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Transforming the productive base of the economy through the open design commons and distributed manufacturing image
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This policy paper explores the important role that the knowledge commons could play in the development of a social knowledge economy, focusing on the transformation of the secondary sector of the economy. Based on a discussion of two case studies on the open-source RepRap 3D printer and the Wikispeed car, which are paradigmatic of how the open design commons enable distributed and collaborative manufacturing structures, the paper derives several general principles for the development of public policy and puts forth a set of recommendations for kick-starting the transition process.

cognitive capitalism, distributed manufacturing, distributed entrepreneurship, open design commons, peer production, social knowledge economy

By George Dafermos

Structure of this policy document

This policy document examines the application of social knowledge economy principles to the secondary sector of the economy, with an emphasis on manufacturing. The Introduction dissects the concept of the knowledge economy, highlighting the role of access to knowledge as the fundamental criterion for determining its character: In contrast to capitalist knowledge economies that block access to knowledge through the use of patents and restrictive IP rights, social knowledge economies use inclusive IP rights to provide free access to knowledge. In the next section, A critique of cognitive capitalism, we look at how the use of restrictive IP rights has been theoretically justified: In short, IP rights are supposed to promote innovation and productivity. However, the available empirical evidence on the effect of IP rights on innovation and productivity furnishes no such proof. On the contrary, looking at the way in which capitalist firms actually use IP rights reinforces the conclusion that they do not promote innovation, but are in fact hindering it.

The next section, Alternatives to capitalist models, introduces the FLOK (Free, Libre and Open Knowledge) model, which has emerged in the course of the last two decades as a powerful alternative to cognitive capitalism and describes briefly its main features: (a) the practice of free sharing of knowledge undergirding it, (b) the pervasive involvement of the surrounding community and (c) the use of the Internet as a platform for distributed collaboration.

In the follow-up section, Knowledge commons in the secondary sector of the economy, we illustrate the FLOK model and its features through two case studies based on the RepRap 3D printer and the Wikispeed car project, respectively, which are paradigmatic of how the secondary sector could be transformed in the direction of a post-fossil fuel economy through the development of distributed manufacturing structures enabled by the open design commons.

In the next section, General principles for policy making, we sum up the conclusions drawn from the case studies in the form of general policy principles, which, as the section demonstrates, are aligned with the international policy framework, as reflected in the universally-endorsed policy objective of developing a knowledge-based economy. The concluding section develops these policy principles into a set of policy recommendations for the development of a collaborative knowledge economy founded on the knowledge commons of science and technology.

Introduction: The concept and forms of the knowledge economy

This policy paper examines the application of principles of social knowledge economy to the secondary (manufacturing) sector of the economy. But before we proceed to an in-depth exploration of those principles, we need to clarify the concept of the knowledge economy, drawing a distinction between social knowledge economies and capitalist knowledge economies.

In contrast to traditional conceptions of the economy which centre on land, labour and capital as the three factors of production, the concept of the “knowledge economy” emphasises the role of knowledge as the key driver of economic activity (Bell, 1974; Drucker, 1969; for a critical analysis of the concept, see Webster, 2006). This implies, of course, that the decisive means of production in a knowledge economy is access to knowledge. From this standpoint, it is precisely the question of how access to knowledge is being managed that determines the character of an economic system. Capitalist knowledge economies use the institution of intellectual property to create conditions of scarcity in knowledge: In this way, knowledge is privatised and locked up in property structures that limit its diffusion across the social field. A social knowledge economy, by contrast, is characterised by open access to knowledge (Ramirez, 2014) and so reconfigures the application of intellectual property rights to prevent the monopolisation and private expropriation of knowledge: “knowledge must not be seen as a means of unlimited individual accumulation, nor a treasury generating differentiation and social exclusion” but as “a collective heritage [that] is … a catalyst of economic and productive transformation” and “a mechanism for emancipation and creativity” (National Secretariat of Planning and Development, 2013a: 41, 61, English version). In a nutshell, a social knowledge economy is an economy which thrives on the “open commons of knowledge” (National Secretariat of Planning and Development, 2013b: 67, Spanish version); based, that is, on knowledge as a productive resource accessible to all members of society.[1]

A critique of cognitive capitalism

Intellectual property rights and their supposed role in cognitive capitalism

Capitalist knowledge economies use intellectual property (IP) rights as means of enclosing knowledge and as mechanisms by which to realise the extraction of monopoly rents from knowledge that has been thus privatised. This is ideologically justified as follows: Exclusive IP rights provide incentives for individuals and companies to engage in research and develop new products and services. That is, they promote innovation: The expectation of profitable exploitation of the exclusive right supposedly encourages economic agents to turn their activities to innovative projects, which society will later benefit from (e.g., Arrow, 1962). But is that actually an accurate description of the function of IP rights in capitalist knowledge economies? Do they really spur innovation?

