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The Design Question: Commons through Commoning, and Commons by Capital?



All across the world, cities have been seized by the neoliberal imaginary that valorizes economic growth by urbanization at the expense of their most vulnerable citadins. Consequently, in spite of the ever expanding program of city-building, an ever larger segment of humanity remains alienated from their neoliberal city. To address the practical needs of this neglected urban population, alternatives are needed. However, such alternatives are unlikely to emerge without either deliberate intervention or mobilisation in the neoliberal city. Equally, the urgency of these needs means that there is little time for adaptive practices to evolve on their own. In this context, it is necessary to consider the prospect of 'sharing by design'. In this paper, we consider two major approaches of 'sharing by design', which are 'Commons by capital' and 'Commons through commoning'. In the near future, both approaches will compete for a similar group of 'commoners' that are neglected or marginalized by the neoliberal city. In the approach 'Commons by capital', capital has started to design co-living systems that resemble emancipatory commons. Understanding that subsequent generations of workers and individuals will have very different economic profiles and access to urban resources compared to their predecessors today, these newly designed systems are harbingers of emerging spatial (urban) typologies of accumulation. As for the approach 'Commons through commoning', we examine the co-housing typology, which offers a contrasting set of attributes, dividends but also obligations for the 'commoners'. Paraphrasing Marx here, 'between comparable functions design decides': The commons that is able to seize the political imagination of the 'commoners' while addressing their practical needs will gain preeminence. In light of this impending adversarial competition, it is paramount for 'Commons through commoning' to develop systematic knowledge on how to design, operate and maintain the urban commons against emerging models of 'Commons by capital'--if only because capital has also initiated the process of developing this design knowledge.
The City as a Commons, Research Symposium 2019, University of Pavia, 2-4 September 2019
The Design Question: Commons through Commoning, and Commons by
Jeffrey Kok Hui CHAN (Singapore University of Technology & Design), Ye ZHANG (National
University of Singapore)
Design; Urban Commons; Commoning; Sharing, Capital, Co-Living
1.!Introduction: The crisis of promulgating the neoliberal urban imaginary
All across the world, cities have been seized by the neoliberal imaginary. This imagery
entails a relentless urbanism of perpetual and exponential growth, which stabilizes and
advances capitalism simultaneously (Harvey, 2010). And instead of citizens, investors and
developers have become central in shaping the neoliberal city (Mayer, 2010: 36). In this way,
neoliberal cities are characterized on one end by private developments and their imposed
enclosures (Hodkinson, 2012), and on the other end of an ever expansive urban process, by
urbanization that threatens land-grabs (or ‘accumulation by dispossession’), eviction and
displacement, and ultimately, expulsion of people from their homes and indigenous lands
(see Sassen, 2014). The resulting crisis is nothing less than a paradoxical and inhospitable
planetary urbanization—that despite the ever expanding program of city-building, an ever
larger segment of humanity remains alienated from the city.
In Badiou’s (2016) estimation, there are presently more than two billion people—and
rising—who are left out of the global political economy today. These people are neither
workers nor consumers, and who are outside the marketplace of jobs, goods and services, and
counted for nothing by the market society. Many of them constitute the multitude that has
been ‘expelled’ from their dispossessed homes and lands (Sassen, 2014), and subsequently,
arrive in cities in search of shelter and work (see Saunders, 2010). Compounding this reality,
the acceleration of automation, work obsolescence (i.e., by A.I.) and market turbulences in
recent decades has drastically unsettled an otherwise relatively stable trend of work and
secured employment in advanced capitalist economies. An entire social class of the
‘precariats’ has arisen in many cities in the so-called Global North (Standing, 2011). To make
matters worse, this trend has coincided with a spade of successive state cut-backs for many
public welfare programs and amenities, resulting in a deprived urban population with little
recourse except for market solutions that it cannot afford. For a growing number of citadins
then, access to public resources such as housing, education, healthcare, childcare, parks, and
more recently, even food and clean water, has become increasingly precarious and scarce.
