Alanna Irving on Distributed Leadership and Infrastructures for Commoning

It takes a lot of effort by small-scale commons to get started, especially to raise and manage money, negotiate budgets, pay people, comply with tax laws, etc. That got easier with the rise of Open Collective, a new type of platform nonprofit that helps many types of collectives gather and spend money transparently.

You can consider Open Collective an infrastructure for commoning -- a backend system that makes it easier and more normal for people to manage money fairly, collectively, and with open accountability.

In the latest episode of Frontiers of Commoning, I speak with Alanna Irving, Chief Operating Officer of Open Collective, a nonprofit that handles the complicated, messy administrative and financial work for small, often-underfunded collectives. This work includes handling donations, providing fiscal sponsorship, making payments, and so forth, which are often too costly and complex for mutual aid groups, cooperatives, commons, and other small projects to manage.

Alanna Irving, COO of Open Collective

Irving comes to the challenges of network-based governance with a wealth of firsthand experience.  She was an early member of Enspiral, the pioneering New Zealand group that developed new organizational structures and culture for their online community. That project had two notable offshoots that helped pave the way for Open Collective: the software platforms known as Loomio, for group deliberation and decisionmaking, and Cobudget, an app for managing shared spending and allocations of money within a collective. 

As an early participant in this journey, Irving became an expert in "distributed leadership" and peer governance in horizontal, networked organizations striving to live by open source principles. She also learned about cooperative governance.... technology that is designed to be participatory.... and radically collaborative uses of money.

Irving believes that it is entirely possible for people to self-manage themselves on horizontal networks, eliciting a diversity of talent and nurturing people's personal growth while serving the common good. But this challenge usually requires "hacking organizational structures with our values," as she puts it. 

People also need to learn how to "harness the dark side of money and bring it into the light," and to deal frankly with issues of power. Irving has found that, in managing money and risk, "it's very helpful to do it together" because "I'm personally risk-averse.  What I've found is that, if I can do it together with others, then I can actually take risks."

The same idea holds true for power. If the issues are frankly addressed, everyone's talent and initiative can shine in different ways, without relationships getting caught up in controversies about power inequities.

Open Collective helps reduce the risks and opacity of money-management by figuring out the many legal, financial, and tax complexities that small groups must navigate. Then it tries to help design legal and financial systems that are more aligned with the values of progressive-change organizations than, say, a corporation or a bank. 

Started six years ago, Open Collective is now stable, breaking even financially, and growing in size as interest in its backend services surges. But the venture does not aspire to be an investor-driven, profit-maximizing success. It wants to be an infrastructure owned by its users. So the executive team is actively exploring an "Exit to Community" ownership plan at some point. This is a shared-wealth alternative to the standard IPO [Initial Public Offering] that is routinely that investors typically use to liquidate their investments and make serious money.

In addition, Open Collective is engaged in a "learning in public" process with its community of users to figure out how they should organizationally structure and govern themselves after an Exit to Community shift of ownership. Should Open Collective become, for example, a cooperative, a perpetual purpose trust, or a DAO [digital autonomous organization]?

As all this suggests, Open Collective does not want to be a merely transactional market enterprise, but one that fosters social solidarity, co-learning and peer governance in the course of managing money.

This is a real frontier for many small collectives, so it's a pleasure to see Open Collective thriving, growing, and dealing candidly with the complicated challenges. I find it thrilling to encounter such a promising infrastructure to enable commoning.

You can listen to my full interview with Alanna Irving here.

 

Alanna Irving on Distributed Leadership and Infrastructures for Commoning

It takes a lot of effort by small-scale commons to get started, especially to raise and manage money, negotiate budgets, pay people, comply with tax laws, etc. That got easier with the rise of Open Collective, a new type of platform nonprofit that helps many types of collectives gather and spend money transparently.

You can consider Open Collective an infrastructure for commoning -- a backend system that makes it easier and more normal for people to manage money fairly, collectively, and with open accountability.

In the latest episode of Frontiers of Commoning, I speak with Alanna Irving, Chief Operating Officer of Open Collective, a nonprofit that handles the complicated, messy administrative and financial work for small, often-underfunded collectives. This work includes handling donations, providing fiscal sponsorship, making payments, and so forth, which are often too costly and complex for mutual aid groups, cooperatives, commons, and other small projects to manage.

Alanna Irving, COO of Open Collective

Irving comes to the challenges of network-based governance with a wealth of firsthand experience.  She was an early member of Enspiral, the pioneering New Zealand group that developed new organizational structures and culture for their online community. That project had two notable offshoots that helped pave the way for Open Collective: the software platforms known as Loomio, for group deliberation and decisionmaking, and Cobudget, an app for managing shared spending and allocations of money within a collective. 

As an early participant in this journey, Irving became an expert in "distributed leadership" and peer governance in horizontal, networked organizations striving to live by open source principles. She also learned about cooperative governance.... technology that is designed to be participatory.... and radically collaborative uses of money.

Irving believes that it is entirely possible for people to self-manage themselves on horizontal networks, eliciting a diversity of talent and nurturing people's personal growth while serving the common good. But this challenge usually requires "hacking organizational structures with our values," as she puts it. 

People also need to learn how to "harness the dark side of money and bring it into the light," and to deal frankly with issues of power. Irving has found that, in managing money and risk, "it's very helpful to do it together" because "I'm personally risk-averse.  What I've found is that, if I can do it together with others, then I can actually take risks."

The same idea holds true for power. If the issues are frankly addressed, everyone's talent and initiative can shine in different ways, without relationships getting caught up in controversies about power inequities.

Open Collective helps reduce the risks and opacity of money-management by figuring out the many legal, financial, and tax complexities that small groups must navigate. Then it tries to help design legal and financial systems that are more aligned with the values of progressive-change organizations than, say, a corporation or a bank. 