A synopsis of empirical evidence on the effect of restrictive intellectual property regimes on innovation and productivity

To answer this question, it is instructive to look at the available empirical data on the effect of restrictive IP rights on technological innovation and productivity. The case of the United States is indicative of a capitalist knowledge economy in which the flow of patents has quadrupled over the last 30 years: In 1983, the US Patent Office granted 59,715 patents, which increased to 189,597 in 2003 and 244,341 in 2010 (US Patent Office, 2013). Looking at these numbers begs the question: How has the dramatic increase in the number of patents issued by the US Patent Office over time impacted technological innovation and productivity in the US? Well, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual growth in total factor productivity in the decade 1970-1979 was about 1.2%, while in the next two decades it fell below 1%. In the same period, R&D expenditure hovered around 2.5% of GDP. In short, we see that the dramatic increase in patents has not been paralleled by an increase in productivity or technological innovation. No matter which indicator of productivity or innovation we use in the analysis, we are invariably led to the conclusion that “there is no empirical evidence that they [patents] serve to increase innovation and productivity, unless productivity [or innovation] is identified with the number of patents awarded” (Boldrin and Levine, 2013: 3; also, see Dosi et al., 2006).

Another argument often voiced by proponents of exclusive IP rights in defense of patents is that they promote the communication of ideas and that, in turn, spurs innovation. They claim that if patents did not exist, inventors would try to keep their inventions secret so that competitors would not copy them (e.g., Belfanti, 2004). From this standpoint, the solution to the problem is a trade between the inventor and society: The inventor reveals his innovation and society gives him the right to exploit it exclusively for the next 20 or so years. Presumably then, to the extent that they replace socially-harmful trade secrets, patents promote the diffusion of ideas and innovations (Moser 2013: 31-33). In reality though, patents have exactly the opposite effect, encouraging ignorance and obstructing the diffusion of ideas. In what has become a standard practice, “companies typically instruct their engineers developing products to avoid studying existing patents so as to be spared subsequent claims of willful infringement, which raises the possibility of having to pay triple damages” (Boldrin and Levine 2013: 9; Brec, 2008). Even if that were not always the case, the way in which patent documents are written actually renders them incomprehensible to anyone except lawyers (Brec, 2008; Mann and Plummer, 1991: 52-53; Moser, 2013: 39).

The real function of intellectual property rights in cognitive capitalism: How do capitalist firms actually use them?

What, however, more than anything else disproves the claimed positive effect of patents on technological innovation and creativity is the way in which patents are actually used by capitalist firms. In a capitalist knowledge economy, patents are used primarily as (a) means to signal the value of the company to potential investors, (b) as means to prevent market-entry by other companies (so they have strategic value independently of whether they are incorporated in profitable products), and (c) as weapons in an “arms-race”, meaning they are used defensively to prevent or blunt legal attacks from other companies (Boldrin and Levine 2013; Cohen et al., 2000; Hall and Ziedonis, 2007; Levin et al., 1987; Pearce, 2012). It would take a heroic leap of logic for any of these applications of patents to be seen as productive. On the other hand, there is a plethora of cases in which the effect of patents on innovation and productivity has been undoubtedly detrimental. Indicatively, consider how Microsoft is currently using a patent (no. 6370566) related to the scheduling of meetings in order to impose a licensing fee on Android mobile phones (Boldrin and Levine, 2013; Brodkin, 2011; Mueller, 2012a, 2012b; Protalinski, 2010; Wingfield, 2010). In this case, patents become a mechanism for sharing the profits without any participation in the actual process of innovation. As such, they discourage innovation and constitute a pure waste for society. Interestingly, not that long ago, Bill Gates (1991), Microsoft founder, argued that “if people had understood how patents would be granted when most of today’s ideas were invented, and had taken out patents, the industry would be at a complete standstill today … A future startup with no patents of its own will be forced to pay whatever price the giants choose to impose.” It is ironic, of course, that Microsoft, not being able to penetrate the mobile telephony market, is now using the threat of patent litigations to raise a claim over part of Google’s profits.

