Open Source Communities, Complex Social Assemblages and the Co-creation of Value

fOSSa 2013This paper, and the accompanying slides, was presented at fOSSa 2013 in Lille, during November 2013. The paper was delivered as part of the Eco-nomy domain, which explored the future of Open Source development and innovation.


Firstly, we would like to thank the organisers of fOSSa for their kind invitation to speak at this year’s conference. We hope it will be the beginning of an interesting and productive dialogue with both the practice of Open Source development and its practitioners. As a response to our title, I’m going to talk about communities, social assemblages and co-created value, but before I do that I would like to speak a little about who we are and what we do.

Create Innovation is a small research unit, based in the UK, that supports organisations and communities in identifying and developing the social and cultural practices that enable the creation of innovative products, services and processes. Our research programmes, workshops and seminars utilise methods from the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences to provide our clients with the necessary tools and strategies to explore diverse social and material environments in the process of developing innovative practices.

Our research is primarily interested in people and things, that is, how people organise things and how things organise people. Unfortunately, we are not currently involved in any open source projects but our admiration for both the philosophical principles and the practitioners of open source development will hopefully be apparent during our presentation. The reason I’m telling you this is to qualify that my presentation will mainly consist of content that includes history, philosophy, economics and perhaps a little bit of science. But hopefully it will provide you with, at least, some interesting cues or references that can be further explored within the conference here today.

Communities (Evolution)

In the last 10 years or so, it has become very evident that, in terms of production, communities are becoming more significant than organisations. And during this time, it has become even more evident that the most diverse range of communities at the forefront of this historical transformation are the ones we tend to call open source. Through the nature of their diversity and as a consequence of their radical modes of production and distribution, open source communities are rightly considered to be inherently innovative. However, the question we hope to explore this afternoon, is what other elements contribute to their innovative identity? What social and material practices provide open source communities with their point of difference?

In the last 500 years, perhaps one of the most significant inventions, if not the most significant, was that of the Steam Engine. One could perhaps make the same case for the printing press or even the internet, but at this moment in history no single thing, or person, has changed the modern world to such a greater extent than that of steam power. In historical terms, steam power had existed in minds of humans long before its first commercial incarnation in the early 1700s. Both the Greeks and the Romans had a reasonable understanding of the atmospheric and hydrospheric conditions that would later give rise to both the steam engine and the science we now know as thermodynamics. In evolutionary terms, the steam engine emerged as a new form of machinic species, one that would replace the then dominant form of automated mechanical species, the clockwork machine. This new species would provide us with such a significant change in how the modern world was organised, we would venture that the value it has created could have hardly been imagined, let alone foreseen.

Despite the image that exists or rather persists in the popular historical consciousness, the inventor of the steam engine was not James Watt with the help of his partner Matthew Boulton. Even though, at least in the UK, both gentleman still retain the position as perhaps two of the most important ‘heroic’ figures of the industrial age, something which is made evident by their current place on the reverse of the £50 note. The steam engine was in fact invented by a man called Thomas Newcomen in 1712, and was first installed at a coal mine near Dudley Castle in Staffordshire. And all of this happened roughly about 60 years before Watt and Boulton adapted and patented the invention.

Thomas Newcomen was a Blacksmith by trade, that is, he was a craftsmen or an artisan. His steam powered invention was a response to a particular problem, the problem of pumping water from mine shafts. As a local of the Devon and Cornwall counties he was very aware of the flooding problems faced by tin and coal mine owners and the local communities in the area and he was determined to do something about it. Thus, the Newcomen engine was born. And even though Watt and Boulton later adapted and patented the invention, a process which unfortunately stifled innovation in this area for a further 50 years, Thomas Newcomen had, unwittingly, created a platform that with further interventions from Faraday and Parsons would become the basis of energy production for the next three centuries. He died in 1729 leaving very little wealth and no patents signed to his name.

Now, it is no secret that the role of the craftsman or artisan in Western history has, at different moments, been demeaned and divorced from supposedly higher intellectual pursuits. And that this historical prejudice, that of working with one’s hands, has been maintained throughout the last 250 years. It is no accident that a figure like Thomas Newcomen has effectively been erased from history; very few images of him remain in existence and there are certainly no plans to honour him on the reverse of a banknote.

However, what interests us here is not this relative injustice, great as it may be, but the direct lineage from the types of social and material practices maintained by craftsman and artisans in 17th and 18th centuries, like Thomas Newcomen, to those instigated by the modern open source programmer and the communities they inhabit. What really interests us here is the practice of defining problems or of problem finding.

In this respect, we are indebted to the work of American Sociologist Richard Sennett, for uncovering and methodically documenting the tension between problem finding and problem solving in the practices of the craftsman or artisan. In his 2009 publication, The Craftsman, Sennett identifies the historical process that gave rise to the artisan, as well as how the social and material practices they participated in provided the basis for creating and learning. The carpenter, the lab technician and the Michelin star chef are all products of a long historical process, where the emphasis and dedication to achieve good work for its own sake, became the primordial mark of identity for the artisan. Their labour being not just a means to an end, but a practice that was made manifest by a continual process of learning and adapting.