Started six years ago, Open Collective is now stable, breaking even financially, and growing in size as interest in its backend services surges. But the venture does not aspire to be an investor-driven, profit-maximizing success. It wants to be an infrastructure owned by its users. So the executive team is actively exploring an "Exit to Community" ownership plan at some point. This is a shared-wealth alternative to the standard IPO [Initial Public Offering] that is routinely that investors typically use to liquidate their investments and make serious money.

In addition, Open Collective is engaged in a "learning in public" process with its community of users to figure out how they should organizationally structure and govern themselves after an Exit to Community shift of ownership. Should Open Collective become, for example, a cooperative, a perpetual purpose trust, or a DAO [digital autonomous organization]?

As all this suggests, Open Collective does not want to be a merely transactional market enterprise, but one that fosters social solidarity, co-learning and peer governance in the course of managing money.

This is a real frontier for many small collectives, so it's a pleasure to see Open Collective thriving, growing, and dealing candidly with the complicated challenges. I find it thrilling to encounter such a promising infrastructure to enable commoning.

You can listen to my full interview with Alanna Irving here.

 

Farewell to Christopher Alexander, Edgar Cahn, and Gustavo Esteva

In recent weeks, we commoners have lost three great visionaries. Each spawned robust institutions and movements to carry their visions forward; the continuing vitality of their projects confirm that their spirits remain very much with us. We should pause to reflect on and celebrate their towering contributions.

I'm talking about the British architect/philosopher Christopher Alexander, who invented the "pattern language" approach to urban design and building; Edgar Cahn, the creative American legal activist who invented timebanking and cofounded Antioch School of Law; and Gustavo Esteva, the post-development thinker and founder of the Universidad de la Tierra in Oaxaca.

Christopher Alexander's Fearless Exploration into Aliveness and Design

I remember encountering Christopher Alexander's seminal book, A Pattern Language, in the late 1970s, a cultural moment that was erupting with all sorts of mind-blowing ideas. Alexander wanted to know why certain designs in architecture and urban spaces were consistently used across cultures and history. These include the proportions of space in rooms....the placement of windows....the design of public squares... the popularity of cafes in cities....among dozens of other forms. What accounts for their timeless appeal?   

Alexander and his coauthors came to see that beauty, grace, and spiritual satisfaction actually play vital roles in the design of everyday life and buildings. Certain designs embody aliveness! But that quality can only be seen through a certain prism, which is what Alexander set out to name and analyze. He called his method a pattern language.  

A pattern, in Alexander's view, describes "a problem that occurs over and over again in our environment, and then describes the core of the solution to that problem, in such a way that you can use this solution a million times over, without ever doing it the same way twice." 

Each solution is unique because the context of the problem -- the geography, culture, values, and history of the designers -- is always different. Yet there are regularities -- or patterns -- to be  identified and studied. In A Pattern Language, Alexander identified 253 interrelated patterns in urban and building design. 

As my late colleague Silke Helfrich and I began to think about the nature of commons as social systems, we saw how the pattern language methodology could help us explain how commons actually work -- because commons, like buildings, are not primarily about physical things. They are about the interactive social dynamics of humans as they engage with each other and the Earth.

Silke and I came to realize that there is no standard blueprint or prescriptive approach for explaining commons. Rather, each commons reflects its own creators' humanity and circumstances. It must organically grow over time, and thus reflect the cultural preferences, local conditions, etc. of that particular system. But patterns can help us identify the regularities and fractal similarities.

From 2002 to 2004, Alexander published a four-volume magnum opus, The Nature of Order, that summarizes his vision of how aliveness is imbued within buildings and the built environment. It's a longer presentation that can be summarized here (check out this Wikipedia summary). Let's just say that Alexander tried to explain how consciousness and spirit manifest themselves in physical structures like buildings (or commons). He saw the need to move beyond the mechanical, Newtonian mindset and reinterpret architecture as a cosmological act of creation -- a life process expressed through buildings and space.

Edgar Cahn: Inventing Institutional Systems of Care

I mourn as well the passing of Edgar Cahn, an American law professor who may be best known to commoners for creating Timebanking. An early commons colleague of mine, Jonathan Rowe, worked with Edgar to write Time Dollars, published in 1992. Its subtitle says it all:  "The new currency that enables Americans to turn their hidden resource -- time -- into personal security and community renewal." (Time Dollars later became "Timebanking" as it went international.)

Timebanking is a service-barter system. People can earn one credit for every hour of service to someone (mowing a lawn, providing eldercare, etc.), and that credit can be used later to "buy" other services. In communities without much money -- e.g., the elderly and people with low-incomes -- Timebanking helps organize and mobilize people's care work. But it had a much deeper purpose as well -- to build new bonds of community and personal affection in a world decimated by market individualism and a culture driven by money. 

The idea behind timebanking came from a place of deep compassion. As Edgar explained:

"There is a value in just 'being' who you are that systems do not create, cannot define or control, and may not necessarily satisfy what one wants," Edgar once said. "The freedom 'to be' is at the heart of those so-called inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Exercising those rights may need protection. But 'to be' means that one matters, that one's existence makes a difference."

Timebanking is a way for anyone, regardless of their talents or training, to make a positive difference in other people's lives, despite the countervailing pressures of the modern capitalist world.

Over the past twenty years, Timebanking has proliferated around the world in scores of contexts. Here, for example, is a profile of the Helsinki Timebank, which became so robust that the project attempted to persuade the city to let people pay their taxes with timebanking credits. (The city government rejected the idea.) 

In the larger scope of Edgar's remarkable life, Timebanking was just one achievement. He was also an active force in starting a federally funded US system of legal services for the poor (Legal Services Corporation); spurring Native American tribes to fight for their sovereignty as nations within the US polity; and pioneering a new practice-based approach to legal education at Antioch School of Law (now the UDC David A. Clarke School of Law).  Here are some further tributes to Edgar Cahn.

Gustavo Esteva: Encountering Life Beyond "Development"

It is painful to note, also, the loss of Gustavo Esteva, a Mexican philosopher, economist, activist and educator who made a big mark on his times, both within Mexico and in internationally. Based on his experiences among Indigenous peoples, as a guerrilla activist, a government official, and a disillusioned Marxist, Esteva saw firsthand the pathways of modern "development." Drawing on his varied experiences, he became an eloquent and ardent critic of it -- and a champion for more grounded forms of human agency and authentic ways of being. 

