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What IS a knowledge commons? My vision …

From 2023-09-09

I've written a lot in the last 3 years about knowledge commons (see the “see also”, below) but I've not actually given a clear setting out of my position on: what is a knowledge commons exactly? Or maybe, what would it be good to be? Where is the useful potential? So I've written this between 2023-09-09 and 2023-09-14. (Added a short paragraph 2023-10-25.)

to;dr: we need to look at knowledge commons from two sides, and they look different — the side of no commercial interest and the side where it could compete with established interests. The concept of communities of practice helps me to clarify.


My interest in the commons generally was focused several years back, coming across Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation – incidentally, through David Dickinson and Alain Ruche back in 2012 – and through Michel, Denis Postle, who has written (and produced other impressive media) about what he calls the Psycommons.

So after getting in touch with Michel, I have spent several years engaged with the P2P Foundation wiki (my user page there.) Never mind that many pages on that wiki are out of date or with dead links – that is inevitable for a long-running site that does not have the human resource to keep it all up to date – there is still a great deal of excellent value there, and it is highly recommended. I also remain a marginal Wikipedian (my user page on WP.)

I'm glad that neither of these wikis currently refer to themselves as “knowledge commons”, even if others do. But this tension – just what is a knowledge commons? – has stimulated in me a long-standing interest in the question of how we can hold and maintain a living knowledge commons.


In my way of thinking, a neat way of describing the essence of a knowledge commons is that it is the information and knowledge aspect of a community of practice, usually shared with a surrounding community of interest.1) Or, put a different way, you can only call it a knowledge commons, in my terms, if people are using the knowledge that they are curating, just as a genuine physical commons implies that people are using the shared resource. And, as Ostrom famously pointed out, a commons is only a commons if it is governed, and governed essentially by its users, not, for example, by a remote authority.

So, though there is almost no overlap in the literature between “commons” on the one hand and “community of practice” on the other, in my view, the people who are collectively using and governing an information resource constitute – they simply are – a community of practice. In contrast, Wikipedians collaborating on maintaining a Wikipedia page are generally both a community of interest, and a kind of club. So, important to point out to understand my viewpoint on this, as it differs from many other people: I've come to firm up my view that Wikipedia is not a knowledge commons (despite having suggested in some earlier writings that is was).

(Aside: I need to write a piece with more on these distinctions in community.)


Obviously, knowledge has been transmitted and held since long before any technology, including writing. The means of transmission of knowledge was probably in part demonstration through action, and in part speech — the oral tradition. The knowledge was held, in one sense, in human memory, but in another sense, in the interaction between memory and the immediate sensory environment, including other people. Can we see this as a knowledge commons?

In some senses, yes. Perhaps throughout history there have been groups of people sharing knowledge. Any tribal culture includes some kind of knowledge commons, and probably tribal elders govern parts of the culture, in the sense of what knowledge is imparted to who, and when. Medieval guilds, and guild-like societies like Freemasons have or had very strict rules about who is allowed to know what. What is missing from these examples is an open community of interest surrounding the community of practice.

On the other hand, universities have practised open learning communities, or communities of interest, for centuries. The whole of written culture, along with libraries, seems well-adapted to communities of interest, but not so much to communities of practice. Creative Commons wants, in their own words, to “build a vibrant, collaborative global commons”, but in what sense is this a commons? It may be significant that they deal primarily with variations of copyright, but not so much with the kind of knowledge which infuses a community of practice. Sharing knowledge is good, and I am a keen supporter of CC and Wikipedia, but they are still adapted to learning communities and communities of interest, not communities of practice who actually use, as well as govern, the knowledge that they co-create and curate.

The Open Knowledge community could also be called a community of interest, as exemplified by the Open Knowledge Foundation. Their headline is: “We are building a world open by design where all knowledge is accessible to everyone.” Which is a fine and worthy aim; and helpfully, they do not call themselves a knowledge commons. I see them as focusing on opening the community of interest side, around what could otherwise be the closed communities that practice administration, government, and political power.

A couple of years ago, I was indulging in a similar lack of clarity of focus, in starting to write Some Requirements for Developing Living Knowledge Commons along with the (less than 10 minutes) video presentation for that same IASC conference. Here I'm trying to get to the point which I didn't get to then.

The present confusion

Contemporary writing seems, not surprisingly, to focus around issues of current interest, particularly intellectual property and licencing. There is, for sure, a worthy battle to be fought against enclosure of knowledge, against extracting profit from artificial scarcity of knowledge — given that knowledge is a non-rivalrous resource. The resources written about include learning resources, cultural artefacts, academic publications, and other areas where it is hard to discern traces of any strongly connected community of practice.

