Penn Calendar Penn A-Z School of Arts and Sciences University of Pennsylvania

Innovation and Equality: An Approach To Constructing a Community Governed Network Commons

These are excerpts from an article originally published in The Journal of Responsible Innovation. Read the full article here.


By Sheila Foster
The Scott K. Ginsburg Professor of Urban Law and Policy, Georgetown Law

Co-authors: Rider W. Foley, Olivier Sylvain                                                                                                                               


. . . [In 2015] the FCC, the US federal agency with regulatory oversight of retail consumer broadband infrastructure, issued a statement that determined that the internet is a dominant, “general purpose technology” that ought to be subject to common-carrier-like regulation and, as a “general purpose technology,” every home should have physical and financial access to it. This means that this designation mattered because, as with electricity – another “general public purpose technology” – the FCC asserted that the internet is so essential that any pricing increases or changes to the quality of service should be subject to regulatory oversight. Despite the FCC’s declaration, there remains an inequitable opportunity for different individuals and organizations to access the Internet (Sylvain 2016). The lack of access to the internet has shown to be tied to a litany of negative consequences, including the lack of educational attainment and foregone employment opportunities (c.f. Anderson and Perrin 2016). This paper is the product of a research project whose aim has been to overcome some of these challenges by testing “a novel architecture for Secure, Energy-Efficient Community- edge-clouds with application in Harlem” (SEEC Harlem) in New York City. The project combines research into the functionality of state-of-the-art wireless computing and the governance of that resource by stakeholders in the largely underserved and historically marginalized community of Harlem. . . .

We explore the processes and governance structures necessary for meeting these goals through, among other things, the lens of responsible innovation. This paper revisits the theoretical foundations of responsible innovation and then utilizes that framework to analyze the formative phase of this research project. We then offer, based on insights from the SEEC Harlem project, two alternative governance schemes for the administration of a community network. In presenting and analyzing the Harlem project through the lens of responsible innovation, we also integrate the concept of co-governance, the idea of joining together community actors and other stakeholders to collectively manage common pool resources.

Co-governance is concerned with the ways that shared resources are utilized, designed, and maintained while also being attentive to which actors are empowered in the decision-making processes that manage those resources. The co-governance approach has been applied, for example, to user- created and collaboratively managed wireless “mesh” networks – decentralized wireless access points connected to each other in a defined geographic area (Greig 2018). Mesh and community networking are often referred to as a form of “digital stewardship” which includes equal access, participation by historically excluded populations, common ownership through cooperative business models or municipal ownership, healthy communities which promote economic development from within, and expanded educational opportunities (Detroit Digital Justice Coalition 2020).

The responsible innovation and co-governance frameworks are also an intervention that could address the tensions that others have identified regarding smart cities. These tensions manifest in a lack of trust between public authorities and the communities who are seen as the beneficiaries of “smart” technologies. . . .


Elinor Ostrom’s work influenced the study of a variety of user-governed, shared resources that extends far beyond the natural resources that were the subject of her work. Her work opened up new thinking about the process of developing and enforcing rules, social norms and other governance tools for sharing and sustainably utilizing “common pool resources” or “commons”. Scholars have conceptualized and articulated new kinds of “commons” that involve “communities working together in self-governing ways to protect resources from the enclosure or to build newly open-shared resources” (Hess 2008, 40). These include knowledge commons, cultural commons, infrastructure commons, neighborhood commons, digital commons, among others (Hess 2008). Collective governance or commons governance has become an important conceptual framework across many disciplines for examining questions of resource access, sharing, governance, and distribution of a range of both tangible and intangible resources (De Moor 2012). This growing body of literature encompasses both material and immaterial resources – ranging from housing, urban infrastructure, and public spaces to culture, labor, and public services (Dellenbaugh et al. 2015; Borch and Kornberger 2016). The boundaries separating public and private goods are redefined to open up those goods and services to public use. They do this in ways that do not depend on nor are they not controlled by a prevailing private or state authority. In other words, thinking of some resources as common goods opens the space between public and private or market and state, to reveal a set of rich conceptual and practical possibilities for governance.

Co-governance of shared resources

Based on the above literature, and their empirical study of hundreds of examples of collectively shared and collaboratively stewarded resources in cities around the world, Foster and Iaione (2019) found that it is possible to combine public, private, civic, and community actors to steward resources that can be more widely shared and available to many kinds of urban communities. They have found that resources such as built, environmental, cultural, and digital goods are being co-created and co-managed through contractual or institutionalized public-community partnerships (PCPs) and public-community- private partnerships (PCPPs). These kinds of partnerships manifest through a multi-stakeholder governance scheme whereby the community emerges as an actor. Through sharing, collaboration, cooperation, and coordination, these stakeholders along (with potentially three others which we discuss below) are mobilized to comanage these resources. Commons governance or co-governance is thus the product of a process of deep multi-stakeholder engagement and interaction involving deep collaboration and cooperation among actors of the “quintuple helix,” a concept that expands the “triple helix” idea from innovation studies (Leydesdorff and Deakin 2011).

The helix involves five actors: (1) active citizens (social innovators; city makers; organized and informal local communities); (2) public authorities; (3) private economic actors (national or local businesses; small and medium enterprises; social businesses; neighborhood or district-level businesses) (4) civil society organizations and NGOs; (5) knowledge institutions include schools; Universities; research centers; cultural centers; public, private, civic libraries Foster and Iaione (2022) These partnerships for managing common resources consist of the community in which the resource is or will be located. These actors become deeply engaged over time in constructing and supporting institutional arrangements to support resource stewardship.