After serving ten years as a top economic minister within the government, Esteva soured on statist politics and moved into the world of commoning in its various guises. After meeting the Catholic social critic Ivan Illich, Esteva became a fast friend, adopting many of Illich's critiques of capitalist modernity and championing the need for people to develop their own human agency and authentic ways of living. He became a fierce advocate for peasants, Indigenous peoples, and marginalized urban dwellers.

In this quest, Esteva rejected the idea that "reason" is the "ultimate horizon of intelligibility." For example, he explained that in modern life "reason became a substitute for God, without my knowing it; it became the ultimate referent, valid in and of itself. This new consciousness, typically Western for both believers and nonbelievers, presupposed a trust in reason that assumed it to be the objective and solid foundation of all human thought and behavior."

Esteva may be best known for his founding of Universidad de la Tierra (or Unitierra, 'University of the Earth'), based on the radical educational ideas of Illich and Brazilian philosopher Paolo Freire.  Unitierra provides free learning opportunities, especially for young people who have not completed school or vocational training, to learn communally what they are interested in. 

In the mid-1990s, Esteva became a friend and advisor to the Zapitistas movement in Oaxaca as they struggled against repression by the Mexican government.  He wrote numerous essays and books, including Grassroots Postmodernism, The Future of Development, and the essay "The Zapatistas and People's Power." Here is a rich profile of Esteva's remarkable life. I am proud to say that Gustavo contributed an essay to Silke Helfrich's and my edited anthology, The Wealth of Commons. It was entitled, "Hope from the Margins," which is a wonderful summation of his life's work.  

Farewell to Christopher Alexander, Edgar Cahn, and Gustavo Esteva

In recent weeks, we commoners have lost three great visionaries. Each spawned robust institutions and movements to carry their visions forward; the continuing vitality of their projects confirm that their spirits remain very much with us. We should pause to reflect on and celebrate their towering contributions.

I'm talking about the British architect/philosopher Christopher Alexander, who invented the "pattern language" approach to urban design and building; Edgar Cahn, the creative American legal activist who invented timebanking and cofounded Antioch School of Law; and Gustavo Esteva, the post-development thinker and founder of the Universidad de la Tierra in Oaxaca.

Christopher Alexander's Fearless Exploration into Aliveness and Design

I remember encountering Christopher Alexander's seminal book, A Pattern Language, in the late 1970s, a cultural moment that was erupting with all sorts of mind-blowing ideas. Alexander wanted to know why certain designs in architecture and urban spaces were consistently used across cultures and history. These include the proportions of space in rooms....the placement of windows....the design of public squares... the popularity of cafes in cities....among dozens of other forms. What accounts for their timeless appeal?   

Alexander and his coauthors came to see that beauty, grace, and spiritual satisfaction actually play vital roles in the design of everyday life and buildings. Certain designs embody aliveness! But that quality can only be seen through a certain prism, which is what Alexander set out to name and analyze. He called his method a pattern language.  

A pattern, in Alexander's view, describes "a problem that occurs over and over again in our environment, and then describes the core of the solution to that problem, in such a way that you can use this solution a million times over, without ever doing it the same way twice." 

Each solution is unique because the context of the problem -- the geography, culture, values, and history of the designers -- is always different. Yet there are regularities -- or patterns -- to be  identified and studied. In A Pattern Language, Alexander identified 253 interrelated patterns in urban and building design. 

As my late colleague Silke Helfrich and I began to think about the nature of commons as social systems, we saw how the pattern language methodology could help us explain how commons actually work -- because commons, like buildings, are not primarily about physical things. They are about the interactive social dynamics of humans as they engage with each other and the Earth.

Silke and I came to realize that there is no standard blueprint or prescriptive approach for explaining commons. Rather, each commons reflects its own creators' humanity and circumstances. It must organically grow over time, and thus reflect the cultural preferences, local conditions, etc. of that particular system. But patterns can help us identify the regularities and fractal similarities.

From 2002 to 2004, Alexander published a four-volume magnum opus, The Nature of Order, that summarizes his vision of how aliveness is imbued within buildings and the built environment. It's a longer presentation that can be summarized here (check out this Wikipedia summary). Let's just say that Alexander tried to explain how consciousness and spirit manifest themselves in physical structures like buildings (or commons). He saw the need to move beyond the mechanical, Newtonian mindset and reinterpret architecture as a cosmological act of creation -- a life process expressed through buildings and space.

Edgar Cahn: Inventing Institutional Systems of Care

I mourn as well the passing of Edgar Cahn, an American law professor who may be best known to commoners for creating Timebanking. An early commons colleague of mine, Jonathan Rowe, worked with Edgar to write Time Dollars, published in 1992. Its subtitle says it all:  "The new currency that enables Americans to turn their hidden resource -- time -- into personal security and community renewal." (Time Dollars later became "Timebanking" as it went international.)

Timebanking is a service-barter system. People can earn one credit for every hour of service to someone (mowing a lawn, providing eldercare, etc.), and that credit can be used later to "buy" other services. In communities without much money -- e.g., the elderly and people with low-incomes -- Timebanking helps organize and mobilize people's care work. But it had a much deeper purpose as well -- to build new bonds of community and personal affection in a world decimated by market individualism and a culture driven by money. 

The idea behind timebanking came from a place of deep compassion. As Edgar explained:

"There is a value in just 'being' who you are that systems do not create, cannot define or control, and may not necessarily satisfy what one wants," Edgar once said. "The freedom 'to be' is at the heart of those so-called inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Exercising those rights may need protection. But 'to be' means that one matters, that one's existence makes a difference."

Timebanking is a way for anyone, regardless of their talents or training, to make a positive difference in other people's lives, despite the countervailing pressures of the modern capitalist world.

