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David Bollier: How ‘commoning’ can offer an alternative approach to sustainability

If we take sustainability seriously, we can’t return to the pre-pandemic world. But can society find better ways of doing things, or will our old habits be too difficult to shake?

David Bollier

David Bollier, Director of the Reinventing the Commons Program at the Schumacher Center for New Economics, believes that commoning is one solution. We chat to him to learn more about what commoning is and how it can drive more sustainable outcomes for society.

What are the commons, and what do they mean for society?

The commons are a social system of shared wealth, in which people self-organize, devise their own rules and manage shared resources in a collective way. It’s a social system for managing everything from information to land to irrigation water. It can happen in any context, whenever people work together in social co-operation.

How widespread is commoning?

There are countless commoning initiatives out there, but they’re often not recognized as being viable. With so much free-market or state-centric thinking, alternatives like commoning are not seriously entertained. They’re often seen as too trivial, local or informal. But the power of informal social networks is really quite strong.

Can commoning co-exist with our current market-led economy?

Capitalist markets tend to be extractive and privatize gains, and can be at loggerheads with the principles of the commons. On the other hand, there are a lot of local markets for which capitalist extraction is not the chief goal. They can be benign to the community. Many commons have constructive relationships with markets in that sense.

Political and business leaders are talking about making economies more sustainable after the pandemic. How can commoning help solve this challenge?

Contemporary capitalism on a global scale tries to get the most tightly efficient and productive network, but it can become extremely brittle. We saw supply chains become very vulnerable during the pandemic. Commons is not one integrated system, so there’s more flexibility to adapt. This kind of distributed structure is more resilient because its primary goal is not to eke out the maximum productive gains. It’s responsive to the ebb and flow of life, in social ecosystems and in people’s changing circumstances.

Do you see commons succeeding where the current economy has failed?

There are some examples where informal, disaggregated systems of commoning meet needs in a more reliable way. Open-source software, for instance, often deals with problems that the business models of the dominant players don’t want to deal with. This is an example of where a bottom-up social system can be more responsive to on-the-ground realities than markets, which are more intent on monetizing things.

Another example is in agriculture where smallholder farming meets agricultural needs in regional, ecologically sensitive ways compared to industrial agriculture. The latter turns an ecosystem into a monoculture, which makes it more vulnerable to ecological problems, like pest or blight.

If scaled up, could commoning be a viable approach to tackle global warming or other challenges?

Commons emulate and federate. We don’t need one massive organization – we need people to emulate in ways that are appropriate to where they are, and then federate so they can share among each other. This is a different waying of “scaling”. Not through one single, centralized hierarchical enterprise, but more of a loosely joined internet-style organization.

How can businesses help to fast-track this process?

Some businesses are more open to the ideas of their customers. There are examples of industries – for instance in certain sports – that have a symbiotic relationship with their consumers, contributing ideas that the companies can help propagate. Yet, the problem is that many of these businesses become so large and proprietary that the ideas don’t spread. If we want to have tech transfer for climate change, for example, we need something in the order of open-source technologies that build on shared knowledge instead of locking them up in a monopoly.

Many commoning initiatives are driven by close collaboration. Are there any financial or regulatory barriers to commoning initiatives?

We’ve seen that when sharing and cooperation reach a certain scale and impact, it becomes demonized, if not criminalized. In many cases commoning is a competitive threat. This tension needs to be resolved. State policy makers need to find a way to nourish this kind of innovation.

Can commoning be encouraged through regulation?

In some European cities like Barcelona or Amsterdam, there are attempts for municipal governments to empower commoning to show that citizens can play a significant role, in a way that has authority and responsibility. This is a frontier of innovation for policy. There is an opportunity to move beyond bureaucratic, one-size-fits-all regulation to a system that provides hospitable conditions for communing to occur, where the state can facilitate, and provide technical or financial support to help commoning.

Adapted from a podcast produced by Longitude, a Financial Times company, in partnership with ING.