There is one exception: free and open source software — but even here there is confusion. While copyleft licensing has done a good job, it has left open the problem of free-rider appropriation by commercial profit-seeking companies making money on the back of the commoned knowledge with no support or payback for its creators. From here arise the interesting ideas on Copyfarleft and Copyfair. There is the possibility here of a genuine community of practice — a collective of people who use each other's code as the basis, and sometimes the toolkit, for writing their own, which further contributes to the common-pool resource. But it needs to be governed, and not subject to uncaring or even hostile appropriation.

For a great deal more background material, I will again point people to the P2P Foundation wiki. Search around. Or if you want a guided tour, just ask me!

The potential

This is where I describe what a knowledge commons “should” in a sense (my sense) look like, or aim to look like. There are two cases. Even if the end point for the two cases is not too different, the means of getting there is very different, and looking at this clarifies to me how different schools of thought are looking at knowledge commons.

For things that are not normally commercially competitive

This is a relatively straightforward case.

Where there is no commercial interest in an area of knowledge, it can be shared openly and freely for learning, as in the case of education and most research.2) Here, I still envisage a community of practice, who have the authoring and editing rights on the shared material, and who use that in their developing practice, or consultancy, or however they use it.

However, if the knowledge is not recognised as commercially valuable, there may naturally be difficulties in making that community of practice financially viable; and if it's not financially viable, we cannot expect it to be stable and long lasting. One possible cause of instability is where a few members of the relatively poor regenerative community try to make themselves a living at the expense of other poor members of the same global community. This is unsustainable in the long term, and I would urge people to avoid it.

Because of the lack of obvious financial return, non-commercial knowledge commons may need some kind of seed funding, and I see this as potentially coming from crowdfunding, benefactors, foundations, or public funds for pre-competitive research. If the community of practice can develop a strong common sense of the longer-term importance of this area of knowledge, they can try hanging in there, publishing free papers on the topic, until it is recognised as valuable, at which point they will become the leaders in the new field. You could see it as a long-term gamble by the community of practice. But equally, a strong community of practice can help to nudge the outside world into recognising its importance, and eventually leading not only to its financial viability, but also to the prestige of the participants.

Academia is also a possibility for supporting people creating knowledge commons, though the realities of academic life in the last few decades suggests less support for pure interest-driven research, and more for work that brings in funding from outside academic institutions. If there are, however, academics who have some kind of tenure, it might be possible.

In these cases, the knowledge commons could easily be embodied as an open wiki,3) and for anything larger than an area of knowledge that can be managed by a person or small group, I have elsewhere described how I see wikis needing to evolve to support a distributed knowledge commons. About distribution: implementing effective commons governance within a single wiki instance seems to me full of problems, not least of which is getting people to agree on a single wiki technology.

Example: Permaculture

Permaculture is not mainstream industrial agriculture, and is not seen as a mainstream commercial proposition, despite its immense potential value in helping regenerate the global ecosystem. As well as Permaculture being defined in Wikipedia, there are several other open knowledge resources related to or including permaculture, including these (results of a quick search): is an index to related articles on Wikipedia itself.

Embedded in wider knowledge resources, we find:

The following sites, while containing possibly just copied information, also display a less welcome common feature of monetising open knowledge: advertising…

Reddit is harder to classify, but this article interestingly gives some insight into the thinking that too often results in the creation of a separate, splinter knowledge resource:

My guess is that, at least mainly, the people contributing original material to these resources are the same people who are practicing permaculture; and they may well also be benefiting from the permaculture writings of others. Hence, they form a community of practice.

Issues arising from this example

Clearly there is nothing deterring people from putting this kind of material on an open website. But there are two issues that stand out for me:

  1. copying of one resource onto another site rather than linking to it — this naturally leads to a failure to update all knowledge resources together; where there is contradictory information, who knows which version to trust?
  2. again, from copying open resources and putting them within a structure that is supported by advertising and visibility optimisation, takes away attention and traffic from the original resources

The classic “copyleft” terms have good reasons to allow open copying even for commercial purposes, but this seems to lead to the problems above. What kind of legal framework is needed to deter copying and splintering of knowledge commons, while at the same time leaving them open enough to be most useful? This is not a problem with physical commons, only immaterial commons. And, even if the legal structures are in place, how can the policing of those be done, when the resources themselves are not earning money?

And generally, as with the P2P Foundation wiki, where can the resources come from to reward or motivate enough people to maintain these resources, if they are not themselves an integral part of a money-making enterprise?

Competing in areas where there is already commercial presence

This I see as much more of a challenge, but nevertheless absolutely central to the development of the society, and the economy, that we want to share. This is the case that I see where, for example, people have been complaining of capitalist businesses profiting of the back of freely licenced development work done in an open source community.

Knowledge work in this area needs some kind of shelter from predatory or exploitative forces. Venture capital ultimately offers very little protection, because the business is likely to have to constitute as belonging to shareholders, and if that is the case, it is always vulnerable to being bought, and either commercialised as an extractive business, or simply killed off — in the case where the new developments threaten existing business models.