Over the past twenty years, Timebanking has proliferated around the world in scores of contexts. Here, for example, is a profile of the Helsinki Timebank, which became so robust that the project attempted to persuade the city to let people pay their taxes with timebanking credits. (The city government rejected the idea.) 

In the larger scope of Edgar's remarkable life, Timebanking was just one achievement. He was also an active force in starting a federally funded US system of legal services for the poor (Legal Services Corporation); spurring Native American tribes to fight for their sovereignty as nations within the US polity; and pioneering a new practice-based approach to legal education at Antioch School of Law (now the UDC David A. Clarke School of Law).  Here are some further tributes to Edgar Cahn.

Gustavo Esteva: Encountering Life Beyond "Development"

It is painful to note, also, the loss of Gustavo Esteva, a Mexican philosopher, economist, activist and educator who made a big mark on his times, both within Mexico and in internationally. Based on his experiences among Indigenous peoples, as a guerrilla activist, a government official, and a disillusioned Marxist, Esteva saw firsthand the pathways of modern "development." Drawing on his varied experiences, he became an eloquent and ardent critic of it -- and a champion for more grounded forms of human agency and authentic ways of being. 

After serving ten years as a top economic minister within the government, Esteva soured on statist politics and moved into the world of commoning in its various guises. After meeting the Catholic social critic Ivan Illich, Esteva became a fast friend, adopting many of Illich's critiques of capitalist modernity and championing the need for people to develop their own human agency and authentic ways of living. He became a fierce advocate for peasants, Indigenous peoples, and marginalized urban dwellers.

In this quest, Esteva rejected the idea that "reason" is the "ultimate horizon of intelligibility." For example, he explained that in modern life "reason became a substitute for God, without my knowing it; it became the ultimate referent, valid in and of itself. This new consciousness, typically Western for both believers and nonbelievers, presupposed a trust in reason that assumed it to be the objective and solid foundation of all human thought and behavior."

Esteva may be best known for his founding of Universidad de la Tierra (or Unitierra, 'University of the Earth'), based on the radical educational ideas of Illich and Brazilian philosopher Paolo Freire.  Unitierra provides free learning opportunities, especially for young people who have not completed school or vocational training, to learn communally what they are interested in. 

In the mid-1990s, Esteva became a friend and advisor to the Zapitistas movement in Oaxaca as they struggled against repression by the Mexican government.  He wrote numerous essays and books, including Grassroots Postmodernism, The Future of Development, and the essay "The Zapatistas and People's Power." Here is a rich profile of Esteva's remarkable life. I am proud to say that Gustavo contributed an essay to Silke Helfrich's and my edited anthology, The Wealth of Commons. It was entitled, "Hope from the Margins," which is a wonderful summation of his life's work.  

The Radical Open Access Collective: Building Better Knowledge Commons

The general public may not give much thought to how scientists and scholars publish their work, but please know that it matters. Like so much else in the world, corporate markets have colonized this space, which means that turning business profits is the primary goal, not the easy, affordable sharing of knowledge.

Commercial academic publishers have long privatized and monetized academic research, which over time has resulted in an oligopoly of a few publishers able to charge exorbitant prices for their books and journal subscriptions. The impact has been greatest on researchers in the Global South and at smaller, less affluent colleges and universities, where it is harder to access and share the latest scientific and scholarly research.

Sam Moore of Radical Open Access Collective

The most spirited response has come from the open access publishing movement. Open access, or OA, got its start twenty years ago as a way to publish academic books, journals, and other research that can be readily shared and copied. This was a break from the traditional publishing models that allowed major corporations to take researchers' copyrights and convert the fruits of academic commons into expensive proprietary products.

OA publications offered a refreshing alternative for making works permanently shareable at no or minimal cost. An example is open textbooks. They can rely on Creative Commons licenses to make the works legally shareable; print them using print-on-demand technology; and sell them at the cost of printing.

Open access not only helps scientists, scholars, and students build on the work of those who came before them. It assures a basic fairness -- to the academic fields that generated the knowledge in the first place, and to taxpayers who often pay (via the government) for research in science, medicine, and the humanities. Why should corporate publishers get to own the copyrights and privatize the gains of publicly funded research and public universities?

To explore the state of open access publishing today, I spoke recently with Sam Moore, an organizer with the Radical Open Access Collective on my Frontiers of Commoning podcast (episode #25). Moore is also a scholarly communications specialist at Cambridge University Library in England, and a research associate at Homerton College.

My interview digs into the oligopoly control of academic publishing, the high prices of academic journals and books, the lack of choices among many scientists and scholars, the limited leadership of university administrations, and some open-access innovations now being developed.

While open access publishing is no longer a novelty, the Radical Open Access Collective believes that much of it has been co-opted or sidetracked over the years by commercially oriented presses and funders. Many universities and foundations are happy to outsource the publishing process to commercial enterprises even though that means unnecessarily high prices, access restrictions, and a growing divide between rich and struggling academic institutions.. 

For the most part, commercial academic publishers have adapted their business models to accept the reality of open networks; they realize they can no longer maintain the total proprietary control they once enjoyed. But the new commercial regimes they've invented, while ostensibly providing open access, still allow publishers to make a ton of money and dictate the ways in which scholarly and scientific knowledge can be accessed and circulate.

OK, so readers are no longer paying as much. Instead, many OA publishers have simply shifted expenses to authors. They often must pay upfront "article processing charges" [APCs] and "book processing charges" [BPCs], which still impedes the circulation of knowledge, albeit in different ways.

The Radical Open Access Collective think there are better ways. That's why it came together in 2015 to form a community now comprised of 70 scholar-led, not-for-profit presses, journals and other open access projects. ROAC is committed to developing and championing “non-commercial, not-for-profit and/or commons-based models for the creation and dissemination of academic knowledge.” 

"What brings the scholar-led projects of the Radical Open Access Collective together," its website declares, "is a shared investment in taking back control over the means of production in order to rethink what publishing is and what it can be.

"One of the ways we try to achieve this is by shifting our unpaid labour away from toll access journals and publishers who do not allow authors to self-archive copies of their work online, or who have high charges for annual subscriptions, APCs [article processing charges] and BPCs [book processing charges]." 