In conclusion, the manner in which patents are used in capitalist knowledge economies makes it blatantly obvious that “in the long run … patents reduce the incentives for current innovation because current innovators are subject to constant legal action and licensing demands from earlier patent holders” (Boldrin and Levine 2013: 7). This becomes readily understood, considering that technological innovation is essentially a cumulative process (Gilfillan, 1935, 1970; Scotchmer, 1991). Cumulative technologies are those in which every innovation builds on preceding ones: For example, the steam engine (Boldrin et al., 2008; Nuvolari, 2004), but also personal computers (Levy, 1984), the world wide web (Berners-Lee, 1999), hybrid cars, YouTube and Facebook.

But if patents have at best no impact and at worst a negative impact on technological innovation and productivity (Dosi et al., 2006), then how is it possible to explain—especially from the legislator’s side—the historical increase in patents and the ever more restrictive IP regimes that developed in the last 30 years? Many analysts have pondered this question. The conclusion to which they have been led is rather unsettling: The actual reason behind the proliferation of patents and the expansion of IP laws consists in the political influence of large, cash-rich companies that are unable to keep up with new and creative competitors and use patents to entrench their monopoly power (Boldrin and Levine, 2013; Drahos and Braithwaiter, 2002).

Alternatives to capitalist models

The real enablers of innovation

Since, as we have seen, restrictive IP rights do not promote innovation, then what does? In our capacity as authors of this policy document, we are siding with a multitude of researchers and practitioners from around the world in whose view what promotes innovation is exactly the opposite of restrictive IP rights (e.g., Bessen and Meurer, 2008; Boldrin et al., 2008; Drahos and Braithwaiter, 2002; Ghosh, 2005; von Hippel, 2005; Moser, 2013; Pearce, 2012a; Weber, 2005). To elucidate this point, we will discuss two case studies in the following section that demonstrate that innovation thrives on openness and free sharing of knowledge, as well as that IP rights can be used in a way that is diametrically opposed to their application in capitalist knowledge economies so as to include—rather than exclude—the broader community in the innovation process. In other words, the case-studies can be seen as working examples of an alternative model of economic and technological development enabled by (inclusive IP regimes founded on) the open knowledge commons. But before we proceed to the case-studies, let us briefly examine the general outlines and organising principles of this model.

The FLOK model

The FLOK model is an alternative to models of economic and technological development articulated on the basis of the logic of cognitive capitalism. It has three main features: (a) it is characterised by the practice of free sharing of knowledge, which is sustained and reinforced by an innovative and, arguably, subversive use of IP rights, (b) it is community-driven, and (c) it leverages the Internet for distributed collaboration.

The knowledge commons

The cornerstone of the FLOK model is the practice of free sharing of knowledge underlying it. Its founding credo is that technology is most efficiently developed in conditions of openness and collaboration, rather than secrecy and knowledge hoarding. To set up such open and collaborative structures for the development of technology, the FLOK model has evolved legal mechanisms (known as open source licenses [Wikipedia, 2014b] or simply as open licenses) that ensure that anyone is free to use, modify and redistribute technologies produced through the FLOK model. By democratising access to technology and knowledge through open licensing, the FLOK model effectively empowers the global community to participate in the productive process. There is only one limitation: Improvements and modifications should be made available under the same conditions. Thus, technologies and knowledge released under open licenses form an open, yet protected, knowledge commons that anyone can use but none can expropriate. In this way, open licensing serves as a protection against the danger of private enclosure (Kloppenburg, 2010; Moglen, 2004; o’Mahony, 2003).

Community-driven development

The FLOK model challenges the dominant view that the institutional environment most conducive to the development of knowledge and innovation is that provided by large, hierarchically-organised corporations. Instead, it suggests that open, community models trump corporate ones in accommodating creativity and delivering innovation. In practical terms, this means that anyone can participate in the development process of a FLOK project but none can exercise heavy-handed control over the project or the other participants (Benkler, 2006: 105; von Krogh and von Hippel, 2006). Tasks are self-selected by participants, while decision-making is collective and consensus-oriented. Consequently, the direction of development of FLOK projects derives from the cumulative synthesis of individual community contributions, rather than from a central planner (Dafermos, 2012; Wenden de Joode, 2005).

Internet-enabled collaboration

The FLOK model leverages the Internet for massively distributed collaboration. For example, as we shall see below, the development of the RepRap 3D printer is distributed across hundreds of hardware hackers and hobbyists from all over the world, who share improvements and coordinate changes over the Internet. The same goes for the energy-efficient car developed by the Wikispeed project, which we will also discuss in the next section.