What follows is nothing short of an impending urban crisis, made even more salient by the
inequities of a fenced-off abundance of empty luxury condominiums and well-equipped
private amenities in the neoliberal city.
2.!Literature review: Sharing beyond the Sharing Economy, and the Urban
This urban crisis demands an alternative. At least for a while, the Sharing Economy, initially
predicated on a form of collaborative consumption that exhorts access rather than ownership,
projected a promising alternative to the neoliberal political economy (see Botsman & Rogers,
2011). However, recent research has dismissed this prospect as a robust alternative. For
The City as a Commons, Research Symposium 2019, University of Pavia, 2-4 September 2019
example, Slee (2015) argues that many enterprises that make up the Sharing Economy are but
veiled rent-seeking businesses. And Schor (2017) discovers that many practices within the
Sharing Economy have not only exacerbated inequality, but have also been made inaccessible
for many people by deliberate exclusion (Schor et al., 2016). And even for sharing practices
that are operating with more altruistic motivations, the ‘Piketty-Effect of the Sharing
Economy’ (Frenken & Schor, 2017: 7) invariably takes hold—where valuable assets with idle
capacities become increasingly concentrated in a small group of well-off individuals set
against a far larger group of users who require access but who are unable to afford them. In
turn, this is likely to exacerbate the already unequal power asymmetry between providers and
users. While there have been other reformative attempts to retain and reshape sharing in new
formulations—for instance, to distinguish between the more progressive ideals of sharing
culture and the marketized Sharing Economy (Katrini, 2018), or to frame sharing as a means
for getting by in times of crisis (Hall & Ince, 2018)—as a general trend, the prospects for
gaining transformative traction through reformed notions of sharing remain uncertain.
From a different tradition, the urban commons has been proposed as a feasible alternative (De
Angelis & Harvie, 2014; Harvey, 2011; Kratzwald, 2015; Petrescu, Petcou & Baibarac, 2016;
Ruivenkamp & Hilton, 2017; Stavrides, 2016). Here, the commons is distinguished from the
activity of sharing resources: while all commons practice some degree of sharing, no amount
of sharing activities on their own becomes the commons. To become the commons, according
to Ostrom (2006), requires the addition of an institutional framework to govern production,
consumption and maintenance of the shared resources. Beyond this addition, the commons is
also jointly managed by members who identify and commit themselves to be the
‘commoners’ (Kip et al., 2015), who work collaboratively to reclaim, resist, maintain and
care for this commons (Williams, 2018). While there have been exemplars of functioning
urban commons—for instance, in Colombes outside of Paris where entire communities
practiced urban resilience by co-producing and co-managing community resources and
amenities (see Petrescu, Petcou & Baibarac, 2016)—the urban commons is nevertheless
under the constant threat of dispossession by real-estate interests in the city (Huron, 2015), or
else, as Petrescu et al. (2016) discovered, the urban commons could be undermined by short-
term political interests. Ciaffi (2019: 170) also suggests challenges of securing the necessary
financial support that can stabilize the commons. In a profit-focused neoliberal city with a
short-term political horizon, an urban site dedicated to a commons for the co-ownership and
the co-production of resources then appears unlikely.
3.!The thesis of ‘sharing by design’: Definitions, questions, aims and methodology
For these reasons, alternative systems that can address the needs of the citadins are unlikely
to emerge without further intervention in the neoliberal city. Furthermore, the urgency of an
imminent urban crisis of an unprecedented magnitude suggests that there is little time for
adaptive practices to evolve through time-consuming trial-and-error, or else a ‘muddling-
through’ social process. In view of this urgent need to provide a concrete answer to the urban
crisis, it may be necessary then to consider the prospect of sharing by design.
