Commons Stack
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Commons Stack

Web3 and the Commons

Commons: The Heart of the Creation Era

How Elinor Ostrom’s Findings and Web3 Tech Enables the Commons Stack

If you’re fascinated with complex, human-designed systems like we are — from communities and nations, to political, economic, and monetary systems, right through to organisations and institutions — you may have noticed that we’re all living through some turbulent times across the board. In fact, an article posted just a few days ago summarises part of a report by the Global Sustainability Institute at the UK’s Anglia Ruskin University that found that just five countries are likely to survive a collapse of global systems.

It’s not all bad news though! Like the death throes of the villain in almost any thriller who, seemingly defeated, rises for one last treacherous act, it’s possible that we’re living through the global death throes of systems that no longer serve humanity or the ecosystems we rely on. It’s possible that we’re also living through the (no doubt uncomfortable) birth of new and better systems.

James Arbib and Tony Seba, founders of RethinkX, an independent think tank that analyses and forecasts the speed and scale of technology-driven disruption and its implications across society, certainly think so:

If we hold strong, we can emerge together to create the wealthiest, healthiest, most extraordinary civilization in history.

(p.6 Rethinking Humanity: Five Foundational Sector Disruptors, the Lifecycle of Civilizations, and the Coming Age of Freedom)

Into a New Era

In Rethinking Humanity: Five Foundational Sector Disruptors, the Lifecycle of Civilizations, and the Coming Age of Freedom, Arbib and Seba define the times we’re in the death throes of as the Extraction era. Where they’ve mapped us heading into is the Creation era.

This new era, they predict, will be formed of local and localised communities connected by networked grids of information and resource sharing.

The core elements of these new systems of organisation and coordination, they state, will be self-sufficient communities, worldwide flows of knowledge alongside local flows of resources and production, network economies, distributed, modular production, node architecture, and distributed governance.

(Page 51 Rethinking Humanity: Five Foundational Sector Disruptions, the Lifecycle of Civilisations, and the Coming Age of Freedom: James Arbib & Tony Seba)

This next chapter in human history could therefore be summarised as a time of networked localisation, when humans integrate what has come before and where we’re headed: remembering and desiring the benefits of community and local, while recognising the importance of cooperation, interrelationship, and shared information pathways at regional and global levels.

New tools for local coordination could help to scale initiatives for social benefit that are sorely needed across the world.

Web3 in the Creation Era

Web3 (of which Blockchain technology is a key element) is one of the pathways into this next era. Web3 enables new economies and monies (cryptocurrencies and decentralised finance), new ways of organising and governing our organisations, global communities, and institutions (DAOs), new ways of owning and sharing information, decision-making, and data management (by utilising smart contracts and peer-to-peer networks), and new ways of powering (by forming decentralised energy systems, such as microgrids and virtual power plants).

Web3 also enables a new way to instantiate and steward new commons infrastructure that bridges the physical and the digital — what the Commons Stack has termed “Cyber-Physical Commons”. However, it’s not just Web3 technology that is enabling this new step: It’s also due to one very important body of work.

Placing the Commons at Center Stage

Until fairly recently, conversations about commons have been marred by Garret Hardin’s ‘tragedy of the commons’, which seemed to prove that people couldn’t cooperate over a shared resource because the system incentivised people to act in their best interest, leading to overuse (and depletion) of that resource.

Elinor Ostrom’s groundbreaking and Nobel Prize-winning work disproved the deeply ingrained (and incorrect) belief that we human beings can’t share resources well because someone will get greedy, causing everyone else to take what they can too before they lose out and the resource is depleted. Through comparative analysis of a multitude of case studies, Ostrom learned that commons — and common pooled resources (CPRs) — can be managed very well by their communities if they instigate and adhere to 8 rules (or design principles).

(Graphic by David Dao. Lifted from his Medium article Decentralised Sustainability: Beyond the Tragedy of the Commons with Smart Contracts + AI)

While indigenous communities have been stewarding their commons and CPRs just fine for many years, the rest of us that had forgotten how to do so now have the access to the learnings we need to successfully steward commons and CPRs; what’s exciting is that this learning has coincided with the development of a new type of technology: Web3.

This is where the work of Commons Stack comes in: we are building Web3-based tools that help initiate and steward commons-based microeconomies and the CPRs that they share amongst themselves — work that is firmly grounded in Ostrom’s research and rules.

These Web3-based tools could help place commons and CPRs center stage; both globally and within the Creation Era.

(It’s worth noting that while land or shared physical resources — the Earth’s atmosphere or forests, for example — is often the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of commons and CPRs, commons can refer to any shared resource, such as creative commons. Some organisations and communities are themselves ‘commons’.)