Knowledge commons in the secondary sector of the economy

Case study 1: RepRap

RepRap is an open source[2] printer that can be used to manufacture three-dimensional objects. The project that spearheaded its development was launched in 2005 by Dr. Adrian Bowyer at Bath University in the UK, with the aim of developing an open source 3D printer that can replicate itself by re-producing its own components, ultimately creating a small-sized, affordable, “homebrewed” manufacturing device that can be used to produce most of the objects people use in daily life.

Open licensing and distributed development

From the very beginning, the project leveraged the Internet for distributed collaboration: It open-sourced the design and all technical specifications of the RepRap technology so that others could experiment with it and improve it. Based out of various hackerspaces and makerlabs around the world, a loosely-coupled network of hardware hackers and hobbyists sharing ideas and modifications soon formed, resulting in rapid and significant improvements. The first version of RepRap, codenamed “Darwin”, was released in May 2007; version 2 (called “Mendel”) followed in 2009 and version 3 (“Huxley”) a year later (see Figure 1). By 2010, the project had evolved in a global community of about 5,000 members and the community size is doubling every six months (de Bruijn, 2010).


Figure 1: Rep Rap v. 3 (“Huxley”), May 2007 (Source:

Effect of IP rights on the development of 3D printing

What accounts for this remarkable community growth? First of all, to put the development of RepRap into perspective, one must look at the effect of IP rights on the historical development of 3D printing technology. 3D printing has been used in the manufacturing industry for about 40 years but the fact that it was a patented technology effectively excluded the broader community from participating in its development. Then, in the mid-2000s, the expiration of a set of patents on 3D printing galvanised the emergence of the open source 3D printing movement, which coalesced around the RepRap project. Hackerspaces played a crucial role in this process of community involvement by providing hardware hackers and hobbyists around the world with access to a sort of communal workshop or shareable toolshed, which they could use for community projects. Thus, by helping hackers more effectively organise themselves, such user-managed spaces formed a key component of the distributed technological infrastructure underlying the development of RepRap.[3] As a result of this influx of contributors from the open hardware community, the project soon managed to improve RepRap’s design and performance and slash the production cost of 3D printers down to about $500 (Banwatt, 2013a, 2013b, 2013c). In parallel, several start-ups sprung out of the bosom of the RepRap community and began to make low-cost 3D printers based on the RepRap design for the consumer market.


Figure 2: Stratasys is a 3D printing company co-founded by Scott Crump, who was granted in 1992 a key patent for 3D printing. The patent expired in 2009. MakerBot Industries was founded in the same year. Four years later in 2013, MakerBot was acquired by Stratasys, which is a typical example of the manner in which large, cash-rich companies neutralise small and innovative competitors. (Source: von Hippel, 2011: 59)


The involvement of the open source 3D printing community in the development of RepRap is not confined to experimentation with its design parameters, but also extends into the range of objects that RepRap printers can manufacture. To date, RepRap 3D printers have been used to make clothes (Materialise, 2013), wind turbines (Kostakis et al., 2013), prosthetic body parts (Molitch-Hou, 2013), wearable technologies (e.g., wearable mobile phones [Cera, 2012]) and even guns (Greenberg, 2013). In fact, the spectrum of objects that 3D printers could manufacture is potentially infinite: For example, a group of architects called “KamerMaker” is currently using a 3D printer to build a canal house in Amsterdam, the Netherlands (KamerMaker; Holloway, 2013), while the European Space Agency is planning to build lunar space stations using 3D-printed bricks made from moon dust (Carter, 2013; European Space Agency, 2013a, 2013b). As US President, Barack Obama, says, “3D printing has the potential to revolutionise the way we make almost everything” (quoted in Gross, 2013).

The implications of such a paradigm shift in manufacturing for environmental sustainability are enormous. In addition to realising economies in the use of raw materials (Webster, 2013), the type of distributed manufacturing undergirded by RepRap-like 3D printing implies a massive reduction in global transportation costs attendant upon the localisation of production (Rifkin, 2011). Clearly, the need for large-scale industrial infrastructures and for the mass production model itself will be greatly reduced if people are able to micro-manufacture at home a large number of the objects they use in daily file. And that is good for the environment: Unlike large-scale industrial manufacturing, which is based on the cheap availability of fossil fuels, “home 3D printing” is illustrative of an on-demand manufacturing model that emphasises application that is small-scale, decentralised, energy-efficient and locally controlled. Thus, the diffusion of small-sized, affordable 3D printers promotes a model of environmentally sustainable technological and economic development.

To sum up, the RepRap 3D printer is paradigmatic of a case in which the open design commons enabled a global community to engage in distributed, participative development which, in turn, resulted in significant technical improvements and production cost reductions, paving the way for the rise of a new market in low-cost 3D printers. In parallel, the RepRap project illustrates the workings of a distributed manufacturing model that is germane to a post-fossil fuel economy.