What then is ‘sharing by design’? ‘Sharing by design’ is the materialization of the “sharing
culture” (Katrini, 2018)—it is the deliberate and systematic act of giving a culture its material
form (see Balsamo, 2011: 196). Here, design is defined as the intentional action of
intervening in people’s lives and communities (Murphy, 2016), in order to spur, reinforce,
and sustain sharing behaviors and practices. To paraphrase Skinner (2002), instead of
allowing culture to evolve on its own, the designer of the sharing culture aims to accelerate
The City as a Commons, Research Symposium 2019, University of Pavia, 2-4 September 2019
the accretion and development of practices consistent to this culture through strategic and
specific design interventions. More concretely, the outcomes of ‘sharing by design’ can be
illustrated by the following examples. For instance, one outcome may entail a cluster of
sharing practices that were once loosely independent but are now integrated, interdependent
and mutually reinforcing through design. Another possible outcome may entail enabling
individuals to share in more and different ways through newly designed infrastructure or
architecture that can overlap or hybridize sharing behaviors and practices. And a further
outcome may entail an artificial eco-system that begins to resemble the commons, where
people collectively own, produce and manage shared resources and infrastructure (see
Petrescu et al., 2016), and where commoning activities produce new structural coupling
between and among different commons leading to what De Angelis (2017) calls, “boundary
commoning”—culminating in an enlarged and internally interdependent commons. What is
common in all these different outcomes is the systematic elaboration of strategies, methods
and techniques that can mobilize, improve and amplify sharing behaviors and practices in the
face of countervailing socio-economic forces.
In this paper, and by building on a prior distinction between ‘commons-within-and-for-
capital’ and ‘commoning-beyond-capital’ (De Angelis & Harvie, 2014), we describe two
major approaches in ‘sharing by design’. The first approach, ‘Commons by capital’, describes
how capital is presently engaged in the design of new sharing typologies such as the co-living
spaces. Working from the same premises of an impending urban crisis, but by treating this
crisis as a business opportunity, ‘Commons by capital’ aims to create innovative co-living
spaces as new accumulation avenues. Conversely, through the contrasting example of co-
housing, ‘Commons by commoning’ seeks to enhance the capabilities of individuals through
sharing obligations within shared spaces. While co-living or even co-housing typologies may
remain far from the most representative formulations of the commons, it is instructive to
recall Eizenberg’s (2012: 765) reminder that actual commons “are never complete and
perfect and may even have components that contradict the ideal type”.
Ineluctably, these distinctive approaches presume the same design question: How to design a
system that can provide critical resources and furthermore, shape and spur cooperation,
reciprocity and solidarity through sharing? The real struggle for the commons then is not just
from co-optation or enclosure by capital (see Stavrides, 2016). But, as Harvey (2011: 102)
alludes, different commons compete for survival. In this way, these two commons are likely
to compete for a similar group of potential ‘commoners’ that are presently marginalized by
the neoliberal city—individuals, families and even entire communities with little or no access
to critical urban resources except for market options that they cannot afford. The commons
that is able to seize their political imagination while addressing practical needs will gain
preeminence. To paraphrase Marx (1978: 364),1 between comparable functions design
decides. It is therefore paramount to examine how ‘Commons by capital’ is designed, and
subsequently, to consider just how ‘Commons by commoning’ can be designed to surpass the
former in every possible way. It is true that design performance can never substitute political
ideals. Even so, political idealism becomes even more appealing through robust design
In this paper, we will rely primarily on existing literature to examine these two different
commons as ‘sharing by design’. By constructing a brief case analysis on each of these two
commons, we will draw out important issues and questions that can further substantiate our
thesis on ‘sharing by design’. For constructing the case of co-living by Starcity in ‘Commons
by capital’, we will rely on existing literature on co-living and also official archival materials
The City as a Commons, Research Symposium 2019, University of Pavia, 2-4 September 2019
(e.g., planning reports), as well as an analysis of our own transcript of an existing podcast by
the CEO of Starcity, Jon Dishotsky (n.d.). For constructing the case of ‘Commons by
commoning’, we will not only draw on the recent discourse on co-housing and the urban
commons, but also design theories from architecture and open system design.
