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CTA proposal for Ontological Commoning

This was the text submitted to the CTA for its “Collabathon”, starting in February 2023.

Proposal Title:

Ontological commoning to support collaboration

Initial team:

Simon Grant, Roberto Valenti, Simona Rossi

Proposal Summary:

There are many current initiatives promising to support collaboration, whether they be tools, methodologies or platforms that embody an approach or a perspective on collaboration; or alternatively taking one aspect of the information requirements for collaboration and offering a viable solution to that aspect, independently of other aspects. However, when we look at the challenges that really matter in the world, even overall conceptualisation and requirements specification are themselves highly complex, let alone building such tools or platforms. To conceptualise such complex systems in tractable ways, to specify requirements for them, and even to communicate the ideas to others, one needs to simplify much of the complexity, and in the absence of timely information about and dialogue with the builders of other such systems, this has already resulted, and will continue to result in systems built on assumptions that are essentially incompatible, and in separate platforms that are far from fully interoperable, thus limiting the effective reach of our combined ideals. We are proposing the development of methodology to enable different groups to cope with complexity and enhance cooperation.

Simplified narratives can be very appealing, but, typically, different simplifications appeal to different people. This may, for example, depend on their personal histories, worldview and perspectives. Coding is a language, and it may be influenced by the ways the person uses that language thinks and/or feels. This happens with all languages, and programming languages are no exception. Taking inspiration from processes related to similar dynamics observed in other typologies of communication, we want to explore which corrective measures may facilitate cooperation and co-creation, even among coders and in digital environments. There is much anecdotal evidence that programmers are more inclined to introversion than extraversion, and to the extent that this is true, it will not be surprising that many systems builders take more naturally to thinking through their own project rather than finding out from others first. Many people, whether introverted or not, enjoy thinking things through by themselves. These phenomena typically lead to a lack of interoperability, together with a difficulty in collaboratively putting together various ideas into one common system, or even agreeing on a common culture in which collaboration and co-creation can occur. If a lack of common ontology obstructs effective communication, as it often does, then the benefits of collective intelligence will be hard if not impossible to realise. As the major cultural, social and global challenges in our world are also highly complex, such collective approaches are absolutely necessary to offer the “requisite variety” (Ashby) to address those challenges.

This project will explore the hypothesis that people’s favourite simplifications of real life complexity are often linked to their personal history, in a way similar to the plausible idea that people’s “healing narratives” reflect their own historical suffering or present lack of health. The project will then start putting together a development methodology for systems supporting commons co-creation. We will look at several dialogue-related practices, including Nonviolent Communication (NVC), various forms of circle practice, Internal Family Systems (IFS) and Collective Presencing, to assess their potential for stimulating engagement with the perspectives and narratives of other systems developers; and whether this can potentially lead on towards significantly greater collaboration and co-creation.

In general, the digital culture doesn't embed cooperation as an attitude toward “production”. The process could be just as important as the product. This project intends to underline that though investing in the process can seem to be a loss of time in terms of “production”, it can however create more efficient and stable results.

A key outcome to assess the success of this development methodology will be the extent to which developers are enabled to come together both with each other and with typical users of their tools and platforms, in the process of commoning the kind of ontologies that underlie interoperability and the coordination of decentralised systems. This approach will explicitly not be seeking to reach the supposed “result” of ontologies cast in concrete, but rather to seek ongoing organic growth of common ontology — supporting tools and platforms supporting ever wider collaboration within the regenerative and commons communities.

Desired Outcomes:

Long-term outcome: a vital contribution to the methodology for specifying and building collaborative technology. The long-term outcomes will be inherently mixed in with the outcomes of other projects, rather than being visible entirely separately. It may not be easy to assess objectively how much this approach contributes, but we will be seeking continuous personal reports of effectiveness and any blocks, leading to developing the methodology. Short-term outcomes will be in terms of intermediate results that we believe will contribute towards the long-term outcomes. These will include the agreement of vocabularies, taxonomies, ontologies, methods and practices, and interoperability standards. We will remain open to different perspectives on which of these are most significant factors in contributing to the long-term outcomes.


  • Initial contact with each one of the successful projects in this Collabathon around the issues raised by this project.
  • Gauging the relevance of each of the other projects, and seeking their views on the interventions with the most promise.
  • Holding at least 6 two-weekly online sessions sharing and developing on the ideas set out here, including pointing towards ontology commoning.
  • Writing and publication of one detailed study: methods, results and reflections. The nature of the study to emerge from dialogue with the interested projects.
  • Setting up an easily-navigable knowledge base describing all the resources and findings and linking to further related resources.

CTA Alignment:

This project is closely aligned with CTA principles, and in particular co-creation for wellbeing (inherent in the objectives) openness (necessary for genuine commoning of ontology) and emergence (resulting from the gain in collectivity within our communities). The CTA has long been interested in the kind of interoperability that promises to enhance the reach of all the tools and platforms that we build, so that all of those who use our systems can do so with the minimum confusion and unnecessary time and effort.

View Details:

(essentially the same text in different formats)


a/ontological_commoning_proposal.txt · Last modified: 2023-03-05 13:11 by simongrant