Because the practices of commoning fly in the face of market culture, they are frequently misunderstood.  What is this process of committed collaboration toward shared goals? people may wonder.  How does it work, especially when many industries want to privatize control of the resource or prevent competition via commoning?

Matthieu Rhéaume, a commoner and game designer who lives Montreal, decided that a card game could be a great vehicle for introducing people to the commons.  The result of his efforts is “C@rds in Common:  A Game of Political Collaboration.”  “I see playfulness as a sense-making tool,” Matthieu told me.  “People can play casually and be surprised by the meta-learning [about the commons] that results.”

It all began at the World Social Forum (WSF) conference in Montreal in August 2016. Rhéaume decided to use the opportunity to synthesize viewpoints about the commons from a group of 50 participants and use the results to develop the card game.  He persuaded the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation and Gazibo, both based in France, to support development of the game. Fifty commoners more or less co-created the game with the help of several colleagues.  (The process is described here.)

As a game designer, Rhéaume realized that successful, fun games must embody a certain “procedural rhetoric” and reward storytelling. He had enjoyed playing “Magic: The Gathering,” a popular multiplayer card game, and wondered what that game would feel like if it were collaborative.

At the WSF, Rhéaume asked participants to share their own insights about the commons by submitting suggested cards in six categories. The first four categories consist of “commoners cards” featuring  “resources,” “action cards,” “project cards” and “attitude cards.”  Two other types of cards -- “Oppressive Forces” cards with black backs – give the game its kick by applying  “negative effects” to the “Political Arena” of play.  The two negative effects are “enclosures” and “crises,” to which commoners must collectively organize and respond in time.

Want an intensive introduction to the emerging “ethical economy” led by some of the most active practitioners and experts around?  Consider attending an unusual two-week study program, “Transition to Co-operative Commonwealth:  Pathways to a New Political Economy.”  It will be held from September 11 to 23, in Monte Ginezzo, Tuscany, Italy. 

The course will be hosted by Synergia, an international network of academics, social activists, practitioners and policymakers engaged in building a new political economy that is sustainable, democratic and socially just.  The course will provide a critical overview of the diverse elements of the ethical economy and the mechanisms required for its realization. 

The course will consist of lectures, workshops and site visits to leading cooperatives and commons projects in Tuscany and Emilia Romagna, home to one of the most advanced co-operative economies in the world.

Among the topics to be covered:

• Co-operative capital and social finance; alternative currencies;

• Co-op and commons-based housing and land tenure; community land trusts;

• Renewable energy; community-owned energy systems;

• Local & sustainable food systems; community supported agriculture;

The economist Paul Samuelson once wrote, “I don't care who writes a nation's laws—or crafts its advanced treaties—if I can write its economics textbooks.” 

What a pleasure to learn that an insurgent team of economists, The Core Project, is about to rewrite the nation’s laws.  The new introductory economics textbook is called The Economy.  It is surely the most daring, cosmopolitan and empirically driven textbook since Samuelson’s tome was unleashed on undergraduates in 1948.  It is also packed with innovations worthy of our digital age. The Core Project’s sardonic tagline says it well:  “Teaching economics as if the last three decades had happened.” 

This is not your grandfather’s econ textbook.  Nor is it an exercise in ideological spin or neoliberal bashing. In both style and substance, Core-Econ (the name for the Core Project's website) shakes off the dreary norms of conventional economics and embraces the critical intelligence of the real world. 

Savor the delicious paradox that The Economy is published as an interactive ebook available for free downloads (pdfs) and printing. It is published under a Creative Commons Attribution, NonCommercial, NoDerivatives license, demonstrating that a free lunch is entirely feasible (at least for non-rival goods like books).

So far, ten of the twenty-one planned teaching modules have been published online; the remaining ten modules are expected to be completed by the end of 2014. At the moment, the online version is available as a “beta” release, which means that anyone can submit feedback and suggestions to improve the text before its release.

The Leuphana Digital School in Lüneberg, Germany, has announced the start of an online course on the psychology of negotiations in commons, which will run from May 20 to August 20.  “Psychology of Negotiations:  Reaching Sustainable Agreements in Negotiations on Commons” will be led by Professor Dr. Roman Trötschel, and introduce participants to a psychological approach to negotiations in the context of commons. 

Anyone with an Internet connection can participate.  After successful completion of the course, participants may obtain a university certificate for a nominal fee of 20 euros, which grants participants five credit points that they can transfer towards their own degree program.  Here is a short video outlining the scope of the course.

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).

For newcomers to the commons wishing to acquaint themselves with Elinor Ostrom’s work, it can be a hard slog.  Her scholarly treatises, while often quite insightful, can be quite dense in delivering their hard research results and refined insights.  It is a real pleasure, therefore, to greet Sustaining the Commons, a new undergraduate textbook that has just been published.  The book provides a general overview of the intellectual framework, concepts and applications of Ostrom’s research on the commons. 

