Who would have thought that New York Times’ columnist Thomas Friedman would give a glowing endorsement of the commons?  Writing about the severe political and economic gridlock plaguing Egypt, Friedman lavishes great praise on the country’s “impressive but small group of environmental activists, many of whom were also involved in the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak.” 

This leads Friedman to ponder the virtues of the commons as a solution to some of Egypt’s most intractable problems.  He writes:

…the truth is that any faction here – the youth, the army, the Muslim Brotherhood – that thinks it can rule Egypt alone and make the others disappear is fooling itself.  (Ditto in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Libya.)  Because Egypt is in such a deep hole, and the reforms needed so painful, they can be accomplished only if everyone shares in the responsibility and ownership of the transition through a national unity coalition.  In that sense Egyptians today desperately need a ‘peace process’ – not with Israel, but with one another.

Everyone has to take responsibility for the commons, rather than just grabbing their own.  That is the real cultural revolution that has to happen for Egypt to revive.  And that’s where the environmentalists here have such an advantage over the politicians, because all they think about is the commons – resources that have to be shared.  Egypt’s commons – its bridges, roads, parks, coral reefs – are crumbling. 

Our knowledge about what makes digital commons work is terribly under-theorized.  Yes, there are famous works by Lawrence Lessig and Yochai Benkler, and there are lots of projects and websites that are based on commoning such as like Wikipedia, free software, Arduino, open access journals, among countless others.  But can we identify core principles for organizing digital commons?  Can we use that knowledge to engineer the evolution of new commons?  Identifying such principles just might let us move beyond “openness” as the ultimate goal of online life, to a more sustainable goal, the self-governed commons.

It has been a pleasure to discover that some computer scientists are actively exploring how Elinor Ostrom’s principles for successful commons might be applied to the design of software.  Consider this intriguing essay title: "Axiomatization of Socio-Economic Principles for Self-Organizing Institutions: Concepts, Experiments and Challenges,“ which appeared in the ACM Transactions on Autonomous and Adaptive Systems, in December 2012.  

The piece is by British electrical and electronic engineer Jeremy Pitt and two co-authors, Julia Schaumeier and Alexander Artikis. The abstract is here.  Unfortunately, the full article is behind a paywall, consigning it to a narrow readership.  I shall quote from the abstract here because it hints at the general thinking of tech experts who realize that the social and the technical must be artfully blended:

We address the problem of engineering self-organising electronic institutions for resource allocation in open, embedded and resource-constrained systems.  In such systems, there is decentralised control, competition for resources and an expectation of both intentional and unintentional errors.  The ‘optimal’ distribution of resources is then less important than the sustainability of the distribution mechanism, in terms of endurance and fairness, based on collective decision-making and tolerance of unintentional errors.  In these circumstances, we propose to model resource allocation as a common-pool resource management problem, and develop a formal characterization of Elinor Ostrom’s socio-economic principles for enduring institutions. 

The Still City Project

Amidst the cacophony of modern life, I am always so grateful when I discover a haven of silence, a place of deliberate stillness for contemplation and awareness of being.  What a pleasure to discover a fascinating new research project called Still City being pursued by Monnik, a Dutch “collective and laboratory for investigation, imagination and storytelling.”  Based in Amsterdam, Monnik’s work “concentrates on how persons and society need to reconfigure or reassess their relationship with their self-constructed modern world.”

The Still City project is explained this way on its website:

This is a project about stillness. We are living in an increasingly urban world, in which growth is the central tenet. Growth, in all its cultural translations and incarnations, has been the cornerstone of modernity. Most of our parables stress the virtues of personal growth, economic growth, demographic growth and technological innovation. Forms of growth that are considered deeply intertwined, simultaneous, and interchangeable. But what happens when growth is no longer feasible, or when it becomes undesirable? What happens to a city when growth based on ‘Bigger, Better and More of it’, becomes unsustainable? What happens when a city stops growing but doesn’t shrink either? What kind of values and narratives will emerge when the notions of economic growth and personal growth disconnect? How will people relate to labor, love, family, individuality, community, history and the future? Is there such a thing as a mature city?

Still City Project is a search for a dynamic urban culture that is not based on growth. The Still City can be understood as a sustainable and inclusive society. A society that wants to leave the more negative connotations of the notion ‘growth’ behind to find post-expansion, post-depletion and post-exploitation value-systems. The ambition of the project is to construct urban scenarios that will help us understand how a post-growth society could function.

