The Commons as a new narrative for the 21 century


I had the opportunity to do the introductory talk of the World Commons Forum held on 29 and 30 of September in Salzburg. I am pleased to share my ideas as well as the presentation. It includes a table to compare the present paradigm with the commons paradigm.

Note: this is a speech script, it’s not a corrected print version.  Here we go:

The Commons as the new narrative for the 21 Century

World Commons Forum, Salzburg, 29. – 30.09. 2009



When we talk about the commons, what are we talking about?

A ship is cruising from port to port. On the upper deck there are a few deck-chairs, three times less than the number of passengers. During the first cruising days the chairs changed continually their „owners“. As soon as someone got up, a deck-chair was regarded as being free, bath-towels or other occupation-symbols were not recognized. This was an appropriate rule for that special situation. It simply did work, because it was simple: Use was free, but short-term!

This takes us directly to one of the principles of a commons based economy and society.


Use? Yes! Abuse? No!


This way, the deck-chairs – even though limited – were „not short in supply“.

Later, after leaving a port in which new passengers came on board, that order collapsed. The newcomers had occupied the chairs and claimed their permanent possession. So, the majority of the other passengers remained without any opportunity to relax on deck. The result: Scarcity reigns, conflicts develop and most of the guests on board are worse off than before. (based on: H. Popitz, Phänomene der Macht)

What can learn several things from that story. First of all, the commons are shared prosperity; or – as Wolfgang Sachs puts it: When we talk about the commons, we talk about


a hidden secret of our prosperity.“


This is a strong but simple message. „The commons are the web of lifesays Vandana Shiva. Actually, the commons are the webs of life in it’s natural, social, cultural and digital sphere. When we talk about commons we talk about quality of life, about our future and the future of our children.

The problem is, that commons are everywhere, but they are often invisible to us. And they may get lost and consequently forgotten.

They get lost by the force of the elbow (i.e. by ourselves – as in our cruiser episode), or by the force of money (i.e. by the market) or by an arrangement of the captain (i.e. by the State). The result of this process is the erosion of the commons.

So, the real tragedy of the commons(a famous metaphor coined by G. Hardin) is that we only become conscious of the commons and their enormous value to us, when they are about to disappear.

I am often asked: What exactly is a commons? We are accustomed to fragment complexity by short, „scientific“ and supposedly objectif definitions.

Some of the groundbreaking theorizing on the commons has been done by Elinor Ostrom. She and her colleagues insist, that there is nomaster inventory” or single definition of commons. Each commons is the product of unique historical circumstances, local culture, economical and ecological conditions and so on.

What we can do instead is, examine what all commons have in common?

What has the defense of biodiversity in common with the struggle for free soft- and hardware?

Why is the struggle for access to knowledge and culture the same struggle as for access to water and against climate change?

The commons allow us to unify in thinking what is separated in our mind but belongs together.

1. All commons share a function. Natural commons, social commons and knowledge commons are all essential to us:


Natural commons are necessary for our survival, while social commons ensure social cohesion, and cultural commons are required for our self directed passion.“ Manifest: Gemeingüter stärken. Jetzt!


2. All commons have an architecture: i.e. We can look at them as complex systems in which several components interact. Obviously, those architectures differ greatly from one common to another, but all of them are based on three generic building blocks.

Let us have a quick look at some concrete examples for the first building block: there is biodiversity, the water, our genetic code, algorithms and cultural techniques we use to produce knowledge – like read and write – , the notes and the airwaves or the electromagnetic spectrum to transmit music and information; the time we dispose, game-rules, the information, the knowledge we need to get a medical diagnosis or the knowledge compiled by millions of wikipedians, the digital code enclosed in a software programme or the silence. And the capacity of the atmosphere to absorb emissions: All those are
„common pool resources. (CPR) All of us have the same right to use those resources.

A CPR is the first fundamental element of a commons architecture.

What’s the second building block?

