Re-imagining the Polity for a Networked Humanity

September 21, 2016

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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This is the third and final installment from my essay, "Transnational Republics of Commoning: Reinventing Governance through Emergent Networks," published by Friends of the Earth UK. The full essay can be downloaded as a pdf file here.

III.  Re-imagining the Polity for a Networked Humanity

However promising the new forms of open source governance outlined above, they do not of themselves constitute a polity.  The new regimes of collaboration constitute mini- and meso-systems of self-organization.  They do not comprise a superstructure of law, policy, infrastructure and macro-support, which is also needed.  So what might such a superstructure look like, and how might it be created?  Can we envision some sort of transnational polity that could leapfrog over the poorly functioning state systems that prevail today?

A first observation on this question is that the very idea of a polity must evolve.  So long as we remain tethered to the premises of the Westphalian nation-state system, with its strict notions of absolute sovereignty over geographic territory and people and its mechanical worldview enforced by bureaucracies and law, the larger needs of the Earth as a living ecosystem will suffer.  So, too, will the basic creaturely needs of human beings, which are universal prepolitical ethical needs beyond national identity.

It may simply be premature to declare what a post-Westphalian polity ought to look like – but we certainly must orient ourselves in that direction.  For the reasons cited above, we should find ways to encourage the growth of a Commons Sector, in both digital and non-virtual contexts, and in ways that traverse existing territorial political boundaries.  Ecosystems are not confined by political borders, after all, and increasingly, neither are capital and commerce.  Culture, too, is increasingly transnational.  Any serious social or ecological reconstruction must be supported by making nation-state barriers more open to transnational collaboration if durable, effective solutions are to be developed. 

While states are usually quite jealous in protecting their authority, transnational commons should be seen as helping the beleaguered nation-state system by compensating for its deficiencies.  By empowering ordinary people to take responsibility and reap entitlements as commoners, nation-states could foster an explosion of open-source problem-solving and diminish dependencies on volatile, often-predatory global markets, while bolstering their credibility and legitimacy as systems of power.    

But how might we begin to build a commons-friendly polity?  After all, the most politically attractive approaches have no ambitions to change the system, while any grand proposals for transforming neoliberal capitalism are seen as political non-starters.  I suggest three “entry points” that can serve as long-term strategies for transformation: 

1) begin to reconceptualize cities as commons;

2) reframe the “right to common” (access to basic resources for survival and dignity) as a human right; and

3) build new collaborations among system-critical social movements so that a critical mass of resistance and creative alternatives can emerge. 

These three general strategies are not separate approaches, of course, but highly complementary and synergistic.

1.  Cities as a Workshop for System-Change

One of the most promising places to start building a new polity is in cities.  In Barcelona, Bologna, Seoul, and many other cities, citizen movements based on the ideas of “the city as a commons” and of “sharing cities” are taking root.  Both approaches assert the shared interests of ordinary residents over those of the usual overlords of city government – real estate developers, economic elites, “starchitects” and urban planners.[44] They recognize the city and its public spaces, communities and opportunities as products of commoning. A commons framing is deliberately invoked to make new moral and political claims on common resources in urban settings – to demand a “right to the city”[45] – and so inaugurate a self-feeding spiral of social practice and a new discourse.  Citizens acting as commoners can insist on greater citizen participation not just in policymaking but in directly developing innovative projects and solutions.  Network platforms can foster all of these goals.[46]

In Bologna, for example, the city government is undertaking a landmark reconceptualization of how government might work in cooperation with citizens.  Ordinary people acting as commoners are invited to enter into a “co-design process” with the city to manage public spaces, urban green zones, abandoned buildings and other urban resources.  The formal legal authority for this innovation, the Bologna Regulation for the Care and Regeneration of Urban Commons, is now being emulated by other Italian cities.

City governments could augment this general approach by building new tech infrastructures that enable greater citizen engagement.  For example, instead of ceding the software infrastructure for taxi service or apartment rentals to Uber, Lyft, Airbnb and other well-financed “gig economy” corporations, city governments could require the use of shared open platforms for such market activity.   This could enable multiple players to compete while improving regulatory oversight of basic labor and consumer protections, and privacy protection for personal data.