Monnik is currently engaged in a series of interviews with international thinkers in various disciplines, and “people-on-the-ground” who are trying to deal with “the everyday reality of growth, and non-growth, in our society.”  The group hopes to develop some scenarios on how post-growth circumstances would change the urban environment, and publish the results in The Still City Scenario Machine

Take a Survey about Commons Education

The International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC) is considering developing one or more training programs on the commons, in cooperation with Countryside and Community Research Institute of the University of Gloucestershire (UoG); the Instituto de Investigaciones Sociales-UNAM; and the CGIAR Program on Collective Action and Property Rights Program (CAPRI). 

Before moving ahead, the organizers want to learn more about student interests and needs.  You can help them out by taking part in a short online survey in either English or Spanish.  It only takes about five minutes.  The course organizers are tentatively thinking of offering courses on the following commons-related topics:

I. Introduction to the Commons.

II. Biodiversity and forests. Covering issues such as: ecological principles, biodiversity as a “commons”, forest rights, indigenous utilization, and the capacity for multi-functional use, Valuing biodiversity and influencing policy, and Carbon sequestration and the role of forests in climate change and environmental management.

III. Water. Covering issues such as: water as a finite and shared resource, application of commons concepts to water management under different conditions (trans-boundary management; inter-basin movement; within catchment management), legal regimes, water rights, and ‘markets’ for water.

At the recent Economics and the Commons Conference, the charismatic Jem Bendell, Professor of Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cambia (UK), made an offhand reference to “commoneering.”  The novel term is apparently a play on the terms “commandeer” and “pioneer.”  I must admit, the words had a nice, solid ring to it.  I think it’s the hard “eer” that sounds so good; it have a more assertive tone than the more familiar “commoning.”  Commoneering almost has a certain aura of cool to it.    

But should we embrace such a new term?  The topic provoked more controversy than I might have imagined – and perhaps deservedly so.  The arguments generally went like this:  “Commoneering” implies that there is a certain class of people who are skilled in designing a commons or in pioneering its development.  The word implies this group of expert designers work separately from ordinary commoners and have some special knowledge for setting them apart as “commoneers.” 

This, of course, is an affront to the very idea of commoning.  It implies that commoneering is something that is different from (and better than?) “ordinary” commoning.  Commoning is something that all the talents of the entire community do together, in collaboration.  Commoneering feels vaguely elitist.

This may be reading a lot into a term that was, after all, presented in a rather casual manner.  Bendell didn’t even really give a serious definition to the term.  And I usually don’t like for anyone to set themselves up as “language police.” 

But to the extent that commoneering has a substantive meaning that is different from commoning, I think it may be best to simply avoid using the term.  It invites needless controversy.  We have plenty of serious challenges to meet without wading into a swamp of linguistic debates about a term that we don't seem to need.  Why not nip this one in the bud? 

By the way, Jem Bendells’ talk on money and credit as a commons was terrific.  I highly recommend that you watch the video of his talk here.

To international media that love dramatic footage, the eruption of protests about the fate of Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park – and the government’s violent repression – seems overblown.  Tear gas and gunfire over some trees and greenery? 

Of course, the occupiers of the park have much more on their minds:  the preservation of public space for democratic life.  Imagine how far the Occupy protests in the US would have gotten without a public space for their encampment.  Democracy needs places for citizens to meet and talk – a way to publicly express themselves.  This is precisely what the Turkish government would like to shut down.  Far better to turn everyone into consumers. It wants to turn Taksim Gezi Park (see photo below) into a huge shopping mall.

The Turkish government’s militant crackdown is being waged by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The Guardian (UK) characterizes the AKP as “a conservative Muslim bourgeoisie” that uses “the politics of piety to gain a popular base and to strengthen the urban rightwing.”  The party has eagerly adopted a neoliberal economic stance to promote “development.”  Enclosing one of the last great commons in Istanbul makes perfect sense for its agenda.

The government probably didn’t count on the pitched protest from occupiers or the viral international protest that has ensued in only 24 hours.  On the popular website Reddit’s worldnews subreddit, posts on the Istanbul protests have been the top stories.  Tweets on the incident have also been trending worldwide, especially at #occupygezi – or, in Turkish, #direngeziparkı.

