The democratic and socially conscious nature of co-ops make the knowledge commons a natural fit for us. A co-op is essentially a commons within itself already, and participating in the global knowledge commons is a very fitting next step.
I started this blog to talk about the relevance and importance of co-ops and the commons to each other. It’s about time I started talking about it.
Most people are probably fairly familiar with co-ops: businesses owned by their members and operated democratically. My favorite flavor of co-op is worker co-ops, where the members are the workers themselves. But people might not be as clear on what the commons is (or are).
A commons is collectively owned and managed resource or set of resources. It’s not publicly owned, or government owned, or owned by “everyone.” There’s a clear distinction between who’s an owner and who’s not. There are also clear rules for the commoners to follow in their day-to-day management, with consequences for rulebreakers. In fact, some have described the commons not as a place or a thing, but an activity: “commoning.” Also, for the record, there’s nothing the least bit tragic about it.
I see the commons as relevant to co-ops in two broad ways. The first is that a co-op behaves as a sort of commons, because work and the earnings from it are shared among the members. If we think in these terms, then our history goes back not a century or two, but many centuries. There are commons of one sort or another on every inhabited continent. In fact, historically, commons are the most frequent economic arrangement. The default, as it were. Co-ops are simply the most recent variant.
The second is a very modern take on a very old idea: the knowledge commons. No one used that term until quite recently, but the free sharing of information has been around since the invention of language. In my view, co-ops should participate in the digital commons by creating open data and using the peer-to-peer production model. This would mean making practically everything about the co-op and its work available to all under an open license: its product design, its processes, even its contracts with suppliers. Instead of practices based on secrecy, we can have practices based on transparency.
Why would we do this? Well, it’s frequently observed that knowledge is power. It would seem natural to want to concentrate knowledge to concentrate power, but that’s not what co-ops are about. Co-ops deliberately distribute ownership so as to distribute decision-making abilities, and this is a logical extension of that. Transparency and open data empower anyone who picks them up and uses them. That could include competitors, but competitors will most likely be able to reverse-engineer and reproduce most of our advantages anyway. This is really more of an open-source model, where those who make use of our open data may well improve on it, and feed those improvements back to us.
The democratic and socially conscious nature of co-ops make the knowledge commons a natural fit for us. As I said above, a co-op is essentially a commons within itself already, and participating in the global knowledge commons is a very fitting next step. It’s consistent with all the co-op principles, especially 5, 6, and 7. Indeed, not only are a good number of co-ops already doing this, there’s a term for co-ops dedicated to it: open co-ops. But we don’t need a special name to participate, we can simply start whenever we want.