Seeding Sustainable Growth for Public Goods in Tech: Insights from Funding the Commons
Seeding Sustainable Growth for Public Goods in Tech: Insights from Funding the Commons

Imagine a scenario where a local government is looking to support a community garden but lacks resources, so motivated gardeners plant seeds and cultivate the garden because they recognize this public good is needed. The community comes together to fund and support a shared resource, and everyone benefits. This is an example of public goods funding.

Last month, leaders from across Web2, Web3, research, and philanthropy came together at Funding the Commons, an event in Berkeley, California, to seek solutions for funding public goods, including Open Source Software (OSS) development. The event featured several Filecoin Foundation for the Decentralized Web (FFDW) project partners, who shared their visions for the path forward for public goods and OSS funding in domains from human rights to visual art.

The decentralized web (DWeb) has been advanced largely from open source and public contributions, but the infrastructure to fund the work of such contributors has lagged behind the pace of innovation; this challenge is magnified for particularly under-resourced fields that serve the public good, such as software for human rights defenders.

Early Builders of the Internet Pursue Public Goods Solutions for the DWeb

Brian Behlendorf, Chief AI Strategist at the Linux Foundation and an FFDW board member, delivered a keynote on the structure of the Linux Foundation –– a steward and funder of some of the most widely-used OSS on the Internet. Drawing on his expertise as a long-term builder of the open web, Behlendorf talked about the importance of preserving trust as a reliable, behind-the-scenes facilitator of OSS development, expressing that “trust and persistence make projects that last decades.”

Resilient tech does not sprout from piecing together one-time grants or altruism, Behlendorf added, but from connecting with the intrinsic motivations of stakeholders building and consuming public goods.

FFDW Senior Fellow Danny O’Brien picked up these threads by facilitating two workshops: “Public Goods Profit Sharing in Tech” and “Internet Standards as Public Goods.” The first dove into how tech organizations could support the commons that supports them –– open source dependencies, volunteer contributors, and basic shared infrastructure. The breakouts drew much of their inspiration from similar experiments in the world of ecology and climate change, from the theories of Elinor Ostrom to practical regenerative projects in Africa and beyond.

O’Brien led the second workshop on a voyage through the ancient history of web standards-making, highlighting just how revolutionary Internet pioneers like Dave Clark were when it came to forging shared, net-wide agreements: “We reject: kings, presidents, and voting. We believe in: rough consensus and running code," Clark wrote in 1992. O’Brien’s group deliberated over what to reject –– and what to believe –– when trying to apply the standards process to the explosion of open source protocols and communities now spreading through the decentralized web.

Deliberately Designing Tools for Good

Natalie Cadranel, founder and executive director of OpenArchive, shared her philosophy for building human rights-centered tech that serves people, not centralized powers. Drawing on her years of research experience, she dove deep into the usability and privacy challenges faced by activists performing critical, on-the-ground work to document and archive evidence of human rights abuses. She outlined OpenArchive’s culture of researching and iteratively designing tools alongside the activist communities they aim to serve. This methodology informed the design of the Save app, a mobile application that authenticates and safeguards media uploaded by human rights defenders using decentralized backends. Preaching a thoughtful approach to toolmaking that infuses harm reduction for vulnerable users from the beginning, Cadranel cautioned against a culture that builds tech that breaks:

“We do not move fast and break things. We deliberately move slowly and learn things. We take the time to put things back together.”

Touching on the challenges of obtaining funding for public goods and OSS for human rights use cases, Cadranel took a few moments to recognize her positive experience working with FFDW. “[Filecoin Foundation for the Decentralized Web’s] funding model is the most effective I have been lucky enough to explore,” praised Cadranel. “They really center on organizations instead of red tape.”

Bridging Technology and the Arts

Gray Area Executive and Artistic Director Barry Threw sat down with TRANSFER Founder Kelani Nichole to discuss building a cultural infrastructure that connects artists with technology for fruitful and sustainable creation.

In recognition of a long-time convergence between art and technology, Threw said of Gray Area’s outlook, “We treat technology innovation and art as part of the same practice because they, historically, [have] been.”

Coupling artistic thinking with technology creates new forms of expression that interface with audiences and deepen perspectives on how innovation impacts our world. Pursuing this interplay between art and tech calls for public infrastructure that fosters experimentation in the arts –– infrastructure currently lacking, as Threw cited a limited endowment for the arts in the United States. Threw shared his appreciation for how decentralized tools have the power to augment artists’ impacts on society through new methods of creation and display, but also to transform the models of how we share and view art through technologies like cryptocurrency and the metaverse.

In an apt response to Threw’s directive for updated infrastructure, Nichole gave an overview of the TRANSFER data trust structure, an organizational framework leveraging decentralized technologies to steward artist-owned data –– from the studio to the audience experience. This model employs decentralized tech for a novel way of archiving artists’ data, including proofs of appraisal, in a community-run trust cooperative. Here’s how it works:

  • Creators use the InterPlanetary File System (IPFS) to seed backups of archives and the Filecoin Virtual Machine (FVM) to resiliently store data in the shared trust.
  • Once the data is stored securely in the trust, TRANSFER allows for a range of ways to experience the art as a public good, like in a decentralized catalog.

Attendees of the conference were able to interact with a uniquely participatory exhibition at Gray Area using the TRANSFER Download installation format.

Offering Gray Area’s own answer, Threw plugged the ongoing DWeb for Creators course, supported by FFDW and joined by Nichole as an instructor. The course empowers artists with the tools and skills to incorporate decentralized technologies into all stages of the creative process –– from creation to curation to publishing. Look out for an open-source version of the curriculum available later this year.

FFDW’s mission is to serve the public good by supporting the entire decentralized web community. To learn more about our work cultivating the open web alongside project partners in impact areas like cultural preservation, human rights, science and environment, and government data, read our 2023 Annual Report.