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    N&MRC Seminar - Digital commons for the ecological transition

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    Digital commons are resources produced and maintained by diverse communities and projects, governed by rules which guarantee their collective and shared nature. The shape of these resources is directed by the requirements of their initial contributors, who are also its prime beneficiaries. On one hand this means resources are not always, in the first instance, ‘user-friendly’, so they may be reserved for a technically-proficient minority. On the other, this integrity of product and process results in exceptional robustness and sustainability. In contrast, activists at the intersection of the Internet, the social economy and ecology denounce the profit maximization which prevents large firms from developing sustainable digital technologies. They often advance digital commons as alternatives prefiguring an ecological and post-capitalist future, based on self-management and common ownership of the means of production. Digital commoners advocate the use of free and open source software to enhance the sustainability of computing devices (e.g., Fairphone). They develop open and collaborative databases (e.g., Open Street Map), which can help govern and evaluate the ecological transition. Finally circular economy and/or degrowth principles can inform the deployment of cooperative platforms (e.g., Mobicoop) and of distributed manufacturing in ‘makerspaces’. However these solutions face major challenges: their production partly relies on unsustainable ‘Big Tech’ products, and their political support is negligible, which affects their capacity to scale up. To address these challenges we combine, with colleagues, three research methods: (1) we conduct an ethnography, via observations and interviews with members of three collectives that use digital commons for the ecological transition; (2) we use a combination of computational and survey methods to map the use of digital commons by industry and to survey digital commoners about economic and environmental sustainability; (3) we develop an action-research program, in line with our participation in the Digital Commons Policy Council and the Société des Communs, and co-construct with stakeholders public tools aiming to enhance collaborations between digital commons projects and government organisations.

    Mathieu O’Neil is Professor of Communication in the NMRC and Honorary Associate Professor of Sociology at the ANU. He researches information resilience, issue networks, and the sustainability of digital commons. He co-founded the Virtual Observatory for the Study of Online Networks in 2006. He founded the Journal of Peer Production in 2011, and the Digital Commons Policy Council think tank in 2021. See |

    Xiaolan Cai is a PhD candidate in the NMRC. She has a Master in Social Research from the ANU and a background in computational social research and urban planning (7+ years). Her PhD project investigates Open Source Smart City Projects and Impacts on Civic Engagement in Australia. See

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