positive ways. As Kostakis & Bauwens argue, “the commons [need to] be created and fought for on a transnational global scale” (2015, p. 130).

The last weight of history is the cultural pattern of consumerism. It has been deeply engrained through the last century, whereby people have been taught and have learned a number of ideas and attitudes. That our self worth is based on what we own and consume. That it does not matter where a product comes from and where it goes after use. That other people make things for us, and we just make the money to buy those things. That if something breaks it is better to just buy a new one rather than fix the old one. Cosmo-localism is antithetical to consumer culture, and requires people to be willing to learn how to make things, be willing to tinker and fix things (or know others who can!), to get lost in problem solving and be patient enough to wade through, to work with people and share and learn, and to care where something goes and something came from, ultimately to close resources and waste cycles.

Images of the future

To conclude this exploratory essay, there are a number of images of the future that connect with cosmo-localism. To structure this I use Dator’s four archetypal images of the future, as a starting point, with an acknowledgment that deeper scenario work still needs to be done.

Continued growth: cosmo-localism co-opted

In a continued growth future, we would likely see the big players in networked capitalism, the platform oligarchies of Google, Facebook, Apple, (possibly Maker Bot) and other netarchical capitalist forms, play a key role in capturing (and stunting) the potential for cosmo-localism (e.g. Google Make ™ and Facebook Fabricate ™)

In this scenario, fabrication spaces could be put into a franchise model, whereby, given the corporate form’s adept talent at systematizing profitable models, pop up everywhere, disrupting industries connected to material production. As platforms, similar to the AirBnb and Uber models, people can put their designs up on the platform to be used, but the platform would take a large percentage of the profits of their use. Design contributors make a subsistence income (as with Uber or Taskrabbit), but never enough to finance and develop a robust self generating business, and creating a dependence relationship.

Because the corporate form survives and indeed prospers by finding cost saving loopholes (tax havens, sweatshops) and by virtue of this creates social and ecological externalities, it is unlikely that such franchises and systems would have a commitment to developing circular economies and industrial ecologies that address our real sustainability crisis. While initially these franchises could create jobs (while disrupting others), much like Uber’s plans to utilize self driving cars, Google Make ™ and Facebook Fabricate ™ type enterprises could eventually be fully automated.

Ultimately the promise of the global knowledge / design commons has been transformed into the ‘poverty of the commons’ – whereby capital preys on and reproduces itself through the generosity of contributors worldwide.

Collapse: cosmo-localism as civilizational boostrapping

A collapse scenario, arguably, creates the fastest road to empowering a cosmo-localism process, but not without many problems. In such a scenario, whether because of massive environmental, economic or political disruptions, societies are thrown into ‘life-boat’ systems of survival. Without globalization, without income or with hyper inflation, food shortages, water shortages, energy blackouts, and the like, cosmo-localism becomes an important survivalist / prepper strategy.

Communities and cities would need to quickly develop basic self sufficiency, and no doubt would leverage cosmo-localism to make this possible. Key would be knowledge of machines, medicines, food production, water systems, building, vehicles, etc. How would people access these, however, if there were no trans-national systems and structures to maintain a globally distributed web, cloud services, regulatory agencies, maintenance of satellites, and cooperative systems for dealing with web security (e.g. hacking)?

In such a scenario, access to a global knowledge / design commons would not exist, or would be limited or impaired. Instead it is likely that people would form mesh networks, use slow sync cloud systems to deal with frequent service or access disruptions, would experience severe hacking and web virus disruptions, and would struggle just to maintain local basic infrastructure while globally the web is plunged into anarchy.

Breakthroughs in local fabrication technologies a distant memory, such communities would struggle to maintain a survival-tech level of productive capacity, reliant on whatever global knowledge resource can be accessed or salvaged.

Disciplined descent: League of cosmo-localized city states

In a disciplined descent scenario, cities, in particular mega-cities linked through transnational networks, play a critical role in navigating escalating ecological, resource and political challenges. Globalization was another era, and in this scenario people live in the era of trans-city alliances.

Disrupted trade and shipping costs may prompt cities to play critical roles in cosmo-local production of basic necessities and goods. Because of fiscal constraints cities might create city-wide sharing economy and solidarity systems, whereby all able bodied citizens are asked to provide a quota of time-banked support, or else publically shamed / punished. Resource, energy and waste limits force cities to create circular economies that close resource loops. This transformation from cities of waste to cities of social and ecological discipline requires revolutionary zeal, and non-conformists are dealt with harshly, or banished to the peripheries. (See the sci-fi story "The Exterminator's Want-Ad" by Bruce Sterling in Shareable Futures, for an example of this.)

