New Economy Journal

Cosmo localism: Tech trend, post-capitalist commons transition, or something else?

Volume 1, Issue 7

November 2019

By - Jose Ramos

Piece length: 3,558 words

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*This text is based on a presentation at the First Global Commons Forum, Seoul, Korea, Karl Polanyi Institute Asia, Oct 2, 2019. It was first published on Medium. - Jose Ramos


[1] Cosmo-localism as a tech trend
[2] The contradictions
[3] Pop up political economies
[4] The role of the urban commons
[5] The need for a protocol commons
[6] Conclusion

[1] Cosmo-localism as a tech trend

From the point of view of the study of social change and the future one of the more well well-established notions is that the future begins in ‘seed form’. This is to say that, actually, people create ideas, which turn into prototypes, and experiments, which over time become refined into working models. Sometimes these models scale or get replicated, and become dominant features of the social fabric. First Bucky Fuller dreams about solar energy. Then researchers prototype it. Fast-forward 60 years and solar is the fastest growing energy type on the planet. First Julian Assange blogs the idea for WikiLeaks, then with the help of Chaos Computer Club members in Berlin he prototypes it and launches it. Fast forward 15 years and he is in a jail cell in the UK awaiting extradition to the US. As dream or as nightmare, the future begins in a dark alley, hidden from the world.

Cosmo localism, which can otherwise be understood as distributed production based on open design and commons principles, is one such seed form, an emerging issue that has been gaining momentum, but still in its relative infancy. We see the successes of initiatives like farmbot, open desk and open motors, commercial expressions of the idea. We also see more cooperative and commons based initiatives such as wikihouse, farm hack and l’atelier paysan. In a compilation which is coming out in early 2020, we are documenting over 40 examples that run the spectrum from automotive manufacturing to insulin production and more, showcasing the exciting things happening in this space.

As a tech trend many of these developments rest firmly on new technologies such as microcontrollers, such as arduino, raspberry pi and others, which undergird the operation of 3D printers and CNC machines, laser cutters, and other automated and robotics based manufacturing. The technologies seem to point towards the potential for a democratization of production. The dreamers tells us we’ll all be able to produce and print everything we need locally. But much of this relies on the accumulated wealth of knowledge that emerged with the Internet. With the internet and crowdsourced knowledge a knowledge commons became a reality. Wikipedia showed us what was possible. With distributed production this idea has transformed into the idea of a global design commons. In this view, an open design commons allows us to use designs for everything, from medicine to machines…. Suddenly we have the capacity to use the human legacy of design to solve real problems to support real livelihoods where they are needed most.

In its idealized dimensions Cosmo localism looks like this. As producer communities around the world create solutions, document them and keep them open, open and globally distributed design pools and platforms increase, getting bigger and reciprocally supporting localized production — it is a virtuous cycle. This of course also addresses our need to create solutions to our environmental crisis. In their latest report Bauwens and Pazaitis write:

“The idea of pseudo abundance is based on the mistaken premise of infinite material growth on a finite planet, where natural resources are actually fundamentally limited. Artificial scarcity refers to the strategies that prevent the sharing of technological and scientific progress because of excessively restrictive intellectual property rights. A sensible alternative is, of course, to recognize the limits of what we can use from the world of nature, of which we are an intrinsic part, and to allow for the sharing of all knowledge that can contribute to living within the limits of this ‘biocapacity.’”

[2] The contradictions

But there are some fundamental contradictions to grapple with. Some enterprises seemingly on the cusp of Cosmo local production have not been able to go all the way. They want to do open design, full open source, but in these cases there is one central issue. If they want to get investment capital from angel investors or venture capitalists, they cannot make all of their designs open. Investors want a return on their investment and for them open-source amounts to giving away their investment and losing money. If you are creating designs and making them open source they are allergic to you. If you are using other people’s open source knowledge to make money they will love you.

Michel Bauwens has repeatedly pointed out this fundamental contradictions in the domain of open source. It has usually been the big corporates that have been quicker to adopt open source systems, such as Linux and Android, while those nonprofits committed to open source, create value which is not generative — that is, value does not return to sustain them. As with industrial agriculture, and the rest of the economy, the logic is extractive.

