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How to unite local initiatives for a more sustainable global future

May 1, 2024


This article challenges the belief in high-tech solutions to solve socio-environmental crises, proposing a political vision beyond “green growth” and “ecomodernism.”. It advocates for a commons-based technology framework, promoting collective resource management for sustainability. We thus introduce “cosmolocal” production, a configuration that strives to connect communities around shared resources and serve their needs while minimizing ecological impact. Despite acknowledged tensions, we contend that the cosmolocal framework could foster institutional and social change, aiming to address environmental degradation and wealth inequality. To support this contention on cosmolocal production’s potential, we point to several successful examples from the open-source technology paradigm.


The world is crumbling around us, as global wealth inequality deepens and environmental degradation escalates alarmingly. Humanity is grappling with an unprecedented existential crisis. It is imperative that –the most forward-thinking segments of– our societies take action promptly. However, during the period of neoliberal capitalism’s indisputable dominance, the daunting question of how people can affect change remains dangling. Capitalist values have become deeply entrenched in our societies and institutions. They are dictating and shaping our conduct in various aspects of life, from how we design and produce to how we interact, raise our future generations and form relationships.

Contrary to the calls to resign ourselves to the belief that there is no viable alternative to neoliberal capitalism, our situation is not devoid of hope. We explore new opportunities and challenges to address two pressing and closely intertwined issues of the Sustainable Futures scholarship and praxis: environmental degradation and global wealth inequality. This article argues that dispersed initiatives of “cosmolocal” production have indicated hints towards a more socio-environmentally sustainable future.

Why can high-tech be problematic?

In a state of emergency, it is audacious to place all our hopes for tackling the ecological crisis and wealth inequality in technology –worse even, in technology that is yet to materialize. This latter notion is incremental in the currently prevailing narratives such as “green growth” [1], “ecomodernism” [2], or “accelerationism” [3] which pin our aspirations on high-tech solutions. One can find advocates of these narratives all across the political spectrum. However, they are all united in the conviction that advanced technologies, like off-shore wind turbines, solar panels, smart sensors, 3D printing, artificial intelligence, and future highly efficient innovations, will pave the way out of the dead end. They suggest that we will manage to harness the benefits of high-tech to enhance service effectiveness and efficiency, reduce resource consumption and carbon emissions, boost productivity, and foster greater civic engagement. Although we have not only failed in doing so thus far but have caused a social, economic and environmental catastrophe along the way.

Hence, it is crucial to comprehend and address the issues inherent in the processes underpinning the production of high-tech artifacts. These issues are intensive resource extraction, labor exploitation, heightened energy consumption, and the excessive material demands often associated with high-tech products. The latter requires rare metals and scarce minerals, often sourced under dubious labor and environmental conditions in the Global South while benefiting primarily the Global North [4,5]. The production, use, recycling and disposal of high-tech artifacts consume large amounts of energy, generate toxicity, and often involve dehumanizing and precarious working conditions [6]. High-tech is not unsustainable in its essence, but its scale and mode of production in the capitalist realm are.

The root causes of environmental degradation and global wealth inequality, as well as potential solutions, do not reside solely in the realm of technology. Instead, the crux of the matter is profoundly political. The development and production of technology in the modern era are intricately interwoven with wealth inequality and environmental deterioration. Technology is not being produced in a vacuum, thus it is not neutral [7]. On the contrary, it is highly influenced by the decisions of manufacturers, legislators, consultants, designers and everyone else involved –directly or indirectly– in the process. In a globalized world, these decisions have global effects. Failure to consider the resources utilized and impacts produced internationally could result in identifying positive steps towards sustainability locally for some nations –primarily from the Global North– that relocate impactful activities overseas –primarily to the Global South. Conversely, the most affected countries in the Global South might undervalue the amount of negative externalities they are absorbing to accommodate impactful activities aimed at fulfilling other countries’ consumption demands [8,9].

Technological artifacts reach consumers as polished products exchangeable for money, concealing the harsh realities of their design, manufacturing, global logistics, and eventual disposal [10]. Consequently, the comfort derived from technology often comes at the expense of distant humans and ecosystems, resulting in abundance for a privileged few and scarcity for the many. The extent to which one tolerates this predicament is fundamentally a matter of political discourse.

Furthermore, those advocating for a technical solution to address ecological breakdown and wealth inequality often champion more efficient production methods. However, they may inadvertently disregard some of the consequences that come with efficiency improvements, i.e., rebound effects. The Jevons Paradox, a critical insight attributed to the 19th-century British economist Stanley Jevons, reveals how efficiency gains can lead to a net increase in consumption due to reduced unit prices and a subsequent surge in demand [11]. For instance, the advent of more efficient steam engines enabled cheaper transportation, catalyzing the industrial revolution. Paradoxically, this did not result in a decrease in fossil fuel usage but instead drove it up [11]. When more efficient machines consume less energy, they become more affordable, prompting increased usage. This amplifies considerably when considering individuals like the super-rich global 1 %, who can utilize such technology on a significantly larger scale, with carbon footprints thousands of times greater than the average citizen [12,13]. Consequently, overall energy consumption experiences a substantial uptick.