City governments could also take advantage of the new “Top Level Domains” – better known as TLDs – that are now available on the Internet for city names.  TLDs are the regions of the Internet denoted by .com, .org and .edu.  Over the past few years, the little-known Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) – which manages TLDs — has been pushing the idea of TLDs for cities. The idea is that cities could use their unique TLDs like .rome or .paris to improve access to various aspects of city life. For instance if you were new to Brooklyn Heights, you could go to and find all sorts of civic, community and commercial website listings for that neighborhood – the library, recycling resources, parking rules, links to relevant city officials.  And yes, the businesses. 

City TLDs are a potentially transformative civil infrastructure that could be as consequential as the “street grid” layout of Manhattan adopted in the 1800s.  Why should this enormous planning authority, which has such far-reaching implications for the life of a city, be auctioned off to private domain-name vendors, who would then re-sell “” and “” to the highest bidder with minimal city oversight?  It essentially cedes the future of a city to short-term commercial imperatives.  TLDs should be treated as commons infrastructure and used to enhance neighborhood identities and bottom-up participation.

Network platforms are an especially attractive way to actualize the idea of “the city as commons” because they can enact all sorts of open source principles:  low barriers to participation, transparency of process, bottom-up innovation, social pressure for fair dealing and resistance to concentrated power and insider deals.

One powerful way to advance commoning in cities is through the skillful use of open data.  The ubiquity of computing devices in modern life is generating vast floods of data that, if managed cooperatively, could improve city life in many creative ways.  Open data systems could be used to host participatory crowdsourcing, interactive collaborations among citizens and government, and improvements in municipal services (street repairs, trash removal, transportation).

The City of San Francisco recently used an open source model to explore how best to transform its busy Market Street thoroughfare into a more pedestrian-friendly, traffic-free promenade. To help ascertain what might appeal to ordinary city residents, the city issued an open call to artists for proposed street installations along a two-mile stretch of the boulevard.  This elicited dozens of clever ideas – performance spaces, relaxation zones, even a six-sided ping-pong table. City planners chose fifty of the projects for a real-world experiment over the course of three days in 2015 to see how people would actually engage with the artworks.  The Market Street prototyping helped enlist a large and diverse group of the public to generate ideas that might otherwise seem too daring or unusual.

The City of Los Angeles has been another pioneer in using open networks, open data and crowdsourcing of information to improve city life.  The city’s open data portal, DataLA, offers data for everything from the city budget and the regional economy to crime locations, building inspections, property foreclosures, parking citations and even checks written by the city government.  The data portal has helped people measure the effectiveness of government and build public trust in government.  It has also been used in creative ways to solicit people’s knowledge in providing “geo-references” to historic photos.  The HistoricPlacesLA project has been described as an “open-source, web-based, geospatial information system for cultural heritage inventory and management.”[46]  The City has also created a special smartphone app, PulsePoint, which can help deal with medical emergencies anywhere in the city.  It identifies a patient’s location and any CPR-trained individuals who may be nearby, while providing CPR guidance.  The app suggests a way that cities could use smartphones to coordinate needs with responses instantly:  a versatile model for the future.

Using smartphones to crowdsource real-time data is another way that a city could use commoning to reinvent the role of government.  The City of Los Angeles’ fascinating (non-financial, non-exclusive) collaboration with Waze, a Google-owned traffic and navigation smartphone app offers several lessons. The system is used by an estimated 30 percent of Los Angeles drivers to learn about traffic accidents and other road situations, and its massive usage has made it a de facto infrastructure tool for city transportation and data managers.  The City gives Waze timely data about active road construction projects in order to alert drivers about potential or actual traffic delays – and Waze, for its part, collects crowdsourced reports about traffic and sends them to city transportation officials every two minutes. (There is no collection of any personally identifiable information.)  Even though this is a public/private partnership – not a true commons – it suggests the great power of bottom-up sharing on network platforms. Of course, such data aggregation is no substitute for real investment in the physical commons of transport infrastructure and public space, but used wisely it could facilitate more citizen-focused improvements.

