Where do conservative urbanists, liberal activists, and free culture advocates congregate? Last week it was in Berlin at the first ever International Commons Conference (ICC) held by the Commons Strategies Group and the Heinrich Boll Foundation. The combination of traditional and digital commons was explored as a transformational paradigm for the first time through an international conference in keynote addresses, conference tracks, breakout groups, and plenary sessions over two days.
Sometimes conferences are cultural interventions. This seemed the case with the ICC. The conference was timely in a couple of important ways. The economic and environmental crises have leaders looking beyond government and the market for solutions. And the commons have come to the fore because of Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel win last year for her work on the commons and the recent ascent of digital commons. Together, traditional and digital commons offer a way forward that combines local traditions of stewardship with connection to global civil society.
Barbara Unmüßig, president of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, welcomed attendees highlighting the importance of the commons, as they, “could provide a catalyst for transition to a post-fossil era in which people actively help shape their lives and the environment they live in.” Indeed, a key thesis of the conference was that, “commons are the enabler for all other social goals, including environmental ones, which in essence are social.”
In the keynote speech that followed, David Bollier suggested that attendees may look back on the conference as an historic moment when a diverse group of commoners began to reinvent the idea of the commons in a globalized context and connect isolated projects into a powerful movement. The richness of the dialog that followed certainly gave me the feeling that this was possible.
The private, small group and plenary discussions were the most interesting to me for this reason. It was in these discussions that the different perspectives on the commons became most apparent, thus giving hints about how they might be combined into a more comprehensive worldview. Here are a few of the dividing lines I noticed during the conference:
- It seems that whenever people gather to discuss the commons, some time has to be spent defining them. The ICC was no exception. Part of one breakfast with Jay Walljasper and the On The Commons delegation was spent exploring the value of seeing the commons on a spectrum with pure commons at one end and private property at the other. Later, during an open space session on governing digital commons, it was pointed out to me that a set definition is important when government funding is tied to one. At another session with folks from Spanish speaking countries, I learned that there’s really no word in Spanish for commons.
- There was much talk about the proper relationship between the market, the state, and the commons. On the one hand were the purists, who believe that commons should have no connection to the market. More moderate voices tended to think that markets are ancient human phenomenon just as commons are, and that they must somehow work together. During one of the open space sessions I attended, the group outlined a framework that could support commons. The idea was that commons need strong institutional support like markets have to be truly durable. In his keynote, Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation and the Commons Strategies Group summed up the proper relationship between the commons and the state saying that the state should support social production as a partner.
- Another important axis was activist versus commons builders. Activists contended that the market poses a constant threat to commons and must be defended against vigorously. Free culture advocates and Transitioners had a different perspective – they feel that a good offense is the best defense. In other words, it may be easier to build anew what’s wanted than change what exists. Then some others said that both approaches are needed. Related to this axis was the understanding of commons as lifeboats in a crisis versus an inspiring upgrade from the status quo.
- While Michel Bauwens expressed hope about combining the traditional and digital commons, I was surprised that the cultural gap between digital and traditional commoners seemed fairly wide. And that gap didn’t necessarily have to do with the critical fact that digital commoners interact with a non-rival resource and traditional commoners interact with a rival resource. For instance, on a train ride to visit a home healthcare coop in Berlin, Martin Pedersen explained that indigenous medicinal knowledge is place-based but that digital commoners see knowledge as abstracted from place. Another difference was the digital commoners see traditional commons as occurring naturally in contrast to digital commons which are constructed. This is despite the fact that all commons are social and ecological systems, even digital commons as they require natural resources to stay always on.
All in all, it was an eye-opening event which fulfilled its promise. It opened a new vista where participants could see how diverse commons projects might work together thus laying a foundation for action.
- Conference wiki with agenda, notes from the open space, plenary notes, and participants
- The Commons – Prosperity by Sharing, an excellent overview of what commons are, why they matter, and a vision of a commons-based future.
- Videos of all the keynotes
Ruth Meizen-Dick, Silke Helfrich, and Michel Bauwens on a panel about commons as a transformational paradigm.