One of the more provocative talks at the Economics and the Commons Conference last week was Andreas Weber’s critique of the “bio-economics” narrative that blends social Darwinism and free market economics.  Bioeconomics is the default worldview for contemporary economic thought, public policy and politics.  The only problem is that, by the lights of the latest biological sciences, this narrative is wrong, seriously wrong. 

Worse, it is impeding the emergence of a more accurate account of natural systems and life itself.  It is thwarting our ability to develop a new, more respectful relationship with nature.  Weber proposes instead a new story of “enlivenment” that points to a different vision of the "more than human world" and to commons-based based ways of organizing our political economy.

Andreas Weber is a Berlin-based theoretical biologist, independent scholar and ecophilosopher who explores new understandings of “life as meaning,” a sub-discipline in biological sciences known as “biosemiotics.”  This is the idea that living organisms are not just automatons who respond to various external, impersonal forces, but rather are intrinsically creative, sense-making organisms whose subjectivity and “consciousness” matter.  Indeed, our subjectivity is an indispensable part of biological evolution, Weber contends.

Weber’s essay “Enlivenment:  Towards a Fundamental Shift in the Concepts of Nature, Culture and Politics,” was just published by the Heinrich Boell Foundation.  It can be downloaded here.  (Full disclosure:  I gave Weber some editorial advice about his text.)

Weber’s complaint about conventional biology is that it refuses to study life itself.  It is too committed to Enlightenment categories of the individual, rationality and competition, and it insists upon a reductionist logic that cannot address, let alone provide answers, to what is life itself.  Weber argues that organisms are “sentient, more-than-physical creatures that have subjective experiences and produce sense.”  He notes that current biological sciences do not ask, “What do we live for?  What are our inner needs as living creatures?  What relationships do we have, or should we have, to the natural order?  How do we produce things for our immediate needs or the market?....What is life and what role do we play in it?”

That was quite a week in Berlin!  The Economics and the Commons Conference was an intense convergence of more than 200 commoners from thirty-plus countries.  It featured six amazing keynote talks, breakout sessions for five streams of discussion, extensive networking and bridge-building among commons activists, and action-planning in nine self-organized side events. 

If the landmark 2010 International Commons Conference let commoners meet for the first time and see that there was in fact a larger global community, the 2013 Economics and the Commons Conference showed how advanced the dialogue and projects have become, and revealed the many new frontiers of intellectual and political exploration.

To give you a sense of the wide range of people participating, there were activists fighting enclosures in Asia and Latin America; a Brazilian seed activist; an Amsterdam digital money designer; an Icelandic activist attempting to crowdsource democracy; a German sociologist who studies sustainable lifestyles and urban gardening, a leading champion of cooperatives from the UK; several French digital rights activists; a forest commons researcher from India; an American collaborative consumption advocate; a fab lab coordinator from Montreal; a Finnish artist-organizer involved with peer-to-peer developments; a commons education organizer from Barcelona; an EU official concerned with participatory leadership and collective intelligence; an Indonesian activist focused on alternative governance of natural resources and energy; among many, many others. 

It is impossible to encapsulate the highlights of the conference right now, but a full conference report will be released in about two months.  In the meantime, here are a few outcomes of the conference that I find significant:

Next week, the Economics and the Commons Conference in Berlin, Germany – subtitled “From Seed Form to Core Paradigm” – will bring together some 200 commoners from more than 30 countries.  The primary goal:  to explore new ideas, practices and alliances for developing the commons as an alternative worldview and provisioning system.

There will be five separate “streams” of inquiry at the conference, each of them seeking to redefine policy and activism through the prism of the commons.  These streams are Land and Nature; Work and Caring in a World of Commons; Treating Knowledge, Culture and Science as Commons; Money, Markets, Value and the Commons; and New Infrastructures for Commoning by Design.  

Working with my colleagues on the Commons Strategies Group, Silke Helfrich and Michel Bauwens, the conference is being co-organized by CSG, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, The Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation and Remix the Commons. The event will be held from May 22 to 24 at the Böll Foundation headquarters in Berlin.

The good news is that there has been an overwhelming advance interest in the conference.  The sad news is that physical capacity of the venue limits participation to 200 people.  However, the opening sessions on May 22 will be open to the public, and many events from the conference will be streamed.  Details will provided later at the conference communications platform / blog, which is already buzzing with postings and debate.  There is also a lot of background material on the commons at the conference wiki.

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