City governments (or state or federal governments, for that matter) could leverage bottom-up, interactive collaborations such as these by developing their own open APIs (application programming interfaces) on electronic networks – similar to those used by the iPhone and other platforms.  This would enable governments to collect real-time data and make more dynamic, responsive choices “in cooperation” with its citizens.  City governments could also perform automatic oversight of regulated entities without the complexities of conventional regulation.  Sensors for water or air quality, for example, could provide real-time data portraits of an airshed or watershed.  By using tamper-proof data-flows from remote devices, some of the expense of in-person inspections could be avoided and the quality of enforcement improved.

The huge potential of open data networks raises important questions about governance structures, however.  How should crowdsourced information be managed and governed – by proprietary companies?  City governments?  Citizens as commoners?  As the controversial growth of Uber and Airbnb has shown, there are great risks in such power being held by a few large tech companies answerable primarily to investors.  Yet very few city governments have shown leadership in using networked systems to advance public designs for public purposes.  There is a need to set forth some commons-based governance alternatives because they are the most likely to align civic needs and realities with the ultimate policies and decisions.

Fortunately, there are a number of pacesetter projects experimenting along these lines.  In addition to the Bologna Regulation mentioned above, the European Cultural Foundation is actively exploring the role that artistic and cultural commons can play in improving cities.  The Ubiquitous Commons project is developing a prototype legal/technological toolkit to empower people to control the personal data they generate from countless devices, especially in urban contexts.  The Open Referral Initiatives is developing a common technical language so that information systems can “speak” to each other and share community resource directory data.  The beauty of these and other initiatives is that they invite broad participation and address immediate, practical needs while contributing to a very different paradigm of governance – one that fosters commons and commoning.

2.  The Right to Common as a Basic Human Right

The “right to the city” asserted by commoners is essentially a human right – a moral and political claim of access to resources that are essential to life, and to a right to participate in their use and management. So it is worth situating this entire struggle in the context of human rights law and social movements.  The goals of commoning and human rights law have, in fact, a very long, entangled history.  They go back at least 800 years, when King John adopted the Magna Carta and its lesser-known companion document, the Charter of the Forest, as a way to settle a bitter civil war.  The Charter of the Forest (later incorporated into the Magna Carta) recognizes the claims of commoners to the common wealth that belongs to them as human beings, and who depend upon certain resources for their everyday subsistence.

For example, the Magna Carta formally recognized in writing the right of commoners to access and use forests that the King had previously claimed as his alone.  It helps to remember that commoners in the thirteenth century relied on forests for nearly everything – wood to cook their food and build their houses, wild game to eat, plants to feed their cattle, acorns to fatten their pigs.  The problem is that their long-standing customary use of the forest and other common resources was not legally recognized – and so the King and his lords could (and did) arbitrarily ignore the moral and human rights of commoners.  The Magna Carta was a frank acknowledgment that commoners indeed have human rights – the right to use the forest, the right to self-organize their own governance rules, and civil liberties and rights to protect them from the sovereign’s arbitrary abuses of power.[48]

There are other strands in this legal history of human rights and commons that are too involved to discuss here; my co-author Burns H. Weston, an international human rights and law scholar, and I explore them more fully in our book Green Governance.  Suffice it to say that it is entirely consistent with human rights law for it to squarely embrace the right of universal access to clean air, water, food and other resources and ecosystems that are essential to life.

The problem is that human rights champions have historically sought to fulfill these rights within the prevailing system of law and commerce, i.e., the neoliberal state and markets.  But given its commitments to individual property rights, “free markets” and economic growth, it should not be surprising that the actual vindication of human rights is a problematic affair.  The idea of human rights has been aspirational, frequently stymied by hostile structures of the state, law and commerce.  Surely it is an apt moment to consider how various types of common-based governance (as described above) could actualize human rights in more robust, stable ways.

To try to advance human rights law in such directions, Weston and I in 2013 proposed a Universal Covenant Affirming a Human Right to Commons- and Rights-based Governance of Earth’s Natural Wealth and Resources.[49] It is our attempt to win recognition for the human right to “green governance” – to manage resources as commons, and thus to actualize human rights more reliably than existing systems of national and international law now do.  A related effort should be the “reinvention of law for the commons,” a topic that I addressed in a 2015 research memorandum.[50]  The paper calls for a new field of inquiry and legal innovation — commons-based law – to consolidate the disparate areas of law that are trying to protect collective resources and practices from enclosures while providing affirmative legal support for people to enter into commoning.