Case study 2: Wikispeed

Wikispeed is a project focused on the development of an energy-efficient car (see Figure 3). What is especially interesting about the Wikispeed car is that it is developed by a global network of volunteers, who, by using methods drawn from the realm of open source software development, have managed to reduce development time and cost down to a fraction of that which conventional car manufacturing requires.


Figure 3: The Wikispeed car (Source: Wikispeed Project)

The birth of Wikispeed can be traced back to the 2008 Progressive Insurance Automotive X-Prize competition for the development of energy-efficient cars, which captured the attention of Joe Justice, a Seattle-based software consultant. What set Justice apart from the other participants in the competition was his strategy and his resolve to apply open source software development methods to car manufacturing. In the beginning, he was alone. But as he announced his plan on the Internet, volunteers came to help and in three months he had a team of 44 volunteers and a functioning prototype (Denning, 2012; Halverson, 2011). Now the project is jointly developed by more than 150 volunteers distributed around the world (Wikispeed, 2012).

To speed up the development process and reduce its cost, the Wikispeed team, inspired by the lean manufacturing and open source philosophy, evolved an approach that contrasts sharply with conventional manufacturing. First, the entire manufacturing process is designed with a view to minimising the expenditure of resources that do not add any value to the end-product from an end-user’s point of view. For example, while an average manufacturer uses “a $100M CNC milling machine … WikiSpeed uses a $2,000 machine found in the average FabLab … While modern cars embed various costly, non-interoperable, proprietary computers to manage various features ranging from airbags, to gas levels, to air conditioning, WikiSpeed uses a single $20 Arduino circuit board” (Tincq, 2012).

Second, modularity is the core design principle: Wikispeed is made up of eight components that can easily be removed and re-assembled (see Figure 4). Such a product architecture makes it easy to modify and customise the car, as individual components can be modified without necessitating changes in the rest of the car. As a result, “the whole car can transform from a race car, to a commuter car, to a pickup truck, by changing only the necessary parts” (Tincq, 2012).


Figure 4: The Wikispeed modular design (Source: Tincq, 2012)

Third, scale is not important to Wikispeed: “cars are produced on-demand, when a client offers to pay for it. This implies almost no capital investment upfront to produce a Wikispeed car” (Tincq, 2012). Through the use of on-demand manufacturing and lean production methods, Wikispeed has achieved significant development cost reductions. But the production of Wikispeed is not only “lean” and “on-demand”, it is also distributed: Wikispeed is being developed by a distributed network of largely self-organising teams—each working at its own garage—who coordinate their work through the Internet. This kind of computer-mediated collaboration is enabled by the modular structure of the Wikispeed car, as product components can be developed autonomously and independently of each other by different individuals or teams with little, if any, need of central coordination (for a review of the modularity literature, see Dafermos, 2012, ch. 2). The resulting distributed organisational structure, according to the Wikispeed team, is key to realising significant economies of scope and flexibility: So, to reinforce distributed manufacturing, “WikiSpeed members are currently practicing to build cars within a rectangular space marked on the ground. By achieving this, micro factories could be encapsulated within containers, and shipped to where there is demand for local production. Once the work is done, a micro factory could be moved to a surrounding area to meet new demand” (Tincq, 2012). The sustainability implications of such a paradigm shift in manufacturing are obvious: Just like RepRap-like 3D printing, Wikispeed is proposing a model of distributed manufacturing that leverages the global open design commons for local production. Unlike large-scale industrial manufacturing, which depends on the cheap availability of fossil fuels, Wikispeed’s on-demand manufacturing model emphasises application that is small-scale, decentralised, energy-efficient and locally controlled. In that sense, it promotes a model of sustainable development that recognises the limits to growth posed by finite resources and so organises material activities accordingly (Bauwens, 2012b).