4.!Commons by capital: The case of Starcity’s co-living urban typology
In May 2019, an addendum titled, ‘Starcity Residential Project [File No. SPA17-023-01]’
was filed in addition to an approved development project titled, ‘Bassett Street Residential
Project (Aviato) [File No. Sp17-023 and T17-026], in the city of San Jose, California, USA
(San Jose City Hall, 2019). In this addendum, the developer Starcity proposed turning the
original private housing tower into a co-living development. Originally developed as an 18
story tower with 302 residential units on top of some 7,182 sq ft of ground floor restaurants
and retail, a fitness area and pool-deck terrace on the second and the seventh floor
respectively, Starcity instead proposed to transform these 302 residential units into 803 co-
living residential units with a nearly 50% reduction of the original floor area dedicated to
restaurants and retail. In the addendum [File No. SPA17-023-01], the report states that 803
co-living units is, conservatively speaking, equivalent to 573 standard residential units
(which, in other words, is also an additional increase of 271 standard residential units over
the original proposal).
Presently, this project is hailed as the world’s largest co-living building to date—with many
more to come (Holder, 2019). Conceived as a project that could offer greater accessibility to
workers in the city, such co-living real-estate ‘products’ target middle-class workers in
expensive cities on one hand, and on the other hand, aims to provide a community to
individuals who feel disconnected or isolated within existing housing types (Dishotsky, n.d.).
Starcity’s co-living buildings boast private bedrooms and bathrooms, with a centralized
kitchen that is shared between six to eighteen or twenty individuals (Dishotsky, n.d.). These
co-living units come fully furnished with enterprise grade Wifi, and utilities and janitorial
services in common areas are included in a convenient monthly bill. Importantly, ‘members’
can apply to reside in a co-living unit online, and can move in as quickly as within an hour:
what Starcity’s CEO Jon Dishotsky described as the seamlessness of, “from (web)site to
sleep” (Dishotsky, n.d.). And through a downloadable App, members can communicate with
the management of the co-living building. Starcity also studies the demographics of its
members, and discovered that people who live in co-living buildings vary: from seniors in
their seventies to workers in their thirties. In sum, Starcity offers its members an offering not
found anywhere else—what Dishotsky (n.d.) refers to as “Basics (shelter and amenities) plus
Services (everything taken care of) plus Wow (unexpected treats and personalized
While the exact reason for the modification toward co-living is unclear, it is however clear
that the numbers of leasable or sellable residential unit equivalent have just been increased by
nearly 90% through the transformation of the original residential units into shareable units. It
does appear then, prima facie, that the reformulation to co-living is accompanied by a
significant real-estate gain. Following this, it also appears that densification by sharing (i.e.,
enabling more people to be packed within the same plot footprint through a co-living
configuration) is hardly incompatible to the neoliberal logic of accumulation by the
intensification of urban land-use. And while critics may argue that Starcity’s co-living model
hardly resembles a commons, however, it is by far capital’s most radical experiment to date
for creating affordable shared living configurations in the neoliberal city by appealing to an
The City as a Commons, Research Symposium 2019, University of Pavia, 2-4 September 2019
overlapping set of social relations and dividends found within the emancipatory commons.
On this, other critics may counter by arguing that Starcity’s proposal is likely a one-off
project tailored for the peculiar context of housing-strained but relatively well-to-do cognitive
workers in San Jose. But capital is wily: If there is a market, then there will be a product for
profits that can be made. In other words, there is no reason why, once co-living has been
refined to become a profitable real-estate category, that such offerings cannot be scaled
upwards or downwards in terms of specifications to correspond to emerging market
segments. For the same reason, and based on the projected logic of favorable real-estate gain,
there is also no immediate reason why subsequent renditions of such co-living developments
would be prevented from approximating, and then surpassing, the social and spatial qualities
of ‘Commons by commoning’.