"Research access is a fundamental right," Moore insists.  "It's good for democracy, it's good in many ways for the market.  It's good to have free and accessible research for everything."  The Radical Open Access Collective is one of the key forces trying to show how commoning in scientific and scholarly publishing can actually work.

You can listen to Sam Moore's interview on Frontiers of Commoning here.

The Radical Open Access Collective: Building Better Knowledge Commons

The general public may not give much thought to how scientists and scholars publish their work, but please know that it matters. Like so much else in the world, corporate markets have colonized this space, which means that turning business profits is the primary goal, not the easy, affordable sharing of knowledge.

Commercial academic publishers have long privatized and monetized academic research, which over time has resulted in an oligopoly of a few publishers able to charge exorbitant prices for their books and journal subscriptions. The impact has been greatest on researchers in the Global South and at smaller, less affluent colleges and universities, where it is harder to access and share the latest scientific and scholarly research.

Sam Moore of Radical Open Access Collective

The most spirited response has come from the open access publishing movement. Open access, or OA, got its start twenty years ago as a way to publish academic books, journals, and other research that can be readily shared and copied. This was a break from the traditional publishing models that allowed major corporations to take researchers' copyrights and convert the fruits of academic commons into expensive proprietary products.

OA publications offered a refreshing alternative for making works permanently shareable at no or minimal cost. An example is open textbooks. They can rely on Creative Commons licenses to make the works legally shareable; print them using print-on-demand technology; and sell them at the cost of printing.

Open access not only helps scientists, scholars, and students build on the work of those who came before them. It assures a basic fairness -- to the academic fields that generated the knowledge in the first place, and to taxpayers who often pay (via the government) for research in science, medicine, and the humanities. Why should corporate publishers get to own the copyrights and privatize the gains of publicly funded research and public universities?

To explore the state of open access publishing today, I spoke recently with Sam Moore, an organizer with the Radical Open Access Collective on my Frontiers of Commoning podcast (episode #25). Moore is also a scholarly communications specialist at Cambridge University Library in England, and a research associate at Homerton College.

My interview digs into the oligopoly control of academic publishing, the high prices of academic journals and books, the lack of choices among many scientists and scholars, the limited leadership of university administrations, and some open-access innovations now being developed.

While open access publishing is no longer a novelty, the Radical Open Access Collective believes that much of it has been co-opted or sidetracked over the years by commercially oriented presses and funders. Many universities and foundations are happy to outsource the publishing process to commercial enterprises even though that means unnecessarily high prices, access restrictions, and a growing divide between rich and struggling academic institutions.. 

For the most part, commercial academic publishers have adapted their business models to accept the reality of open networks; they realize they can no longer maintain the total proprietary control they once enjoyed. But the new commercial regimes they've invented, while ostensibly providing open access, still allow publishers to make a ton of money and dictate the ways in which scholarly and scientific knowledge can be accessed and circulate.

OK, so readers are no longer paying as much. Instead, many OA publishers have simply shifted expenses to authors. They often must pay upfront "article processing charges" [APCs] and "book processing charges" [BPCs], which still impedes the circulation of knowledge, albeit in different ways.

The Radical Open Access Collective think there are better ways. That's why it came together in 2015 to form a community now comprised of 70 scholar-led, not-for-profit presses, journals and other open access projects. ROAC is committed to developing and championing “non-commercial, not-for-profit and/or commons-based models for the creation and dissemination of academic knowledge.” 

"What brings the scholar-led projects of the Radical Open Access Collective together," its website declares, "is a shared investment in taking back control over the means of production in order to rethink what publishing is and what it can be.

"One of the ways we try to achieve this is by shifting our unpaid labour away from toll access journals and publishers who do not allow authors to self-archive copies of their work online, or who have high charges for annual subscriptions, APCs [article processing charges] and BPCs [book processing charges]." 

"Research access is a fundamental right," Moore insists.  "It's good for democracy, it's good in many ways for the market.  It's good to have free and accessible research for everything."  The Radical Open Access Collective is one of the key forces trying to show how commoning in scientific and scholarly publishing can actually work.

You can listen to Sam Moore's interview on Frontiers of Commoning here.

Furtherfield: The Power of Art and Play in Imagining New Worlds

Here's a fanciful but almost-real scenario: the bees, squirrels, geese, bugs, trees, and other species of your local park have decided that they've had enough of human aggression and abuse. They're not going to take it anymore, and rise up and demand equal rights with humans. Through a series of interspecies assemblies, a treaty is negotiated to ensure that every living being in the local ecosystem can flourish.

This scenario is a "live action role-playing" (LARP) game devised by Furtherfield, a London-based arts collective as part of its stewardship of part of the Victorian-era Finsbury Park. Over the next three years, Furtherfield is inviting humans to don masks and play the roles of each of seven species in negotiating "The Treaty of Finsbury Park 2025" -- the name of the project.

By casting humans as beetles and squirrels attending Interspecies Assemblies as delegates of their species, the LARP aims to help people develop "empathic pathways to nonhuman lifeforms through play." There is even a Sentience Dial to help different species communicate with each other. Who knows, this process may actually make Finsbury Park a more lush and lively place?

This adventure in animism is just one project that Furtherfield has hosted over the past 25 years, most of which blend art, digital technologies, and social action in some creative fashion. In my latest Frontier of Commoning podcast (Episode #24), I speak with Ruth Catlow about Furtherfield's distinctive approach to participatory art as a way of thinking anew about the world.

Catlow, an artist, curator, and co-leader of Furtherfield, has been a guiding visionary for its many artistic projects since its inception in 1996. She helps orchestrate collaborations with various local, national and international partners -- but especially with ordinary people. The point of its many artworks and technology projects is to try to get us to see the world differently, and to honor the role of art in envisioning new futures for ourselves.