Fourth, the development of the Wikispeed car is built around the defining hallmark of open source software production: All technical specifications are shared freely with the community so that anyone can contribute to its development. In this way, by opening up the product development process, the Wikispeed project can tap into the contributions of a global community of volunteers. But for the Wikispeed team, freely sharing design information is not only a means of engaging the global community in the collective development of the Wikispeed car, but also the basis of a model of distributed entrepreneurship that allows hobbyists and enthusiasts from all over the world to download the blueprints of Wikispeed and use them as a springboard for developing their own cars in their garages.[4]

To date, the Wikispeed project has financed its operation mainly through crowdfunding campaigns and small donations from sympathisers (the so-called “micro-investors”). For its long-term sustainability, however, it aims to sell the cars it makes. The price for a Wikispeed prototype is US$ 25,000 and the project is currently working on the development of a commuter car that will be launched as a complete car for US$ 17,995 and as a kit for US$ 10,000. In recognition of its community character, the Wikispeed project has announced that the proceeds from sales will be redistributed back to the community of contributors.[5]

To sum up, the case of Wikispeed, like that of RepRap, demonstrates how a technology project can leverage the open design commons and the Internet to engage the global community in its development. Most importantly, Wikispeed proposes a model of distributed manufacturing that is well-suited to a sustainable economy: A model that is small-scale (“on-demand”), decentralised, energy-efficient and locally controlled.

In this section, we looked at the development of the RepRap and Wikispeed project to illustrate the FLOK model of production. Without a doubt, those two projects are not representative of the broader economy in which they are embedded. That is to say, they do not constitute the dominant model for the organisation of the entire economy. However, even though the FLOK model is not yet dominant, it may well become so during the transition period to a post-capitalist society, provided that it is supported by the development of appropriate institutions and enabling infrastructures for the scaling-up of the model. To this end, in the next section, we focus on several general principles for the development of public policies, which could serve as the basis of building those institutions and infrastructures.

General principles for policy making

Through the above case studies, we have come to identify a set of enabling conditions, from which we can draw several general principles to guide policy-making efforts aimed at reinforcing the development of a social knowledge economy.

The Commons as a key enabler

It is obvious that the emergence of the community-driven development modelIn this section, we looked at the development of the RepRap and Wikispeed project to illustrate the FLOK model of production. Without a doubt, those two projects are not representative of the broader economy in which they are embedded. That is to say, they do not constitute the dominant model for the organisation of the entire economy. However, even though the FLOK model is not yet dominant, it may well become so during the transition period to a post-capitalist society, provided that it is supported by the development of appropriate institutions and enabling infrastructures for the scaling-up of the model. To this end, in the next section, we focus on several general principles for the development of public policies, which could serve as the basis of building those institutions and infrastructures.

The importance of distributed technological infrastructures

The development of the FLOK model is unthinkable without a distributed technological infrastructure (Bauwens, 2005; Benkler, 2006). At the most basic level, the scaling up of the FLOK model requires distributed access to (a) the Internet, which members of FLOK projects use to exhange information and coordinate their activities, and (b) fixed capital, by which we mean a spectrum of hardware technologies, such as personal computers and 3D printers, which constitute the essential means of production in this setting. Their role of such a distributed technological infrastructure is often performed by hackespaces (as well as hackerlabs, makerspaces and so on), which are commonly used by individuals and groups with limited financial resources as a local, physical platform for the mutualisation of resources and the provision of shared access to those means of production that are not yet as distributed and generally available as personal computers and Internet connectivity. As such, they form a territorial infrastructure for the development of commons-oriented, open hardware projects, such as RepRap and Wikispeed.

The need for investment in knowledge

The development of such distributed technological infrastructures by itself is unlikely to generate positive results, unless people, too, know how to use them. The task, therefore, of building these infrastructures should be complemented with and reinforced by appropriate processes and structures of learning designed to harness the diffusion of “mass intellectuality” (Bauwens, 2005; Virno, 2001; also see Rushkoff, 2004) that is required for the expansion of the FLOK model.

The importance of access to credit and investment resources and the role of public policy

As we saw, in order to raise money to finance its operations, the Wikispeed project has turned to its base of supporters, on whose contributions it relies, and to crowdfunding campaigns as a vehicle to reach out to the Internet community. This choice to mobilise the community was largely dictated by the fact that the project has so far been unable to attract investment capital from the private sector. That is not accidental. On the contrary, it is the general case with technologies like Wikispeed that are not “protected” by restrictive IP rights, given the private sector’s aversion to invest in technologies and projects that do not have the potential to generate patentable results. For example, that is why capitalist investments in agricultural science and technology have long favoured the development of products such as seeds that cannot be reproduced in the farming process, rather than agroecological methods that are rendered practically un-patentable by virtue of their inherently collective and communal character (Vanloqueren and Baret, 2009: 977). From an investment standpoint, the “problem” with artefacts and methods that are not patented lies in the fact that they are not locked up in property rights that can be leveraged to capture rents. There is nothing strange, therefore, about the absence of capitalist investment in commons-oriented, open source technology projects like Wikispeed or RepRap, which would not have survived without the support of civil society. The fact, however, that the business sector cannot be relied upon to develop the products and technologies that fuel a social knowledge economy suggests the importance of setting up appropriate public policies to reinforce the development of the commons of science and technology.