So we begin to see the contradictions:

  • Contradictions number one is, make your designs free and open and lose your ability to return value to your enterprise,
  • Contradiction number two is, make your designs free and open and support capitalism as usual

We all work within a historical and political-economic context, which today is global neoliberalism, capitalism on steroids.

  • a system for the 1/10th of 1% to become even richer
  • about extracting value irregardless of the social or ecological consequences — it is a mindless accumulation machine
  • a political economy, not just an economic system. This is to say that it structures political relations and policy in its own interests. Therefore we increasingly live in a world of oligarchs who influence political systems for the purpose of defending and expanding their wealth
  • Most of us are unwitting accomplices and complicit in the perpetuation of this system.

We can see this in the example of insulin production. Diabetes is a life-threatening illness associated with an inability to produce insulin which affects the body’s capacity to distribute glucose. In 1923, Frederick Banting, Charles Best, and James Collip sold the patent for insulin to the University of Toronto for $1 each, because they thought that this discovery was so important, it should be available to everyone.Imagine this. The Discoverers of insulin essentially giving away their discovery for next to nothing, so that many others could benefit. This is truly the spirit of the commons and Cosmo localism.

Yet fast forward five decades later and it is impossible to get any insulin in the United States without paying exorbitant fees. the cost of insulin tripled from 2002 to 2013 and doubled between 2012 and 2016. in 1996 a vial of Humalog cost $21 — Today, it is $324, an increase of 1,400%. Those without insurance, pay thousands of dollars per month. Diabetes has become the most expensive disease in the United States,

By wrapping insulin production in a convoluted and labyrinthine system of process patents, pharmaceuticals have been able to create artificial scarcity.

So today we have a cosmolocal initiative, the open insulin project in Oakland, which is attempting to bypass the pharmaceuticals by creating their own insulin products. So far they have been successful at prototyping a new method of producing insulin using modified yeast as the agent, and have produced their first test batch. But they are up against great odds and a hostile system.

So the dilemma becomes a little clearer. In the current political economy those Cosmo local enterprises which are willing to play by the rules of capital, may survive and thrive. They will be design platforms that allow distributed production or manufacturing, but the designs they use will never be truly open and the enterprise / platform will be owned by a few founders and their investors, rather than the many.

The Cosmo local enterprises which refuse to play by the rules of capital will continue to keep their designs open, but these designs will simply be appropriated and used by commercial entities, and these Commons based enterprises will struggle to be viable.

[3] Pop up political economies

So what do we do then?

We can wait around for the next political economy to come by, but that could take a while and we might not get the one we want.

The Great Depression and World War II ushered in Keynesian economics, social democracy, the nonaligned movement and socialism. It took a massive crisis to create a modest social contract that regulated capital and provided for basic needs. But it was bloody and painful and the crisis could have gone either way. Fascism could have prevailed and we would now be living in Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.

Today’s climate is perhaps even more dangerous. With the threat of climate change, water wars, mass migration, and a populist xenophobic backlash against globalization, the next crisis is not guaranteed to go our way.

So how do we NOT wait for the next crisis, but actually begin to bootstrap a new political economy, to create new systems that allows for Commons based cosmolocal potentials to thrive?

Clues come from here and there.

The Solar Ujra Through Localization for Sustainability project (SoULS) is a project initiated by the Indian Institute of technology around 2013 / 2014. The project addresses the need for rural Indian villagers to have light at night, which can help kids study and creates more amenable households. Many rural Indian villagers use kerosene lamps to light their homes. However kerosene is dirty and associated with health problems, nor is it cheap, as many villagers are not even able to afford it consistently.

The SoULS project aimed to directly impact the livelihood and well-being of rural villagers by replacing the use of kerosene with solar lamps. The solar lamps were designed based on open hardware, which allowed the project to reduce the cost of the lamps. Importantly, solar lamp repair centers were established to service the villages that receive the lamps. Locals were trained in the repair of the lamps, and a service model was developed whereby they would earn sufficient income from the ongoing servicing. Solar lamps end up being cheaper overall villagers than running kerosene lamps. A number of new jobs are created in repair centers. The project also adheres to open hardware principles:

With an aim to decentralize the diffusion of the solar technology, IIT Bombay will release the designs of all the solar products in the public domain. The open source hardware will make these products available so that anyone can study, modify, distribute, make, and sell the design or hardware based on that design. The hardware’s source, the design from which it is made, is available in the preferred format. People can make modifications to these designs to cater to the needs of the people in their vicinity. Rightnow, the solar study lamps distributed under the 70 lakh solar study lamp scheme and the Million SoUL Program have been made available in the public domain.”

