Infrastructuring the Commons?

By Sanna Marttila, Andrea Botero and Joanna Saad-Sulonen
Extended blog post based on the presentation made at Infrastructuring the Commons Seminar in 7.11.2013

Over a year ago we gathered together to discuss and share our knowledge on “commons”. Each of us had encountered the concept and insights brought by research on traditional (e.g. forests and fisheries) and new commons, and found them both intriguing and inspiring. What could we as professional designers and researchers of digital media, who operate in commons-like frameworks and aim to support collective action, learn from the commons discourse? How can we link this ongoing discussion to practices found in art, design and planning, and more precisely those practices that have collaboration, participation and openness as central aspects?

In order to further this research agenda we applied funding from Aalto Service factory to organize a seminar Infrastructuring the Commons? to learn about research on commons, locate and link the discussion in the context of arts and design research, and moreover bring together ‘commoners’ in various fields and themes: Caring, Cultural and Urban Commons.

Insights and vocabulary on commons research spoke to us, however the terminology and the frameworks (coming mostly from economics) were somehow hard to chew. We have found one productive starting point by creating links between two very recent trends. On the one hand the recent interest in the global commons movement with “commoning” and on the other hand recent academic discussions that explore on the relationship between design and “infrastructuring”. In the Infrastructuring the Commons seminar we wanted to trace the contours of that relationship and invite others —researchers, practitioners and designers— to help up us cast our net wider.


Let us start with the word “Commoning”. The term “commoning” was initially coined by historian Peter Linebaugh (2009) in an attempt to portray aspects of the commons that are linked with activities, not just with the more widespread understanding that sees commons as material resources. He wanted a “verb” for the commons[1]. Later on researchers and activists such as David Bollier and Silke Helfrich have also been advocating for the term “commoning” as a way of providing a new and needed vocabulary to make visible both “the social practices and traditions that enable people to discover, innovate and negotiate new ways of doing things for themselves” (Bollier & Helfrich 2012). Commoning has also been used to point at contemporary efforts to create a “commons culture” in partnership with other actors (Pór 2012). Commoning thus encompasses the active nature of the commons, and the presence of active commoners that are taking part in the creation and maintaining of local and global commons.


The emphasis on “processes and activities” visible in the latter discussion on the commons brought to mind recent developments in the field of design research, the area of research where we operate. In collaborative media and information systems design there is a growing interest to understand how “infrastructuring” can be a useful framework for professional designers interested in taking seriously issues of participation and collaboration. In this context, Infrastructuring propositions take as a starting point previous work around the growing importance of information infrastructures as an integral part of contemporary life.

Notably Star & Ruhleder (1996, also Star & Bowker 2002) seek to place discussions around infrastructure on more relational terms. Not as some substrate that disappears, something that is built and left behind, but as something that only makes sense for someone in a particular practice.

Given such positioning, how do you infrastructure? Star and Bowker  (2002) suggest that what should be taken into consideration in doing infrastructuring is more ‘when’ something is being perceived as an infrastructure by its users rather than ‘what is’ an infrastructure. While most design approaches tend to focus on particular artefacts, neglecting—more or less—the surroundings in which the artefacts are placed into, it is precisely these surroundings, which become a concern for infrastructuring (Pipek & Wulf 2009). Accordingly, when doing infrastructuring a lot of design work should turn towards a continuous alignment between contexts and the ways in which this is socially achieved (Björgvinsson et al. 2012). From this point of view, infrastructuring becomes an engagement in experimenting with ways of achieving this alignment (Hillgren et al. 2011, Pipek & Wulf 2009) while accounting for the creative ‘design’ activities of professional designers and users across the divide and beyond technology (Karasti & Syrjänen 2004, Pipek & Syrjänen 2006) without necessarily privileging either view.

Talking about “infrastructuring” as an activity makes visible issues related to power, resources needed and so on. If we (as professional designers, artists, cultural practitioners) are to contribute to processes of “infrastructuring” existing and emerging commons, the question becomes: How to go about it?  Moreover, can we see the ways in which contemporary collaborative design processes are (or can be) a type of “design commons”? That is processes, structured in particular ways of doing and managing design contributions where contributors are not just designers, or users or producers but start to resemble a collective of commoners? This is a topic for design research we want to bring forward.

Design principles for Designing Commons?

In our field, media design, it is common practice to communicate practical knowledge in the form of articulated principles, strategies and practices for designing. The knowledge obtained in practice (a concrete design project or production) is reflected and shared with others who could make use them not as “recipes for success” but as anchors and thinking guidelines when immersed in practical design work. There are for example a compilation of design principles related to collaborative and participatory design (e.g. Greenbaum & Kyng 1992, Schuler & Namioka 1993), strategies for extended design engagement (e.g. Botero et al. 2010, Botero & Hyysalo 2013), and we also find emerging consideration for exercising open design (Abel et al. 2011). These observations bring us closer to the second aim of the seminar, which was to look more closely into what can be learned from research on commons in terms of “design principles”, and if and how they could be useful in “Commons Design”.