*As we are forging an alternate path to states and markets, we are using terms that are relatively under-defined. Look up ‘Micro-economies’ on Google and you’ll be redirected to definitions of ‘microeconomics’. The field of economics currently has little terminology (that we are aware of) for governing Commons. Micro-economies have similar aspects to ‘village economies’ or ‘local economies’, but micro-economies, as we use the term, are local only in the sense of size, not physical proximity (as they are internet-based). They’re best thought of as a small economy, relative to a nation state.

Helping You Govern Your Commons

Let’s say that you are part of a community that has come together from all over the world to take care of 50,000 acres of beautiful land populated with untouched lakes and oak woods, where sparrows and kites and badgers and deer and rabbits potter about their lives like they’re in a Disney movie. You want to cooperatively manage that land in ways that will protect the land and its ecosystems, but also allow it to be accessed by respectful visitors — in other words, you would like to manage this land as a commons.

To do this successfully you need to:

1. Raise and manage funding for this commons;

2. Make community-wide decisions about the governance and care of your commons without the need of centralised, committee oversight;

3. Measure your impact, so you can adjust and improve your approach; and,

4. Do the above in a way that enables complete strangers and trusted colleagues from all over the world to work together towards the same goals.

This is where Commons Stack tools come in. Commons Stack is a community that is building the tools and components to enable you to do this, while also practicing Ostrom’s rules within our own community so that we can utilise best practice as we build. And since the Commons Stack’s components are interoperable, you’ll be able to choose and build upon the combination that works best for your specific commons. Hence, the Commons Stack.

In essence, we are building tools that facilitate communities in creating their own Commons-based micro-economies to solve their collective problems and build regenerative, intentional ecosystems — together.

What are the Specific Goals of the Commons Stack?

If you spend time with us, you’ll see that most of our discussions and current focuses are on:

1. Building blockchain-based components that support the creation and governance of commons and CPRs, and help communities steward the micro-economies these commons and CPRs exist within.

2. Centering Nobel-prize winning Elinor Ostrom’s principles for managing a commons in our tools and processes by experimenting with the principles so that best practice informs our products and advice.

3. Supporting and scaling human coordination around shared, regenerative goals, so that communities, from the local to the global, have the tools to come together to solve their ecological and financial problems.

4. Realigning incentives around public goods so that strangers and communities benefit from behaving cooperatively, bringing about true win-win-win scenarios.

Introducing the (imaginary) NPT Token

The use of our tools — and the benefits of Blockchain — is often easier to understand with an example.

Let’s say there’s a donation-funded national park in the UK. It’s in a stunning area, with numerous protected species of flora and fauna, including a rare species of deer that’s being carefully monitored and nurtured. It’s a very popular hiking, camping, climbing, and canoeing area. Anyone can visit and take advantage of the beautiful nature. They only ask that you respect the land and animals, take your rubbish with you to keep the park clean and tidy, and request a small donation if you camp within the designated areas.

Unfortunately, while most people treat the park as asked, a minority of people leave their rubbish lying around and don’t make a donation post camping. As a result, the national parks team has been considering reducing the publicly accessible areas and completely banning camping.

Here are just some of the ways they could utilise Commons Stack tools to problem solve. The team could create a National Parks cryptocurrency or ‘token’: the NPT (National Park Token). Then, they share this message on their website:

‘As thanks for placing all of your rubbish in the designated bins, or making your camping donation, you’ll be awarded NPT tokens. You can swap those tokens for National Park memorabilia here on our website or use them to vote on decisions about the park’s future.

You’ll also be added to our NPT leaderboard, where you, your family, your group of friends, or your school can compete to be part of the top 50 NPT Superstars and win special prizes. Prizes include:

  1. Overnight safaris with one of our rangers, where you might spot bats, rare owls, and other nighttime visitors;
  2. Joining us during deer birthing season when the park is closed for a once-in-a-lifetime experience;
  3. Naming one of our new animal arrivals and receiving annual updates about their wellbeing; or,
  4. Spending the day training as a National Park ranger in our NP Ranger School.

There are various ways you can earn NPT tokens.

  1. Pick up all of your rubbish — and any other rubbish you find — and at the end of your stay or visit take a picture of you with the rubbish and a piece of paper stating the date and what area of the park you’re in. When you’re back home, upload the picture to our site and you’ll be rewarded with 20 NP tokens for every bag.
  2. If you camp, take a picture of yourself in front of your tent with a piece of paper stating the date of your stay and what area of the park you stayed in, and when you’re back home upload the picture, make your donation, and you’ll be rewarded with 60 NP tokens for every night you stayed with us.