Most of Furtherfield's projects take place in its green space and gallery in Finsbury Park, London, and in various digital spaces that bring together artists, techies and activists. Local officials have invited Furtherfield to use the park as a participatory canvas for its artistic projects. Traditionalists might call the group an arts center, but Furtherfield playfully calls itself a "de-center" because its work is so outward-looking and network based.

Ruth Catlow

Furtherfield sees itself is a convenor of artistic experiments that engage people in clever, provocative, and playful ways. The explorations are deeply rooted in open source technologies and philosophies while striving to -- in Furtherfield's words -- "disrupt and democratize existing hegemonies" and "re-landscape the terrain."

For example, when countless Black Lives Matter protests were rocking the US and cities around the world, many people began to question why slaveholder-businessmen and military generals were honored with bronze statues in public parks. Furtherfield decided to open up a public conversation about who or what should instead be celebrated atop pedastals in the park.

The People's Park Plinth project invited artists to propose new people or things to be honored in the park. The medium for this conversation was the smartphone. People strolling in the park could scan QR codes affixed to trees or pedestals, and instantly watch a video about the spot in the park. In effect, the scheme turned "the entire park into a platform for public digital artworks [that] asks you to pick the one you want for your park," as the project described itself.

Anyone could vote on a number of proposed artworks. The one that won -- 'Based on a Tree Story,' by Ayesha Tan Jones -- won was an artwork that used QR codes on a tree to summon a video of the the tree sprite who lived there.  ("A site specific, sonic augmented reality encounter with a digital tree sprite that tells tales of the tree’s past, present and future.")

'Based on a Tree Story' artwork in Finsbury Park

The public voting for the artworks was itself quite novel. Rather than tallying just one vote per person for the preferred artwork, each participant was given a number of votes that could be spread among as many artworks as they wished. This scheme, called "quadratic voting," doesn't just calculate which project gets a majority of votes, but rather indicates which ones people feel most passionate about. The system is meant to overcome the "tyranny of the majority" problem that overrides minority voices, and cases in which strong factions act as spoilers.

One of Furtherfield's more intriguing roles has been to host a laboratory and series of debates among artists and techies about how blockchain software could help reinvent the arts in an age of networks. The point was to explore how the cultural sector could develop "pathways to peer-produced decentralised digital infrastructures for art, culture and society – in particular through Decentralised Autonomous Organisations (DAOs)...." 

Furtherfield has wanted "to end gatekeeping and elitism in the artworld" and "bring this spirit of deep and radical friendship as a way to build resilient and mutable systems for scale-free interdependence and mutual aid." But it also wanted to move beyond the libertarian individualism that animates so many DAOs in the tech sector. 

Two books have resulted from Furtherfield's convenings: Artists RE:thinking the Blockchain (2017), about critical artistic engagement with blockchain; and Radical Friends, an anthology to be published in May 2022 about the hazards of digital autonomous organizations (DAOs) in the art world and commons-based DAO alternatives. (Furtherfield's alternative goes by the acronym DAOW, which stands for "DAOs with Others.")

You can listen to the podcast conversation with Ruth Catlow here.

Furtherfield: The Power of Art and Play in Imagining New Worlds

Here's a fanciful but almost-real scenario: the bees, squirrels, geese, bugs, trees, and other species of your local park have decided that they've had enough of human aggression and abuse. They're not going to take it anymore, and rise up and demand equal rights with humans. Through a series of interspecies assemblies, a treaty is negotiated to ensure that every living being in the local ecosystem can flourish.

This scenario is a "live action role-playing" (LARP) game devised by Furtherfield, a London-based arts collective as part of its stewardship of part of the Victorian-era Finsbury Park. Over the next three years, Furtherfield is inviting humans to don masks and play the roles of each of seven species in negotiating "The Treaty of Finsbury Park 2025" -- the name of the project.

By casting humans as beetles and squirrels attending Interspecies Assemblies as delegates of their species, the LARP aims to help people develop "empathic pathways to nonhuman lifeforms through play." There is even a Sentience Dial to help different species communicate with each other. Who knows, this process may actually make Finsbury Park a more lush and lively place?

This adventure in animism is just one project that Furtherfield has hosted over the past 25 years, most of which blend art, digital technologies, and social action in some creative fashion. In my latest Frontier of Commoning podcast (Episode #24), I speak with Ruth Catlow about Furtherfield's distinctive approach to participatory art as a way of thinking anew about the world.

Catlow, an artist, curator, and co-leader of Furtherfield, has been a guiding visionary for its many artistic projects since its inception in 1996. She helps orchestrate collaborations with various local, national and international partners -- but especially with ordinary people. The point of its many artworks and technology projects is to try to get us to see the world differently, and to honor the role of art in envisioning new futures for ourselves.

Most of Furtherfield's projects take place in its green space and gallery in Finsbury Park, London, and in various digital spaces that bring together artists, techies and activists. Local officials have invited Furtherfield to use the park as a participatory canvas for its artistic projects. Traditionalists might call the group an arts center, but Furtherfield playfully calls itself a "de-center" because its work is so outward-looking and network based.

Ruth Catlow

Furtherfield sees itself is a convenor of artistic experiments that engage people in clever, provocative, and playful ways. The explorations are deeply rooted in open source technologies and philosophies while striving to -- in Furtherfield's words -- "disrupt and democratize existing hegemonies" and "re-landscape the terrain."

For example, when countless Black Lives Matter protests were rocking the US and cities around the world, many people began to question why slaveholder-businessmen and military generals were honored with bronze statues in public parks. Furtherfield decided to open up a public conversation about who or what should instead be celebrated atop pedastals in the park.

The People's Park Plinth project invited artists to propose new people or things to be honored in the park. The medium for this conversation was the smartphone. People strolling in the park could scan QR codes affixed to trees or pedestals, and instantly watch a video about the spot in the park. In effect, the scheme turned "the entire park into a platform for public digital artworks [that] asks you to pick the one you want for your park," as the project described itself.

Anyone could vote on a number of proposed artworks. The one that won -- 'Based on a Tree Story,' by Ayesha Tan Jones -- won was an artwork that used QR codes on a tree to summon a video of the the tree sprite who lived there.  ("A site specific, sonic augmented reality encounter with a digital tree sprite that tells tales of the tree’s past, present and future.")