Similarly to the case of the steam engine, in the late 90′s the introduction of computers, the Internet and e-mail in organizational procedures led many to believe that paper consumption would decrease drastically. However, a 2003 book titled The Myth of the Paperless Office showed that paper consumption increased, e.g., consumption of the most prevalent type of office paper (uncoated free-sheet) increased by 14.7 % in the U.S. between the years 1995 and 2000 [14]. Even with improved displacement technologies such as smartphones, mobile Internet and e-readers, paper consumption still has a slightly upward trend [15].

In contemporary capitalist societies, people tend to consume more when they have the means to do so [16,17]. Yet, what incentivizes the constant strive for efficiency at all costs? Could it be the growth imperative, i.e., the politically mandated push for continuous increase in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) metric, influencing such behavior? Who designed this metric, who made the decision, and for what reasons, to prioritize this metric over others? Would “more efficiency” be justified if one accounted for the genuine costs associated with the labor of African or South American workers and the environmental destruction required for their production in the first place? Shouldn’t governments consider the comprehensive social and environmental costs associated with the production of more efficient technological artifacts? Any plausible response to these multifaceted complex inquiries would have to delve into the processes through which people govern themselves, engage in deliberation, decision-making, and the challenging or perpetuation of existing institutions. Furthermore, conflicts, divergent choices, and unequal power dynamics dictate the outcomes of these processes [16,17]. In essence, any conceivable answer is inherently political.

The emergence of an alternative technology framework

This article discusses an alternative technology development framework, with the commons at its core. The commons represent social systems through which communities collectively manage shared resources [18,19]. Tangible examples of alternative institutions for a more sustainable societal organization have emerged and continue to emerge within the commons sphere. Just as Adam Smith used his renowned pin factory to illustrate the possibility of a different mode of production in the late 18th century (later recognized as “capitalist production”), a diverse range of commons-based “pin factories” foreshadow alternative approaches to addressing the key challenges of the 21st century.

The term “technology” doesn’t solely pertain to the artifact as an object; it encapsulates everything related to its existence, from design and manufacturing to usage, maintenance, and disposal, including the knowledge associated with it [20,21]. The objective, therefore, is to explore methods for instilling technology with socially and ecologically sustainable values. We contend that a cosmolocal production configuration could potentially usher in a more democratic and ecological global political economy. Α configuration that captures the essence of dispersed initiatives and technology movements, which appear to prioritize socio-environmental well-being over profit maximization, excessive production and consumption.

The concept of cosmolocal production has arisen in tandem with the proliferation of digital communication networks [22]. It entails the approaches used to connect local communities within networks of shared resources with the aim of reducing material and energy footprints, without outsourcing the adverse impact on other ecosystems [23,24]. Cosmolocal production redefines the communal aspect [25] in terms of location, establishing resilient infrastructures for the exchange of knowledge, techniques, and practices over open communication channels [26]. Design, knowledge, and software are collectively developed and enhanced as part of a global digital commons, while manufacturing occurs locally, with due consideration for local biophysical conditions (see Fig. 1 for an overview of the cosmolocalism structural framework) [26,27].

Fig 1

Fig. 1. The cosmolocalism structural framework with its functions (e.g. knowledge transfer), spatial dimensions (e.g. local/global, rural/urban), and main fields of activity (e.g., agriculture, digital technologies) [24].

Cosmolocal production neither demonizes high-tech nor idealizes low-tech. Rather, it employs the concept of “mid-tech” which encompasses the notion of achieving equilibrium between two diametrically opposed qualities: high-tech and low-tech. Mid-tech functions as a comprehensive intermediary that transcends the high-, low-tech polarity and molds them into a more integrated synthesis, reaping the benefits of the two extremes. Consequently, high-tech and low-tech cease to be mutually exclusive; instead, they form a dialectical unity. A mid-tech approach delves into the capacity to harmonize the efficiency and seamlessness of high-tech with the autonomy and resilience inherent in low-tech [28]. Kostakis et al. [28] exemplify the mid-tech notion by juxtaposing high-tech prosthetics with the case of OpenBionics, an open-source initiative that combines high-tech and low-tech elements to build lightweight, affordable and adaptable prosthetic devices. High-tech prosthetics utilize complex sensors and actuators and require sophisticated human-machine interactions for efficient operation. As a result, they are expensive, heavy and difficult to use, maintain and/or repair. In contrast, OpenBionics strives to develop prosthetic devices that are easily reproducible using readily available materials and rapid prototyping methods [28]. OpenBionics embraces the cosmolocal practices of global digital commons and on-demand, needs-based local manufacturing.

