Commons.hour session#7 - discussion

Digital infrastructure for resilient subcultures

This is a thread for discussion related to Session#7 of commons.hour.

Post-meeting links (including video recording and shared notes) are posted below.

For the original session announcement see: Sign-up commons.hour session#7

Meanwhile . . An hour in a video meeting isn’t going to tap all the dimensions!! Do please get started below at any time, on the big issues underlying this month’s session :+1:

Here’s the full-feature playback including slides and public chat : Playback
Here’s the mp4 download
Slide deck pdf : Nextcloud

Public chat: Nextcloud
Shared notes: Nextcloud
Background note: Sign-up commons.hour session#7 - #4 by mikemh

Hi folks… to get the ball rolling here’s an email just sent to Cade and Benjamin at New Design Congress with some more comments / links. I had to leave the call early so apologies if any of this is out of scope. Some of it is defo a bit nerdy (sorry! A. Nerd).

Hi Cade!

Nice to hear from you again on the call on Monday. Nice to meet you too Benjamin!

Systemic Thinking

Sorry I had to drop out early without time to explain the links in the chat. I was wondering if you folks at New Design Congress have connected with some of these writers in the field of ‘systemic’ thinking and cybernetics. I think the call for ‘cognitive maps’ in the Jasper Bernes paper is a significant parallel there:

Anyone interested in the topic of cybernetics and the ‘ethical architecture’ of digital spaces and communities might be interested in this paper (and the long traditions of ‘systemic design’ and ‘ethics’ from which it comes).
Ever wonder how the ‘tech bros’ gave the world platform capitalism, social media… and a digital shanty town rife with crime, racist bias and worker exploitation? The tech bros would probably answer ‘unintended consequences’. The Venture Caps would see the mess as a further opportunity for profit.

I’d like to think there is a new generation of folks who care about the digital (and physical) spaces they inhabit would think more carefully about the consequences of the tools they deploy… doing the ethical thinking about consequences up front, and then building some feedback into the design…

There are communities out there we can learn from: Cybernetics, virtue ethics and design

Other similar links:


In the field of social science and politics, Elinor Ostrom’s IAD, focuses on the game theory and dynamics of the commons and Nathan Schneider et al have taken this further with their paper on the design of governance in Modular Politics: Toward a Governance Layer for Online Communities:

I like this because it presents itself as an architectural pattern for governance of communities, based on four principles:

  • Modularity: Platform operators and community members should have the ability to construct systems by creating, importing, and arranging composable parts together as a coherent whole.
  • Expressiveness: The governance layer should be able to implement as wide a range of processes as possible.
  • Portability: Governance tools developed for one platform should be portable to another platform for reuse and adaptation.
  • Interoperability: Governance systems operating on different platforms and protocols should have the ability to interact with each other, sharing data and influencing each other’s processes

I think a bit more than that is needed in the toolkit, especially some old skool counterbalances to the perils of ‘pyramidal’ direct populist democracy offered by Marx. Montesquieu’s trias politica is still valid I think. We should also include writings on the practicalities and past failures in co-operative governance: The Governance of Large Co-operative Businesses - Prof Johnston Birchall - Co-ops UK. The need to strike a balance between ‘member voice’, ‘executive voice’ and ‘expert voice’ is nicely put in there.

I also like this piece on leadership in a “network company”:

Meanwhile there are many disparate groups ‘out there’ working in the field of Decentralised Governance, with varying levels of activity and focus. See the DGOV forum for example:

I don’t think there is any ‘universal’ best governance framework. Governance makes no sense without the context of what it is trying to govern. An electrical thermostat isn’t much use when you need a float-valve to regulate the water level. And well-intentioned over-engineered governance can easily become a bureaucracy.

Ecosystems and Logistics

I have a bit of history as an ‘enterprise architect’ working on very big, global ecosystems of dubious ethics… and for my sins I have tried to atone for this by educating/confronting the individual stakeholders and ‘designers’ of these systems with the unintended consequences of their solutions. Sometimes struggle and sabotage can have unintended consequences too. We should all know better than to destroy without thought of the risks or consequences, just as it is ‘sinful’ to build ecosystems without thought for the risk of catastrophic economic, social imbalance and harm.

On strategic mapping for ecosystems in today’s economy I’d recommend Wardley Maps. There’s an important extra dimension in there - maturity / commoditisation - orthogonal to the value chain (Lean and JIT etc). It’s also very helpful in mapping the spaces where alternative economies can practically compete / coexist. I used this for Resonate.

On logistics design at a more human scale, I would shout out to the folks at
…Lynn Foster and Bob Haugen… who were on the call! This effort in peer to peer logistics captures some of the pattern richness from decades of experience of ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) and NRP (network) and makes it available to a potential network of co-operators, who then may use it to shape and build more sophisticated and fairer platforms. It’s an ontology / pattern set. Maybe it needs a bit more in the area of identity and trust?

Identity and Trust

I really like the great work you have done on backchannel Backchannel: A relationship-based digital identity system and its ‘petname’ relationships, contrasted with dominant ‘digital identity’ and profile namespaces associated with nodes in the web of identity and community. I especially like the way you have presented the paper and set its context so clearly. The SSI (self sovereign identity) ecosystem puts an emphasis on individual control over attributes and their verifiable presentation, although it recognises that relying parties will always hold something of a profile, and choose some ‘identifier’ for a profile for the subject, within their particular context. But ‘real’ identity is human, not digital, so any ecosystem needs to have some rigorous thinking about a ‘systemic’ approach to identity and trust. For a co-operative ecosystem, we have been working with Verifiable Credentials as the basis of a common co-op and co-operator relationship system…

We are “a group of co-operatives working on common co-operative membership using verifiable credentials”. The founding member coops are, Pavilion Coop and We’re building on some of the work done for Resonate with its ‘community credentials’ project in 2020.