Before we proceed to develop these principles into policy recommendations for the creation of a social knowledge economy, it is important to take into consideration the international institutional and policy contexts in which they have to be grounded. In this section, we looked at the development of the RepRap and Wikispeed project to illustrate the FLOK model of production. Without a doubt, those two projects are not representative of the broader economy in which they are embedded. That is to say, they do not constitute the dominant model for the organisation of the entire economy. However, even though the FLOK model is not yet dominant, it may well become so during the transition period to a post-capitalist society, provided that it is supported by the development of appropriate institutions and enabling infrastructures for the scaling-up of the model. To this end, in the next section, we focus on several general principles for the development of public policies, which could serve as the basis of building those institutions and infrastructures.

The policy setting

There is hardly a country anywhere around the world that does not endorse the policy objective of developing a “knowledge economy” as a vehicle of modernising and strengthening the economy. Indicatively, the policy of the European Commission for the economy of the European Union has been focused on the development of a knowledge-based economy as its primary target. The so-called Lisbon Strategy (also known as Lisbon Agenda or Lisbon Process), which was devised at a meeting of the European Council in Lisbon in 2000, articulated a ten-year development plan for the EU economy in which the concept of the knowledge economy figures prominently. More specifically, according to that plan, the “strategic goal” of the EU is “to become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world” (European Union Parliament, 2000). In 2010, the European Commission (2010) formulated an updated strategy for the next ten years, known as Europe 2020, which, in the essential features of its economic policy, reinforces the importance conferred by the Lisbon Strategy upon the development of a thriving knowledge economy in the EU. Thus, the goal of developing an economy driven by the productive forces of knowledge and innovation is right at the top of the list with the “three mutually reinforcing priorities” of the Union’s current economic agenda.[6]

Crucially enough, in some countries the existing framework for public policy making evinces a strong orientation towards the commons, laying emphasis upon the need to invest the goal of building a knowledge economy with a social character. For example, the national development plan of Ecuador, known as National Plan for Good Living (National Secretariat of Planning and Development, 2013a), is paradigmatic of such a policy framework: Given that “individual and societal freedom require emancipation of our thought” (Ibid., p. 61) and that “knowledge, more than a means of knowing, is an instrument for individual freedom [and] for social emancipation” (Ibid., p. 67), the National Plan for Good Living warns that “knowledge must not be seen as a means of unlimited individual accumulation, nor a treasury generating differentiation and social exclusion” (Ibid., p. 61). On the contrary, in the context of developing a knowledge economy with a social character, knowledge should be approached as “a collective heritage [that] is, in addition, a catalyst of economic and productive transformation” (Ibid., p. 61). Aside from furnishing a characteristic example of a policy context in which the goal of building a knowledge economy is embedded in a broader socialist programme of economic and productive transformation, the case of Ecuador is important because of the role attributed to the knowledge commons as an agent of that transformation.

The next section situates the principles that enable the emergence of the FLOK mode of production in the aforementioned policy context and puts forward several policy recommendations that are designed to support and reinforce the goal of building a social knowledge economy.

Policy recommendations

We have seen how patents in particular and restrictive IP rights in general run counter to the aims and needs of a social knowledge economy. By contrast, as our case studies demonstrate, the pool of the open, yet protected, knowledge commons established by free/open licenses is indispensable to the development and operation of a social knowledge economy. Consequently, to support the development of the knowledge commons of science and technology and protect it against the danger of private enclosure, we propose:

*The adoption of free/open licenses, such as the GNU GPL, for the licensing of scientific and technological artefacts.
*The de facto abolition of the patent system. This can be done through the use of royalty-free and copyleft-style patent licenses, that is, by means of “licensing patents for royalty-free use, on the condition that adopters license related improvements they develop under the same terms” (Wikipedia, 2014d).[7]

Moreover, to support the development of commons-oriented projects and organisations, we propose:

*The provision of special economic incentives for commons-oriented projects and organisations. This can be implemented in a variety of ways: For example, through tax benefits and (state-supported) micro-credit systems.
*The development of a legal framework that provides co-ops and collectivist organisations in the secondary sector of the economy with the organisational autonomy, as well as institutional support, which is required for their operation.[8]

We remarked how the use of hackerspaces, makerspaces, fablabs and co-working spaces for the mutualisation of resources and the provision of shared services to members constitutes a crucial infrastructure for both co-located and distributed cognitive work. Thus, to support the development of shareable, territorial infrastructures for cognitive work, we propose:

*That supportive policies be developed for the setting up of hackerspaces, hackerlabs, makerspaces and co-working spaces as a territorial infrastructure for cognitive work, skill sharing and technology transfer.