On top of this, the project established a cooperative for the production of solar panels, which would drive the supply of new panels to service existing and new regions of the scheme, and which benefited from a dedicated market.

“Dungarpur Renewable Energy Technologies Pvt. Limited (DURGA Energy) is a one of its own kind module manufacturing plant completely owned and operated by local tribal women of Dungarpur District, Rajasthan. The women from the self-help group formed under the four clusters of Antri, Biladi, Jhonthri and Punali co-jointly own the company. The company is equipped to make all standard as well as custom-designed solar panels raging for 1Wp to 330Wp modules.”

The project has demonstrated strong benefits such as increased health, increased educational performance by children in the villages with the lamps, and this is not to mention the reduction in carbon emissions from the phasing out of kerosene.

This project shows how an anchor institution can form the basis of the development of an ecosystem which is able to recirculate value in virtuous ways. It is what we might call a “pop-up political economy”, because for a moment it is able to interrupt the relentless logic of neoliberal capital and create an alternative economy.

The example points to the crux of the challenge that we face if want to create a world in which open designs potentiate local livelihoods.

The p2p foundation has been grappling with this problem for a number of years. One of the answers has been a reciprocation license. If open source gets easily appropriated and users do not give back to its source, then some kind of protocol for mutualization needs to be built into an intellectual property license — which is formally called a peer production license. If a commercial entity wants to use a design they pay back to the owner a commercial price. If another commons-based enterprise wants to use the design, it can be done at a lower price or freely. This idea has the benefit of returning value from the capitalist economy into a commons economy. But there has not been any sufficient development or uptake of such a license. This solution relies on the social construction which is our legal system, and the ability to enforce claims. It would follow the example of Lawrence Lessig’s development of the creative commons license.

Other answers have come from the blockchain space. The reasoning goes that we can create a commons economy within a capitalist economy that uses its own blockchain accounting system. When someone contributes to the pool of knowledge or designs, and another person uses this design or piece of intellectual property, the transaction would go through the blockchain technology. Therefore some value has a way of returning to those that produced it, through its tracking via the distributed ledger. Ostensibly if somebody wants to purchase something within such a system it would ultimately use a blockchain token or currency. The “trustless” nature of the ledger solves the problems that the peer-to-peer licenses has, which is how to enforce reciprocation. Sensorica is one of the enterprises at the forefront of using a form of contributory accounting that allows contributors and producers of R&D to receive reciprocal payment in a granular way, but does not actually use blockchain to do this. Backfeed is one of the prototypes using blockchain tech. There are a half dozen or so other prototypes in this space. So in this area we are well past the idea phase or even the prototype phase, there are already systems delivering value.

So here we have one institutional solution via use of an anchor institution (e.g. SoULS), one legal solution via the peer production license and one technological solution via the blockchain and /or contributory accounting, for bootstrapping pop-up commons based political economies from the inside.

[4] The role of the urban commons

This finally brings us to the role of the urban commons.

What has happening in Bologna, Ghent and Seoul with the urban commons is potentially transformational. When we talk about anchor institutions able to bootstrap the development of new value circulating ecosystems, we normally think of organizations like hospitals and universities that have large-scale capacity to do social procurement, such as with the case with the Cleveland’s Greater University Circle Initiative. Like the SoULS project in Maharashtra, the Cleveland model was able to jumpstart a number of local cooperative businesses and bring good jobs to the area.

When we think of urban commons we are dealing with an order of magnitude greater than just a few institutions. If we take on board Christian Iaione’s vision of the “Five Helix” of the urban commons and polycentric governance, this includes universities, governments, businesses, civil society organizations, and citizens, practicing urban collaborative governance. In fact, we might say that this idea of the urban commons, working across asymmetrical organizational forms, is an anchor institution of a different order of magnitude. It is more like a meta-anchor institution, with multiple systems and organizations looking for and finding collaborative synergies. It is in fact symmetrical to the idea of a ‘partner state’, or ‘partner city’, where a new political contract exists between citizens and their governments, which establishes polycentric governance as the foundation for caring for the urban commons.

