The Art of Commoning

This past weekend I learned a lot about the art of commoning through a process known as The Art of Hosting.  It’s a methodology for eliciting the collective wisdom and self-organizing capacity of a group – which is obviously important for a successful commons. 

We all know that the commons is about the stewardship of resources, but we may not realize that it is also about hosting people.  Not “managing” them or “organizing” them, but unleashing their capacity to self-organize themselves in creative, constructive, humane ways. 

This requires a sensitive touch, an artistic flair and a deep attentiveness to the humanity of other human beings. This is the art of hosting:  an engagement with people as living, feeling, meaning-making creatures who care about fairness, imagination and fun.

Serious observers of the commons often approach it “from the outside,” as if it were an elaborate machine of cogs and pulleys.  But if you approach the commons from within its inner dimensions – how people relate to each other – you are forced to pay more attention to qualitative dimensions and capacities of human beings, including aesthetics, ethics and feelings. Personality and authenticity matter.

The art of commoning, then, is about the graceful, light-touch structuring of people’s distinctive energies, passions and imaginations as they interact in groups.  By modeling certain attitudes toward each other and the world, and by constructing a shared social norm, people learn to give the best of themselves while taking care of each other and their shared social and physical spaces. 

The three-day Art of Commoning event in Montreal  – most of it in French – was hosted by a team of facilitators called Percolab. (Thank you, Elizabeth Hunt and Samatha Slade for your running translations!)  Fittingly, the gathering was held at Espace pour la vie, Space for Living, which is a group of four natural sciences resource institutes in Montreal.  Some collective notes from the gathering (in French and English) can be found here.  

Let it be said that this was not an event of droning keynotes and dreary powerpoints.  It was a lively, highly participatory set of deftly structured encounters among seventy people who care deeply about the commons. 

At one point, people were split up into small groups and one person told a memorable story of commoning – while others were assigned to identify notable aspects of the story – paradoxes, intuitive moments, “tipping points,” and the importance of economic, political and legal structures.  These interpretations really helped bring out revealing themes and meanings in each story.

Another segment of the event asked people in small groups to identify barriers to commoning.  Among the factors named:  fear of scarcity, self-protection in disruptive times, a lack of imagination and a lack of intentionality and a commoning identity. 

The posture of a commoner is critical.  He or she must be present and connected to the energy of the group; that's the only way to identify problems as they arise and evolve solutions.  People must realize that they are parts of a larger, living, sense-making organization.

The art of commoning, as I see it, is about designing a “social circuitry” that gets people to relate to each other as full human beings, and not as people living in rigid, prescriptive roles.  While authority, expertise and talent matter in a commons, as in any other context, those traits should not be a source of permanent privilege or power. 

Thus, in a commons, instead of dividing groups of people into experts and neophytes, or leaders and followers, or assigning everyone to play fixed, specific roles, the art of hosting insists that we relate to each other as mindful human beings.  By being present in the moment, we are better able to align personal and group needs. 

Human initiative and needs can come to the fore instead of being stifled by administrative rationality and control.  When people consent to “lightweight” social structures such as shared understandings, norms and respect, it turns out that they can self-organize themselves quite easily.  They can make their own rules and modify them quickly and flexibly, as needed.  This is surely one reason that commoners in the networked world so often outperform conventional hierarchical markets.

In the fashion of the “blind men and the elephant” parable, is the commons an “elephant” – something that each of us connects to in different but limited ways?  If so, how can we begin to see the “whole elephant” and understand it as such? 

People agreed that there is an element of trust and intuition that is needed to “see” the elephant whole.  The commons lies just below the surface, and the ice is melting.  But what exactly is there?  This remains a serious challenge:  naming and describing the whole.

There were many other touches that made the Art of Commoning special.  Alain Ambrosi of Remix the Commons, the thoughtful videographer of commoners around the world, set up a video booth that was intended as a kind of “commons confessional” for people.  Throughout the event, people recorded very personal statements about their experiences as commoners. 

Roch Landry, the impresario of “space and beauty,” was a joyful presence in orchestrating a potluck banquet on folding tables that stretched seventy feet end-to-end.  A circle exercise of people mimicking each other’s movements and sounds resulted in an uncannily synching of the group -- a flocking behavior that occurs among birds when they imitate their adjacent peers. How easy it is to sync!  And how important for commoning to be experienced in our corporeal selves!

The word hosting now has a special meaning for me, and its relevance for the commons is clear. It provides a vocabulary for talking about having a proper posture and gracious enablement in interacting with others. One must learn how to host oneself, how to host others, how to allow yourself to be hosted, and how to co-produce with others.  

Hosting and commoning:  some powerful synergies cannot be far behind.