In her book Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Elinor Ostrom, analysed over 80 case studies of small or medium scale natural resource commons from various sectors (e.g. on agricultural production systems as forestry and fishery). In there Ostrom identified eight “design principles” that were present in cases of long-enduring and robust commons. By “design principles” Ostrom referred to ”an essential element or condition that helps to account for the success of these institutions in sustaining their common-pool resources (CPRs) and gaining the compliance of generations after generations (Ostrom 1990, 90). Later Ostrom has clarified that in fact she did not intend “design principles” to be used as principles in actual design work (Ostrom 2012, 7), however we still believe we could learn from them when thinking about the types of processes and frameworks we are involved in.

Indeed, the design principles have been inspiring over hundred studies in various research fields (see Hess & Ostrom 2007). Recently Cox et al. (2010) examined the applicability of Ostrom’s design principles in the context of CPRs management through a review of studies. They concluded, that empirically the principles continue to be well supported and propose how they could be elaborated further. Because Ostrom’s principles were concluded based on small scale and local settings, Stern (2011) argues that in order to make use of them in global settings they would require some modifications and additions. It is obvious that such modifications and adaptation will also apply if we are to learn from them in the field of design research.

What can be learned from the common-pool resources (CPR) design principles and the type of design strategies and tools needed to sustain “commons design”?

What can be learned from the common-pool resources (CPR) design principles and the type of design strategies and tools needed to sustain “commons design”?

Nevertheless, design principles can provide a valuable insight on the mechanisms of collective action and the status of common-pool resources. These factors are becoming crucial also to the field of media design, and design research in general as new technological possibilities are increasing the possibilities for ordinary people to 1) collaborate, create and share common resources and 2) take part in design activities earlier monopolized by professionals designers and other established actors, we need to developed more nuanced understanding of the distributed nature of design agency.

For this we might need to look at, understand, and engage collectively in processes distributed more radically in space and time and within more complex socio-material assemblies. Increasingly professional designers will be facing new challenges in supporting various levels of participation. This happens both in collaborative design and also in more “radical” open design activities. We are increasingly being involved in providing spaces or platforms for participation, communication and collaboration. As designers committed to collaboration and participation we are also designing tools and means for novel modes of production (e.g. peer production) and we lack good frameworks to locate our contributions and guide our actions. So far our most clear referent has been  “open source software” practices, but that clearly is only one set of possible references.

These are among many of the questions we asked ourselves: What could we as professional designers and practitioners, who operate in commons-like frameworks and aim to support collective action, learn from the commons discourse? How can we make use of the insights gained when formulating the CPR design principles? Could these principles be useful and applicable for not only analysing existing commons, but for commons design or “creating a commons culture” (Pór 2012) in partnership with other actors?

From our perspective, collaborative and open modes of design are relying more and more on being able to successfully create or manage (or infrastructure) a “commons”. Implications and insights that the CPR design principles provide could be linked much closer to these type of design efforts. A broader perspective on professional design activities for collective action and commons design might be warranted. Thus, as part of a research agenda for the future we are proposing to develop the contents of the following table to trace back and forth what can be learned from the CPR design principles and the type of design strategies and tools needed to sustain “commons design”.

Elsewhere / at the same time

Before concluding, we want to highlight some places were the theme of the Commons has been addressed both on the academic front and in practice, from different points of views and fields of knowledge:

Stockholm: In spring 2013 in Stockholm, urban commons theme was explored at the Commoning the City conference – their was a view of the commons based more in architecture and urban planning.

Berlin: An important happening was also the Economics and the Common(s) conference, which took place in Berlin spring 2013 and where a very wide range of Commons related topics were discussed. Global examples and insights were shared on issues ranging from the natural commons to the digital ones.

France: In France andthe francophone world, October has been the month of the Commons and many events and activities related to the commons have been organized by “commoners” of all types, such as people active on the cultural scene, but also open data, plant seeds, and food waste activists.

Shareable:  The need to map the various existing commons has also risen, and the technology for collaboratively doing it online makes it possible. The Shareable online magazine organized a Sharing Cities mapjam during last month asking for contributions worldwide on mapping the commons in different cities.  Our own Helsinki_Commons mapjam held on October 24, 2013 was also part of this global initiative. You can see us here getting our hands dirty, and the outcome was this map of everything that we could think would apply as being Commons in Helsinki (whether physical, digital, or “How to”s).

