Tag Archives: commons

Sharing vs. the earthquake in northern Italy: a cause for hope

I find it hard to concentrate on my work today. I am from Modena, Emilia Romagna, Italy, that just today has been hit by a 5.8 magnitude earthquake. I live in France, but my whole family and lots of friends are in hard-hit areas.

As I keep an eye on Twitter for news and updates, I realized that people are spontaneously mobilizing to create – apparently out of thin air – common resources that make a difference to the local people trying to cope with the earthquake’s aftermath. Let’s see:

  • first of all, there is Twitter itself. By now westerners have become accostumed to the uncanny speed with which online social networks, Twitter in particular, get on top of information and spread it as it happens. I know the math behind it (Twitter is a scale-free. multihub structure, extremely good for spreading information), but watching it happen is quite fascinating. In Modena today the cellular phone network went down: I learnt my own family was safe through a tweet by my sister. The hashtag has been used to pass news around and coordinate: bring water to village X,  parents of children taking part in sport event Y know that they are all safe, etc. It has even be kept free of non.operational stuff, like the emergency lane of a road closed to all traffic saved ambulances and fire trucks. As often before in comparable situations, professional journalists are reduced to updating their websites based on… Twitter.
  • second, as the phone network failed and the need for communication was very urgent, people quickly figured out they could create a rough-and-ready data communication network simply removing the passwords that prevent unauthorized users to connect to the wi-fi hotspots in their homes, shops and offices. Citizens, businesses, local authorities and at least two telecommunicatioin company with a commercial wi-fi offer (TIM and Vodafone – here is the latter’s instructions) all did this. The suggestion and the instructions to reconfigure hotspots is being spread through Twitter and Facebook as I am writing this. In densely populated cities like Modena, this means a more or less complete coverage. For free, and in minutes.
  • third, thousands of people were made temporarily (and in some cases, unfortunately, more than that) homeless, as their homes need to be checked for damages by technicians. The Couchsurfing network sprung into action, asking its members to post onto a specific web page whether they were willing to take on evacuees, and for how long. Immediately several pages of offers shot up. Many list a duration of “as long as they need to”. For those who don’t know it, Couchsurfing is a network of predominantly young adults who share their couches or guest rooms: it is a way to travel to a distant city  and not only save the money of a hotel room, but also have a local that they know.

So, these are three common resources that did not exist yesterday, and that today are helping to cope. There’s probably others I am not aware of. It is too soon to draw any final conclusions, but at least tentatively I would like to attempt two:

  1. commons are in the eye of the beholder. All of those wi-fi routers were there before. It’s just by looking at them in a new way and thinking “Hey, if I open  up my wi-fi my neighbor will be able to inform her family in a distant city that she’s all right; plus, if we all do it,. will be able to compensate for the telephone network’s failure.” instead of  “I need to keep my wi-fi protected from free riders or, worse, pirates” that the common good is created.
  2. Internet culture is conducive to creatng and maintaining commons. There is no going around it: all three phenomena (and many others) are intimately related to the Internet: enabled by its existence and consistent with hacker “do it yourself” ethics.

There may be a third one, but it is not very scientific: the seeming ease with which my countrymen and -women adopted such sharing behavior is a harbinger of hope. Looking forward to what comes next.

Ricablare l’economia/2: Kevin Kelly impugna la bandiera rossa

Ho scritto qualche tempo fa di come la rete stia dando prova di essere un formidabile strumento di generazione di commons. In quanto comuni, queste attività sono difficili da monetizzare e hanno quindi problemi di business model, pur contribuendo al benessere collettivo e alla competitività globale. Il settore pubblico ha l’occasione di intervenire per sostenere questo processo.

La settimana scorsa mi arriva Wired e mi trovo che un titolo di copertina con cui mi sento in sintonia: “The new new economy”. Nel pezzo forte della rivista, Kevin Kelly parla di socialismo riprogettato. C’è qualche forzatura, dovuta – immagino – al dovere di Wired di essere cool, ma il punto è esattamente lo stesso: wiki e web2 hanno una vocazione naturale alla produzione di beni pubblici.

Rewiring the economy to create new commons (long)

CriticalCity‘s victory at TechGarage was simply incredible. For one, it was overwhelming: the Milano-based crew won all three prizes (the first prize; the Wired award; and the users’ award. In fact, several VCs in the room improvised a pool of seed money for funding the startup! This sounds like an urban legend, but it is actually true: read Marco’s report – he was there). On top of that, their project is uncompromisingly not-for-profit (“we can’t and won’t monetize our player’s commitment to improve their cities”, they said), while TechGarage is a sancta sanctorum of for-profit enterprise. Somehow, this coalition of investors and business angels perceived CC as too good an idea not to make it happen.

There is a third reason why this story is incredible. CC does not come out from one of the many startup incubators built by the private sector, like Telecom Italia’s Working Capital. It comes from an environment for designing creative projects launched by the Italian public sector: Kublai, that I have the honour to have designed and to manage on behalf of the Ministry of economic development (presentation in English here). Even Gianluca, Dpixel president and TechGarage patron, got in touch with CC as a member of the Kublai Award jury.

1. Communities, if they are oriented in the right way, can single out the best ideas. Kublai aggregates creative projects, not lolcats videos: they are complex, and their assessment is multifaceted and multidimensional. CriticalCity’s project document is more than 30 pages long with attachments. The Kublaian community’s consensus on CC predicted with great energy and effectiveness what happened at TechGarage and elsewhere.

2. The public sector, traditionally more public goods-oriented than the private, finds itself in a strategic position. Artifacts like Wikipedia, Delicious, Flickr, Twitter have public good nature, i.e. they are resources for everybody to use. Now, public goods are great, but being public means there is no rivalry in their consumption, so they are by definition difficult to monetize. Consequently many great web 2.0 out there have business model problems. This is an opportunity for the public sector, whose very mission is to produce public goods. After the tragedy of the commons started in the 1700s, digital technologies allow today to invert the trend and start creating new commons.

It seems to me that an extraordinary opportunity opens up, such as I did not think I would see in my lifetime. We have democratized creativity, so that thinking up ambitious projects like CriticalCity and trying to make them happen has come to be a course of action available to normal young people like Augusto, Duccio, Chantal and the rest of them; we have web 2.0, a very powerful tool for aggregating ideas and people, and maybe now also for selecting the best among them; we are beginningto have a first generation of people that work on the side of public administrations, and understand the language, and can use the tools.

This first generation has today a new mission: rewire the economy to enable the production of new commons. Wikipedia and the rest may have shaky business models, but their value to the collective well-being and global competitiveness is undisputable. A government worth its salt must enable these things. And it can, because it wields very large resources that are normally used in very low productivity efforts: it has been remarked that all projects showcased at Public Services 2.0 put together had the same budget as a single project of the e-participation European programme. We need rewiring the economy to funnel attention and money towards people like the CriticalCity boys and girls, who dream (realistic) dreams of building resources for everyone to use, that for this very reason are difficult to monetize. It is difficult, but not impossible, and we need to do it. I’m going for it. I hope – and I believe – I will not walk this path alone.