Civil Society / Economics

What are the innovation commons?

An innovation commons is an institution in which private agents cooperate through collective action, to solve the innovation problem, by developing rules for the sharing and governance of those resources. These innovation commons are where the interplay of technology and local market knowledge provide an effective institution for the production and appropriation of innovation resources. An innovation commons is not about an entire economy, yet rather is temporarily defined around a particular technology. It is hypothesised that these innovation commons are socially defined spaces contingent on a set of underlying civil-society rules. For clarity, a few broad examples of proposed innovation commons are hackerspaces, maker spaces, open source software, open science, and DIY satellite communities[1].


The commons are a form of institutional governance of property, and therefore must rest on a particular resource that is of value. In the same way Ostrom (1990) proposed that the commons may, in certain situations, be an effective solution to the dilemma inherent in natural resource management, we propose the same for innovation resources. This research follows in the path of studies of natural[2], knowledge[3]  and culture[4] commons, yet brings innovation resources to the fore. The focus will then be on the underlying governance rules of these collective action spaces.

While the innovation commons are a subset of knowledge commons, they present a different challenge; being devoted to knowledge advance, creative activity, entrepreneurship and novelty. Innovation commons have a unique goal – production of innovation, rather than avoiding depletion.

It is proposed that the issue of free-riding on the common resource is protected through various institutional rules. Rules of which have evolved through time, collectively, by the users themselves. This focus on rules has come to the fore with the recent rise of New Institutional Economics – an important influence through the research.

It is hypothesised that there are three main reasons why the commons present potential; (1) they are an emergent domain of cooperation, absent from government intervention, and therefore escaping regulatory capture and public choice issues; (2) they appear to be present in a high proportion of the early phases of technological trajectories (Aldrich and Fiol 1994), and may represent incipient firms; and (3) they can be developed deeply, testing on multiple domains and scales, providing a robust environment for innovative activity.

This research also presents three main hypotheses over the recent emergence of innovation commons; (1) agents are engaging in collective-action group selection; (2) there is a dual commons of technology and Hayekian market knowledge, which is particularly hard to price in a market; and (3) agents are undertaking a defensive strategy as a mechanism against blocking coalitions. Each is discussed below. These are discussed in relation to the relevant literature.

[1] Further, more abstract innovation commons are hypothesised to include guilds, mothers’ groups and agriculture.

[2] Ostrom (1990)

[3] Hess and Ostrom (2006)

[4] Madison et al (2010)


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