Digital commons for an urban transition towards sustainability

Because it deals with socio-ecological systems, achieving urban sustainability is complex. Not only there are no one-size-fits-all, but the scope of social and institutional change required to actually address the challenge of making cities truly sustainable for all disqualifies top-down, command-and-control system. Research is increasingly showing that polycentric and adaptive governance systems that are capable of learning are a better fit to deal with the complexity of sustainability.

But beyond governance, change requires innovation. Not only technological, but also and foremost social innovation. Isolated pilot projects will merely scratch the surface of the huge amount of innovation required to get closer to sustainable cities. Instead, scores of experiments at all scales, in all domains of the economy and society promise the diversity and customizability required for fitting local contexts. With such a starting point, distributed, bottom-up innovation for sustainability may offer prospects for addressing the complexity of achieving urban sustainability. With its decentralized structure and peer-to-peer dynamics, the Internet has a role to play (Westley et al. 2011), but how?

With the democratization of the collaborative Internet, online initiatives that aim at contributing to urban sustainability are actually mushrooming. From facilitating the sharing of urban gardens or revaluing public trees to compiling climate data for hundreds of cities, online collaboration has opened a whole new field of distributed social innovation for sustainability.

Mundraub map
Mundraub map

Three illustrations is a crowd-sourced map that locates across Germany fruit trees, berry bushes, herbs that lie in public space. It aims at valuing forgotten fruits and edibles as parts of the cultural landscape and local biodiversity by making them more visible. All the data is open to the public, accessible on one map at Over 15 000 people have contributed to the map.

Flaechen-in-Leipzig – is a platform that allows Leipzig inhabitants to easily find out how to use vacant lots of land for urban gardening or other recreational and temporary activities. It was initiated by the Leipzig Citizens’ Foundation (Leipzig Bürger Initiative) – a grassroots organization – and developed in close collaboration with the local government which provided the cadaster data. It is reported to have facilitated the development of community gardening in the city. A similar platform is operational in New York.

carbonn Cities Climate Registry – The cCCR is a global database collecting data on urban greenhouse gases emissions and local government action to mitigate them as well as to adapt to impacts of climate change. The initiative has been launched by a number of organizations involving local governments and is maintained by a city network – ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability. As of March 2014, the cCCR gathers data from 414 local governments which have voluntarily shared information (ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability 2014). Access to the data is regulated and mainly restricted to the city members, but regular reports publishing aggregated results are released.

How these information commons are governed?

In appearance all these initiatives go in a different direction: Mundraub focuses on revaluing urban nature as part of the cultural landscape and biodiversity; Flaechen-in-Leipzig addresses the issue of brown fields connecting with community action and urban gardening; the cCCR aims at filling the gap in urban climate data that undermines climate action globally. However, each of these initiatives share the characteristics to be concentrating about the constitution of a pool of data or information that is supposed to bring benefit to its users and to an aspect of urban sustainability. While none of these initiatives call it so, they are all the curators of an information/data commons: i.e. an information/data resource that is shared by a group of people. Elinor Ostrom long demonstrated that commons can successfully be self-governed by their users without needing the involvement of government or market structures (Ostrom 1990).

A new area for transition research

Exploring the emergence of such digital commons and their contribution to urban sustainability opens a new field of investigation for transition research. Indeed, the multiplication of social innovations may form a constellation of bottom-up or grassroots driven niches that could prefigure some components of an emerging socio-technical regime. Niches are important because they are the locations of learning processes, allowing deviation from dominant socio-technical regimes: they act as ‘incubation room’ for radical innovation (Geels 2004).

Why focusing on cities?

On the one hand, cities concentrate ever more population, a huge ecological footprint (70 to 80% of energy consumption), and rampant social issues (extreme poverty, violence…). On the other hand, in urban areas, innovation also increases faster than population and access to internet is usually much higher than in rural areas.

The components of this research project

First, this research project aims at mapping the diversity of digital commons for urban sustainability. An inventory of initiatives is being realized. Let us know if you know one interesting case! We are planning to make this inventory open, a commons for all to use and contribute to.

To understand how such digital commons develop, we will analyze 2 or 3 of them through case studies that look at the self-organization of institutions by various actors. We will try to understand what variables play a greater role than for physical commons. Case studies will also allow to provide an evaluation of the impact of those digital commons on urban sustainability.

Eventually, a more theoretical work will articulate the role such digital commons play in the development of niches of innovation that contribute to urban sustainability. This will emphasize the role non-market and non-governmental actors may play in transitions processes.

What application for practice?

Practitioners may learn from the initiatives displayed in the inventory while contributing at the same time at identifying promising cases. The case studies will provide insights on the specific challenges and opportunities that may undermine the development of a digital commons in the narrow field of urban sustainability.



Geels, Frank W. (2004): From sectoral systems of innovation to socio-technical systems. In Research Policy 33 (6-7), pp. 897–920. DOI: 10.1016/j.respol.2004.01.015.

Ostrom, Elinor (1990): Governing the Commons. The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press.

Westley, Frances; Olsson, Per; Folke, Carl; Homer-Dixon, Thomas; Vredenburg, Harrie; Loorbach, Derk et al. (2011): Tipping Toward Sustainability: Emerging Pathways of Transformation. In AMBIO 40 (7), pp. 762–780. DOI: 10.1007/s13280-011-0186-9.

4 thoughts on “Digital commons for an urban transition towards sustainability

    1. Thanks for the hint! I have actually been thinking lately a bit more about reflexivity as I am focusing on collaborative mapping, which is a reflexive undertaking.

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