'Based on a Tree Story' artwork in Finsbury Park

The public voting for the artworks was itself quite novel. Rather than tallying just one vote per person for the preferred artwork, each participant was given a number of votes that could be spread among as many artworks as they wished. This scheme, called "quadratic voting," doesn't just calculate which project gets a majority of votes, but rather indicates which ones people feel most passionate about. The system is meant to overcome the "tyranny of the majority" problem that overrides minority voices, and cases in which strong factions act as spoilers.

One of Furtherfield's more intriguing roles has been to host a laboratory and series of debates among artists and techies about how blockchain software could help reinvent the arts in an age of networks. The point was to explore how the cultural sector could develop "pathways to peer-produced decentralised digital infrastructures for art, culture and society – in particular through Decentralised Autonomous Organisations (DAOs)...." 

Furtherfield has wanted "to end gatekeeping and elitism in the artworld" and "bring this spirit of deep and radical friendship as a way to build resilient and mutable systems for scale-free interdependence and mutual aid." But it also wanted to move beyond the libertarian individualism that animates so many DAOs in the tech sector. 

Two books have resulted from Furtherfield's convenings: Artists RE:thinking the Blockchain (2017), about critical artistic engagement with blockchain; and Radical Friends, an anthology to be published in May 2022 about the hazards of digital autonomous organizations (DAOs) in the art world and commons-based DAO alternatives. (Furtherfield's alternative goes by the acronym DAOW, which stands for "DAOs with Others.")

You can listen to the podcast conversation with Ruth Catlow here.

Bringing Degrowth and Commoning to Fashion

On the latest episode of my Frontiers of Commoning podcast (Episode #23), I speak with Sara Arnold and Sandra Niessen, two leading activists who are boldly calling for "a radical defashion future" based on degrowth, commoning, and clothing cultures that escape consumerism.  

Through the organization Fashion Act Now, a growing band of dissident fashionistas want to make the clothing industry more ecologically responsible, relocalized, and culturally in sync with this moment in history, especially with respect to climate change, economic justice, and decolonialization. This means greatly reducing the industry's resource and energy use, and moving away from hyper-consumerist "fast fashion" business models that generate colossal waste and ecological harm.

Sara Arnold (left) and Sandra Niessen of Fashion Act Now

My podcast interview with Arnold and Niessen is a spirited, often surprising conversation. It's not often that I've heard the words "fashion," "biodiversity" and system-change" uttered in the same sentence.

British fashion designer Sara Arnold started her career by launching a clothing rental platform, Higher Studio. Her idea was to incentivize a more environmentally sensitive "circular economy" in clothing by promoting rentals and re-use over consumption.

Sounds good, but she soon realized that her business  was actually helping to expand the market for clothing. Moreover, she saw that there are many larger environmental and climate problems that the fashion industry is largely ignoring.

So Arnold joined Extinction Rebellion to organize its #BoycottFashion and Cancel Fashion Week campaigns. Taking things further, in 2020 she co-founded Fashion Act Now as a campaign organization for defashion -- a term she coined to describe deep, systemic shifts in the industry that can address climate change and respect planetary limits.

The basic challenge, said Arnold, is "to bust the myth of fashion," said Arnold. "Essentially, the whole system is held up by the myths that are projected out to us through marketing." For Fashion Act Now, the industry needs a cultural makeover. It needs to stop marketing fantasies that the latest clothes will bring happiness, sexual satisfaction, social privilege, and protection from real world problems. The industry also needs to wean itself away from "fast fashion" production cycles that produce astonishing quantities of cheap clothing that quickly ends up in landfills.     

Fashion Act Now asks: Why not develop a system that produces durable, high-quality garments that reflect local traditions and needs?

For Sandra Niessen, a Dutch-Canadian fashion scholar and activist, it's important to call out the colonial dimensions of fashion that persist to this day. The industry's exploitation of the global South is most vividly evident in its use of low-paid sweatshop labor. But it is also seen in the dominance of global clothing markets and cultural norms, which inexorably subvert local garment production and customs. To be smart, modern and socially admired, according to the fashion industry, people must reject one's native clothing system and embrace European and American styles of dress (through consumerism, of course).

In her decades of work with Batak indigenous textile weavers in North Sumatra, Indonesia, Niessen has seen the steady decline of traditional clothing designs and practices. "A whole ethnic group and tradition has been turned into a 'sacrifice zone' for capital-F Fashion. Fashion is a huge thief. It steals indigenous peoples' designs. It steals well-being by harming the physical environment. It's stealing the past by glossing it over with its glitzy exterior."

Niessen cites the artificial creation of "coolness" through advertising as an essential pillar of capitalist fashion: "When you think about clothing, do we really need that sense of 'cool'?  That's exactly what the fashion system does, and that's how it co-opts [everything] all the time. When you think about it, fashion is planned obsolescence. It's the movement from one design to the next to the next, and the faster that happens, the greater profits a company can accrue. If you don't have advertising and consumers running after the next thing, you don't have capitalist fashion any more."

The fashion industry can become sustainable only if it comes to terms with this truth, Niessen asserted. Interestingly, Vogue Business, a trade publication, recently offered a sympathetic, well-reported profile of degrowth activists in fashion. The piece, by Bella Webb, pointed to a number of serious degrowth initiatives, such as the 2019 manifesto by Professor Katie Fletcher, "The Earth Logic Fashion Action Research Plan."

Some might worry that degrowth in fashion will result in far less creativity in clothing design. Niessen bluntly rejects this argument: "There are thousands of clothing systems in the world. It's just that the particular clothing system in the West, associated with one economic system, has blown its culture out of proportion and given it a global reach. If you think about degrowth -- shrinking the industry down to size and focusing again on locality -- you will see a return of pluriversality in clothing design," she said. The system will become "so much richer [in creativity] than the existing fashion system." which has turned the entire world into a single, more homogeneous market.

