By David Vallat (Université Lyon 1)

 

The OWEE research method, always under construction (having Levi-Strauss’s spirit of ‘bricolage’ at its core), is directly inspired by the values and practices of the places we study (makerspaces, hackerspaces, FabLabs, coworking spaces, etc.). What we observe as researchers (collaborative practices, collaborative spaces, collaborative communities, collaborative movement) tends to influence how we do research.

As it’s stated in our website “RGCS is inspired by makers and open science movements. The culture of DIY, open knowledge and doocracy are at the heart of its values”. So it’s not a surprise that the OWEE research method puts an emphasis on ‘Openness’ and ‘Experimentation’. What could be a better way to creating knowledge than experimenting (a concept, a method, a tool, or whatever artefact an human mind can figure out – the trial and error process may be used indifferently in a mind or in a lab)? Doing it in a collaborative way implies openness.

Openness is a practical way of creating valid knowledge according to Popper’s empirical falsification principle. Besides, knowledge increases by being shared. This idea underlies the diffusion of scientific knowledge since the publication (both in 1665) of the first scientific journals in France (Journal des savants) and in England (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society).

The openness in science is mirrored in collaborative spaces, which have inherited the collaborative DNA of the Web. « To manage the complexity of the technological landscape, hackers [programmers] turn to fellow hackers [programmers] (along with manuals, books, mailing lists, documentation, and search engines) for constant information, guidance, and help. » (Coleman, 2012, p. 107). In the mid-1980s, Richard Stalleman, a programmer at MIT, initiated the free/libre movement, arguing that the digital properties of software (easy copying and distribution) make it possible to treat it as a public good.

What we have observed in our learning expeditions is people’s willingness to understand knowledge (scientific knowledge of course but also practical – ‘bricolage – or artistic one) as a public good meant to be shared in order to benefit to the community.

The famous Budapest Open Access Initiative explains (in 2002) precisely what is at stakes:

“An old tradition and a new technology have converged to make possible an unprecedented public good. The old tradition is the willingness of scientists and scholars to publish the fruits of their research in scholarly journals without payment, for the sake of inquiry and knowledge. The new technology is the internet. The public good they make possible is the world-wide electronic distribution of the peer-reviewed journal literature and completely free and unrestricted access to it by all scientists, scholars, teachers, students, and other curious minds. Removing access barriers to this literature will accelerate research, enrich education, share the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich, make this literature as useful as it can be, and lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge.”

On the one  hand, knowledge is a public good easily shared thanks to the Web. On the other hand, her hand a ‘second enclosure movement’ is threatening this public good (hence changing the nature of this ‘good’ to become a ‘common-pool-resource’ following Elinor Ostrom’s concept).

 

Knowledge as a common-pool-resource

What is a common-pool-resource (CPR) according to Elinor Ostrom, the 2009 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences? A common-pool-resources is (originally) a natural resource that require collective management (Ostrom, 1990) or else risk facing “the tragedy of the commons” (Hardin, 1968) – that is to say, excessive exploitation of a common good (e.g., fish stock) for private purposes according to the well-known logic of the free rider (Olson, 1965).

Understanding properly the CPR idea requires a classification of economic goods, undertaken by Samuelson (1954), according to two criteria:

  • Exclusion, which gauges the alternately public or private character of a good by asking: can one easily exclude certain individuals from the use of this good or not?
  • Rivalry (or subtractability), which indicates the degree of a good’s availability in relation to its use by asking: does the personal use of a good deprive others of its use?

The intersection of these two criteria results in the following table.

Table 1. Type of Goods

   

Subtractability

    Low High
Exclusion Difficult Public goods

Useful knowledge

Sunsets

Common-pool resources

Libraries

Irrigation systems

Easy Toll or club goods

Journal subscriptions

Day-care centers

Private goods

Personal computers

Doughnuts

Source: Hess, Ostrom, 2011, p.9.

 

Useful knowledge, which is at first a public good, is threatened of subtractability. To be more precise useful knowledge is threatened in three ways:

  • Information overload (too much information to deal with);
  • Knowledge enclosure (intellectual property: patent, copyrights);
  • Orwell’s Doublethink (fake news or alternative facts).

So knowledge is, now, much more a common-pool-resource than a public good.

 

OWEE: a community meant to produce knowledge

The OWEE research method is aimed at producing open access knowledge. To do so we rely upon collaboration (of researchers, makers, citizens, students, etc.). Walking in common according to the OWEE research method is a good way to create a community: “[We] are opened to various sets of stakeholders: academics, entrepreneurs, managers, artists, activists, students and politicians. The event is expected to foster collaborations between and beyond the group”. The community is both physical (people engaged in the walk) and digital (people following our live tweet, people taking notes on Framapad, etc.).

