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Reimagine, Don’t Seize, the Means of Production

A promising commons-based approach for the digital age.

One of the most difficult systems to reimagine is global manufacturing. If we are producing offshore and at scale, ravaging the planet for short-term profits, what are the available alternatives? A movement combining digital and physical production points toward a new possibility: Produce within our communities, democratically and with respect for nature and its carrying capacity.

You may not know it by its admittedly awkward name, but a process known as commons-based peer production (CBPP) supports much of our online life. CBPP describes internet-enabled, peer-to-peer infrastructures that allow people to communicate, self-organize and produce together. The value of what is produced is not extracted for private profit, but fed back into a knowledge, design and software commons — resources which are managed by a community, according to the terms set by that community. Wikipedia, WordPress, the Firefox browser and the Apache HTTP web server are some of the best-known examples.

If the first wave of commons-based peer production was mainly created digitally and shared online, we now see a second wave spreading back into physical space. Commoning, as a longstanding human practice that precedes commons-based peer production, naturally began in the material world. It eventually expanded into virtual space and now returns to the physical sphere, where the digital realm becomes a partner in new forms of resource stewardship, production and distribution. In other words, the commons has come full circle, from the natural commons described by Elinor Ostrom, through commons-based peer production in digital communities, to distributed physical manufacturing.

This recent process of bringing peer production to the physical world is called Design Global, Manufacture Local (DGML). Here’s how it works: A design is created using the digital commons of knowledge, software and design, and then produced using local manufacturing and automation technologies. These can include three-dimensional printers, computer numerical control (CNC) machines or even low-tech crafts tools and appropriate technology — often in combination. The formula is: What is “light” (knowledge) is global, and what is “heavy” (physical manufacture) is local. DGML and its unique characteristics help open new, sustainable and inclusive forms of production and consumption.

Imagine a process where designs are co-created, reviewed and refined as part of a global digital commons (i.e. a universally available shared resource). Meanwhile, the actual manufacturing takes place locally, often through shared infrastructures and with local biophysical conditions in mind. The process of making something together as a community creates new ideas and innovations which can feed back into their originating design commons. This cycle describes a radically democratized way to make objects with an increased capacity for innovation and resilience.

Current examples of the DGML approach include WikiHouse, a nonprofit foundation sharing templates for modular housing; OpenBionics, creating three-dimensional printed medical prosthetics which cost a fraction (0.1 to 1 percent) of the price of standard prosthetics; L’Atelier Paysan, an open source cooperative fostering technological sovereignty for small- and medium-scale ecological agriculture; Farm Hack, a farmer-driven community network sharing open source know-how amongst do-it-yourself agricultural tech innovators; and Habibi.Works, an intercultural makerspace in northern Greece where Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan refugees develop DGML projects in a communal atmosphere.

This ecologically viable mode of production has three key patterns:

1) Nonprofit: Objects are designed for optimum usability, not to create tension between supply and demand. This eliminates planned obsolescence or induced consumerism while promoting modular, durable and practical applications.

2) Local: Physical manufacturing is done in community workshops, with bespoke production adapted to local needs. These are economies of scope, not of scale. On-demand local production bypasses the need for huge capital outlays and the subsequent necessity to “keep the machines running” night and day to satisfy the expectations of investors with over-capacity and over-production. Transportation costs — whether financial or ecological — are eradicated, while maintenance, fabrication of spare parts and waste treatment are handled locally.

3) Shared: Idle resources are identified and shared by the community. These can be immaterial and shared globally (blueprints, collaboration protocols, software, documentation, legal forms), or material and managed locally (community spaces, tools and machinery, hackathons). There are no costly patents and no intellectual property regimes to enforce false scarcity. Power is distributed and shared autonomously, creating a “sharing economy” worthy of the name.

To preserve and restore a livable planet, it’s not enough to seize the existing means of production; in fact, it may even not be necessary or recommendable. Rather, we need to reinvent the means of production; to radically reimagine the way we produce. We must also decide together what not to produce, and when to direct our productive capacities toward ecologically restorative work and the stewardship of natural systems. This includes necessary endeavors like permaculture, landscape restoration, regenerative design and rewilding.

These empowering efforts will remain marginal to the larger economy, however, in the absence of sustainable, sufficient ways of obtaining funding to liberate time for the contributors. Equally problematic is the possibility of the capture and enclosure of the open design commons, to be converted into profit-driven, peer-to-peer hybrids that perpetuate the scarcity mindset of capital. Don’t assume that global corporations or financial institutions are not hip to this revolution; in fact, many companies seem to be more interested in controlling the right to produce through intellectual property and patents, than on taking any of the costs of the production themselves. (Silicon Valley-led “sharing” economy, anyone?)

To avoid this, productive communities must position themselves ahead of the curve by creating cooperative-based livelihood vehicles and solidarity mechanisms to sustain themselves and the invaluable work they perform. Livelihood strategies like Platform and Open Cooperativism lead the way in emancipating this movement of globally conversant yet locally grounded producers and ecosystem restorers. At the same time, locally based yet globally federated political movements — such as the recent surge of international, multi-constituent municipalist political platforms — can spur the conditions for highly participative and democratic “design global, manufacture local” programs.

We can either produce with communities and as part of nature or not. Let’s make the right choice.

Find out more about the commons and peer-to-peer in the new illustrated Commons Transition Primer website.

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