Here’s a brief pitch deck:

There’s a lot more on the website and in our forum - please feel free to join!

Those are the main things I have to chip in right now…

Grateful for your thoughts!



(Apologies for the use of the google hosting for various docs here… give me time :slight_smile: )


It was great to have that deep-inquiry topic on Monday thanks @shibco @benjaminroyer . I find @NickM 's governance and identity issues interesting too Commons.hour session#7 - discussion - #3 by NickM.

But for me, the take-home from the session (Benjamin and I had a bit more chat in Extra time) is: how to frame the mission and the practice of this infrastructure coop so that it can attract and support alternative practice in ‘resilient communities’ in the ways that Cade & Benjamin are highlighting. And do that in large numbers, so we can pay our Ops members :roll_eyes:

Right now there’s a ferment of discussion among (some) @operational_members about vision and how to fit that together with our severely limited capacity, so that we survive at all. Just one element of this is a more explicit framing of ‘What business(es) we’re in’ as a coop. Here’s a draft vision statement that proposes a threefold vision: platform business + infrastructuring business + conversations business (aka toolstack/coop/solidarity). This is way more than a tech project, or ‘a platform’?

Benjamin stressed to me how important it is to see clearly just what business Zoom is in - it’s not simply in a ‘platforming business’ in the sense that I just used that term. There’s a whole bunch of social relations embedded in it (economics, aesthetics, politics). So just what is alternative about How can it be clearly alternative to, say, Zoom? How can we avoid falling into traps that other libre software responses to mainstream digital media might be making? What are the social relations that we are intrinsically re-making - even while we struggle to make ends meet, financially, as a coop in sweat equity? And what social relations might we be trapped into, if we’re not careful, simply by virtue of adopting a commonplace genre like videoconferencing?

The draft above hints at ways we might answer this. But this needs a whole lot more attention and development - by our active-engaged users too. Or we could end up as ‘just another platform coop’, with a surface gloss of ‘ethics’, running in the same sweat equity mode that most libre software production operates in? Meet the new boss, same as the old boss?

Thanks @NickM - plenty to go at in there!

What are the traps that others fall into?

The question of what business are we in was central to what I was getting at when I was talking a month or more ago about being in the conversations business. (if this was the thrust of this session then I’m sorry I missed it - I read the briefing note about digital infrastructure for reliant subcultures and thought it was maybe going off on some weird quasi-academic tangent, which didn’t strike me as being particularly interesting or relevant - but’s perhaps more about writing effective marketing copy).

We provide a service (not a product) that enables people to have conversations. If that’s the right framing (and I’m not certain that it is, but it feels a lot more sensible than talking about being an infrastructure provider or being a digital thing - neither of which make much sense to me from a customer/member perspective, then the important thing is where that then leads you, in terms of how to present a strong offer, what adjacent services might make sense to also offer, who we market to, how, etc.

I was hoping that Cade & Benjamin’s presentation might get closer to this. I sense that they believe that many tech initiatives get stuck in, say, the videoconferencing genre, or a specific softyware UI (eg BBB), and are then compromised in what they then can do to meet the real, emergent, local needs of their constituencies, bcos there are certain tacit social relations that haven’t in fact been changed. So, a question still to be explored.

if this was the thrust of this session then I’m sorry I missed it

No, this was my personal take-home, with my hat on. It was a little hard to span the distance between the (research) presentation and the (coop) development blockages that we’re up against. More thinking to be done. NDC’s critique matters to I feel, but it doesn’t easily translate into organisational formulae or short-term focused commitments of development effort or coop-commons strategy in federated alliances. I’d love to know how @shibco and @benjaminroyer figure this challenge - accepting that they are researchers rather than coop entrepreneurs. It’s a theory-and-practice question that I think you have an interest in?

being an infrastructure provider

I think it’s plain that we are. Platforms are digital infrastructure and videoconferncing is cultural infrastructure. But what i think is really interesting is the potential to be involved - through federation with other coops, provisioning other things - in provisioning and stewarding digital infrastructure for an entire regional coop-commons solidarity economy, under coop-commons stewardship. The ‘customer/member’ here isn’t so much an individual or a civil society organisation, but rather, a municipality or regional ‘new municipalist’ development alliance. This is territory, I think? I think it’s territory too, and we should develop the (federated) capacity, and sell it.

… lol …I told you it was nerdy!

@mikemh maybe have a look at Wardley Maps as a tool to define this unified ecosystem more tightly?.. ie find a defensible niche. Here’s an intro video I did a while ago if it helps?


I’ve been looking at Wardley mapping with interest for some time. Seems to be in part about value chain analysis, but I’m not sufficiently clear how it works. Need to spend some time with it to understand it more.

Yes it takes a while to get into, but I found the basic mapping bit quite useful. Like anything, works best if you can collaborate with others and use it a tool for discussing doing actionable things, rather than just create a nerdy diagram for self consumption. (I’m guilty of that :roll_eyes:) Here’s a very high-level one for Resonate … there’s a much more detailed one that brings out the specifics, though. I went to MapCamp in 2019 - it was huge - at Sadler’s Wells! I blagged a free ticket for helping out and had a nice chat with Simon and also an ‘interesting’ chat with Will Page, chief economist of Spotify at the time . LOL

Thanks all for the feedback. On those topics, I wanted to say that the New Design Congress will be hosting Adam Greenfield, author of Radical Technologies: the Design of Everyday Life for a stream at on Tuesday 3 May at 7:30pm BST

More info and RSVP:

We’ll certainly expand on the points we raised during commons.hour session. Feel free to join, there will be plenty of time to question Adam.