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Reconstruction through self-provision

From shared value to the Commons

In 2011 economist Michael Porter put forward the idea of “shared value” as a way for corporations to reconnect economic success with social progress. He states that capitalism is perceived to generate profit at the expense of communities and that this is due to an outdated view of the creation of value, one that focuses on short-term gains and exploitative practices. By shared value, Porter is not suggesting increasing social responsibility of corporations or augmenting peripheral programs like sustainability or philanthropy. On the contrary, he calls for the reshaping of core practices of corporations toward long-term alignment of economic value with societal value.

The key idea behind the creation of shared value is an understanding of the value chain and the recognition of societal needs that enable that value chain to remain healthy and generate benefits to all participants. Porter explains that an externality such as pollution is recast as a shared value concern for a corporation’s understanding of the well-being of the value chain and the sustaining of a longterm commitment to the communities it serves. To explain this, Porter uses the example of fair-trade, explaining that it does not necessarily increase productivity but rather only offers a redistribution. His vision of shared value seeks to empower local producers with education and new technologies, allowing them not only to increase their revenue substantially but also to increase the overall productivity of the chain. He presents the example of Côte d’Ivoire, where fair trade could increase income by 10% to 20% and shared value investments can raise income by more than 300%.'

This is certainly a step in the right direction. As a result, there may be the temptation to equate the idea of shared value to the reconstruction of the Commons. This would be a mistake, as underlying the idea of shared value is a production chain where individuals fulfill fixed roles. The value of Porter’s proposition is the breaking of a zero-sum game mentality where corporate growth is at odds with social progress. His proposition does not intend to provide any emancipatory powers or social mobility to members in the value chain. Neither does it attempt to recover cultural heritage that has been erased by practices of extractivism, exploitation and subjugation. It is from these values that we can identify that the Commons needs to operate as an autonomous scaffold for the production of commonwealth by embracing non-market logic and allowing social mobility and indeterminacy. The production of such a scaffold needs to be the outcome of social production, forms of cooperation that yield new opportunities for others, if it is to develop a sense of value and purpose. This presents an organizational challenge, as traditional forms of hierarchical control fail to allow for the function of value to remain open-ended. This means that the only measure of progress is through the growth of indicators such as GDP. Attempts to develop movements for the liberation of knowledge (such as the protests in support of net neutrality in 2012, environmental activists such as Extinction Rebellion addressing the imperative of combating climate change or movements that have emerged as a response of economic inequality, such as Occupy Wall Street in 2011 and the uprising in Chile in 2019) have found strong opposition, demonstrating the momentum of the current economic model and the lack of will, especially for those who are now in power, to make any changes.

The inevitable social transformations occurring should not only lead toward a redistribution of wealth or regulation of carbon emissions but should also consider the design and construction of a social infrastructure defined as the Commons.

Commons as potential

During the 2012 Venice Architectural Biennale, the architect Pier Vittorio Aureli put forward an understanding of the Common in architecture that would go beyond the historical definition of the Commons as Common-Pool Resources (CPR). He asserted that the Common is defined by all material and immaterial architectural projects that contribute to the discipline of architecture. To make his argument, Aureli utilizes Paolo Virno’s distinction between potentiality and actuality As he explained, “Potentiality is the infinite range of possibilities not yet determined into finite things, the historically determined reality of the possible. Actuality is the determination of what is potential in the form of finite things and events.”2 Like Virno, Aureli emphasizes the inability of the actual to exhaust the range of possibilities offered by the potential. The Common is in fact understood as the mechanism that allows the potential.

To make the common explicit means to theorize architecture not as a product of individual contributions, but as a collective force, a pre-individual reality that is both the productive basis of architectural production but also something autonomous, something that exceeds its technical and commercial determinations and which addresses and manifests our collective understanding of the space in which we live.1

Contemporary digital platforms are also playgrounds that operate under the notion of potentiality and actuality. In a digital platform a user is placed into a constructed domain, operating under the illusion of freedom. The domain of the platform dictates what is possible but has been heavily pre-designed to limit the range of action and, as we have discussed in Chapter 4, leads to the production of behavioral assets and the possibility of behavior modification in its users. In a platform, a user operates within a system of expectation where most actions follow a predictable pattern. This predictable behavior, returning to Taleb’s denomination, is understood as a “White Swan,”4 a highly predictable event. The behavior or actions of a user define a form of actualization that can be forecasted and lives within a space of a behavioral prediction. It is possible that a user generates unexpected behavior, what Taleb calls a “Black Swan,” that alters our understanding of the domain. Such pattern of behavior resides in the blind spot of a system of expectation.

Aureli’s definition of the Commons still retains Elinor Ostrom’s framework for understanding the Common as a CPR or commonwealth. In his case, these resources also include a wider notion of immaterial resources such as information and knowledge. However, we are yet to understand the role of Commons as social systems of organization and governance that are able not only to operate within a pre-established domain, as in the case of shared value, but also capable of constructing and altering the underlying established framework of production.The introduction of digital platforms, as discussed previously, presents a double-edged sword, as on the one hand it can greatly limit the democratic rights of users, and on the other, offers an environment for combinatorial surplus, where it is possible to construct Commons as welfare infrastructure allowing for education, organization and production.

Architect Alastair Parvin has argued that it is necessary to “design down the threshold” for design production.’This reduction of the barrier of entry established a first principle to challenge the market power that has been obtained through vertical integration. Reducing the barrier of entry means an opposition to market systems and design paradigms that only seek to maximize capital extraction through rent seeking practices and the exploitation of labor. “Designing down the threshold” declares awareness of the unsustainable inequality implicit in the current economic model and offers design a framework for participating and contributing to the construction of an alternative that does not only operate as a sink for capital. Zuboff has argued that the surveillance capitalist agenda that has been imposed over technological development is not intrinsic to technology1' but is a design decision that has evolved out of an underregulated market. Therefore, the production of a value system that positions the Commons as a central urgent effort to rebalance market asymmetries will come with its own form of architecture, tectonics and tools for social coordination.

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