Tagfutures

The Tragedy of Future Commons

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I can’t help but thinking that so many of today’s debates – from climate change to smart city governance and AI ethics – are so much more connected than we give them credit for. I might be projecting, but in my mind they’re just variations of one simple theme:

Do we narrow or broaden the future options space? In others words, will we leave the next generation, the public sector, or the other people around us more options or less options? Do we give them agency or take it away? And how can it ever be ok to act in a way that takes away future generations’ options? That strips governments of their chances to deliver services to their citizens?

It’s essentially the Tragedy of the Commons as applied to the time axis: The Tragedy of Future Commons. And we can choose very deliberately to strengthen the commons (now and for the future), to strengthen future generations in the face of climate change (where we might have hit another tipping point), to strengthen city governments in their ability to govern and deliver services by not hollowing them out, etc. etc. etc..

What actions that requires of us depends heavily on context of course: AI to be made with more participation and civil society involved so as to mitigate risks. Smart cities to prioritize public ownership and accountability so the city doesn’t lose its influence to the private sector. Climate change to be at the top of all our priority lists in order to give our future selves and future generations more and better options to shape their world and thrive in it.

Too often we’re stuck in debates that are based, essentially, in yesterday’s world. We need to realize the situation we’re in so as to avoid false choices. It’s not “climate or business”, it’s “climate or no business”. It’s not “climate or civil rights”, but “climate or no civil rights”. Radical changes are coming our way, and I’d rather shape them with intention and some buffer to spare rather than see them imposed on us like gravity imposed on Newton’s fabled apple.

So let’s aim for the opposite of the Tragedy of the Commons, whatever that might be called. The Thriving of the Commons?

And if you need a framework that’s decidedly not made for this purpose but has been holding up nicely for me, look to the Vision for a Shared Digital Europe (SDE) for inspiration. It lays out 4 pillars that I find pretty appealing: Cultivate the Commons; Decentralize Infrastructure; Enable Self-Determination; Empower Public Institutions. The authors drafted it with the EU’s digital agenda in mind (I was a very minor contributor, joining at a later stage). But I think it can apply meaningfully to smart cities just as much as it does to AI development and climate change and other areas. (Feel free to hit up the team to see how they might apply to your context, or reach out to me and I’ll be happy to put you in touch.) Those are good principles!

Note: This piece is cross-posted from my weekly newsletter Connection Problem, to which you can sign up here.