5.!Commons by commoning: On co-housing and the design of urban commons
Here, and in contrast to co-living, ‘Commons by commoning’ is best represented by the idea
of co-housing. What then is co-housing? Among different definitions, one definition states
that co-housing is an intentional community where residents actively participate in the
design, planning and governance of their living spaces (Jarvis, 2017). Another definition
suggests that co-housing are living arrangements that seek to facilitate a high quality of life in
ecologically sustainable homes and vibrantly interactive neighborhoods, and designed by
following a cooperative ethos (Sargisson, 2018). Common features of the co-housing types
include a common house, where a large and shared kitchen is situated, and where mailboxes
are also located (Sargisson, 2018). Except for private spaces (e.g., bedrooms and bathrooms),
most of all other spaces are shared in common to maximize opportunities for interaction and
Unlike residents of co-living arrangements who come together because of the lack of
alternative affordable housing, residents of co-housing types are united by a shared interest of
their long term needs (Jarvis, 2017), and also a shared purpose of creating an intentional
community (Sargisson, 2018). To the extent that a co-housing community is made up of
strangers who have decided to live together, the co-housing type also presumes some form of
shared collective governance—where community members meet, discuss and debate on joint
decisions (Sargisson, 2018). Beyond meetings, members also commit themselves to share
tasks, burdens and responsibilities in order to maintain the physical upkeep of the community
as well as to satisfy their everyday needs (Sargisson, 2018). For certain co-housing
communities, possession pooling is also practiced, where large budget items that require
occasional use are pooled and shared (Sargisson, 2018). Importantly, the shared shaping of
physical space is an integral aspect of the co-housing experience (Sargisson, 2018: 153),
which underpins both the source of relational elation but also of frustration and conflict.
However, if Sennett (2012: 258) is correct, then engaging in this experience of dealing with
conflict also creates the commitment necessary for sustaining this community.
Presently, co-housing types are still designed in an “unselfconscious” manner (see Alexander,
1964: 56), which is a process guided by adaptation or selection based on best fit. While there
have been architecturally designed projects such as the Lange Eng Cohousing Community, or
EFFEKT’s subscription based co-housing (Pownall, 2019), a systematic design theory for
guiding and then integrating the spatial strategies and social goals of co-housing does not yet
exist. What exist are design heuristics or rules-of-thumb. For instance, when designers try to
maximize social interactions outdoors while also maximizing household privacy (Sargisson,
2018: 152); or situating the mailboxes in the common house in order to maximize
The City as a Commons, Research Symposium 2019, University of Pavia, 2-4 September 2019
serendipitous encounters, and locating kitchen windows to face the common public spaces for
maximal surveillance and interaction possibilities (Sargisson, 2018: 152); or even
recapitulating the ‘best-practices’ of contemporary urban living such as rain-water harvesting
and urban farming as amenities in the co-housing community (Pownall, 2019). But without a
‘selfconscious’ design theory that can guide the design of co-housing typology as the “will to
self-determination” (Alexander, 1964: 59)—or to successively distinguish by design from the
‘Commons by capital’—it is likely that such a typology would inadvertently be subsumed by
the co-living formation emerging in the neoliberal city.
6.!A working conclusion
In this paper, we argue that the consolidation of alternative urban systems has become
increasingly urgent in neoliberal cities, which are woefully under-prepared before an
imminent urban crisis. These alternatives are also unlikely to emerge without deliberate
intervention or mobilization in neoliberal cities. For these reasons, these alternatives have to
come about through design, hence, our thesis of ‘sharing by design’.
Our thesis is corroborated by the fact that capital is presently trying to design socio-spatial
systems that resemble the commons, especially in light of the reality that subsequent
generations of workers and individuals—characterized by stagnant wages, under-employment
or life-long debts in a world on the brink of ecological hardship—would have economic
profiles and access to material resources drastically different from their predecessors. To
maintain the status quo for as long as possible, these workers and individuals have to be
systematically contained, socialized and controlled by new structures. Based on this
development, there is little doubt that subsequent renditions of sharing systems as these new
structures would be successively and self-consciously, evolved and improved by design
But in tandem, a long line of political thinking culminating in autonomist communities and
emancipatory commons also offers a contrasting alternative approach to ‘sharing by design’.