This foto is subtitled: „My first folding-chair parking-space-holder“. In many Boston neighborhoods, it’s a rite of winter: When the first flakes start to fall, the crates and the garbage cans and the chairs come out. Plenty of chairs to protect what some residents insist are „their“ spaces on the street. One may think: but it’s not „theirs“ – I mean, who owns the public streets?

Elinor Ostrom states that „this is a commons“, because the residents – i.e. a certain community share a common understanding of how to use a resource. So, in many (not all) Boston neighborhoods the understanding is, that if you shovel out a parking spot, you are entitled to park there until the snow melts. You signal that right by putting a chair in the cleared-out spot. Again, like in our cruiser example the solution is to grant (temporary) use-rights instead of exclusive private property rights.

In other words, temporary possession is not the same as ever lasting property. Everyone can take commons into possession, as long as they don’t take them away from others – nor from future generations!

The community, the group of people which share a common pool resource, is our second generic building bloc. In the case of the atmosphere and other global commons, this „group“ is the whole mankind.

Therefore, we should talk about the commons as a verb and not as a noun. It’s not about the water or the atmosphere or the code by themselves. It’s all about us, about the decisions we make. To quote Peter Linebaugh:

There are no commons without commoning.“


The parking-space example is a wonderful way to show how idiosyncratic a commons can be.“, says my colleague David Bollier. On the Internet, where the resources are intangible bits of code and information, commons governance takes very different shapes. Each community defines its own rules. And this is the third building block of a commons architecture: a set of, as far as possible, self-ordained rules.

A commons-based society will be based on rules designed in such a way, that they automatically maintain and recreate our commons.



What is wrong and how to cange it?

If you know this guy – hands up? (foto of Tim Bernes Lee – nearly no hands up)

And that one? (foto from Bill Gates – all hands up)

Why the difference?

We all owe a lot to Tim Bernes Lee. Nevertheless, most of us don’t know him – nor by name nor by foto. While we are well aware of Bill Gates‘ role in the current economy.

In 1989 Tim Berners-Lee wrote the Hypertext Markup Language HTML, the description language for internet-pages and the respective protocol HTTP. Berners-Lee did not patent his ideas, nor its technical implementations. And he ensured that the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) adopted only patent-free standards. This approach reflects a core idea of the commons: the idea of sharing, as well as the importance of renouncing to control about what other people do. Berners-Lee says „Web pages are designed for people.“

He greatly and successfully contributed to the commons. But the problem is, that our idea of success is linked to old paradigmes, to account balances, media presence or business strategies regardless of their contribution to the commons.

If we want the commons get a prominent place in our society, the action of economic players, of the State, and of the indivitual must become bound to commons (and not to the GDP) as the basis of success.


Whoever fills the commons rather than just drawing from them, deserves prestige and social recognition.“

Manifest: Gemeingüter stärken. Jetzt!


Therefore, we urgently need new ideas and a new narrative for the 21 century.

We may contribute in many different ways to the commons if we radically focus on.

  • decentralized production, made possible by new levels of networking with digital tools

  • cooperation at a local and global level

  • diversity of resources, communities, designs and rules)

  • relationality – which corresponds to the idea, that „I need the others, and the others need me.“

Those are the core ideas, that underpin the shift to a commons-based society.

design-framework present paradigm commons paradigm
purpose: GDP / accumulation social prosperity
main actors: economic player/ State communities/ citizen
decision making: hierarchical horizontal /peer-review processus
decision taking: judgement/command constructive criticism /participation
condition: control (proprietary standards) openness (open standards)
incentive for: profit & accumulation creativity & innovation

On the resource level:

erosion, enclosure reproduction, fair-share

On the social level:

dependence interdependence within community, autonomy

On the level of rules:

acceptance enforced by power, by money or by law high level of acceptance
Dominant strategy: out-compete (out-)cooperate


The future will reward those who collaborate, and that collaboration may
even save the asses of those who don’t.
(Cliff Figallo)

Thank you!

Silke Helfrich

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