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Looking Hard at the Commons

Posted February 18th, 2009 by Brendan Ballou
Categories: Uncategorized, Weekly Updates

Defining the commons is hard – like a painting, the longer you look at it, the less clear it seems to become. Now we can identify a few key features of the commons that pretty much all authors agree on: a commons is a resource that is freely available to a certain population. A public park is a good example of this sort of commons. But a commons need not be free like free beer. Some commons cost money to enter and use – it’s just that the cost of entry is imposed neutrally (no one can be given special access; no one can be denied). A public bus is a good example of that sort of commons.
So far, so good. But once we try to add more detail to our definition of the commons, things get contentious. Let me just point out a few examples:

  1. We said a commons is a resource. But what’s a resource? The stuff of physical property is definitely a resource. The stuff of intellectual property – patents, copyrights, designs and codes – are probably resources as well. But what about things like standards of practice, languages, and social norms? Is English really a commons? Is social etiquette? Different authors disagree.
  2. We said a commons is freely available. But when is something freely available? If a fee is imposed neutrally, but is prohibitively high for most people, is the resource still a commons? If the resource is not modular, transferable or interoperable, is it really a commons? Again, different authors disagree.
  3. We said a commons exists for a certain population. But of course, what is a population? Is a resource a commons if it only available to two people? What about 200? What about the whole of society?

Now the world doesn’t necessarily need one fixed and perfect definition of the commons. People can disagree about what constitutes a relevant population or resource, or what we really mean by freedom. But here at the ICP we need a clear definition of the commons in order to identify instances of it in the biotech, alternative energy, and educational material industries. Here are a few of the questions we’re trying to answer for ourselves before we can begin developing our field methodology:

  • Does a commons have to be self-governed? Many are. Public libraries are used by the taxpayers that fund and sustain them. But many aren’t. The Internet Protocol might be a commons, but few Internet users have a say in its design and operation.
  • Does a commons require predictable access? Again, many are, but many aren’t. FEMA might once have been considered a public resource. But since Hurricane Katrina, when huge populations had no predictable access to emergency relief, FEMA’s status as a commons has been less clear.
  • Does a commons require that people know it’s a commons? If no one knows that a park is public, is it really a public park?

If all this becomes a little abstract and theoretical, well, it is. But over the next few weeks we’ll be working hard to clear up the theory so that we can quickly put it into practice and identify commons-based practices in our areas of study.

(Trying To) Picture Cooperation On The Web

Posted January 29th, 2009 by Tim Hwang
Categories: project update

Sorry about the week delay in posting, caught up in a wave of work and this new home for updating on the project totally slipped my mind. We’ll get the hang of this, folks — stay with us.

As you might remember from our opening post, the current aim of the Cooperation project is simple to state:

What creates cooperation online? What community rules and structural design mechanisms can be put into place to encourage collaboration?

Obviously, easier said that done: the aim of exploring cooperation (broadly speaking) online is huge — and requires the development of two things. First, some kind of representative or defensible set of examples of cooperation that can be sorted into a typology. And second, some kind of standardized data set and rigorous way of gathering that data set.

Generating these two things has been our work for the past few months, and it’s been a crazy time. Since both of these parts have enough moving parts that they deserve their own post — we’ll start with the latter.

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Cooperation in Web 2.0 Companies

Posted January 20th, 2009 by Carolina Rossini
Categories: Uncategorized

By Erhardt Graeff

Here at Berkman, Cooperation Research Group has developed a new project to look at how industries and corporate actors are changing their models and culture to incorporate commons-based models of cooperation and information sharing – the Institutional Cooperation Research Group (ICRG). At last Tuesday’s (13 January) Berkman Luncheon Series, Carolina Rossini, the fellow coordinating this research area, asked HBS’s Professor Andrew McAfee—who studies how Web 2.0 technologies are being embraced by individual corporations to promote productive and more open interaction between Granovetterian [pdf] strong, weak, potential, and serendipitous ties between colleagues—about how managers deal with the fear of competitors while trying to provoke a culture in their enterprises more akin to openness and collaboration.

McAfee’s response focused on the information security issues of expanded access to core business assets. He reflected on the case of the U.S. intelligence community’s internal wiki Intellipedia, where professionals have reconciled the fact that, previously, too little information sharing had resulted in many people’s deaths while realizing that too much information sharing may lead to future deaths. In this example, the intelligence gathering “industry” has a common goal where “profit” is maximized through cooperation—however, it is unclear whether such a paradigm is transferable to private industries like those the ICRG wants to study in the next term: Educational Materials, Alternative Energy, and Biotechnology.

The disconnect seems twofold: 1) the direction between a cultural shift leading to novel technology use versus novel technology use leading to a cultural shift, and 2) differentiating between internal (intra-)corporate ties and cooperation versus external (inter-)corporate or extra-corporate ties and cooperation. McAfee’s Enterprise 2.0 idea seems to start with technology as a exploitable tool, where external information sharing is still a concern in terms of security, despite an internal shift in information sharing mindset from “need to know” to a “responsibility to share”.

Concerns over individually held forms of intellectually property, present (confidential) and future (potential patents), are still prominent in this individual enterprise approach, evident in the example of crowdsourcing now used by some Biotech companies seeking solutions to their R&D problems via an intermediary online social network service. The corporations maintain a strict and confidential IP paradigm through paying contributing problem-solvers for their work and anonymizing the problem-posing pharmaceutical companies (Merck, Pfizer, etc.) and their specific end products. Thus we are left wondering: Can McAfee’s observed intra-business cultural shift via Web 2.0 potentially foment an industrial cultural shift searching for new and better ties? Can and how might a “responsibility to share” become a public commons? And how will corporations attracted to Benklerian “Wealth of Networks” ideas deal with the lingering issues of IP? …more to come, for sure, from the ICRG here at Berkman.

So What’s All This Cooperation About?

Posted January 15th, 2009 by Tim Hwang
Categories: project update, Weekly Updates

There’s kind of an in-joke that’s popped up within the Berkman Center within the past couple of months among the group of research assistants that work on the online case studies research group. There’s so many simultaneous moving parts and research efforts going on within the cluster of projects that comprise The Cooperation Project and its allies that we’ve affectionately just started calling it simply, “Cooperationland.” In point of fact, it’s been remarked by a few of the people on the project that the pieces of the project get so numerous that sometimes even we have trouble articulating exactly in nice, simple terms what we do for a living at fancy cocktail parties, family gatherings, and that sort of thing. Embarrassing.

Though, ultimately, the question remains simple: what creates cooperation online? What community rules and structural design mechanisms can be put into place to encourage collaboration?

That’s a big one. So, in what hopes to be the first of a series of weekly posts, we’re hoping that we can provide some kind of clear context and simple, non-technical update to the sorts of things that are happening on the project. We’re hoping it becomes a source of information not only for people interested in tracking our progress, but getting involved as well.

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The Cooperation Project

Posted December 22nd, 2008 by
Categories: Uncategorized

Hello world!

Welcome to the Cooperation project’s official weblog.  Starting in 2009, we will use this space to post weekly updates related to our studies of cooperation by traditional institutions and on collaborative websites.  In addition, our researchers will share their thoughts on new findings and challenges in interdisciplinary cooperation research.

In the meantime, you can visit the Berkman Center Website to learn more about Professor Yochai Benkler’s previous work in this area.

We welcome your comments, questions, conversation, and creativity.   Please share your thoughts with us below!