Many more technology initiatives serve as prime examples of cosmolocal production. Take, for instance, Wikipedia, a free and open-source encyclopedia that has supplanted the Encyclopedia Britannica and Microsoft Encarta. Wikipedia is created and maintained by a community of widely dispersed enthusiasts primarily motivated by reasons beyond profit maximization. Likewise, in the realm of software, consider GNU/Linux, which powers the top 500 supercomputers, or the Apache Web Server, the dominant software in the web-server market. These accomplishments are the result of collaborative efforts by communities of hackers, scientists, and enthusiasts where the profit incentive is present but relegated to the periphery. Arguably, humans are activated by a rich motivational diversity, which may include the incentive to satisfy a particular need or the pleasure of creativity, sharing and learning [27].

Similarly, the rise of networked micro-factories is giving birth to niche initiatives in design and manufacturing. These spaces, which can be makerspaces, fab labs, or other co-working facilities, are equipped with manufacturing technologies, including 3D printers, CNC machines, as well as traditional low-tech tools and crafts. These initiatives form a diverse tapestry that doesn’t require a singular physical base since their members are scattered across the globe. Prominent examples are the L’Atelier Paysan cooperative and the Farm Hack network, which develop open-source agricultural machinery for small-scale farming [21]; the Libre Space Foundation, responsible for the first open-source satellite in orbit; the OpenBionics project, developing open-source designs for robotic and bionic devices [24]; the Wind Empowerment Association, producing small-scale renewables [29]; or the RepRap community, crafting open-source designs for 3D printers capable of self-replication.

These initiatives harness a global wealth of knowledge to manufacture artifacts locally, enhancing them with their own contributions in the form of design files, software, best practices, and expertise. In cosmolocal production, local communities can diminish their reliance on global value chains because a substantial portion of the production cycle occurs at the local level [24]. Cosmolocal production often hinges on values such as reciprocity and self-organization, which prioritize local autonomy, cultural diversity, and a sense of common benefit [24]. These technology initiatives cultivate ecosystems of small-scale, locally-focused communities that nurture the communal capabilities of individuals and groups, contributing to the global digital commons [23]. The globally spreading digital commons in combination with localized manufacturing capabilities generate hybrid forms of commoning that scale wide or out instead of scaling up [24].

Cosmolocalism embodies both capitalist and post-capitalist aspects, drawing viability from partnerships with the dominant system while pointing toward new possibilities. The elements that separate cosmolocal production from the conventional industrial production are design-embedded sustainability, i.e., products are designed for longevity; needs-based manufacturing, i.e., sourcing materials locally to minimize logistics; and access to the means of production, i.e. digital and physical infrastructures are shared [24]. However, cosmolocal production is not without its tensions and contradictions. For instance, although it may alleviate the pressure on natural resources and local populations (e.g., minerals from African countries), it still relies on energy- and material-intensive infrastructures, such as the Internet. Nevertheless, this article argues that a cosmolocal framework could act as a catalyst to connect the multitude of local initiatives and unite their radical narratives while preserving their diversity.


The most urgent challenges of our time are intricately connected with technology. The evolution of technology within the capitalist mode of production presents numerous pressing issues, leaving a profound impact on societies and the environment. The relentless pursuit of constant upscaling and economic growth inherent in capitalism places an immense strain on human and material resources, pushing our world close to a catastrophic tipping point. As a response to this impending crisis, various post-capitalist narratives have emerged, signaling an inevitable transition in the mode of production.

In this context, we argue that nodes of cosmolocal production may serve as beacons toward a more inclusive and sustainable future. While some may perceive these examples as modest or even utopian, their uniqueness lies in the reclaiming of lost elements through empowerment and capacity-building, blending traditional and modern methods. It is crucial to view these cosmolocal endeavors as more than just idyllic visions. They represent pilot projects, offering a glimpse into a transformative shift in our production approach. They demonstrate the possibility of an alternative localization and a different form of globalization.

However, caution must be exercised to prevent the absorption of these initiatives by the prevailing dominant context, recognizing potential risks and challenges such as the dependence on energy- and labor-intensive infrastructures like the Internet. Despite this, the counterculture is not merely present but steadily gaining ground. While to reap the benefits of cosmolocal production strong political initiative and institutional innovations are needed, the momentum behind these post-capitalist pathways signifies a growing potential for meaningful change in our approach to production.


This work was supported by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 802512). This work was also supported by the European Commission through the H2020 project Finest Twins (grant No. 856602).

Credit authorship contribution statement

Vasilis Kostakis: Conceptualization, Funding acquisition, Investigation, Project administration, Supervision, Writing – original draft. Nikiforos Tsiouris: Project administration, Writing – review & editing.

Declaration of competing interest

The authors declare that they have no known competing financial interests or personal relationships that could have appeared to influence the work reported in this article.

Data availability

  • No data was used for the research described in the article.


Vasilis Kostakis

Vasilis Kostakis is the Professor of P2P Governance at Tallinn University of Technology and Faculty Associate at Harvard University. He is the founder of the P2P Lab and core member of the P2P Foundation.