So, why and how come there is this renewed interest in the Commons at this point in time? As said in the Economies and the Common(s) conference report, the commons is gaining a growing interest because it is working, and provides alternative to conventional state-led or market-based modes of organization. Charlotte Hess suggested in our seminar that the growing interest “to alternative forms of collaboration and sharing of resources may reflect the rising frustration citizens feel toward ineffectual governments, corporate domination, and mass indifference/inaction to local and global problems”. New commons are created by people everyday everywhere to share resources and tackle common problems (see Hess 2008 for an overview of new commons). As discussed above it poses a challenge for professional designers to think about how we can design better infrastructures and frameworks that enable, mediate and foster the emerging and increasingly complex “commoning practices”, and new design principles and practices to contribute to, sustain, foster and design commons (Marttila & Botero 2013, Gil & Baldwin 2013).


Abel, B. van, Evers, L., Klaassen, R., & Troxler, P. (Eds.). (2011). Open Design Now: Why Design Cannot Remain Exclusive. Amsterdam: BIS Publishers.

Bollier, D., & Helfrich, S. (Eds.). (2012). The Wealth of the Commons: A world beyond market and State. Levellers Press.

Botero, A., Kommonen, K. H., & Marttila, S. (2010). Expanding design space: Design-in-use activities and strategies. In Proceedings of the DRS Conference on Design and Complexity.

Botero, A., & Hyysalo, S. (2013). Ageing together: Steps Towards Evolutionary Co-design in Everyday Practices. CoDesign, 9(1), 37–54. doi:10.1080/15710882.2012.760608

Björgvinsson, E., Ehn, P., & Hillgren, P.-A. (2012). Agonistic participatory design: working with marginalised social movements. CoDesign, 8(2-3), 127–144. doi:10.1080/15710882.2012.672577

Bollier, D., & Helfrich, S. (Eds.). (2012). The Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market and State. Levellers Press.

Cox, M., G. Arnold, and S. Villamayor Tomás. 2010. A review of design principles for community-based natural resource management. Ecology and Society 15(4): 38. [online] URL:

Gil, N., & Baldwin, C. Y. (2013). Creating a Design Commons: Lessons from Teachers’ Participation in the Design of New Schools (Working Paper No. 14-025). Harvard Business School.

Greenbaum J., & Kyng, M. eds. 1991. Design at work: Cooperative Design of Computer Systems, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Economics and the Common(s): From seed form to core paradigm (2013). A report on an international conference on the future of the commons. Organized by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Commons Strategies Group, Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation and Remix the Commons.

Hess, C. (2008). Mapping the New Commons. In Governing Shared Resources: Connecting Local Experience to Global Challenges. Presented at the 12th Biennial Conference of the International Association for the Study of the Commons, University ofGloucestershire, England. Available at SSRN.

Hess, C. and E. Ostrom (Eds.) (2007). Understanding Knowledge as Commons. Cambridge, Ma: The MIT Press.

Hillgren, P.-A., Seravalli, A., & Emilson, A. (2011). Prototyping and Infrastructuring in Design for Social Innovation. CoDesign, International Journal of CoCreation in Design and the Arts, 7(3-4), 169–183.

Karasti, H., & Syrjänen, A.-L. (2004). Artful infrastructuring in two cases of community PD. In Proceedings of the eighth conference on Participatory design: Artful integration: interweaving media, materials and practices – Volume 1 (pp. 20–30). New York, NY, USA: ACM. doi:10.1145/1011870.1011874

Linebaugh, P. (2009). The Magna Carta manifesto: liberties and commons for all. University of California Pr.

Marttila, S., & Botero, A. (2013). The “Openness.Turn” in Co-Design. From Usability, Sociability and Designability Towards Openness. In Co-create 2013, the boundarycrossing conference and Co-design in Inovation (pp. 99–110). Espoo, Finland: Aalto University.

Ostrom, E. (1991). Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge University Press.

Ostrom, E., Chang, C., Pennington, M., & Tarko, V. (2012). The Future of the Commons: Beyond Market Failure and Government Regulation. Institute of Economic Affairs.

Pipek, V., & Syrjänen, A.-L. (2006). Infrastructuring As Capturing In-Situ Design. In 7th Mediterranean Conference on Information Systems,. Venice, Italy: Association of Information Systems.

Pipek, V., & Wulf, V. (2009). Infrastructuring: Toward an Integrated Perspective on the Design and Use of Information Technology. Journal of the Association for Information Systems, 10(5). Retrieved from

Pór, G. (2012) School of Commoning. In The Wealth of the Commons: A world beyond market and State. Eds. Bollier & Helfrich. Levellers Press.

Star, S. L., & Ruhleder, K. (1996). Steps Toward an Ecology of Infrastructure: Design and Access for Large Information Spaces. Information systems research7(1), 111–134.

Star, S. L., & Bowker, G. (2006). How to Infrastructure. In L. A. Lievrouw & S. Livingstone (Eds.), The Handbook of New Media – Student edition (pp. 230–244). Sage Publications, Inc.

Stern, P. C. (2011). Design principles for global commons: Natural resources and emerging technologies. International Journal of the Commons5(2), 213-232.


[1] The blog post What is Commoning, Anyway? is documenting this agenda with more detail.



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