The Commons

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The challenge of collaboration takes many forms. One of these is how we treat the commons. We struggle to protect shared spaces because we largely act out of self-interest. There are alternatives however. A growing urban movement is experimenting with different ways of living. Seoul, South Korea has been called the world’s most wired city. Now it’s a leading example of the emerging sharing economy. Other cities are following in its footsteps.

The Challenge of the Commons

The challenge of the commons was described by Garret Hardin in a classic paper — “The tragedy of the commons” — published in Science in 1968. He used herdsmen grazing cattle in a shared pasture as an example. Each one could add more animals for free. If they did this, he said, the pasture would soon be depleted, to the detriment of all. “The individual benefits as an individual from his ability to deny the truth even though society as a whole, of which he is a part, suffers.”

Hardin warned that making similar choices would exhaust the Earth’s scarce resources. Declining ocean fish populations, air and water pollution, and global climate change have been offered as examples. There is no technical solution to these problems, Hardin said. We need to change our behavior. He offered two solutions: “coercive” government regulation, or privatization and reliance on markets to allocate resources.

Hardin was widely criticized for ignoring the kinds of cooperative arrangements that are common in many cultures. Many communities co-manage resources for mutual benefit. Now, with enabling technology, new common spaces are emerging — including contributory communities and peer production. These are based on shared interest.

New Forms of Collaboration

David Bollier, author of Think Like a Commoner: A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons (2014), has redefined the term. “Commons,” he said, “include the gifts of nature, such as the water and land, but also shared assets or creative work, such as cultural and knowledge artefacts” (my italics).

Michel Bauwens, a Belgian-born writer on social innovation, created the P2P Foundation in 2005 to advocate for commons-based peer-to-peer models. He is also director of research for, a platform for policy development aimed at creating a society of the commons, and a member of the Commons Strategies Group. CSG was cofounded by Michel Bauwens, David Bollier, and Silke Helfrich, a German writer who has edited and co-authored a number of books on the subject. The group conducts research and works on commons projects internationally.

Bauwens says the full scope of the commons includes the material commons we inherit (the natural environment), the material commons we create (shared infrastructure), the immaterial commons we inherit (such as language and culture), and the immaterial commons we create (such as knowledge and software).

The Urban Commons

The commons is providing a new model for cities. In November 2015 the International Association for the Study of the Commons, Fordham University’s Urban Law Center, the Laboratory for the Governance of the Commons, and the International Center on Democracy and Democratization sponsored a conference in Bologna, Italy — The City as a Commons: Reconceiving Urban Space, Common Goods and City Governance.

The possibilities, the organizers said, include “the regeneration of common spaces in cities for co-working and co-manufacturing, forms of cooperative ownership models such as community land trusts and real estate investment cooperatives, and the conscious emergence of a collaborative class in cities which transforms the economic relations between urban inhabitants.”

The 21st-century commons is enabling new lifestyles and new forms of social organization. Places are being created where people “share needs and tasks, help each other, give birth to new ways of living and moving within urban contexts, generate new forms of reciprocity, self- and mutual aid.”, a hub for ‘sharing transformation,’ recently published Sharing Cities: Activating the Urban Commons, a book that paints a broad picture of the burgeoning movement. It includes 69 case studies and 68 model policies on housing, mobility, food, work, energy, land, waste, water, technology, finance and governance.

In the book’s introduction, Shareable founder Neal Gorenflo says these examples “demonstrate that a city run by the people is not only possible, but that much of it is already here. From participatory budgeting in Brazil to resident-managed public spaces in Italy to taxi cooperatives in the U.S., there’s almost no service that can’t be run democratically by citizens for each other.”

Sharing City Seoul, launched in South Korea in 2012, implemented policies and programs to increase mainstream sharing. The initiative will change outdated laws and systems, support sharing enterprises, and encourage citizen participation. It received the Gothenburg Award for Sustainable Development in 2016. Seoul’s success has inspired many other cities to pursue similar projects around the world.

The Future

The commons is now a growing global movement. In Sharing Cities: A Case for Truly Smart and Sustainable Cities (2015), Duncan McLaren and Julian Agyeman advocate for sharing. “We believe that the world’s cities, where the majority of people now live, could become more socially just, more environmentally sustainable and more innovative through the twenty-first century reinvention and revival of one of our most basic traits: sharing… [W]ith modern technologies, the intersection of urban space and cyberspace provides an unrivaled platform for more just, inclusive, and environmentally efficient economies and societies in a sharing culture.”

There’s a lot going on — no less than a contest between alternative futures. The question is whether the old way or a new one will prevail.

This article is an excerpt from a book in progress on collaboration and transformative change. It was first posted on February 6, 2018, on LinkedIn.

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David Forrest

David is the founder of the Integral Strategy Network. He is a writer, futurist, strategist, and facilitator of systemic change.

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