Sharing Design Rights: A Commons Approach for Developing Infrastructure

by Nuno Gil & Carliss Y. Baldwin

Overview — Traditionally, a commons is a natural resource that gives rise to the problem of collective action: Individuals who act alone without consideration for others will arrive at outcomes that are bad for all. Pioneering research by Elinor Ostrom, a scholar of economic governance, has revealed that the claimants to a common pool resource are sometimes able to organize themselves to manage the commons on a day-today basis and to adapt to changing circumstances. In this paper, the authors study the dynamics of a commons organization: In 2006-2007, the Manchester City Council created a commons organization to design a number of new school buildings. The Council had broad decision rights over school design and construction, but rather than delegating those rights to its own staff or to a joint venture, as were the typical practices, the Council gave each school co-equal rights to approve the design so that no building project could go forward unless signed off by both the school and the Council staff. As such, the Council converted the decision-making process from a controlled, centralized style to a commons-based approach. Using the principles of Ostrom's commons theory the authors show that, overall, the commons form of organizing brought with it concomitant risk. This risk, however, was significantly lessened through the creation of a robust commons organization. Key concepts include:

  • This study uses design theory to explain why the design process for school buildings can be viewed as a common pool resource, and explain what constitutes "tragedy of the commons" in this context.
  • Sensible actions in terms of defining boundaries, making benefits proportionate to costs, and deferring to local rule-making can increase the robustness of the commons and increase its chances of success.
  • A design commons organization should be considered as a potentially advantageous alternative to other ways of organizing design production processes.
  • However, a design commons organization might not necessarily be the best approach to resolve design production problems in all environments.

Author Abstract

We argue that a design commons can be an advantageous organizational form under two salient conditions: 1) high "subtractability" because different claimants have mutually exclusive beliefs or preferences with respect to the design form and 2) low "excludability" in the sense that the designed artifact must be shared. Our paper is based on an empirical study of a commons organization created to design new school buildings. We argue that the design commons organization induced teachers to volunteer their knowledge and preferences, which otherwise would have been difficult to elicit. Although governance was a struggle, none of the cases in our sample suffered a "tragedy of the commons" in terms of budget overruns, bogged-down processes, or free riding. Using the principles of Ostrom's commons theory, we show that the design commons organization was robust, although it displayed some areas of fragility. We conclude with the rudiments of a contingency theory describing when and why a commons organization can be advantageous for design production. We also discuss design flexibility as an intervening variable that is critical in intermediating conflicts that commons organizations cannot resolve.

Paper Information