commons strategies

Cartographers of the Commons

How far we’ve come in ten years!  In 2004 a number of us at the Tomales Bay Institute – the predecessor to On the Commons – tried to get a number of small communities to conduct what we called “local commons surveys.”  The idea was to encourage people to make their own inventory of the many overlooked commons that touch their everyday lives, and especially those that are threatened by enclosure.  By making commons more visible, we reasoned, people might begin to organize to defend them.  It was a great idea, but only one or two communities actually got it together to survey their local commons.  A valiant experiment with modest results. 

Now we are the midst of a veritable explosion of commons mapping projects.  In October alone, there have been two loud thunderclaps of activity along these lines -- the MapJams organized by  Shareable.net and Ville en biens communs in France. 

The MapJam took place this month in over fifty cities in the US, Europe, Australia and Arab nations.  The process consisted of people meeting up to share what they know about sharing projects in their communities.  They ten categorized the results, co-created a map and spread the word.  It’s all part of the new Sharing Cities Project launched by Shareable.

Many of the new cartographers of the commons are overlaying specific sharing projects and commons on top of Google Maps.  Here, for example, is a map from Share Denver. And here is the map from Sharing City Berlin.  

As if by cosmic coincidence, hundreds of self-organized commoners in dozens of communities in France and Francophone nations recently participated in a similar exercise. Hosted by Villes en biens communs, many communities produced maps while others hosted workshops, experiments or convivial meet-ups.  All of them focused on the commons.

How to Build a “Shareable City”

Shareable and the Sustainable Economies Law Center have released a fantastic new report surveying the ways in which cities can adopt policies to promote “sharing” in a range of areas -- food, housing, transportation and jobs.  The landmark report, “Policies for Shareable Cities:  A Sharing Economy Policy Primer for Urban Leaders,” pulls together “scores of innovative, high impact policies that US city governments have put in place to help citizens share resources, co-produce, and create their own jobs.” 

What exactly is a “sharing city”?  It’s one that encourages carsharing and bikesharing programs through specific policies, such as designating “pick-up spots” for ridesharing and altering local taxes to make carsharing more attractive.  A sharing city is one that encourages urban agriculture on vacant lots and allows homegrown vegetables to be sold in the neighborhood.  A shareable city supports innovations like shared workspaces, shared commercial kitchens, community-financed start-ups, community-owned commercial centers, and spaces for “pop-up” businesses.  It also encourages home-based micro-enterprises by lowering permitting barriers.

What’s impressive about this 40-page report is that it provides a practical action plan that any city could pick up and implement immediately.  Yes, there are larger federal and state policies that could help make cities more shareable and liveable, but it is a misconception that only such big, bold policy reforms will work.  Municipalities can take a wide number of modest steps right now that, by supporting the "micro-dynamics" of social life, can have enormous macro-impacts on the affordability, social fabric and quality of life of a city.  As a report focused on American cities, it’s unclear to me how far the policy recommendations may apply to non-American cities....but I suspect that many of the ideas could work abroad.  

The report’s introduction explains the rationale behind the shareable city:

The sharing economy challenges core assumptions made in the 20th century planning and regulatory frameworks – namely, that residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural activities should be physically separated from one another, and that each single family household operates as an independent economic unit.  The sharing economy brings people and their work back together through sharing, gifting, bartering, and peer-to-peer buying and selling.  City governments can increasingly step into the role of facilitators of the sharing economy by designing infrastructure, services, incentives and regulations that factor in the social exchanges of this game-changing movement. 

Here’s a development that could have enormous global implications for the search for a new commons-based economic paradigm.  Working with an academic partner, the Government of Ecuador has launched a major strategic research project to “fundamentally re-imagine Ecuador” based on the principles of open networks, peer production and commoning.   

I am thrilled to learn that my dear friend Michel Bauwens, founder of the P2P Foundation and my colleague in the Commons Strategies Group, will be leading the research team for the next ten months.  The project seeks to “remake the roots of Ecuador’s economy, setting off a transition into a society of free and open knowledge.” 

The announcement of the project and Bauwens’ appointment was made on Wednesday by the Free/Libre Open Knowledge Society, or FLOK Society, a project at the IAEN national university that has the support of the Ministry of Human Resource and Knowledge in Ecuador.  The FLOK Society bills its mission as “designing a world for the commons.” 

The research project will focus on many interrelated themes, including open education; open innovation and science; “arts and meaning-making activities”; open design commons; distributed manufacturing; and sustainable agriculture; and open machining.  The research will also explore enabling legal and institutional frameworks to support open productive capacities; new sorts of open technical infrastructures and systems for privacy, security, data ownership and digital rights; and ways to mutualize the physical infrastructures of collective life and promote collaborative consumption.

