Lessons Learned

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 744957

The purpose of the project was to understand how open source sustainability is managed beyond technical production environments. Previous studies have focused on the sustainability of open source within the development realm, but have paid scant attention to how sustainability is articulated once deployed into the world. Since open source software is increasingly common and no longer the sole remit of software developers, it is important to understand how it is sustained in more open social contexts. Are there specific barriers to sustain such projects? What mechanisms are put in place to sustain such systems?

This page is a summary of the lessons learned from the project. It has been under active construction the past year, but is now in a much more succinct form, resting on the findings of this project. Around these four core ideas, a number of papers have been derived, which will be linked from here.

Sustainability in open source commons


This part of the project critically looked at the adoption of Ostrom's work on ecological commons directly into open source and digital commons. After a literature review, we propose that open source has multiple types of sustainability.

Democracy and the organisation of passions and interests


Participation captures the zeitgeist of contemporary society with the language of participation being used today as a surrogate for processes of democratization, empowerment, and political plurality.

We suggest that participation is an organisational matter that hinges on the material and logistical forms lent to the relation between passions and interests. We draw inspiration from Hirschman’s intellectual history of the development of capitalism as the historical replacement of the language of passionate governance for self-interested economic advantage. In particular, we argue that ‘passionate participation’ and ‘interested participation’ modulate the organisation of participation.

Our argument is based on our longitudinal research of Decide Madrid. Born of the wave of protests in 2011, and in particular the Spanish Occupy protests (locally known as 15M), Decide was developed with the aim of empowering citizens and responding to democracy’s persistent disenchantment.

When participation falters, Decide Madrid tries to organise participation by re-stoking the collective passions of the 15M or to consider ways to create communities aligned to interests rather than fuelled by passions. Choices regarding the mobilization of passionate and interested participation calls for different resources, spaces, and material requirements.

Social inclusion


The project also sheds light on how open source projects can be sustained outside of technical environments and the role these have on the project in return. The particular case studied mixed open source ethos and issues related to urbanisation and direct and deliberative democracy. For example, France’s recent Convention pour le Climat, which randomly selected citizens all over the country to discuss and propose solutions to the climate emergency, were supported by a non-profit group called open source politics using a software programme such as Decide Madrid. The key insights developed about the barriers to deploy such systems are thus useful beyond the open source communities and projects, and extends to all stakeholders. Such open systems are gaining momentum given their adoption by cities (Madrid, Paris, New York, Porto Alegre), countries (France’s Convention pour le Climat), and institutions (European Commission, United Nations).

The principal idea is massive and direct participation will improve our democratic systems. Similar to the cornerstone open source adage advanced by Raymond: the more eyeballs, the less bugs, a democracy where anyone can participate should improve the social outcomes for everybody. We find that this cannot be so because it ignores asymmetries of power. Indeed, in technical environments where developers share skills, asymmetries are lesser.

In society at large, some groups need representatives to pass on their message. One example: victims of abuse are not registered in the same database that is used to verify that digital participation is valid. These people are thus involuntarily set aside since, for security reasons, their data cannot be accessed by participation platforms. As such, massive participation systems cannot, on their own, resolve the democratic disenchantment that is taking root in Europe.



One key question has been how the platform should access the city, and how the city should access the platform. Contrary to what we know, where the interface is located has been a tense frontier. For developers, the interface is located at the screen-level: it is where participants press buttons. The simplicity of the interface was thought to be self-evident which would avoid requiring guidelines on how to participation. For others, the interface was located in the streets, in the squares, in communities. Those that adhered to the screen-interface view pushed for efforts to transform direct participation by algorithmic means, effectively turning direct participation into an indirect one. Those that saw the interface as more malleable argued for different, but complementary ways to adapt the platform to their various needs. The conclusion that we find is that open systems have particularly open interfaces that should attempt to interface in different ways the complex realities within and outside the digital space.