3.  Building a Convergence of System-Critical Movements

The third strategic approach I want to suggest for building a new polity supportive of the commons is through an ongoing convergence and alignment of diverse system-critical social movements.  The failures of neoliberal capitalism are coming at the very time that promising new modes of production, governance and social practice are exploding, especially through decentralized, self-organized initiatives on open networks that can often out-perform both the market and state.[51]  The people developing these new systems are essentially creating a new parallel economy – sometimes by choice, sometimes by necessity, as in Greece and Spain.  The innovators are not politicians, CEOs or credentialed experts, but ordinary people acting as householders, makers, hackers, permaculturists, citizen-scientists, cooperativists, community foresters, subsistence collectives, social mutualists and commoners:  a vast grassroots cohort whose generative activities are not really conveyed by the term “citizen” or “consumer.”

Through network-based cooperation and localized grassroots projects, millions of people around the world are managing all sorts of bottom-up, self-provisioning systems.  There are also many new types of citizen-actors and mobilizations seeking system change, ranging from cultural surges such as Occupy, the Arab Spring and Las Indignadas to more durable long-term movements focused on cooperatives, degrowth, the solidarity economy, Transition Towns, relocalized economies, peer production, and the commons. 

These movements are developing new visions of “development” and “progress,” as seen in the buen vivir ethic in Latin America, for example, or in “go local” movements in the US and Europe, and the FabLabs and makerspaces.  The new models also include alternative currencies, co-operative finance and crowdequity investments to reclaim local control, transition and indigenous peoples’ initiatives to develop sustainable post-growth economies, the movement to reclaim the city as a commons, and movements to integrate social justice and inclusive ethical commitments into economic life. 

These movements are not only pioneering new types of collective action and provisioning, but also new legal and organizational forms.  The idea of “generative ownership” as a collective enterprise is being explored by leaders of co-operative finance, community land trusts, relocalized food systems and commons-based peer production.  Each is attempting to demonstrate the feasibility of various commons-based ownership structures and self-governance – and then to expand the use of such models to show that there are attractive alternatives that can mature into a new economic ecosystem.

The general approach here is to change the old by building the new. The demonstration of feasible alternatives (renewable energy, cooperativism, relocalization, etc.) is a way to shift political momentum, constitute new constituencies for system change, and assert a new moral center of gravity.  To work, however, the alternatives incubated outside the existing system must achieve a sufficient coherence, intelligibility, scale and functionality.

The commons can act as a shared meta-language among these highly diverse groups because the commons expresses many of the core values and priorities of many “system-change” movements.  Like DNA, which is under-specified so that it can adapt to local circumstances, the commons discourse is general enough to accommodate myriad manifestations of basic values and principles.  More than an intellectual framework, the commons helps make culturally legible the many social practices (“commoning”) that are often taken to be too small and inconsequential to matter – but which, taken together, constitute a different type of economy.  In this fashion, the commons discourse itself has an integrative and catalytic potential to build a new type of networked polity. Michel Bauwens, Founder of the P2P Foundation, and his colleague John Restakis argue that the state can be reinvented as a “Partner State” in support of commons and peer production. Bauwens cites Bob Jessop, arguing that:

One the one hand, market competition will be balanced by cooperation, the invisible hand will be combined with a visible handshake.  On the other hand, the state is no longer the sovereignty authority.  It becomes just one participant among others in the pluralistic guidance systems and contributes its own distinctive resources to the negotiation process … official apparatuses remain at best first among equals.  The state’s involvement would become less hierarchical, less centralized and less directive in character.  The exchange of information and moral suasion become key sources of legitimation and the state’s influence depends as much on its role as a prime source and mediator of collective intelligence as on its command over economic resources or legitimate coercion.[52]

The idea of the partner state is intriguing, but will require further theoretical elaboration and investigations in how it might be politically actualized.  One serious attempt at this in the context of digital commons is the Commons Transition Plan prepared by Bauwens in conjunction with a research project sponsored by the Government of Ecuador in 2014.[53]  It attempts to envision state policies that could help bring about “a society and economy that functions as common pools of shared knowledge in every domain of social activity.”


