This starter pack is for those new to the concept of public goods.
At Gitcoin, we’re on a mission to build an Internet that’s open source, collaborative and economy empowering by funding projects, building community and making learning resources accessible. Simply put, we’re bringing together people who, like us, believe in the value of public goods.
But before you can meaningfully engage in deeper conversations about the topic, it’s helpful to know a little more; from how public goods are defined, to the history of its funding, and the rich opportunities we see to create the digital public infrastructure of tomorrow.
You can share the starter pack with this link: 🍀 publicgoodspack.xyz 🍀
This starter pack is split into 6 sections revolving the topic of Public Goods — Introduction, History of Public Goods, Digital Public Goods, Funding, Challenges & Opportunities, Go Deeper.
For each section we’ll let you know:
✔️ Content Type so you can read it with that context in mind 🧠
✔️ Level of Complexity
Level 1being a breeze-through,
Level 2being one foot into the rabbit hole, and
Level 3being a complex piece you have to sit on it for awhile.
Every piece we’ve included has been hand picked by the Gitcoin community, so be assured we consider each worth inclusion.
However! As with all things this starter pack is a work in progress, if you see something missing jump into Discord and send us a message so we can add it into our growing public library.
How has “public goods” been defined? What does it mean to be a public good? What types exist, and what societal value do they bring?
Public Goods Primer 1️⃣
Public Goods (Stanford) 2️⃣
Positive Sum Worlds 2️⃣
by Khan Academy
Essential Read | Level 1
A easy and straightforward primer. A public good has two key characteristics; it is non-excludable (costly or impossible for one user to exclude others from using a good) and non-rivalrous (when one person is using a good, it does not prevent others from using it). Together, these characteristics make it difficult for market producers to sell the good to individual consumers.
by Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Essential Read | Level 2
There are always memes to be made about citing the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy but this particular page serves as a strong high level introductions to many of the relevant topics around public goods that other resources here reference implicitly and explicitly. Take a look at some of the concepts here once you’ve watched the high level primer above to test your depth of understanding and ready your mind for some of the discussions below.
by Other Internet: Laura Lotti, Toby Shorin, Sam Hart
Essential Read | Level 2
Other Internet draw the line from public goods throughout history, such as clean air or parks, to those in the modern industrial-knowledge age such as open source code. More recently, they note, Vitalik Buterin and others in the cryptocurrency community have taken up the rhetoric of blockchain mechanisms as public goods; but, for all their “public” qualities such as open APIs, unrestricted membership and transparent allocation of resources, many of the characteristics contradict claims of public accessibility. If blockchains serve a “public” today, then it’s primarily one of decentralised finance. Fundamentally, tokenholders share only one object of concern: price.
Given that “good” is necessarily defined in relation to the value system of a given community, public goods rely on shared moral conditions. Walking through what constitutes the public, how we determine what counts as a public good, and how, in today’s world’s, capital isn’t scarce but ambitious visions for the public benefit are, Other Internet argue we must be equipped with an even more inclusive and visionary concept of what “public” and “good” can mean.
How have public goods evolved over time? What’s the connection with how humans have organised themselves into societies and cities? And why do we need or benefit from public goods?
Library Infrastructure 2️⃣
by Shannon Mattern
Academic Journal | Level 2
For millennia, libraries have acquired, organised and preserved resources (from scrolls to microfiches to datasets) and made them accessible (or not) to patrons. At every stage, libraries have needed to reinvent themselves as the political, cultural and economic contexts they work in shift, and assumed a host of ever-changing social and symbolic functions in society. In this piece, Mattern considers how libraries have always been places where informational and social infrastructures intersect within a physical infrastructure and assert the need for libraries to stay focused on their long-term cultural goals and place within the larger infrastructural ecology.
by Jane Jacobs
Essay | Level 2
In this essay, Jacobs sees downtown as an urban commons with two important characteristics that make city centres magnetic: individuality (drawn from the district’s particular history) and people (attracted to the place by its centrality and clustered activities). The natural choreography of city life is at risk from the overzealous top-down approach of city planners which can obliterate a city’s individuality; instead, the essay advocates for listening to what citizens desire, to nurture the intricacy and liveliness of what already exists. “Designing a dream city is easy, rebuilding a real one takes imagination”
What are digital public goods? What are examples you might know and love?