Best of all, in a refreshing departure from most academic publishing, the authors of the 168-page book decided to make it available for free as a downloadable pdf file.  Just go to the book’s website and blog,

Sustaining the Commons is by John M. Anderies and Marco A. Janssen, both associate professors at Arizona State University and directors of the Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity, which is the publisher of the textbook.  Both authors worked with Ostrom from 2000 until her death in 2012.  Although Ostrom’s name is mostly associated with Indiana University, where she co-founded and ran the Workshop on Political Theory and Policy Analysis, Ostrom was also a part-time research professor at ASU from 2006-2012.

Anderies and Janssen taught a course at ASU on Ostrom’s work, with a special focus on her books Governing the Commons (1990) and Understanding Institutional Diversity (2005).  Out of that teaching arose the idea for this book.  Ostrom herself saw and approved of the first draft of the book in April 2012, shortly before her death. 

The book is a lucid, logically presented introduction to the key concepts of Ostrom’s research.  There are chapters on “defining institutions,” “action arenas and action situations,” and “social dilemmas.”  There are also a series of case studies on the management of various types of common-pool resources – water, forests, domesticated animals – and a review of “design principles to sustain the commons.”  

There are a number of chapters on human behavior as it is studied by social science.  How do people make decisions about collective matters and how do they develop trust?  How are these behaviors studied in the laboratory?  What sorts of rules and social norms matter? 

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.

Viewing Education as a Commons

I was recently asked by Anthony Cody, who blogs for Education Week, to explain how the commons paradigm might apply to the public schools.  The topic is of special concern to him and others who are alarmed at the attempted takeover of the Los Angeles school board by billionaires financing the election campaigns of candidates who favor charter schools and “choice.”    

Here are a few select paragraphs from my commentary, “Viewing Education as a Commons.”  You may want to read the comments as well, including the one from the inevitable nut who equates the commons with communism.

Enclosures in higher education consist of corporate research "partnerships" with universities, in which the corporations essentially commandeer the research agenda, dictate many terms of the research and how it may be used, and leverage publicly funded resources for private, corporate purposes. It may also consist of treating student bodies as captive cohorts to be advertised to or given educational loans at exploitative interest rates. At the K-12 levels, enclosure may consist of the imposition of corporate-promoted educational curricula; marketing to students via sports, textbooks and student events; and educational priorities that suit the market-oriented interests of corporate leaders, such as school vouchers and "competition" as a way to improve school performance.

Enclosures bring with them a pathology that most markets entail, however. Their success often stems from "externalizing" as many costs as they can onto the community, students or future generations, so that the business enterprise can become more "efficient" and "productive." This is how markets routinely function -- by generating externalities. It is why industry does not take adequate account of the long-term health of nature.

A non-moderated online course, “Introduction to Global Commons,” is just getting underway again at the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) website.  UNITAR, based in Geneva, Switzerland, developed the course in conjunction with the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business.

The course, which debuted in March 2012, is a four-part, self-paced course that is estimated to take about 25 hours over a period of two weeks.  The course introduces the commons as a distinct system of governance and resource management, and as a new way of looking at the world.  It includes a variety of readings and videos, including a public talk by Professor Elinor Ostrom.  Registration is open until March 1.

I helped develop this course in 2011 with Professor Leo Burke of Notre Dame and Robin Temple, an online education expert. I also do the video introductions to each learning module.  Leo, a longtime commoner, has been a tireless pioneer in bringing education about the commons to business schools and executive education. 

The course includes a Participants’ Forum that lets students interact with each other.  For more information or technical support, you can contact Rosario Marra of UNITAR at rosario.marra /at/ or register here.

Update:  I just learned that the course (unlike the previous one offered last year) now costs US$400 except for people from "least developed countries" (as the term goes).  This may be a catalyst for all of us to explore other, more accessible (yet sustainable) ways of hosting commons e-learning courses.  Or perhaps UNITAR can find the means to offer the course at no cost in the future.

A four-module online course on the commons has just been launched by the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) based in Geneva, in conjunction with the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. The four modules focus on the history of the commons, the special value proposition of the commons, the dynamics of enclosure, and a survey of commons-based strategies.  Officially called “Introductory e-Course to the Global Commons,” the self-paced course, taught in English, consists of videos, online readings and resource links, as well as self-test quizzes.

I helped develop this course over the past year, working closely with Professor Leo Burke of the University of Notre Dame and e-learning specialist Robin Temple.  There are, of course, many ways to introduce and teach the commons.  This is just one path into the subject.  We were especially mindful that we were devising an online course that could be interesting and accessible to a highly diverse general audience -- a special challenge since there is no moderator.

We think the course pulls together some notable talks and readings to introduce the commons to UN delegates and government officials, who are the target audience/participant group.  However, students, academics, businesspeople and the general public are also invited to take the course.  To register, just go here. The deadline for registration is April 20.

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