We understand the word “community” according to its Indo-European roots (see Benveniste, 1969), communis: who has reciprocal obligations. An OWEE seeks reciprocity (in the knowledge creation process of course but more basically in the open mindedness, respect, benevolence, that lead our research and teaching practices). Reciprocity is an organized process. So while building a community we build rules (formal and informal), we build an institutional arrangement that achieve coordination. That arrangement is not as familiar as the Market or the State. It’s a commons.  With this institutional arrangement we move from walking in common to walking as a commons. How so?

A central point in the works of Elinor Ostrom is to demonstrate that the common-pool-resources are resources subject to social dilemmas, in other word the risk of the disappearance of the resource (by overexploitation). In order to struggle against this risk one must organize oneself. It is important to underscore that a common-pool resource only becomes a commons once a communal management of the resource has been put into place. A commons, thus, must be governed. Conversely, a common-pool-resource can exist without implying communal governance (the climate is a common-pool-resource but not a commons). By extension, a public good governed communally becomes a commons, as is the case of Wikipedia or Linux, both of which are knowledge commons.

 

Where is the OWEE commons?

It’s not easy to see the OWEE commons at first glance because commons are deeply contextual. According to David Bollier: “Each commons has its own distinctive character because each is shaped by its particular location, history, culture and social practices.  So it can be hard for the newcomer to see the patterns of “commoning.” The term commoning means to suggest that the commons is really more of a verb than a noun.  It is a set of ongoing practices, not an inert physical resource.  There is no commons without communing”.

So the OWEE commons can be seen through a set of practices. Empirical studies on the governance of common-pool-resources (CPR) have allowed for the establishment of design principles that facilitate the perpetuation of communal governance (and thus enable the protection of common-pool-resources). These principles do not automatically imply the success of communal governance but they have been found to be present in all instances of success. The principles are as follows (Ostrom, 1990, pp.90-102):

Table 2. Ostrom’s design principles implemented in the OWEE method

 

# Ostrom’s principles (1990, pp.90-102) Implementation in OWEE
1 The limits of the common good are clearly defined; the access rights to the common good are clear For each OWEE we specify (usually on Eventbrite) :

–        how people can join us and what we intend to do (boundary rules);

–        who is acting as a guide, who is taking notes, etc. (position rules)

2 The rules governing the use of the common good are adapted to local needs and conditions The purpose of the OWEE is to produce open access knowledge, hence the distribution of this knowledge through social media, a website (RGCS blog and live area) and open access publications (RGCS White Papers)
3 A system allowing individuals to participate in the definition and modification of these rules on a regular basis has been established The OWEE method is discussed after each event (with participants and online); modifications of the method are published on the RGCS website. A group on slack is devoted to OWEE.
4 A system for community members to self-check their behaviors has been established The rules in use during each OWEE are defined when needed (for example being silent while visiting a place where people are working). A basic rule is reciprocity, or the Golden Rule (tweet others as you would wish to be tweeted): contribute to Framapad, to the live tweet, retweet, etc.
5 A graduated system of sanctions for those who violate the community’s rules is provided for The case wasn’t encountered yet; let’s say that a call to order would suffice (exclusion should be the ultimate sanction).
6 An inexpensive conflict resolution system is available to community members Our first choice for the moment: Discussion.
7 The community’s right to define its own rules of operation is recognized by external authorities This right wasn’t questioned yet.
8 When applicable (such as for a common good that exists across borders or a common good assigned to a range of territorial levels), the organization of decision-making can be established at several levels while respecting the rules set out above RGCS is a very decentralized network and OWEE events are organized all other the world.

 

So, walking as a commons is for us to produce collaborative knowledge (mainly scientific but not only), with an experimental and experiential method and to share broadly (following the open access philosophy) both the outcomes of the research and the method used. It’s a way to organize ourselves relying upon reciprocity, trust and individual responsibility, following the example of many collaborative spaces. The commons is a very performative concept: using it (intellectually) leads to practicing it. And with the practice comes a new world of organizational experiments, social interactions, political institutions and research fields.

 

References

Benveniste, É. (1969), Le vocabulaire des institutions indo-européennes. 1, Economie, parenté, société, Éd. de Minuit, Paris, France.

Bollier, D., & Helfrich, S. (2014). The Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market and State. Levellers Press.

Hardin, G. (1968). “The Tragedy of the Commons”, Science, 162(3859), 1243–1248. http://doi.org/10.1126/science.162.3859.1243

Hess, C., & Ostrom, E. (2011). Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice. MIT Press.

Olson, M. (1965). The Logic of Collective Action. Harvard University Press.

Ostrom, E. (1990). Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge University Press.

Popper, K. R. (2002). The Logic of Scientific Discovery. Psychology Press.

Samuelson, P. A. (1954). “The Pure Theory of Public Expenditure”, The Review of Economics and Statistics, 36(4), 387–389. http://doi.org/10.2307/1925895

Suber, P. (2012). Open Access. MIT Press.