While degrowth initiatives in fashion are still in their early stages, they are offering some remarkably innovative approaches to reduce consumption, encourage repair and re-use of clothing, and promote local self-sufficiency.

For example, the London Urban Textiles Commons provides "regenerative textiles" to clothing makers. Upcycling clothing and repair services for old clothing are emerging, such as Dr. Amy Twigger Holroyd's project, ReKnit, which encourages people to reknit the knitwear in their wardrobes.

Holroyd, a professor at Nottingham Trent University, also hosts a network of makers, curators and academics focused on craft practices, at the Crafting the Commons website.  The Linen Project in the Netherlands is experimenting with small-scale, local agriculture to produce flax, used in making linen cloth, with the goal of producing garments that are homemade, artisanal, and sustainable.

You can listen to my interview with Sara Arnold and Sandra Nissen here.

Bringing Degrowth and Commoning to Fashion

On the latest episode of my Frontiers of Commoning podcast (Episode #23), I speak with Sara Arnold and Sandra Niessen, two leading activists who are boldly calling for "a radical defashion future" based on degrowth, commoning, and clothing cultures that escape consumerism.  

Through the organization Fashion Act Now, a growing band of dissident fashionistas want to make the clothing industry more ecologically responsible, relocalized, and culturally in sync with this moment in history, especially with respect to climate change, economic justice, and decolonialization. This means greatly reducing the industry's resource and energy use, and moving away from hyper-consumerist "fast fashion" business models that generate colossal waste and ecological harm.

Sara Arnold (left) and Sandra Niessen of Fashion Act Now

My podcast interview with Arnold and Niessen is a spirited, often surprising conversation. It's not often that I've heard the words "fashion," "biodiversity" and system-change" uttered in the same sentence.

British fashion designer Sara Arnold started her career by launching a clothing rental platform, Higher Studio. Her idea was to incentivize a more environmentally sensitive "circular economy" in clothing by promoting rentals and re-use over consumption.

Sounds good, but she soon realized that her business  was actually helping to expand the market for clothing. Moreover, she saw that there are many larger environmental and climate problems that the fashion industry is largely ignoring.

So Arnold joined Extinction Rebellion to organize its #BoycottFashion and Cancel Fashion Week campaigns. Taking things further, in 2020 she co-founded Fashion Act Now as a campaign organization for defashion -- a term she coined to describe deep, systemic shifts in the industry that can address climate change and respect planetary limits.

The basic challenge, said Arnold, is "to bust the myth of fashion," said Arnold. "Essentially, the whole system is held up by the myths that are projected out to us through marketing." For Fashion Act Now, the industry needs a cultural makeover. It needs to stop marketing fantasies that the latest clothes will bring happiness, sexual satisfaction, social privilege, and protection from real world problems. The industry also needs to wean itself away from "fast fashion" production cycles that produce astonishing quantities of cheap clothing that quickly ends up in landfills.     

Fashion Act Now asks: Why not develop a system that produces durable, high-quality garments that reflect local traditions and needs?

For Sandra Niessen, a Dutch-Canadian fashion scholar and activist, it's important to call out the colonial dimensions of fashion that persist to this day. The industry's exploitation of the global South is most vividly evident in its use of low-paid sweatshop labor. But it is also seen in the dominance of global clothing markets and cultural norms, which inexorably subvert local garment production and customs. To be smart, modern and socially admired, according to the fashion industry, people must reject one's native clothing system and embrace European and American styles of dress (through consumerism, of course).

In her decades of work with Batak indigenous textile weavers in North Sumatra, Indonesia, Niessen has seen the steady decline of traditional clothing designs and practices. "A whole ethnic group and tradition has been turned into a 'sacrifice zone' for capital-F Fashion. Fashion is a huge thief. It steals indigenous peoples' designs. It steals well-being by harming the physical environment. It's stealing the past by glossing it over with its glitzy exterior."

Niessen cites the artificial creation of "coolness" through advertising as an essential pillar of capitalist fashion: "When you think about clothing, do we really need that sense of 'cool'?  That's exactly what the fashion system does, and that's how it co-opts [everything] all the time. When you think about it, fashion is planned obsolescence. It's the movement from one design to the next to the next, and the faster that happens, the greater profits a company can accrue. If you don't have advertising and consumers running after the next thing, you don't have capitalist fashion any more."

The fashion industry can become sustainable only if it comes to terms with this truth, Niessen asserted. Interestingly, Vogue Business, a trade publication, recently offered a sympathetic, well-reported profile of degrowth activists in fashion. The piece, by Bella Webb, pointed to a number of serious degrowth initiatives, such as the 2019 manifesto by Professor Katie Fletcher, "The Earth Logic Fashion Action Research Plan."

Some might worry that degrowth in fashion will result in far less creativity in clothing design. Niessen bluntly rejects this argument: "There are thousands of clothing systems in the world. It's just that the particular clothing system in the West, associated with one economic system, has blown its culture out of proportion and given it a global reach. If you think about degrowth -- shrinking the industry down to size and focusing again on locality -- you will see a return of pluriversality in clothing design," she said. The system will become "so much richer [in creativity] than the existing fashion system." which has turned the entire world into a single, more homogeneous market.

While degrowth initiatives in fashion are still in their early stages, they are offering some remarkably innovative approaches to reduce consumption, encourage repair and re-use of clothing, and promote local self-sufficiency.

For example, the London Urban Textiles Commons provides "regenerative textiles" to clothing makers. Upcycling clothing and repair services for old clothing are emerging, such as Dr. Amy Twigger Holroyd's project, ReKnit, which encourages people to reknit the knitwear in their wardrobes.

Holroyd, a professor at Nottingham Trent University, also hosts a network of makers, curators and academics focused on craft practices, at the Crafting the Commons website.  The Linen Project in the Netherlands is experimenting with small-scale, local agriculture to produce flax, used in making linen cloth, with the goal of producing garments that are homemade, artisanal, and sustainable.

You can listen to my interview with Sara Arnold and Sandra Nissen here.