One of the most striking and important developments in the world of technology over the last two decades or so has been the rise of an alternative mode of production that is open, collaborative and global. This began in the world of software, with Richard Stallman's GNU project, but has now been extended to the realms of text, data, science and hardware, among others. The free sharing of information to form a kind of digital commons, which lies at the heart of these projects, has also been applied to business, albeit in the modified form of collaborative consumption -- things like Airbnb. These different manifestations of fundamentally similar ideas have sprung up in a largely uncoordinated way, but an interesting question is whether they could be drawn together into a unified approach, applied to a whole country, say.
That's what Ecuador's FLOK Society
(original in Spanish) has been exploring. "FLOK" is derived from "free", "libre" and "open knowledge"; here's how David Bollier, an expert on the commons, describes the project:
The FLOK Society bills its mission as "designing a world for the commons."
The research project will focus on many interrelated themes, including open education; open innovation and science; "arts and meaning-making activities"; open design commons; distributed manufacturing; and sustainable agriculture; and open machining. The research will also explore enabling legal and institutional frameworks to support open productive capacities; new sorts of open technical infrastructures and systems for privacy, security, data ownership and digital rights; and ways to mutualize the physical infrastructures of collective life and promote collaborative consumption.
There is a detailed research plan, "Transitioning to a Commons-Based Society
", and numerous texts providing more detailed information
. But probably the best introduction to FLOK Society and its ideas is an interview with the project's research leader, Michel Bauwens
, conducted by Richard Poynder, best known for his unmatched profiles of key figures in the world of open access
. Bauwens describes the background to the FLOK Society project as follows:
The legitimacy and logic of the project comes from the National Plan of Ecuador, which is centred around the concept of Good Living (Buen Vivir), which is a non-reductionist, non-exclusive material way to look at the economy and social life, inspired by the traditional values of the indigenous people of the Andes. The aim of FLOK is to add "Good Knowledge" as an enabler and facilitator of the good life.
That sounds inspirational, but how will it work in practice? In particular, how will those participating in the "Good Life" earn a living through this "Good Knowledge"? Bauwens explains:
Think of the core model of our economy as the Linux economy writ large, but one in which the enterprises are actually in the hands of the value creators themselves. Imagine this micro-economic model on the macro scale of a whole society. Civil society becomes a series of commonses with citizens as contributors; the shareholding market becomes an ethical stakeholder marketplace; and the state becomes a partner state, which "enables and empowers social production" through the communication of public services and public-commons partnerships.
Central to the success of Linux has been the adoption of the GNU General Public License, which allowed code to be shared widely but in a way that prevented the software commons being enclosed by companies taking and using that code without contributing back. Building on the GNU GPL's ideas, Bauwens and his team have drawn up a new license, tailored to the needs of the FLOK Society project and the people of Ecuador:
traditional communities have suffered from systematic biopiracy over the last few decades, with western scientists studying their botanical knowledge, extracting patentable scientific results from it, and then commercialising it in the West.
So fully shareable licenses like the GPL would keep the knowledge in a commons, but would still allow full commercialisation without material benefits flowing back to Ecuador. So what we are proposing is a discussion about a new type of licensing, which we call Commons-Based Reciprocity Licensing. This idea was first pioneered with the Peer Production License as conceived by Dmytri Kleiner.
Such licences would be designed for a particular usage, say biodiversity research in a series of traditional communities. It allows for free sharing non-commercially, commercial use by not-for-profit entities, and even caters for for-profit entities who contribute back. Importantly, it creates a frontier for for-profits who do not contribute back, and asks them to pay.
Although the license and FLOK Society are very consciously geared to the needs of the Ecuadorean nation that has sponsored them, the long-term goal is much more ambitious, and has at its heart ideas that have often been discussed here on Techdirt:
To work for a sustainable society and economy is absolutely crucial for the future of humanity, and while we respect the freedoms of people to engage in market dynamics for the allocation of rival goods, we cannot afford a system of infinite growth and scarcity engineering, which is what capitalism is.
In other words, today, we consider nature infinite and we believe that infinite resources should be made scarce in order to protect monopolistic players; tomorrow, we need to consider nature as a finite resource, and we should respect the abundance of nature and the human spirit.
Bauwens himself admits that FLOK Society is unlikely to transform an entire nation overnight, or even in the foreseeable future, but sees it as a crucially-important step towards that larger goal of global change:
the publication and the dialogue about the plan itself, and some concrete actions, legislative frameworks, and pilot projects, are the best we can hope for. What this will do is give real legitimacy to our approach and move the commons transition to the geo-political stage. Can we hope for more?
Personally, I believe that even if only 20% of our proposals are retained for action, I think we can consider it a relative success. This is the very first time such an even partial transition will have happened at the scale of the nation and, as I see it, it gives legitimacy to a whole new set of ideas about societal transition.
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