What would the world look like if we began to re-conceptualize food as a commons?  Jose Luis Vivero Pol of the Centre for Philosophy of Law at Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium has done just that in a recent essay, “Food as a Commons:  Reframing the Narrative of the Food System.”  

The piece is impressive for daring to imagine how the world’s estimated 668 million hungry people might eat, and how all of us would become healthier, if we treated more elements of the food production and distribution system as commons.  Instead of managing food as a private good that can only be produced and allocated through markets, re-conceptualizing food as a commons helps us imagine “a more sustainable, fairer and farmer-centered food system,” writes Vivero Pol. 

One reason that the commons reframing is so useful is that it helps us see the ubiquity of enclosures in the food system.  We can begin to see the galloping privatization of farmland, water, energy and seeds.  We can see the concentration of various food sectors and the higher prices and loss of consumer sovereignty that comes from oligopoly control. 

Enclosure is snatching shared resources from us and preventing us from managing them to maximize access and good nutrition.  This is often known these days as “resource grabbing,” as companies and national governments race to seize as many abundant, cheap natural resources as they can on an international scale.  This is one reason for the many pernicious enclosures of land commons in Africa and Latin America in recent years. There is a huge exodus from traditional and indigenous lands as China, Saudi Arabia, Korea, hedge funds and others buy up natural resources.  These enclosures are moving us “from diversity to uniformity, from complexity to homoegeneity, and from richness to impoverishment,” writes Vivero Pol.  

In South Amherst, Massachusetts, they just put up a sign!

My friend Silke Helfrich recently wrote a great blog post about the importance of infrastructure to the commonsdrawing upon the keynote talk on infrastructure by Miguel Said Vieira at the Economics and the Commons conference in Berlin, in May 2013.  Silke reviewed Miguel's talk, prepared in collaboration with Stefan Meretz – and then added some of her own ideas and examples.  Here is her post from the Commons Blog:  

Infrastructure is, IMHO, one of THE issues we have to deal with if we want to expand the commons….Let’s start with a few quotes from the (pretty compelling) framing of the respective stream at ECC, which was called, “New Infrastructures for Commoning by Design.”

"Commons, whether small or large, can benefit a lot from dependable communication, energy and transportation, for instance. Frequently, the issue is not even that a commons can benefit from those services, but that its daily survival badly depends on them. … When we look at commoning initiatives as a loose network, it does not make sense that multiple commons in different fields or locations should have to repeat and overlap their efforts in obtaining those services (infrastructures) independently…“

We need to sensitize commoners about the urgent need for Commons-Enabling Infrastructures (CEI). That is, we need infrastructures that can “by design” foster and protect new practices of commoning; help challenge power concentration and individualistic behavior are based on distributed networks (as extensively as possible) provide platforms which enable non-discriminatory access and use rights (for instance: a “ticket-free public transport system” is not cost-free, but it is designed in such a way that the funding of maintenance is not tied to the traveller’s individual budget).

A vexing problem for many potential commons is the lack of startup capital to get a project going while nurturing the social structures to organize participation and work.  I recently learned of an ingenious solution developed by a group of “time banking” commoners in West Virginia.  They adapted a traditional Time Bank system of barter-exchange and combined it with common pool of funds, which in turn served as an engine of development for DIY solar power installations -- in the heart of coal country, West Virginia!

Greg Bloom of Washington, D.C., who has a keen interest in cooperatives and commons, alerted me to his case study of the project.  (Thanks, Greg!)  As he tells the story at the Community Power Network website, the tax incentive approach to promoting solar power has distinct limits.  It is too geared to people who already earn enough to benefit from the tax breaks.  But what if you are low-income and have trouble paying your utility bills?  You don’t earn enough to be incentivized, and you don’t have enough to pay for the upfront costs of a solar project.

In the town of Philippi, West Virginia, a local engineer, John Prusa, known locally as a “benevolent mad scientist,” had “designed and built his own home’s solar power array, and then shared his designs with neighbors and helped them develop their own,” writes Bloom.  Prusa and a local minister, Ruston Seaman, of People's Chapel Church, found each other, and decided to start a new group, New Vision Renewable Energy

The Church had once been the host of a flourishing Time Bank system with over 300 members, and even a store that accepted the Time Bank credits.  But the system had fallen into disuse for a variety of reasons.  Time Banks are a system by which members can earn credits for work they do for each other, at a rate of one credit, one hour of work. The systems are especially valuable for people with more time than money, such as low-income people and the elderly.  It helps them get their needs met, without money, outside of the marketplace.  Time Banks can serve important needs in areas that banks and markets have abandoned or ignored. 

