Digital Commons: Open Technologies Bringing Value to Citizens at a Grand Scale

18 July 2023

Author: Astor Nummelin Carlberg

The Digital Commons concept has steadily grown in significance, permeating civil society conversations and policy dialogues. Especially after French government took the role of its champion. OpenForum Europe engages in exploring and decoding this notion, dissecting what it could mean in practical policy terms. While we have not entirely mapped this terrain, we are getting closer to understanding the landscape as we see it through the perspective of our openness principles. Let me share some of OFE’s reflections to date:

Digital Commons and Open Technologies: What’s the Connection?

Digital Commons embody the potential of harnessing the colossal streams of value flowing in the open source ecosystem. Cloud technologies was the first time this was realised for shareholders on a grand scale, and it resulted in the most value created for shareholders, the fastest, in history. Digital Commons, as we see it, is realising value at a grand scale for the benefit of citizens. Embracing the Digital Commons could lead to a future where open source is not just an interesting alternative, but a preferred path to creating and sharing value in a digitally interconnected world.

At its crudest, Digital Commons seen from the open technology perspective actively avoids reinventing the wheel. It prompts us to harness what is already available effectively, but doing it at scale and putting the needs of us, the citizens, in the centre of attention. To do this well, we need to deeply appreciate the importance of open standards and open source, providing a robust framework for developing, building, and maintaining (!) the Digital Commons, while ensuring compatibility and interoperability.

A compelling illustration of Digital Commons in action was the development of EU Covid Certificates—arguably the largest digital government policy initiative in history. This cross-border, international undertaking was launched at a record pace… and it worked! While the urgency of the situation was the significant catalyst, the project’s success was also enabled by a commitment to open source and open standards from the outset. This enabled collaborative innovation in the public sector. The results are still underappreciated. 

Digital Commons: Is it just for the public sector?

However, the development and application of Digital Commons should not be confined solely to the public sector. This would make sense from a theoretical point of view as well, as the ‘commons’ transcend the public/private divide. The private sector—comprising more than just tech giants, and including traditional industries in Europe—is grappling with similar digital challenges as our public administrations. To state the obvious: digitising industries, SMEs, as well as all other actors that are not the giant incumbents, are challengers and have an interest in open technologies and this a stake in the Digital Commons discussion. Their role in the development, building and maintainance of the Digital Commons is so far under-researched.

Actually Open AI: the place to start?

Open source alternatives to the existing tech that makes up the digital infrastructure our society relies on represent just one facet of the Digital Commons. Looking at the here and now, there is immense potential in the Large Language Models (LLM). This is an innovation space characterised by more than just the closed alternatives that have received the most media and political attention. Vast, multifaceted community-driven open source projects, expected to surpass the proprietary alternatives in capacity and sophistiaction could lie as the basis for Digital Commons in this space. While it’s relatively straightforward to launch projects in this area, making them truly exceptional requires sustained effort and dedication. That is an interesting topic for those discussing Digital Commons.

Building vs. Maintaining the Digital Commons

In the exchanges and discussions we have had, a lot of the focus has been on building Digital Commons. However, we want to underscore the need to proactively invest in our capacity to maintain these systems. The concept of digital sovereignty, the long-term viability of Digital Commons, and our societies reslience hinge on our commitment to maintenance. Invest in the nitty-gritty that forms the foundation of our societies—both physical and digital. And as always, we should incorporate technical expertise at the early stages of these policy discussions.

An institutional infrastructure for Digital Commons: OSPOs and Code-Base Stewards Before (or at least while) we build Digital Commons, let’s maintain. But there are more enabling infrastructure that is in need of appreciation and investment if Digital Commons are to deliver at scale for citizens. In our view, the insitutional infrastructure of the public sector needed to deliver the promise of Digital Commons has already been formulated and tested:

  1. For the individual public sector organisation, the first step is the forumaltion of Digital Commons strategies that acknowledges the role of open technologies and the second is building OSPOs with the mandate and capacity to meet the goals outlined. 
  2. For national governments, and the EU, the parallell process is to incentivise the networking of the OSPOs, and invest in the stewardship of the codebases and datebases that will make up the Digital Commons. 

Don’t make it national: think collaboration, cross-sector and cross-border from the outset. It is at the code of the Commons concept after all. 

Fostering a thriving Digital Commons that deliver value at a grand scale for citizens necessitates an actual commitment to open source and open standards in the public sector. We must also embrace the shared nature of challengess of the public and private sectors when creating a shared digital landscape. But first of all, we must invest. Invest in our capacity to maintain these systems, appreciating that long-term viability and digital sovereignty hinge on this commitment. And we need to invest in the insitutional infrastructure to deliver it responsibly at scale. In doing so, we open the doors to a future where the Digital Commons isn’t just an interesting alternative, but the preferred pathway for creating and sharing societal value on a grand scale.