Because cities have scale, knowledge, resources, markets and human resources, they are able to implement cosmo-localist initiatives to make them as self-sufficient as possible. Cities, in particular large cities and megacity regions, produce their own vehicles, food production systems (for use in cities and rural areas), computer systems, machinery, textiles, and many other goods. To do this, cosmo-localism plays a critical role in allowing cities to access knowledge and designs being produced worldwide, and in particular by other cities endogenizing production. Technology continues to advance and be shared, in particular to support the viability of urban centers. (See FabCityas early examples).

Intercity credits allow for value exchange within the city and between peripheral cities. Trans-city credit systems allow value exchange between large cities globally, greasing the process of cosmo-localism by allowing non-material value exchange (ideas / designs) using the global design commons primarily driven and run by city alliances, and supporting critical non-cosmo-localist trade.

Transformation: Transnational commons economy

A transformation scenario is one where cosmo-localism is supported by a ‘Partner State’, as articulated by Bauwens, and in which cosmo-localism has genuinely made a big impact in addressing local to global sustainability and social justice challenges. In the Partner State model, the state plays an important role in investing in commons based peer production, and the capacity for citizens and people to utilize open knowledge to empower themselves and produce for their communities. From a cosmo-localism perspective, the state would also support grassroots efforts to empower localized designing, making, and sharing efforts.

Because the state’s strategy is explicitly the grassroots empowerment of maker enterprises, it is assumed that in a transformation scenario, communities and people would be able to make great strides in eliminating poverty and addressing sustainability challenges. Empowered with a knowledge and design commons, state support and new technologies allowing localizing manufacturing and production, people would have new possibilities to shape their worlds.

Another aspect of a transform scenario is the elimination of manufactured goods with high waste by-products, leveraging the potentials of additive manufacturing techniques, and radical reductions in pollution related to global transport (assuming a process of import substitution). This transform scenario would require some kind of localization strategy. Here this is imagined as ‘micro-clusters’ of new cosmo-localism ecosystems.

Industrial clusters and corridors have been well established for decades, but are large scale and require intensive capital investment. Cosmo-localism technologies and the geography of mega-city regions would allow for micro-clusters to emerge quickly and fluidly. The following may be features of such cosmo-local micro-clusters:

  • The development of community and worker owned and run maker enterprises (in line with Open Cooperativist principles) with high tech fabrication equipment, initiated by community but supported by the state;
  • Micro-cluster coordination: local enterprise ecosystems instantiated through sharing and exchange platforms (software systems) with human supported administration and support that do resource and needs matching, fulfilling the possibility of circular economic / closed loop production;
  • Micro-clusters are made up of enterprises using Open Value Network (OVN) principles, which provide social inclusion at a community level, endogenize peer produced value into cooperative enterprises, while exogenizing design and knowledge value to the global commons;
  • New systems for capital investment that, while not following the Silicon Valley venture capital model, allow maker enterprises to scale quickly, in conjunction with the use of Commons Based Reciprocity Licenses (CBRL) that provide an economic engine for commons oriented open cooperatives;

Reduction in the costs of start ups, lower risk and lower barriers to entry, allowing regions to target imports for substitution, and to export knowledge and design as resources using CBRLs.

Local and Global online and cyber currencies / credit systems may play a major role in cosmo-localims, facilitating the exchange of economic value and investments across space and time in ways that are not constrained by traditional currency capital flows, some which may incorporate CBRL principles (a credit system for open cooperatives). These may combine with OVN architectures such that commons-based peer to peer production is nurtured and supported at the macro-economic level (via CBRLs) and micro economic (OVN based enterprises). Finally, cyber and online currencies may play a major role in allowing for exchange between micro-cluster regions, Phyles and Transnational Economic Collectives - such that trade facilitates and enhances localized production rather than just displacing non-local goods and the jobs based on them.


Cosmo-localization is not a silver bullet for solving the world’s challenges, or the ills of globalization. It provides an opportunity, which will play out differently depending on the alternative futures we encounter and help create. As an emerging issue and opportunity, it is important for us to consider its limitations, potential for co-option, abuse and indeed its capacity to transform. In the coming years we will be pressed to make bold decisions and experiments that help us address our social and ecological challenges, decisions and experiments which need to be guided by a robust understanding of cosmo-localism potential benefits and potential shadow. I hope this essay provides one useful stepping-stone on this path. I invite us to join a conversation about what cosmo-localism may mean for the political-economy that we want to create for our shared and common futures.


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