The Thought of Ivan Illich Today

I had always admired Ivan Illich for his penetrating insights into the pathologies of modern life and the human condition.  Like dormant seeds, they sprouted at just the right time in my life and helped me develop a vocabulary for better understanding the commons. 

The recent conference in Oakland – “After the Crisis:  The Thought of Ivan Illich Today,” on August 1-3 -- gave me an enlarged, fresher understanding of Illich's life and writings. Below I’d like to share some of the highlights of the conference, which can help us recover and rejuvenate Illich's thought for our time. (Illich wrote his most famous works in the 1960s and 1970s, and died in 2002.)

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Governor Jerry Brown, a long-time friend of Illich’s, opened the conference with a short talk.  He had met Illich at Green Gulch, a Zen monastery in Marin County, in the 1970s.  Brown noted that Illich’s work cannot be fit into any political, religious or philosophical pigeonhole because.  He ranged freely across artificial disciplinary boundaries, and put a central emphasis on aliveness (which is distinct from “life”).  Much of Illich’s work, said Brown, was about challenging “the certitudes of modernity.”

In a short, just-released collection of four Illich essays, Beyond Economics and Ecology  (Marion Boyars Publishers) Governor Brown writes in the preface that Illich “questioned the very premises of modern life and traced its many institutional excesses to developments in the early and Medieval Church.”  In the 12th century and after, the Church and later the nation-state began to appropriate for themselves Christ’s narratives about salvation and the sacred, and put them to decidedly more secular, worldly use. 

This has culminated in the profound alienation of modern times, in Illich’s view.  As Governor Brown writes, Illich “saw in modern life and its pervasive dependence on commodities and services of professionals a threat to what it is to be human.  He cut through the illusions and allurements to better ground us in what it means to be alive.  He was joyful but he didn’t turn his gaze from human suffering.”

The Oakland conference consisted of ten speakers, most of whom had known Illich as collaborators and sparring partners.  I can’t summarize all of the presentations or capture all of their subtle complexities, but let me excerpt a handful of thoughtful comments.

A fairly new group of leading heterodox economic thinkers and activists has come together as Econ4 to pioneer some new forms of popular education about economics. Their work focuses both on the fallacies of conventional economics and the promise of a new economic paradigm.  Check out Econ4’s series of intelligent and engaging short videos which explain the economics of healthcare, housing, jobs, and more.  A just-released video, “The Bottom Line:  A New Economy,” provides a terrific overview of the new types of peer production, cooperatives and other distributed, local, hybrid initiatives that are already taking root across the US. 

The basic mission of Econ4 is to change the study of economics and how we publicly talk about economic choices.  As the project states on its website:  “The economic crisis we face today is not only a crisis of the economy. It is also a crisis of economics. The free-market fundamentalism that attained ideological dominance in the final decades of the 20th century has been discredited by financial collapse, global imbalances, mass unemployment, and environmental degradation. To confront these challenges, we need an economics for the 21st century.”

The term “Econ4” refers to the four central conditions that the economy must meet in meeting people’s long-term needs and protecting the planet.  This chart provides a shorthand overview of the four conditions, which are elaborated in a longer statement on the Econ4 website:

Besides its great videos, Econ4 has a variety of resources for those who wish to explore alternative economics further. 

Some of the most interesting new commons are those that you don’t usually hear about, probably because they are so small or local.  I recently stumbled across the New Cross Commoners and was quite impressed with their zeal and ingenuity in exploring the meaning of commoning in their district of South London.  The “About” section of the New Cross Commoners website explains their mission quite nicely:

Capitalism is the term we can use to call the private / public system that dominates not only the economy but also our social relations and our lives. Our desires and efforts for a good life together get exploited by capitalism (see for example “Big Society”). Commoning can be a process of struggle to reclaim those efforts and desires for ourselves. A commoning that is worth of its name, one not entirely exploited by the private / public system, implies a degree of struggle against this private / public system. It also implies a negotiation amongst the people who produce it: we are “privatized” as well, we need to learn how to live together, how to take care of each other collectively.

To understand what is commoning in New Cross we’ll read and discuss texts together, and at the same time we’ll explore the neighbourhood to find out what processes of commoning are already part of the life of New Cross (we’ll start with communal gardens, housing associations, youth and community centres, and the New Cross library). We would like not only to understand the commoning already produced in New Cross, but also to produce new commoning here: to share and organize skills and resources in such a way that this sharing can become more and more autonomous from private / public interests, from the market, from interests that are not those of the people using them.

The New Cross Commoners website is an inspiration to other would-be commoners who may wish to rediscover commoning in their own neighborhoods and towns.  The group has held meetings at which they discuss essays by the commons historians such as Peter Linebaugh; Massimo De Angelis, and Silvia Federici, for example.  They have met together to brew beer and drink it when it was ready. 

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