Concomitantly, to democratise access to credit and investment resources, we propose:

*The creation of a community-managed Community Investment Fund for commons-oriented projects and organisations, such as that operated by co-op federations in Northern Italy (i.e., the so-called 3% Fund)[9] and proposed by Kleiner (2010: 23-25) for the support of worker-owned organisations. It is important to remark that the responsibility for the design and implementation of common financing structures, such as the aforementioned Community Investment Fund, should not be vested in the State, but in the local entrepreneurial ecosystem of commons-oriented projects and organisations.

Considering that public procurement can be used as a very effective instrument to promote open and free technologies, we propose that the use of free and open source technologies be encouraged in public procurement programmes. For that purpose, we propose that public procurement legislation be amended to prioritise the use of free/open source technologies.

Equally important, our analysis has highlighted the importance of the diffusion of knowledge in empowering people to participate in projects of a technical character. That is why it is imperative to popularise free knowledge and make it an integral part of the education system. With this aim in mind, we propose:

*The introduction of training in the use and development of free/open source technologies into the basic school curriculum and across university programmes.
*The re-orientation of science and technology towards models of open science (Wikipedia, 2014c) with the aim of making the fruits of scientific and technological research accessible to all the members of society. To achieve this, we propose that publicly funded research and development in science and technology be released under free/open licenses (e.g., GNU GPL).[10]
*The setting up of spaces for informal training (continuous education) as an enabling infrastructure for the development of a free culture.

Last, it goes without saying that policies aimed at the transformation of the productive matrix in the direction of distributed production structures based on the open design commons should be responsive to the exigencies of the local context. To this end, we propose:

*That a National Observatory for Free Technologies be set up with the objective to assess the economic viability and fitness of free technologies to meet existing needs and to provide expert support for the task of design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of the above public policies.


[1] It is noteworthy that the concept of the social knowledge economy has been remarkably under-theorised in the existing literature. In fact, in the few cases where it appears, the concept is used to refer to the role of the so-called “social economy”—seen as that sector of the economy that is separate from the public and private sector—in the broader (knowledge) economy of which it is but a component part (e.g., see MacLeod et al., 1997). The only exception that we are aware of is Ramirez (2014) and the FLOK Society project policy papers, which employ the concept in a radically different sense, defining it as an economy characterised by freedom of access to knowledge.

[2] The RepRap design information is licensed under the GNU GPL.

[3] It is no coincidence that the majority of RepRap 3D printers have been prototyped, tested and operated at such user-managed spaces. Indicatively, the first RepRap 3D printer in the city of Heraklion, Greece (which is the author’s hometown) was developed at the tolabaki hackerspace.

[4] Wikispeed considers itself to be such a distributive enterprise: “A transparent enterprise that promotes—at the core of its operational strategy—the capacity for others to replicate the enterprise without restrictions … [a kind of] open franchise system that focuses on being replicated by others” (Open Source Ecology, 2012; Thomson and Jakubowski, 2012: 62).

[5] Wikispeed has devised an interesting method of remunerating community contributions to the project. According to the project: “If I give money, time, cookies, or supplies to WIKISPEED and WIKISPEED is profitable, WIKISPEED will pay me back the value of what I put in plus interest commensurate with their level of success”.

[6] The other two priorities of the Europe 2020 strategy consist in the promotion “of a more resource efficient, greener and more competitive economy” and of “a high-employment economy delivering social and territorial cohesion” (European Commission, 2010).

[7] One of the positive outcomes of the Cumbre del Buen Conocer, which was held in Quito in May 2014 with the aim of discussing the above policy recommendations, is that the Ecuadorian Institute of Intellectual Property (IEPI), which is the competent authority for the review of patent applications and the issuance of patents in Ecuador, has since committed itself to granting exclusively copyleft-style patents.

[8] For an elaborate discussion of what that task entails and how it can be achieved, see the FLOK policy documents by Restakis (2014, 2015).

[9] The 3% Fund is operated by co-op federations in Italy whereby member co-ops contribute 3% of their annual profits to a collective Fund that is used for investment purposes (Logue, 2006; Mancino and Thomas, 2005).

[10] For a discussion of the proposal to release publicly funded R&D under the GNU GPL, see Boldrin and Levine (2013: 19) and Pearce (2012a).


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