Digital Public Goods Primer 1️⃣
Knowledge belongs 1️⃣
Digital Infrastructure 2️⃣
Cathedral and the Bazaar 2️⃣
Free Culture 2️⃣
Revolution OS 2️⃣
Free Software 2️⃣
Essential Read | Level 1
Digital public goods are a broad category, including technology (software, programming languages, hardware designs), information (documentation, datasets, standards specifications) and culture (writing, movies). Examples include Wikipedia, Creative Commons, tools such as Linux and Ethereum (part of the Free Software movement) that are the infrastructure of the modern internet and tools such as Arduino (part of the Free Hardware movement). Digital public goods include works no longer protected by copyright and therefore in the public domain.
by Creative Commons // Wikimedia Foundation
Videos | Level 1
Short explainer videos focused on two hugely well-known digital public goods operating today, Creative Commons and Wikipedia.
by Nadia Eghbal
Essential Read | Level 2
Free, publicly available source code is the infrastructure on which all of digital society relies. It is vital to the functioning of governments, private companies, and individual lives. However, few realize that public code is built and maintained almost exclusively by unpaid volunteers, and the enormous amount of work required is in desperate need of institutional support. Without effective support for coders’ work on publicly available projects, not only will their labor go uncompensated, but the digital world risks security breaches, interruptions in service, and slowed innovation.
by Eric Raymond
Book | Level 2
Open source provides a revolutionary model for collaborative software development. In his now famous essay turned book, Raymond explores how these new models evolved based on his observations working on the Linux kernel and fetchmail. According to Bob Young, "This is Eric Raymond's great contribution to the success of the open source revolution, to the adoption of Linux-based operating systems, and to the success of open source users and the companies that supply them."
by Lawrence Lessig
Book | Level 2
An early 2000s classic, Lessig makes the case that all creative works, from books to software, are a compromise between what can be imagined and what’s possible, both legally and technically. As set out by the First Congress in 1790, the original term of copyright was 14 years; now it’s closer to two hundred. Jefferson considered protecting the public against overly long monopolies on creative works to be an essential government role. Now, as more and more culture becomes digitized, more is also becoming controllable; what is at stake is our very freedom to create, build and imagine.
by J. T. S. Moore
Documentary Film | Level 2
This documentary film gives voice to the culture and personalities in early software history. Through a series of interviews with the men who created the Free Software movement, the conflict between traditional corporate or academic structures and the spirit of DIY freedom is showcased. The Free Software movement that began so humbly out of conflict in academic and commercial labs has furnished the global community with tools that enable Digital Public Goods that create new possibilities every day.
by Free Software Foundation
Article| Level 2
This article introduces software freedoms and related concepts and history. The key is to understand that the Free in Free Software is “a matter of liberty, not price.” Within the piece, definitions begin with a philosophy centering human respect, then progress to technical definitions of the 4 essential software freedoms, followed by practical and legal considerations to help people in the field. The article ends by expanding freedoms beyond software to software manuals and documentation, then knowledge works like Wikipedia, and cultural works such as the Free Software movement inspired in projects like Creative Commons. Any work can be free if it respects people and their dignity and autonomy.
The Free Software movement is as philosophical and political as it is technological, with incredible impact; the world’s largest companies rely on Free Software today. The most important technology today is Free; not just zero cost but Free as in Freedom. Blockchain technologies and 3D printing are examples of Free technologies that have unlocked new kinds of innovation globally. For deeper reading, try Why Open Source Misses the Point of Free Software
What’s the history of public goods funding? What are the politics of public goods, and what role does the government play? And what new possibilities exist for how we could fund public goods?
Public Expenditure 2️⃣
Common pool 2️⃣
Enclosure movement 2️⃣
Quadratic funding 1️⃣
Flexible design 3️⃣
by Brett M Frischmann
Book | Level 3
This book looks at infrastructure as a particular and essential category of public good. It links knowledge and best practices surrounding infrastructure to that of commons management discussing conditions of public access, demand drivers and control of infrastructural resources. Rather than looking primarily at how best to supply public infrastructure, the book centers the demand side in analysis, looking at how society benefits from infrastructure resources.
by Paul A Samuelson
Whitepaper | Level 2
A short foundational paper on the modern theory of public goods or “collective consumption goods”. Samuelson discusses optimal levels of collective consumption and whether it would be possible to rely on a decentralized pricing mechanism for optimal provision. The paper launched a thousand debates.
by Charlotte Hess and Elinor Ostrom
Whitepaper | Level 2
This paper takes the theories of natural resource management and commons governance and applies them to information. Hess and Ostrom discuss the increasing prevalence of enclosing previously free information to create a digital land grab and argue that collective action and new institutional design play as large a part in the shaping of scholarly information as do legal restrictions and market forces.
by James Boyle
Whitepaper | Level 2
Boyle looks at similarities and differences between the first enclosure movement (when public land was appropriated from commoners by aristocrats and landowners) and what he sees as the second enclosure movement, focused on intellectual property and the commons of the mind. The paper argues that many of the IP laws being put in place harm rather than help innovation.
