The Commons in Open Knowledge


We encounter the Commons in many aspects of human activity, yet they are often implicit or unrevealed, while the broad scope of the term may invite for criticism.

Yet in the last years alternatives to the Ostrom narrative have been formulated and lead to a conversation about patterns of commoning.

In proclaiming different ways of thinking society outside of market and state terms and leaving a simplistic public-private duality behind, we want to start a conversation here about where the Commons can be found within the practice of generating Open Knowledge.

This thread goes back to a Twitter conversation in response to an interview with @rufuspollock about

that is documented (with comments) at

The conversation begins at


Thanks for broaching this topic! I agree with Silke Helfrich’s comment from that thread: in the world of open data&technology, this language about commons is often not used – let alone engaged in critical discussion – which is concerning.

On one hand, phenomena like Wikipedia and Linux etc have generated a zeitgeisty sense that we live in a time of exciting digital commons. But on the other hand, I find that much discourse around ‘open data’ carries with it some reductive assumptions that pave over questions of political economy (i.e. who has the power to do what?) and institutional design (i.e. under what conditions can these activities be sustainable?) which are essential to the establishment and protection of commons.

While I admire open technology communities’ cultural ethic of tinkering as peers in a network, I find it incomplete with regard to building the world we say want to see. There’s a sense that if we just get data and technology and a bunch of creative people in the room, magic will happen.

But questions like design of that room and the process by which ‘magic’ happens (who’s included in the room, at what phases? what are the terms of their engagement? who sets the terms? how can the terms change over time? how can decisions be made in a way that is transparent to and influenced by the people whose interests are at stake?) are often less popular questions, and I even find people skeptical that they really need to be asked at all. As if “whatever happens is the only thing that could’ve happened, and if something is built that ‘works,’ it was definitely the right thing to have happened.” But this falls short of the work that needs to be done to ensure that the ‘magic’ benefits people in a collective sense, enhancing their shared ability to work and thrive together – rather than a service that just benefits whatever individuals happen to be in the right place at the right time with the right skills and capacities.

On a constructive note, the book Governing Knowledge Commons applies Ostrom’s framework to real-world knowledge-sharing communities, to inquire about the choices made in institutional design that yield success or failure of digital commons. There’s much to chew on there, but it’s also quite academic. We have our work cut out for us to make these ideas graspable without jargon etc. Helfrich and Bollier’s Patterns of Commoning is a great contribution toward that end.

I’m especially eager to discuss these topics further with others here, as I’m aspiring to apply these ideas through the project that I lead, the Open Referral Initiative.