How to Design the Commons (or, Elinor Ostrom Explained!)

This past Tuesday, Elinor Ostrom accepted her Nobel Prize in Economics. That was a watershed intellectual event for those who are trying to build a more shareable society. 

But more than one champion of sharing and the commons has confessed to never having heard of Elinor Ostrom before the prize was announced. So who is Elinor Ostrom, and what is her contribution to understanding resource-sharing, exactly?

"Over many decades, Ostrom has documented how various communities manage common resources—grazing lands, forests, irrigation waters, fisheries—equitably and sustainably over the long term," wrote Jay Walljasper in Shareable.net. "The Nobel Committee’s recognition of her work effectively debunks popular theories about the Tragedy of the Commons, which hold that private property is the only effective method to prevent finite resources from being ruined or depleted."

There are actually quite a few accessible online resources for discovering Ostrom's ideas--and those ideas are surprisingly practical and useful to anyone who works in any kind of human organization.

According to Cooperation Commons (a great resource, by the way) Ostrom claims that "all efforts to organize collective action, whether by an external ruler, an entrepreneur, or a set of principals who wish to gain collective benefits, must address a common set of problems." These problems are "coping with free-riding, solving commitment problems, arranging for the supply of new institutions, and monitoring individual compliance with sets of rules."

In comparing communities, Ostrom found that groups that are able to organize and govern their behavior successfully are marked by the some basic design principles:

  • Group boundaries are clearly defined.
  • Rules governing the use of collective goods are well matched to local needs and conditions.
  • Most individuals affected by these rules can participate in modifying the rules.
  • The rights of community members to devise their own rules is respected by external authorities.
  • A system for monitoring member's behavior exists; the community members themselves undertake this monitoring.
  • A graduated system of sanctions is used.
  • Community members have access to low-cost conflict resolution mechanisms.
  • For common-pool resources that are parts of larger systems: appropriation, provision, monitoring, enforcement, conflict resolution, and governance activities are organized in multiple layers of nested enterprises.

These simple rules are quite powerful guidelines for forging resilient organizations--and I discovered that resiliency is a thread that runs through all of Ostrom's ideas.

YouTube contains a number of her erudite (but grandmotherly) lectures, and I had a hard time picking just one to share with you. In some ways, however, this nine-minute talk on how to create resilient socio-ecological systems seems like the best place to start: 

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