Essential | Level 1
Starting with definitions of public goods, this clear explainer video is centered on explaining what quadratic funding (the mathematically optional way of funding public goods in a democratic community) is. The video then expands to discuss types of public goods that suit quadratic funding, from free education to open source technologies.
by Vitalik Buterin, Zoe Hitzig, Glen Weyl
Whitepaper | Level 3
This whitepaper proposes a design for philanthropic or public capital to allow (near) optimal provision of a decentralised, self-organising ecosystem of public goods. The concept extends ideas from Quadratic Voting to a funding mechanism for endogenous community formation.
They propose the city as a potential test site; while urbanists have long seen the importance of community-level decision making in cities and a growing body of evidence suggests that policies emphasising community values and diversity generate major improvements in urban living, cities often lack mechanisms that allow goods valued in communities to emerge. Quadratic funding, as applied to urban public funding decisions, could allow communities at all scales to fund projects that would struggle to get funding under centralized systems.
What are ongoing debates within public goods? What holds the field back, and what are exciting new possibilities out there for the future of public goods?
Tragedy of commons 2️⃣
Co-opt & DAOs 2️⃣
Institution evolution 3️⃣
by Scientific American
Blog | Level 2
In a 1968 Science article (paywall), Garrett Hardin outlines the “tragedy of the commons”, where individuals neglect collective good in favour of personal gain. This revisiting notes that Hardin, in the famous example of sheep and land, blurred the ideas of resource systems (pasture) with resource governance (open access), and open access (no constraints) with commons (sharing among community members on terms they set). Between these two blurrings, he underestimated the power of commons as a form of governance.
Communities are embedded in government and market systems, as research by multiple scholars including Elinor Ostrom’s found, with her work (such as the piece below) providing insights into how and when effective commons can be implemented. In this piece, the author emphasises that understanding how communities develop and share knowledge is critical to successful governance. In the modern digital world, trust in governments and markets as sources of governance is tenuous at best; Ostrom’s commons is well suited to local communities managing resources, but we need to explore how this scales.
by Austin Robey
Blog | Level 2
The growing platform co-operative movement (platforms designed and owned by their users) clearly have overlap in terms of ideology and intent with DAOs; both seek to expand collective ownership and governance of digital infrastructure. DAOs would be mistaken to think their style of work is a tech-related invention; co-operatives, which emerged from marginalised groups to create networks offering solidarity, have centuries of history to learn from.
Especially 1) so far, too many DAOs have emerged for the memes versus more important topics such as rallying people together around the fight for racial and economic justice. 2) The concept of the “ownership economy” is defined broadly which can dilute the concept of ownership. Co-ops have developed toolkits to allow members to give voice and transparency, plus hold leadership accountable. 3) For DAOs with a strong social mission, the core cooperative principles offer much to inspire.
by Elinor Ostrom
Whitepaper | Level 3*hard but literally won a Nobel
Ostrom argues for a third approach to resolving the challenges of the commons; the design of durable co-ooperative institutions that are organized and governed by resource users.
- First principle is clear boundaries set to identify members of the user pool as well as the physical boundaries of the CPR
- Rules must make sense when applied
- All individuals can participate in collective choice arrangements
- Either the appropriators or those accountable to them are responsible for monitoring compliance with collective decisions.
- Low cost and readily available conflict resolution mechanisms must exist to mediate conflicts among appropriators, and between appropriators and officials.
- Users must have recognition of their own rights to organize institutions.
- Nested enterprises - sets of rules established within a hierarchy of appropriator institutions - must be established for common-pool resources within larger resource systems.
Blog | Level 2
Public goods problems (sometimes known as the “free-rider” problem, the idea that anyone can enjoy a good once it’s been provided, therefore there is no incentive for people to pay for the good because they can consume it without paying) and coordination problems (definition: the failure to coordinate means that, despite aligned interests, the outcome is suboptimal for all) are related concepts, but this blog argues that they are fundamentally distinct.
The piece uses the example of real-world public goods problems experiments to illustrate game theory. Say all participants get $20 with an offer to either put this in the collective pot or keep, then the cash is redistributed. A few rounds in, our free riders have dramatically more cash, others are annoyed and cooperation devolves. But, in time, a certain percentage of players maintain their optimism, and this optimism is a crucial building block of a real-world solution. It’s comforting to know that earnest attempts to solve both sets of problems might be met by this optimism, this belief that we can and will get to the socially optimal solution.
Who are experts and leaders in the space you should follow? What are key organisations in the space, and where should you go to learn more about public goods?