The co-creation cycle and process

The process of engaging in co-governance of shared, or common, resources is an iterative process which entails creating and adopting a methodological approach to bringing together collaborators and partners in the co-design process to deliberate, practice, and arrive at adaptable practices and policies. Foster and Iaione (2022), through their applied research arm LabGov, have experimented with what they call the “co-city cycle” which includes six key phases: cheap talking, mapping, practicing, prototyping, testing and modeling.

1) Cheap talking ‒ participants identify informal settings for face-to-face and pressure-free communication among key local actors to activate the community of stakeholders that will be involved in the collaborative project. These discussions or sessions are organized in a variety of settings with significant outreach done in the local community, often through anchor institutions like schools, libraries or non-profits.

2) Mapping ‒ participants begin to understand the characteristics of the urban or neighborhood context through surveys and exploratory interviews, fieldwork activities, and ethnographic work. This lays the groundwork for the design and prototyping of governance tools and processes to be used later on in the cycle.

3) Practicing ‒ participants identify and create possible synergies and alignment between project(s) and relevant actors. This includes co-working sessions with identified actors willing to participate in putting ideas into practice.

4) Prototyping ‒ participants reflect on the mapping and practicing phases and begin to co-design specific policy, legal, or institutional mechanisms to address the issues and problems identified in the previous phases. One goal of this phase is to verify the conditions that promote the establishment of trust between the community and external actors.

5) Testing ‒ project and policy prototypes are tested and evaluated through implementation, monitoring, and assessment using qualitative and quantitative metrics. This phase is often performed by working with one or more knowledge/academic partners to design appropriate indicators and metrics to capture the desired outcomes and impacts from the project.

6) Modeling – focuses on adapting and tailoring the prototype and nesting it within the legal and institutional framework of the city or local government through dialogue with civil servants and policy makers. This can involve the suspension of previous regulatory rules, the altering of bureaucratic processes, and the drafting of new policies which might also have a sunset clause and then a re-evaluation period. This cycle represents a kind of urban experimentalism that is an essential part of the process of constructing common resources that result from the pooling of different actors, or sectors, but is rooted in the community being served. The urban experimentalism reflected by the co-city cycle is ultimately constitutive of three distinctive features: (1) an evaluative methodology that draws from knowledge created by the community and research partners, (2) an experimental process that is adaptable, and (3) iterative design and feedback among the stakeholders. . . .

Research design

To investigate the construction of a community governed network commons through the lens of responsible innovation, and co-governance, this project takes a transdisciplinary approach. The community partner – Silicon Harlem a for-profit organization introduced in the Case Context below – shared in the task of formulating the grant proposal from the outset. By directly bringing the community partner into the formulation of the project, the research team immediately started to discuss the problem-definition and solutions for engaging with additional stakeholders, as theorized by Lang and colleagues (Lang et al. 2012).

This project is structured as a case study, following Yin (2011), and collects data from various sources that account for activities internal to the research team and with external parties. The research team’s meetings, presentations, and communication offer evidence of the approaches, motivations, and reflections upon community engagement. Participant observations and video recordings that are available on and other online platforms serve as evidence of the public engagement activities, e.g. Silicon Harlem (2020). Further insights were gleaned from one-on-one interviews (n = 16) with stakeholders outside the research team. Additional evidence takes the form of photographs, written reflections, and work products developed by the research team in partnership with key stakeholders.

This research highlights key governance-related events from the first year of the project. Those moments are analyzed first by looking at the pre-conditions for the multi-stakeholder collaboration introduced above: trust, power asymmetry, and inertia and secondarily analyzed through the ‘big four’ dimensions of responsible innovation: inclusion, reflexivity, anticipation, and responsiveness. Further analysis points to events and activities that are theorized by the phases of co-governance previously described above: cheap talk, mapping, practicing, prototyping, testing and modeling. At the end of the first year, two alternative governance structures for a community-based networked computing solution were presented to the community partner. Here they are analyzed through the lens of co-design and responsible innovation. . . .


Computer scientists and engineering researchers interested in redressing the digital divide ought to consider partnering with a diversity of scholars and community partners if they aspire to achieve equitable impacts. As for federal research agencies, there is a need to design policy interventions that cut across agency boundaries, particularly with regards to the digital divide. While, this paper does not offer an evaluation of our efforts to achieve the stated goals, it reflects on our efforts to put into practice the theories of responsible innovation and co-creation cycle during the initial design of a community-based edge-cloud network in Harlem New York.

What this article suggests is that, while the theories of responsible innovation and constructed commons are born from disparate schools of thought, there are opportunities for synergy between these frameworks. The co-creation cycle and its process-oriented activities can be understood as a more refined expression of responsiveness. The iterative and didactic feedback between the activities draw upon the values of inclusion and put reflexivity into practice. Further, the co-creation cycle offers a set of activities, such as cheap talking, that aim to foster trust prior to initiating substantive engagement and deliberation. As van de Poel et al. (2020) and others have discussed, trust is a precursor to inclusive deliberations on alternative technical and governance arrangements. All the while, prototyping is, inherently, a future-oriented process that opens up deliberations on alternative governance arrangements and this appears to dovetail with anticipation from responsible innovation. In these ways, the theories are mutually supportive and together may offer guidance to practitioners and researchers designing complex socio-technical systems.