In Berlin, Exploring What Is Commonable

On Tuesday evening, I gave a talk at the American Academy in Berlin, where I have been a residential fellow for the past five weeks.  I focused on the commons as “a new/old paradigm of governance,” making a survey of the topic in ways familiar to readers of this blog.  (Here is a video of the talk along with the text.)  It was fun to mix it up with a very diverse crowd that included academics, journalists, students, a Google Germany executive, a Wikipedia leader, a German patent law official, among many others.

Among the many interesting comments made by the audience, Katrin Faensen of The Virus,  coined a word that I am going to start using a lot:  “commonable.”  Faensen asked how she personally could become “more commonable” in the sense of connected to and participating in a commons.  I replied that she should start with whatever she is passionate about, and find a suitable commons project there.

I like “commonable” as a term because I think there will be a growing use for it in the future.  Tommaso Fattori of Italy has proposed new sorts of “commons/public” partnerships, for example, which could lead one to ask the question, “Is that public service or asset ‘commonable’?”  Many of us would like to see the earth’s atmosphere treated as a commons, which could lead to the statement, "We need to make the atmosphere commonable.”  My pleasure in the word was reinforced when another fellow here at the Academy, a renowned literary translator, agreed that the word has a promising future.

A word about the American Academy in Berlin.  This small, independent center in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee is dedicated to “advanced study in the humanities, public policy, social sciences and arts.”  Its central aim is to foster German/American cultural exchange via its Berlin Prize Fellowships.  I am pleased to say that I was selected for the Bosch Berlin Prize in Policy for fall 2012.  This has given me the gift of six weeks to read, study, think, meet with people, give talks and enjoy great food and stimulating company.  As a non-academic with no hope for a sabbatical, this has been a rare treat and a real joy. 

I’ve spent much of the past five weeks in Berlin meeting with a wide range of activists, thinkers and project leaders who care about the commons.  The Heinrich Böll Foundation is one of the leading hubs of such activity, much of it led by Heike Löschmann, the head of international politics there. I’ve also met with some folks associated with the German Pirate Party; with German free software and free culture advocates; with Jonathan Gordon-Farleigh, the editor of Stir magazine  in the UK; Green Party officials in England; with artist-commoners in Istanbul; and a workshop of 20 Europeans dedicated to the economics of the commons. I am happy to report that interest in the commons continues to grow, as reflected in the diverse voices that I've heard.  I'm grateful to the American Academy for giving me the change to expand the boundaries of my knowledge of and personal connections to commoning in Europe.

Just when I think that Europe is ahead of the US in developing new commons, I learn about the innovation in my very own home state of Massachusetts.  A few days ago I learned about the Center for the Theater Commons at Emerson College.  The theater as commons?  Who knew?  The obvious lesson is that one never knows what might be commonable.



Dear David,

thank you so much for being so enthusiastic about "commonable". I´d just like to point out, that my intention was to ask the group in the room, the participants, us as humans how WE can become more commonable. That´s the interesting point, that we build up immediate relations with the crowd we´re in right now. Because the space we open is our "commons" at that very moment. I realized that most of the participants questions were related to the outside, to something not connected to the moment. My wish is, that we become conscious of the WE that we share as a community and my question was related to this wish. May the crowd become commonable and the first step is that every individual looks around and beomes aware of the ressources we share - the room, the topic, the space, the lecturer as a source of knowledge, the ones sitting next to me. I am convinced that we as a collective are way more commonable than we think we are. The question is, how do we become aware of each other and what do we do then? We might come together as participants of a lecture and not stay there as individuals but cocreate a shared moment of common awareness - that would be something I strive to experience. Such experiences make us "commonable" and have the power to shift paradigms. And in this direction my question was diving.

Translation for commonable

In German, I would suggest the word "commonabel" as translation for the new word "commonable". We have already coined the adjective "commonisch", which would translate into English "commonical". So with "commonisch" and "commonabel" we would have a pair of adjectives to describe quality of objects or behaviour ("etwas ist commonisch, jemand verhält sich commonisch"  in the sense of being commonical) and of practicability ("jemand verhält sich commonabel, etwas ist commonabel" in the sense of being commonable). Something or somebody, for instance, can be commonical (like practical), but in certain sircumstances not commonable (like not practicable). In German: "Jemand kann zwar commonisch eingestellt sein, sich aber in Gemeinschaft überhaupt nicht commonabel erweisen."

Alternative suggestion

Interesting discussion Johannes.

The word "commonable" computes easily (I understand it as some thing, service, resource, or person that can be entered into the Commons), even as a new word I haven't read or heard elsewhere. The word "commonical" does not compute for me though. I couldn't find an entry at or through a google search to help fill this void. It looks similar to the word "canonical," but that's as far as my imagination takes me with "commonical." It may be that in English we see the -able, -ible, -uble suffixes more often than -ical (or so I think.)

As a student of German, "commonisch" sounds good. "Commonbar" seems viable from my foreigner's perspective as well. How does "commonbar" seem to you?