Vasilis KostakisAndreas Roos:  In a book titled Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?, MIT scientists Henry Lieberman and Christopher Fry discuss why we have wars, mass poverty, and other social ills. They argue that we cannot cooperate with each other to solve our major problems because our institutions and businesses are saturated with a competitive spirit. But Lieberman and Fry have some good news: modern technology can address the root of the problem. They believe that we compete when there is scarcity, and that recent technological advances, such as 3D printing and artificial intelligence, will end widespread scarcity. Thus, a post-scarcity world, premised on cooperation, would emerge.

But can we really end scarcity?

We believe that the post-scarcity vision of the future is problematic because it reflects an understanding of technology and the economy that could worsen the problems it seeks to address. This is the bad news. Here’s why:

New technologies come to consumers as finished products that can be exchanged for money. What consumers often don’t understand is that the monetary exchange hides the fact that many of these technologies exist at the expense of other humans and local environments elsewhere in the global economy. The intuitive belief that technology can manifest from money alone, anthropologists tell us, is a culturally rooted notion which hides the fact that the scarcity experienced by some is linked to the abundance enjoyed only by a few.

Many people believe that issues of scarcity can be solved by using more efficient production methods. But this may overlook some of the unintended consequences of efficiency improvements. The Jevons Paradox, a key finding attributed to the 19th century British economist Stanley Jevons, illustrates how efficiency improvements can lead to an absolute increase of consumption due to lower prices per unit and a subsequent increase in demand. For example, the invention of more efficient train engines allowed for cheaper transportation that catalyzed the industrial revolution. However, this did not reduce the rate of fossil fuel use; rather, it increased it.  When more efficient machines use less energy, they cost less, which often encourages us to use them more—resulting in a net increase in energy consumption.

Past experience tells us that super-efficient technologies typically encourage increased throughput of raw materials and energy, rather than reducing them. Data on the global use of energy and raw materials indicate that absolute efficiency has never occurred: both global energy use and global material use have increased threefold since the 1970s. Therefore, efficiency is better understood as a rearranging of resources expenditures, such that efficiency improvements in one end of the world economy increase resource expenditures in the other end.

The good news is that there are alternatives. The wide availability of networked computers has allowed new community-driven and open-source business models to emerge. For example, consider Wikipedia, a free and open encyclopedia that has displaced the Encyclopedia Britannica and Microsoft Encarta. Wikipedia is produced and maintained by a community of dispersed enthusiasts primarily driven by other motives than profit maximization.  Furthermore, in the realm of software, see the case of GNU/Linux on which the top 500 supercomputers and the majority of websites run, or the example of the Apache Web Server, the leading software in the web-server market. Wikipedia, Apache and GNU/Linux demonstrate how non-coercive cooperation around globally-shared resources (i.e. a commons) can produce artifacts as innovative, if not more, as those produced by industrial capitalism.

In the same way, the emergence of networked micro-factories are giving rise to new open-source business models in the realm of design and manufacturing. Such spaces can either be makerspaces, fab labs, or other co-working spaces, equipped with local manufacturing technologies, such as 3D printing and CNC machines or traditional low-tech tools and crafts. Moreover, such spaces often offer collaborative environments where people can meet in person, socialize and co-create.

This is the context in which a new mode of production is emerging. This mode builds on the confluence of the digital commons of knowledge, software, and design with local manufacturing technologies.  It can be codified as “design global, manufacture local” following the logic that what is light (knowledge, design) becomes global, while what is heavy (machinery) is local, and ideally shared. Design global, manufacture local (DGML) demonstrates how a technology project can leverage the digital commons to engage the global community in its development, celebrating new forms of cooperation. Unlike large-scale industrial manufacturing, the DGML model emphasizes application that is small-scale, decentralized, resilient, and locally controlled. DGML could recognize the scarcities posed by finite resources and organize material activities accordingly. First, it minimizes the need to ship materials over long distances, because a considerable part of the manufacturing takes place locally. Local manufacturing also makes maintenance easier, and also encourages manufacturers to design products to last as long as possible. Last, DGML optimizes the sharing of knowledge and design as there are no patent costs to pay for.

There is already a rich tapestry of DGML initiatives happening in the global economy that do not need a unified physical basis because their members are located all over the world. For example, consider the L’Atelier Paysan  (France) and Farmhack (U.S.), communities that collaboratively build open-source agricultural machines for small-scale farming; or the Wikihouse project that democratizes the construction of sustainable, resource-light dwellings;  or the OpenBionics project that produces open source and low-cost designs for robotic and bionic devices; or the RepRap community that creates open-source designs for 3D printers that can be self-replicated.  Around these digital commons, new business opportunities are flourishing, while people engage in collaborative production driven by diverse motives.

So, what does this mean for the future of tomorrow’s businesses, the future of the global economy, and the future of the natural world?

First, it is important to acknowledge that within a single human being the “homo economicus”—the self-interested being programmed to maximize profits—will continue to co-exist with the “homo socialis”, a more altruistic being who loves to communicate, work for pleasure, and share. Our institutions are biased by design. They endorse certain behaviours over the others. In modern industrial capitalism, the foundation upon which our institutions have been established is that we are all homo economicus. Hence, for a “good” life, which is not always reflected in growth and other monetary indexes, we need to create institutions that would also harness and empower the homo socialis.

Second, the hidden social and environmental costs of technologies will have to be recognized. The so-called “digital society” is admittedly based on a material- and energy-intensive infrastructure. This is important to recognize so as not to further jeopardize the lives of current and future generations by unwittingly encouraging serious environmental instability and associated social problems.

Finally, a new network of interconnected commons-based businesses will continue to emerge, where sharing is not used to maximize profits, but to create new forms of businesses that would empower much more sharing, caring, and collaboration globally. As the global community becomes more aware of how their abundance is dependent on other human beings and the stability of environments, more and more will see commons-based businesses as the way of the future.


Originally published at HBR.org