This alternative is also artificial insofar that it requires deliberate planning and mobilization,
and thereafter, commitment and cooperation for its persistence. While this particular
approach excels in cultivating organic solidarity and an intentional community through the
materialization of common purpose, this approach nevertheless comes under considerable
duress within the neoliberal environment—duress that threatens disintegration and
dissolution. Furthermore, unlike the more self-conscious and systematic design attempts
orchestrated by capital, the urban commons remains relatively unself-conscious in both
design and operation—if only because it is constituted by what Arendt (1998: 231) calls,
“vita activa”: the human ability to act and to start new unprecedented processes whose
outcome remains uncertain and unpredictable. Vita activa constitutes openness and pluralistic
potential, but also agonistic conflict and instability. Against the organized encroachment and
competition of ‘Commons by capital’, these inherently constructive attributes can be framed,
or else exploited, as vulnerabilities and weaknesses. This acknowledgment makes it all the
more important to develop a ‘science’ (i.e., systematic knowledge) that can guide the design
of the urban commons, which will buttress ‘Commons by commoning’, and subsequently,
strategizing its advance and further development. (3378 words)
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1!Marx’s original sentence: ‘Between equal rights force decides’.!!
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Full-text available
This article proposes a social phenomenology of intentional sharing and togetherness from a degrowth perspective: extending human relations instead of market relations; deepening democracy; defending ecosystems; and realising a more equal global distribution of wealth. Social phenomenology looks beyond individual mutual exchange to the rich but fragile social construction of collectively negotiated ethical purpose. Intentional communities of cohousing are identified as part of a solution to dismantle privatised, conspicuous consumption. This approach challenges the tendency in popular sharing economy discourse to conflate different types of togetherness, highlighting instead the social significance of skilful cooperation and conviviality in groups and associations.
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We develop a conceptual framework that allows us to define the sharing economy and its close cousins and we understand its sudden rise from an economic-historic perspective. We then assess the sharing economy platforms in terms of the economic, social and environmental impacts. We end with reflections on current regulations and future alternatives, and suggest a number of future research questions.
Sharing practices have increased over the last decade as a byproduct of the economic recession and the wider use of online services, creating the hype of ‘Sharing Economy’. However, sharing economy as defined today includes contradictory cases of renting, sharing, commoning, collaboration, solidarity, and typical businesses. This article focuses on cases that outline sharing as an act that facilitates a transition of urban communities towards places that are socially interactive and resourceful. Those practices are defined as ‘Sharing Culture’. Sharing culture relates to social networks that grow informally within a region and have as their goal to co-produce, manage and share resources, time, services, knowledge, information, and support based on solidarity rather than economic profit. Ultimately, sharing culture creates an alternative pathway for citizens to serve daily needs in a more sustainable, resourceful, and socially engaging manner by investing in regional and local assets. Because sharing culture is tightly related to the everyday and the local, the social construct of a region as well as the physical design influence how and where it emerges. Through a theoretical review of sharing practices and empirical data from a short selection of sharing culture cases, this article explores what sharing culture is, how it emerges, and highlights the importance of physical space in the process of diffusion within an area. The goal of this article is twofold: first, to provide a new theoretical framework, that of the sharing culture, which enriches the current debate on sharing and collaborative practices and distances itself from economic transactions of sharing economy, while focusing on human needs and characteristics of solidarity. Second, the article intends to reveal the lack of systematic research on how these practices are influenced by physical space.
Urban commons are characterised in the literature as collectively shared property in the city shaped by a context of scarce resources, population density, and the interaction of strangers. In the broader commons literature, commons appears as a verb, a noun, and a process made by practices of commoning—albeit still with a focus on property. In this paper, I argue that an understanding of urban commons as more-than-property is needed to recognise how present but elusive urban commons are. I use examples from interviews and observations conducted at a Women's Library to discuss how the access, use, benefit, care, responsibility, and ownership of this urban commons bring it into being through particular practices of commoning. By questioning current ways of defining urban commons, urban scholars gain a grounded understanding of the role of property, and other practices, in maintaining an urban commons over time.