Your NPT tokens earn much more than just National Park swag though: you could choose to take part in our ‘Plant a Tree’ project for every 200 tokens collected and donated to this project; and when you gift us 500 NP tokens, we’ll plant a tree tagged with your choice of name, and share that picture on our ‘Tree Friends’ page.’

Now, people from all over the world are competing to pick up the most rubbish and earn tokens from their donations, as well as becoming more engaged in the park by participating in National Park decisions, even when they’re visitors from the other side of the world and they’ve returned home.

(While the NPT token example shared here is simplistic — the reality of creating and managing tokenised economies is complex and challenging — we are already utilising our tools and applying them to real-life situations.)

As you can see, blockchain technology allows us to work together in new ways, with new information flows and new ways of communicating. It also enables complete strangers to work together even if they never have direct contact with each other.

How Ready-for-Use are the Commons Stack Tools?

While our library of open-source, interoperable Web3 components are still in development and testing, Commons Stack’s tools are mainly being incorporated by people who are familiar with — and already using or building tools for — Web3 technology.

The first communities and projects utilising Commons Stack components will, in one way or another, attempt to drive the space forward. Quite simply, communities that are already adopting blockchain technology are the first to use these tools.

An example of this is the Token Engineering Commons (TEC) — another example of a commons that isn’t a physical or natural resource — where we’re testing and modelling tools to improve the sustainability of tokenised systems, and applying the Commons Stack framework to manage resources and fund initiatives related to this nascent field of study in a participatory, community-driven way.

You can read more about the current work of Commons Stack here. In particular, we’re focusing time and energy on the cultural aspects of managing a commons and putting those in action, such as in the commons simulator, a ‘game’ that designs a regenerative commons with the purpose of helping humanity save life on earth and the Trusted Seed, a curated list of value-driven contributors that help us iterate on present and future commons.

Do I Need to be a Web3 Developer to Volunteer or Support this Work?

Core to Commons Stack’s work is implementing and practicing how to govern commons. Therefore, anyone interested in governance and research is welcomed with open arms. We are also grateful for help with media, comms, and design, technical development and infrastructure build, and stewardship and conflict support.

If you’re interested in joining us, why not pop into the Commons Stack’s Discord channel and join the weekly AMA (Ask Me Anything), where the team will be happy to answer your questions and help you find the right fit for your interests and experience.

If you then decide you would like to volunteer long-term, we would invite you to apply to the Trusted Seed. Once you’re accepted, you can start accumulating a CSTK score, a non-transferable ‘trust token’ that allows you to participate in future commons hatches (a Hatch being the period when initial funds are gathered when launching a new commons) and certain governance decisions for the Commons Stack.

To officially become part of the Commons Stack Trusted Seed, it is necessary to pay membership dues (450 DAI), but if that is financially untenable for you, there is also the opportunity to apply for a scholarship that will reimburse some or all of your fee, as per your need. It is also possible to financially support the project via the Giveth DApp or through Gitcoin grants.

Commons: the Heart of Humankind’s Next Era

‘During the 2020s, key technologies will converge to completely disrupt the five foundational sectors that underpin the global economy, and with them every major industry in the world today. The knock-on effects for society will be as profound as the extraordinary possibilities that emerge… This is not, then, another Industrial Revolution, but a far more fundamental shift. This is the beginning of the third age of humankind — the Age of Freedom.’

Rethinking Humanity: Five Foundational Sector Disruptions, the Lifecycle of Civilisations, and the Coming Age of Freedom: James Arbib & Tony Seba

No doubt there will be immense chaos and challenges as we move into our next era of human organisation and none of us should be Web3 maximalists; let’s hope that all communities find the fit that’s right for them and their unique needs, whether through Web3 tools or through non-tech solutions.

However, if you look carefully, it seems that we are heading into an era of global networked localisation, and Commons Stack tech might just play a part in embedding commons and CPRs into our norms.

If networked infrastructure is going to be, in effect, the ‘skeletal structure’ of this new Creation era, the Commons is surely going to be its heart.

Join the Commons Stack Trusted Seed to participate in these new forms of collective organization! Find out more about the Commons Stack on our channels below:

🕸Site | 👥 Discord | 🐦Twitter | 🗺️ Content Map | 🎥 YouTube

Article by Anna-Marie Swan, with credit and appreciation to Jeff Emmett, Kris Jones, Juan Bell, Andrew F, and Jessica Zartler for their editing suggestions and fact checking — everyone’s input made this a better piece of writing. Appreciation too for the shared care within Commons Stack that their work is represented correctly, but that guest authors and contributors are encouraged to hold and speak from their own understanding of this work. Lastly, cheers to my husband, W, for your gorgeous illustrations.



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Anna-Marie Swan

Anna-Marie Swan

Organisational design, governance, facilitation, and strategy.