Intellectual property concepts such as Copyfarleft and Copyfair (links to the P2P wiki) I see as responses to this challenge. Any business considering using these approaches would also need to constitute itself in a way that is not able to be bought out by a predatory competitor. Co-operatives may serve this function, though rules on cooperatives vary between different jurisdications.

In these cases, I envisage a need for time-limited closed-source development. One possibility to reduce the likelihood of predation would be to have irrevocable time limits on closed software development, after which the software would be available on some free or open licence, perhaps following the ideas above on Copyfarleft and Copyfair, or some development from these. As long as it was any recognised Open licence, it would prevent enclosure and thereby prevent profit extraction, and hence deter any commercial attempts to buy the ideas.

One of the challenges here is that if there were to be any closed development, much open source code could not be used. Open standards can still, of course, be adopted, and open standards are an essential part of this kind of development.

So, to summarise, a knowledge commons in these cases would start off as a resource shared privately with a small group of trusted initiates, bound together with a common vision and purpose; and then, perhaps in stages, as the threats of acquisition, enclosure, or outlawing recede, graduate to sections being opened up as a learning commons serving a wider community of interest, resulting in the initial founding group becoming the expert consultants in that area.

Example: alternative social networking platform

This is not a real example, as far as I know, but could be. Imagine someone felt the call and the motivation to build a replacement for Facebook or LinkedIn. Yes, I've heard several people who imagined that; but so far no one who has managed it. There are no doubt many ways in which this could be approached: let me spell out just one, purely from my imagination, in the hope of illustrating the issues. Please recognise that this may well not be feasible in practice!

We could start by looking very carefully at the business model of the incumbent platform, and documenting this privately: the traditional SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) could include e.g. reputational threats, and opportunities for those with a non-standard mindset. We would want impeccably documented evidence of practices that people could see as distasteful or amoral (if not immoral) — all the complaints about, and suggested improvements of, the system; the profit-motive incentives that detracted from its desirability or actually contributed to problems in the world. Include also clear documentation about how to move from the existing dominant players to this new ethical regenerative one. Investigate also the potential for consultancy and partnership, with time-limited non-disclosure agreements. In parallel, the software could be built as suggested above, as time-limited closed source with an irrevocable commitment to becoming open with an appropriate open licence.

At an opportune moment, perhaps around launch of the new service or platform, the accumulated knowledge could be released as an easy-to-use wiki-based common-pool resource serving a community of interest and a learning community. It could be governed initially by the initiators, and gradually opened up to other stakeholders, possibly structured as sociocracy. It could include many other media like audio and video, in a variety of languages, to engage the attention of as many people as possible.

This might be seen as a dangerous threat to the dominant players, the current incumbents. Thus, all their potential responses would need to be thought through, with strategies for countering each one. Some of this knowledge could also be released into the commons (understood as above, not just into the public domain) so that others could use similar approaches with other dominant extractive businesses. The general idea would be to initiate a transition with the momentum to establish new platforms as new natural monopolies, held in place both by the engagement of people with the related knowledge commons, and the ethical persuasiveness of the shared knowledge.

Stimulating more and more sharing of knowledge of the actual consequences of engaging with different kinds of platform could be hoped both to help everyone move towards regenerative options, and to be a viral positive feedback loop for knowledge commons more generally. However, resourcing all of the large amount of preparatory and development work for this kind of setup looks like a great challenge, perhaps to be taken up by proponents of ReFi — Regenerative Finance.

In summary

It is only with this two-sided approach that I can make sense of the whole concept of a knowledge commons, and this also makes sense to me of much of is written being on one side or the other.

  • For non-commercial contexts, a knowledge commons can be a wiki or wiki-like resource, managed by a group of expert contributors, but licenced clearly to encourage contribution on the same site, and to deter copying / forking.4)
  • For commercial contexts, start a knowledge commons with a “craft guild” approach, with a closed knowledge commons, opening it up gradually as the danger of expropriation diminishes, and the benefits of openness come to the fore. Then do as above.

And, due to the immaterial nature and non-rivalrous nature of knowledge, resourcing and governing both sides is a challenge. Perhaps we can look deeper into this later.

see also

Or, indeed, learning community. The Wikipedia series on Community as a whole seems well-founded and worth reading.
Of course, some research is commercially sensitive, and here even PhD theses have been embargoed for years.
The user community of Wikipedia is strong enough to be able to regulate even anonymous contributions; but many other wikis allow editing only by known registered users, which could be seen as slightly less open.
I contend that forking a well-governed open knowledge resource makes the whole scene worse, not better! The only good reason I can see to fork is that the governance is inadequate, and holds back the proper full development of the commons. Thus, a fork must have a very clearly preferable governance model, in which case it is likely to attract all genuine contributors from the old version.
d/2023-09-09.txt · Last modified: 2024-05-01 06:36 by simongrant