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Restart Radio: Elinor Ostrom and the commons

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Janet and Neil interview Goldsmiths Political Economy Lecturer Derek Wall about his new book “Elinor Ostrom’s Rules for Radicals”, based on the fascinating and lesser known story of Elinor Ostrom: the only woman to have won a Nobel Prize for Economics. We discuss Ostrom’s view of the “commons” and how people can organise themselves to manage community resources.

Our interest in the commons comes from two places: first, a better stewarding of material resources like electronics, but secondly realising that we can only do this effectively when we have a strong “knowledge” commons in parallel, which allows for reuse and repair.

Breaking with the idea of the expert in the ivory tower, Ostrom always worked in a hands-on way with communities to build a body of research. Seeking alternatives to Hardin’s famous “tragedy of the commons” (the idea that sharing community resources inevitably leads to disaster) – and to privatising these commons, Ostrom fought for empowering locals.

Derek tells us about the time when he got to meet Ostrom in person. “The global doesn’t tell you much about the local”, she explained to him. Global initiatives alone, for instance when tackling climate change, are not enough to target local issues, there is a need to understand how to manage problems and resources from the community level. Ostrom called this multi-level approach “polycentrism”.

Most of Ostrom’s work focused on the commons in a material sense – fisheries or land – but she did write about knowledge commons like the Internet. How are we managing this rather intangible commons? Interestingly, scarcity is a recurring issue with material commons, having to organise too many people sharing resources. However, immaterial or knowledge commons seem to actually grow as the number of contributors increases (think Wikipedia!), as long as there as the rules have been collaboratively designed and incorporate key principles.

In our economy here in the UK and Europe, where everything seems to have an owner, can discards or waste form a commons? Janet mentions the case of the Woelab in Togo, where makers built a 3D printer from discarded materials and shared the designs. Thinking of Ostrom’s ideas on the commons, we can be inspired to rethink our relationships with community resources, and the power and potential of acting locally.


[Feature image “Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom (Economics) 2” by Flickr user US Embassy Sweden is licensed under CC-BY 2.0.]

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