A new polity is not something that can simply be declared or imposed.  It must be co-enacted over time.  We must co-evolve into it by living as commoners.  It is therefore difficult to project what a new polity might look like today; too many developmental realities must occur.  It will be emergent, which is to say, it will manifest a different structural logic and organization than we presume is possible today.  Standing at the base of a never-ascended mountain, we cannot really know which path to take and what the view from the peak will look like.

In the meantime, it is clear that the nation-state as a governance regime is facing serious new pressures.  It exists in a highly interconnected world in which transboundary interactionsare extensive and routine.  Transborder flows are not just commercial in nature, but also involve transfers of ideas, values, projects, policy initiatives, and visions for humanity.  As the peer-to-peer velocity of cross-border exchange reaches new intensities, the nation-state and international treaty systems will face new insurgent pressures from below.  How could it be otherwise?  The question is whether the needs of people at the micro, everyday level can be brought into closer alignment with the conduct of macro-institutions.

The Internet and digital technologies are certainly bringing this issue to a head as they catalyze and organize new sorts of bottom-up political and cultural energies.  It remains unclear whether those energies will fracture the old polity and its governance systems, and give rise to a new commons-based techno-economic social paradigm and polity – or whether the Googles and Facebooks of the world, and their corporate brethren, will succeed in reinventing capitalism in the age of electronic networks, assuring their ongoing mastery, perhaps in more ominous, unequal and coercive forms.

I do believe that fostering the social practices and norms of commoning may be one of the few pathways to develop transformational change.  It offers many points of access for participation.  It energizes bottom-up pressures and innovation from the edge.  It can generate goods and services to meet real needs outside of capitalist structures, or through more benign localized market hybrids and systems of mutualized support.  It provides a flexible, evolving template for change that works in diverse contexts and yet it articulates a core set of principles with a post-capitalist logic.

We have lived as vassals within the massive market/state edifice and its cultural matrix for so long that it somehow surprises us to have the pilot come on the intercom and announce that we’re all in this together, and that our agency as individuals acting collectively will be the only way to secure our future.  It is entirely appropriate, then, that we turn to our neighbors on either side of us, introduce ourselves, and begin the formidable task of reinventing new types of commons.  In the process, the eventual inter-networking of commons will give birth to an emergent global polity whose dimensions cannot be fully imagined today but which aspires to emancipate humanity from the limitations of modernity.  The commons is no magic talisman, nor a panacea.  Nor are network platforms.  But they do enable us to rediscover that sovereignty does not ultimately reside in the state or market (especially in these times), but within ourselves, together.


This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.  See

[44] Sheila Foster and Christian Iaione, “The City as a Commons,” Yale Law & Policy Review, 34(2): 2016, at; European Cultural Foundation and Krytyka Polityczna, Build the City:  Perspectives on Commons and Culture (2015); and International Association for the Study of the Commons conference, “The City as a Commons:  Reconceiving Urban Space, Common Goods and City Governance,” November 6-7, 2015, in Bologna, Italy, at

[45] On The Right to the City, see for example David Harvey, 2008. New Left Review 53. Online at:

[46] For more on cities from the Big Ideas project see Agyeman et al on Sharing Cities; Scandrett on citizen participation; and Bulkeley et al on distributed autonomy

[47] Los Angeles Historic Resources Inventory. Online at:

[48] For more, see Peter Linebaugh, The Magna Carta Manifesto:  Liberty and Commons for All (University of California Press, 2008).

[49] Universal Covenant Affirming a Human Right to Commons- and Rights-based Governance of Earth’s Natural Wealth and Resources. Online at:

[50] David Bollier, “Reinventing Law for the Commons,” September 2015, available at and

[51] Jeremy Rifkin, The Zero Marginal Cost Society (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014); Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks:  How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (Yale University Press, 2006). 

[52] Michel Bauwens, “Peer Governance as a Third Mode of Governance,” P2P Foundation, Jun 9, 2010, citing Bob Jessop. Available at

[53] Michel Bauwens, “A commons transition plan”. Online at:

David Bollier

David Bollier is an activist, scholar, and blogger who is focused on the commons as a new/old paradigm for re-imagining economics, politics, and culture. He pursues his commons scholarship and activism as Director of the Reinventing the Commons Program at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics and as cofounder of the Commons Strategies Group, an international advocacy project. Author of Think Like a Commoner and other books, he blogs... Read more.

Tags: new economy, open cooperatives, the commons, urban commons