The relationship that exists between the artisan and the everyday, between the social and material products of his/her work, is represented in the form of an embodied knowledge, a knowledge that has grown through multiple layers of experience and practice. The head and hand working in symmetry. Maurice Merleau-Ponty once described this form of knowledge as ‘knowledge in the hands’ in which he meant that it is not distinctly explicit, conscious, mentally representative, or articulated. It is, however, well known by the body or through the body, when it is practiced. It is the application of this type of knowledge, coupled with an overt experimental practice of ‘trial and error’, of learning and adapting, that Richard Sennett identifies when he states that, ‘the experimental rhythm of problem solving and problem finding makes the ancient potter and modern programmer members of the same tribe.’ It is this type of practice that positions the open source programmer as the direct descendent of the traditional artisan, the modern equivalent of the potter or blacksmith crafting, shaping and adapting material pulses of electricity into forms of code that perform a diverse range of algorithmic tasks.

This social and material practice forms the basis of most open source communities, it is a significant component of what makes them inherently innovative. It is clear that they have potential to adapt the material world to reconfigure the social one. However, if this potential is to be realised a deeper analysis of the social, in all of its complexity, will be required.

Social Assemblages (Complexity)

The social world is fundamentally messy, which is perhaps a simple way of saying that it is inherently complex. In many ways, social complexity has come to stand for the essentially unpredictable and fluid, yet, self organising nature of the social and material world. This type of complexity consists of a multiplicity of entities and their growing inter-connectedness and interdependence, coupled with accelerating rates of change.

In the convoluted world of social theory there is a research method that operates in a similar way to that of the Linux platform, in the sense of being a central kernel that can be adapted for different ends. This method or approach is known as Actor-Network Theory. Actor-Network Theory, or ANT, was originally developed in France during 1980s and 90s at the Centre for the Sociology of Innovation by Michel Callon, Bruno Latour and the UK based sociologist John Law.

It is often said that Actor-Network Theory is an elusive theoretical method that is difficult to both define and explain. However, as you would imagine, the concepts of actor and network are central to ANT’s analytical method, although both concepts appear to hold significantly broader meanings than perhaps we are accustomed to. Actors, within ANT, are simply ‘entities that do things’, but how ANT broadens this definition is by denying the ontological privilege that is traditionally given to the agency or actions of human actors. Like the concept of actor, the concept of network, within ANT, also embodies a much broader definition. ANT uses the term network to define, in the words of Michel Callon, ‘a group of unspecified relationships among entities of which the nature itself is undetermined’. This definition is designed to differentiate itself from both conventional sociological and technical definitions, as it is not restricted to actors in a kinship or social network or nodes and connections within a technical one.

ANT’s first, and perhaps most important, principle is that it is committed to the premise of ‘symmetrical analysis’ or ‘generalised symmetry’, a principle which holds that the material and non-human elements of any network should, in terms of analysis, be treated in the same way as the social and human elements. In other words, we should employ the same analytical and descriptive framework when faced with either subject or object, person or thing. In the words of John Law, ‘the actor-network approach thus describes the enactment of materially and discursively heterogeneous relations that produce and reshuffle all kinds of actors including objects, subjects, human beings, machines, animals, ‘nature’, ideas, organisations, inequalities, scales and sizes, and geographical arrangements.’ Through the application of this method, agency and action are understood not just as purely human processes, but as processes facilitated or enabled by heterogeneous networks comprised of human and non-human elements. What we may call socio-technical assemblages.

At Create Innovation we have taken the central ‘kernel’ or the key principles of Actor-Network Theory and adapted them to build a framework for analysing the relationships between people and things. We call this framework SPACE. As I’m sure you are all aware, innovations are made manifest through people and things, but people and things do not exist in a vacuum. The material and physical environments in which they exist, and the social and cultural practices they participate in, are all integral to understanding how inventions are given material form and the possibility to succeed as innovations. Developing innovation, in whatever field, is a complex process where the dynamic interaction of multiple social and material assemblages creates unforeseen insight and value. Having a broader understanding of how networks of actors, cultural practices and material environments forge these assemblages, in ever increasing complex ways, is a necessary requirement for uncovering those insights and developing that value.

In this respect, the SPACE framework operates as a lens through which to view the relationships between people and things in of all their heterogeneity, it is a mapping device that traces interacting entities, a navigational guide that identifies and explores Strategies, Practices, Actors, Cultures and Environments and the interactions and relations that exist between them. As the choral song that is currently sounding the arrival of the ‘internet of things’ grows ever louder, the need for analytical tools than can account for the agency of things becomes even greater. Both Actor-Network Theory and the SPACE framework are analytical devices that are designed to do just that, to account for how people organise things and things organise people.