We know that cities are key in so many crucial areas. It is where most carbon emissions come from and where we need to reduce emissions. It is where most professional expertise is found. It is where most markets in market demand exist. It is where most people will live in the 21st century.

What if cities demanded a circular economy function within its geographical boundary, and between it and the broader value chains it depends on and supports? What if cities emphasized their capacity for auto-productivity, and supported localized production using new Cosmo local potentialities?

From the seeds of change that we see expressing a cosmolocal logic, such as SoULS, we know that such meta-scale anchoring — an urban Commons with depth — could and would be a pop-up political economy to reckon with, within which new rules, incentives, norms and possibilities would exist in supporting generative social and economic activities rather than extractive ones.

We can also see that such generative value circulation at the scale of cities might use new technologies like a distributed ledger system to tokenized value exchange. Such sub- economies would be a new force with real scale. And of course we could see the protocol cooperativism discussed by Michel Bauwens, where cities across the world are able to mutualise resources.

Seoul, on the vanguard of the urban Commons, holds with it the possibility of this kind of transformation.

[5] The need for a protocol commons

The Commons is not a singular phenomenon, there are many different types of Commons and commoning activity. Bollier and Helfrich’s seminal work makes this abundantly clear. For the commons to grow, we need to find synergies between many different types of commoning activity and scales of activity.

Of course we need cooperative, distributive and regenerative forms at the scale of the enterprise. But we need as well urban Commons that supports a garden bed of commoning to thrive — partner cities that grow the commons intentionally. And we need transnational forms of solidarity, such as city to city mutualization and cosmo local production.

The challenge is both an epistemological one and as well related to our maturity as human beings. Our worldviews come from our sense of place, language, experience and embodiment. It is too often too easy to see what we do in isolation from the multiplicity of other activities in the world, we are so deeply embedded in our own struggles, challenges and activities. And then there is the ego. We want to see our creations, our priorities, as primary.

So in order to create these pop up political economies we need to see ourselves as part of potential ecosystems. We need to begin to create a system of shared language and messaging that allows one commoning activity to leverage or find synergies with another. This ‘protocol commons’ would allow for collaboration and synergy even when these activities and projects are fundamentally different. It means that there is a way for one commoning activity to be asymmetrical to another commoning activity and yet be able to develop generative synergies.

We can think of the metaphor of the bee and the flower. They do not fundamentally know how each other think, but there is a form of signaling that allows each to find a synergy with the other and reciprocate the value that forms the basis for their survival.

This indicates that commons synergies can comprise of ontological and epistemological complexity. It means that we do not have to share the subjectivity of the other in order to collaborate fruitfully. It also means that two entities can be different in form and function, and still form a generative ecosystem of commoning. There is a kind of metalanguage, a protocol, of the Commons which allows for complex and asymmetrical reciprocation, collaboration, value exchange, generativity.

Through this we can envision this variety of commoning activity, from the micro cooperative scale, to the scale of the urban commons, and to the transnational scale.

We all know that we are mutually implicated into our survival. How the Amazon goes we go. How the oceans go we go. A protocol Commons is more than just a technical metalanguage for communication and asymmetrical reciprocation but is underlined by the knowledge that we are interdependent, and the language and practice of this interdependence is fundamental to our collective survival.

[6] Conclusion

To go beyond a shallow tech trend in which only some open design / distributed manufacturing enterprises successfully navigate the start up phase while the more commons oriented cosmo local enterprises fall by the way side, we will need to generate conditions favourable to them. Bootstrapping pop-up political economies can be done through strategies that create value reciprocation at the ecosystem scale, and which create the culture, rules, incentives and systems that reward and return value to commons oriented projects, organizations and enterprises.

This requires leveraging the scale and dynamics of urban commons (partner cities), as well as the potential for city to city mutualization planet-wide, as well as the suite of other potential ecosystem generating strategies (peer production licenses, contributory accounting blockchains, etc). It also requires a paradigmatic shift, a protocol commons that provides the metalanguage for asymmetrical value exchange and collaboration.

Its time for commoners of every type to find each others, and a multitude of commons ecosystem to form and flourish. Our futures depend on it.

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