Hiddinghausen talks, part 2: A network for sharing and shared production

Discussion in HiddinghausenFree design is an important building block for spreading peer production, but it is not enough. A second topic discussed in Hiddinghausen was therefore how to facilitate and encourage the sharing and the shared production of physical goods and of services in all areas of life. My proposal here is called the Commons Network.

The Commons Network is inspired by the practices of free software and free content projects, where people do things they like to do (such as writing software or texts) and, by doing so, produce goods that are useful for others; but also by the approach of wireless community networks where the participants jointly build a free network, allowing everyone to transfer data through the free network or to access the Internet through it. Community networks are interesting because they organize the free sharing of limited resources that cannot just be copied freely (bandwidth and Internet access). And some community networks are interesting in that they’re self-organizing and self-healing: whenever nodes (participating computers) join or leave such a mesh network, it reconfigures itself to ensure that all data still finds the best route through the network.

The idea of the Commons Network (future URL: commonsnetwork.org) is to build a loose network of people and projects that is based on commons (goods which are jointly used, managed or owned) and that allows the free sharing and the shared production of goods and resources among everybody who wants to get involved. Ideally, the network should also become a self-organizing and self-healing “mesh,” where production processes spontaneously adapt to the needs and wishes of the people involved and where anybody can join or leave the network without causing disruption.

A handout of my talk on the Commons Network follows; the slides are also available as a S5 slideshow. Comments welcome!

Commons Network

Christian Siefkes
August 2008

Sources of Inspiration

Existing forms of Commons-based peer production, especially:

  • Free software, Wikipedia and Creative Commons, and related approaches
  • Wireless community networks

Wireless Community Networks


A FreeNetwork is any computer network that allows free local transit, following the guidelines of our peering agreement. By “transit”, we refer to information flowing through the network. While most of our members specialize in wireless networking, a FreeNetwork can be built using Ethernet, fiber optics, or any other kind of networking technology. A FreeNetwork is defined by what its users can do with it, rather than the particular technology it is built on.

→ Sharing of a “physical”, non-copyable resource (Internet access).

Peering Agreement

Basis for cooperation in community networks:

This document is an attempt to connect those network islands by providing the minimum baseline template for a peering agreement between owners of individual network nodes – the FreeNetworks.org Peering Agreement (FNPA)….

  • Article I. Free Transit: The owner agrees to provide free transit across their free network….
  • Article II. Open Communication: The owner agrees to publish the information necessary for peering to take place … under a free license.
  • Article III. No Warranty: There is no guaranteed level of service….
  • Article IV. Terms of Use: The owner is entitled to formulate an “acceptable use policy” (AUP) […which must] not contradict articles I and II of this agreement…
  • Article V. Local Amendments: (to be filled in ad-hoc by the node owner…)

Mesh Networks

Large community networks such as Freifunk are mesh networks: Multiple computers (nodes or peers) form a network without needing a central authority or hierarchical structures. Data “hops” from node to node until it reaches its destination.

Mesh networks are “self-healing”: Whenever a node leaves or joins the network, the network structure reconfigures itself so that all data still reaches its destination (unless the network splits into two parts because the lost node was the sole connection between different regions).


Generalize the approach of wireless community networks to co-produce and share (almost) everything that people like to have.

→ Build an open network for sharing and shared production:

  • Share what you know (→ Universal Production Set)
  • Share what you have (and don’t need for yourself)
  • Share what you (like to) do (start or join a project)

Elements of the Network

  • Shares: goods that are shared
    • Parallel co-use (e.g. Wi-Fi)
    • Serial co-use (e.g. book lending, apartments)
    • Repositories (e.g. of tools; libraries)
    • Open Production Places (e.g. on-demand book/media printer, individual furniture-maker)
  • Floaters: goods that can “float” from one peer to another (“New user wanted”)
  • Sources (“Open X Source”): peers or projects producing new goods
    • Sample: Open Food Source, maybe using permaculture/community farming
  • Sinks: peers or projects using/consuming goods

Sharing Constraints

Based on an idea by Thomas Kalka.

Family of constraints which shares may apply (family of “sharing agreements”, similar to the family of Creative Commons licenses):

  • Permanent: good must remain permanently in the commons (“permafloater”)
  • Transitive: any goods produced with the help of this good become part of the commons (“copyleft” for physical goods/means of production)
  • Attribution appreciated: sharers wish to be attributed, if practical (not a strict requirement)
  • Details for serial co-use:
    • Use on site (e.g. washing machine, on-demand press, house/apartment) or move to user (e.g. books)?
    • If move to user: who (user or sharer) organizes/pays for transport?
    • Transfer to others allowed? (only within a specific region?)
    • Return on date / on demand?
    • Must repair if broken by user?

Why Participate?

For the same reasons that motivate people to develop free software or participate in community networks:

  • To produce goods they like to have (“scratching an itch”)
  • To do something they enjoy doing (“fun and passion”)
  • To give something back to the community
  • To learn something or expand their skills
  • To increase their reputation or community standing
  • Because sharers might get preferred treatment

Private and Common Property

Shared goods and the necessary means of production are either:

  • Granted property (private property shared by the owners)
  • Common property (permanent part of the commons—nobody has the right to take them out)

Note: How can we safeguard the status of common property within the current legal framework? → Requires a “legal hack” similar to the GPL.

Common Property

How things become common property:

  • Cost recovery: sharers may ask for voluntary suggested contributions, as long as there are still uncovered costs (money that has been spent to buy or maintain the goods).
  • Donations: people donate goods or money to buy goods to the commons.
  • Collections: projects collect money in order to buy common property (distributed donations).

Common property (goods that are partially and totally community-owned) are still maintained by the initial sharers, but they can’t be sold/re-privatized—if the initial sharers choose not to maintain them any more, they “float” to somebody else within the Network.

Common property is always transitive: goods produced using them are common property, too.

Costs only arise when something must be bought since it isn’t available in the Network. Ideally, costs should become lower over time, as more and more goods and tools are produced and freely distributed in the Commons Network.

The Problem of Priority

How to deal with conflicting demands for the same good?


  • Use Load balancing to distribute requests between different projects and to find alternatives for people if one project doesn’t satisfy their wishes.
  • Maintainers decide, but “try to be fair.” Recommendations:
    • Projects may produce first for themselves and second for others (“Share what you can”, i.e. what you don’t need for yourself), therefore they might prefer people who have contributed time or money to the project.
    • People with an urgent need should get priority.
    • Otherwise, people who are sharers (active participants of the network, including their children and old or ill ex-sharers) might get priority.
    • Otherwise, try to satisfy requests in order of arrival (“first come, first serve”).

Favorable Conditions for Starting

  • Suitable for decentralized production.
  • Low barriers of entry—affordable means of production.
  • Produced goods are relevant for many people.
  • People are able to handle the necessary tasks.
  • People like to handle the necessary tasks.

Suitable Areas for Starting

  • Internet access & telephony
  • Food
  • Print/press-on-demand
  • Furniture
  • Clothing
  • Child & elder care
  • Energy

Network Infrastructure

  • Family of usage agreements for shared goods and common property.
  • Decentralized software infrastructure for
    • sharing and finding goods
    • founding, joining and running projects
    • collecting and coordinating people’s wishes about what to do and what to get

Hypothesis: people like to do things that are useful for others and to be part of an active community.

→ Create suitable infrastructure (for sharing designs, for sharing goods, for organizing shared production, for spontaneous cooperation and stigmergic interaction), and production will follow.

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