Value Co-creation (Emergence)

We live in a time when our belief in the capacity of institutions and organisations to produce value from within their own sacred walls is diminishing. In the relentless pursuit of a particular type of value (namely economic) institutions and organisations have begun to lose the key property that provides their raison d’être, trust. Trust, like any other form of value, is not transcendent, fixed or permanent, it is a property that can only emerge from the constant interaction between entities (actor-networks). A property that is emergent is simply a property of a whole that arises from the constant interactions between its parts. Value, in whatever form, is always a co-created product of interacting entities.

However, the more formalised concept of value co-creation is a relatively recent creation. Like most business model concepts it emerged from within the haloed walls of the Harvard Business School. In its most basic form it is meant to signify the value that is created by the process of integrating the consumer into or expanding organisational boundaries in processes of mass customisation and open innovation. These approaches are typified by commercial organisations such as Nike, who, for example, have provided the conditions and environments through which customers can design their own sportswear. In this respect, we might argue that this could be perceived as the final stand of our current mode of production, with all its emphasis on producing economic value, rather than as representative of something genuinely socially innovative. It seems as if these institutions and organisations are stating that ‘we (suppliers) have run out of ideas, why don’t you (the consumer) bring your ideas and we’ll manufacture them for you’.

This formalised view of value co-creation appears relatively impoverished, both in terms of the actors that produce it and the one dimensional nature of the value being produced. Through our research we have developed the concept of ecologies of value to describe a broader and more complex system of value co-creation that, from within the SPACE framework, can account for a multiplicity of actors (human and non-human), as well as multiple forms of value. It is clear from our research that open source communities are currently renegotiating the relationship between theory and practice, where the means of production is reconfiguring the mode of production. Open source communities are already developing the capacity to facilitate the relationships between multiple human and non-human actors in the process of creating new social assemblages of economic, communal and civic value.

A relatively recent example of this capacity would be that of Ushahidi, as outlined by Clay Shirky in his 2010 book, Cognitive Surplus. As I’m sure you already aware, Ushahidi (which translates as witness) is a free, open and crowd-sourced crisis management platform that was born in Kenya during the disputed presidential election of 2007. A Kenyan journalist’s personal blog and endeavour to share information during a government-mandated media blackout was supported and ultimately expanded by other individuals and organisations. What started as an individual blog, with the support and artisanal skills of two open source programmers, evolved into a global, collaborative crisis-management platform that has been utilised, by a number of organisations, institutions and nation states to map, communicate and visualise data aggregated from cell phones, SMS, and blog reports. It is currently being used to support the aid effort in the Philippines following the aftermath of typhoon Haiyan.

This example (and there are many more) provides the evidence that open source, as a development model, has the potential to facilitate the relationships between human and non-human actors in the process of producing material social effects. Coupling this potential with analytical methods, such as Actor-Network Theory or the SPACE framework could provide open source development with the means to analyse the social in all its multiplicity and richness, to uncover the problems, discrepancies, anomalies and contingencies that can be identified in the process of developing new forms of innovation.


It is clear that the productive transformation I spoke of earlier, from organisations to communities, is already underway, and as this significant new productive infrastructure takes its shape, perhaps something like Linux will begin to be compared by future historians to the Newcomen engine. As a devout Baptist, Thomas Newcomen truly understood both the value of community and how the social is affected by the material, that the flooding of mines would produce an unwanted social effect. His invention was the product of understanding the need to support traditional communities in their endeavours to forge new ways of existing, of living sustainably from their material skills and their social relationships within the world.

The relationship between art and craft, between the social and the material linked with the engaged individual committed to the quality of his/her work simply for the sake of doing it, is surely something a conference like fOSSa celebrates. At a time when many disciplines and practices are becoming more and more abstracted from the everyday, open source communities have the possibility of creating (producing) social effects that bear the marks of unforeseen value. It is not just a question of embracing the social, but of manifesting new forms of sociality, of producing new social effects. It is clear from examples like Ushahidi that open source communities have the capacity to facilitate the interactions between human and non-human actors from which new social assemblages will emerge.

As Marx demonstrated many years ago, new productive forces will always cause conflict in existing modes of production. When these conflicts arise, new modes of production have the potential to evolve within the current structure or to completely breakdown. As the social artisans of 21st century, open source communities have already started to reconfigure the traditional modes of production, which means that they have already begun to create the capacity for new social assemblages to exist. By exploring the social in all of its multiplicity still further, new ecologies of value will emerge, what they will look like and how they serve us is as of yet unknown, which means at this point in history, the next steam engine is still up for grabs.

In the words of Gilles Deleuze, paraphrasing Jean-Luc Godard, what we need is ‘not the just idea, but just an idea’.

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