A Commons Perspective to Understanding the Development of Information Infrastructures

A Commons Perspective to Understanding the Development of Information Infrastructures

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-1622-6.ch003


The critical review of the literature on information infrastructures has led to an identification of three key areas where future research needs to pay particular attention. These are: the multilevel context of infrastructural development, negotiations around that development, and intended and unintended outcomes emerging out of the implemented technologies. To understand the interdependencies between these three areas, this chapter explores research into other large-scale social systems (beyond information systems) to try to draw out some possible insights for information infrastructure research. In this effort, this chapter draws and adapts the Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) framework–which was initially developed to study natural resource commons arrangements such as inshore fisheries, forests, irrigation systems, and pastures–while placing great emphasis on the complex problems and social dilemmas that often arise in the negotiations. The chapter concludes by highlighting the contribution of a commons perspective to understanding the development of information infrastructures.
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What Is A Commons?

A commons is a set of resources, which are collectively owned or shared between or among a community or a group of communities (Ostrom, 1990). The commons contains public and private property, over which different communities have certain rights (Ostrom, 1990).

Since the work of Gareth Hardin (1968) and his famous “tragedy of the commons,” most studies have examined appropriate property rights structures for commons-based resource systems by starting with the assumption that the resource (e.g. a forest) generates a highly predictable, finite supply of one type of resource unit (e.g. one species of tress) in each relevant time period. According to this view, anyone (e.g. farmers) can utilize the resource and appropriate (i.e. harvest) resource units. Appropriators gain property rights only to what they harvest. The harvested resource units are then privately owned and can be sold in an open competitive market (see Feeny et al., 1990).

Potential problems in the use, governance, and sustainability of a commons can lead to social dilemmas such as free-riding and overconsumption. In turn, recommendations are made where external authorities impose a different set of institutional rules and property rights to manage these dilemmas toward socially optimal actions for the sake of public interest. Some scholars recommend private property as the most efficient form of ownership, whereas others recommend government ownership and control (see Hess & Ostrom, 2003 for an extensive discussion).

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