This article originally appeared on and is republished with permission.

For anyone scratching their head about how to understand the deeper social and economic dynamics of online networks, a terrific new report has been released by Michel Bauwens called Synthetic Overview of the Collaborative Economy. Michel, who directs the Foundation for Peer-to-Peer Alternatives and works with me at the Commons Strategies Group, is a leading thinker and curator of developments in the emerging P2P economy.

The report was prepared for Orange Labs, a division of the French telecom company, as a comprehensive survey and analysis of new forms of collaborative production on the Internet. The report is a massive 346 pages (downloadable as a pdf file under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license) and contains 543 footnotes. But it is entirely clear and accessible to non-techies. Unlike so many popular books on this subject that are either larded with colorful hyperbole and overly long anecdotes or arcane technical detail, the Bauwens report cuts to the chase, giving tightly focused analyses of the key principles of online cooperation. The report is meaty, informative, comprehensive, and well-documented.

Yochia Benkler explains the idea of peer production, particularly online. Photo credit: Dave Duarte. Used under Creative Commons license.

Two paragraphs from the Introduction give a nice overview:

Two main agents of transformation guide this work. One is the emergence of community dynamics as an essential ingredient of doing business. It is no longer a matter of autonomous and separated corporations marketing to essentially isolated consumers; it is now a matter of deeply inter-networked economic actors involved in vocal and productive communities. The second is that the combined effect of digital reproduction and the increasingly 'socialized' production of value, makes the individual and corporate privatization of 'intellectual' property if not untenable, then certainly more difficult and, in all likelihood, ultimately unproductive. Hence the combined development of community-oriented and 'open' business models, which rely on more 'social' forms of intellectual property.

In this work, we therefore look at community dynamics that are mobilized by traditional actors (open innovation, crowdsourcing), and new models where the community's value creation is at its core (the free software, shared design, and open hardware models). We then look at monetization in the absence of private IP. Linked to these developments are the emergence of distributed physical infrastructures, where the evolution of the networked computer is mirrored in the development of networked production and even financing. Indeed, the mutualization of knowledge goes hand in hand with the mutualization of physical infrastructures, such as collaborative consumption and peer-to-peer marketplaces, used to mobilize idle resources and assets more effectively.

Chapter One explains how a new “horizontality” of production has emerged as online networks have expanded – and how this is transforming the traditional “vertical” forms of industrial production tightly controlled by centralized corporations and bureaucracies. This, in turn, raises a host of new issues: how to organize production efficiently in networked contexts; how leadership must change in such environments; how business strategies must evolve in counter-intuitive ways, particularly in moving away from revenue models reliant on intellectual property.

Hackerspaces are part of the new collaborative economy vanguard. Photo credit: Ramos Alejandro. Used under Creative Commons license.

From a commons perspective, the most interesting discussions are in chapters Two and Three – “Discovering the User as a Value Creator and the Emergence of a User-Centric Ecosystem” and “Infrastructures for ‘Sourcing the Crowd’ and Mutualizing Idle Resources.” These topics have been covered by other authors, of course, but the virtue of the Bauwens report is its admirable succinctness and overview in assessing these developments. The report amounts to a sampler of the “best of” such analysts as Clay Shirky, Yochai Benkler, Chris Anderson, Eric von Hippel, Henry Chesbrough, John Wilbanks, and many other pioneering thinkers of the digital world.

The report gives extensive accounts, for example, about the nature of crowdsourcing, peer production, “personal manufacturing,” co-working and hackerspaces, distributed currencies and fab labs, among many other cooperative forms of production and value-sharing. A final chapter on open business models offers a typology of open source software and hardware business models, illustrating them with specific examples that are likely to surge forward in the future.

Synthetic Overview of the Collaborative Economy is a rich and thorough resource that describes why and how a commons-based economy is only likely to grow as digital networks proliferate. Highly recommended.

David Bollier


David Bollier

David Bollier is the editor of; activist and writer about the commons; author of Silent Theft, Brand Name Bullies, and Viral Spiral, one of's best books of 2009.

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