Governing the Commons: 30 Years Later

A Virtual Symposium hosted by The Ostrom Workshop

To celebrate the the 30th anniversary of Elinor Ostrom’s ‘Governing the Commons’, the Ostrom Workshop hosted a series of keynote speeches and panels on October 2nd. The event kicked off the World Commons Week 2020 organized by the International Association for the Study of the Commons.

Eduardo Brondizio, Scott Shackelford and Brea Perry welcomed participants and reminded us of the relevance of Ostrom’s work, particularly in this current era in whichwe have crossed the threshold of the commons (as evidenced by work from IPBES). The book ‘Governing the Commons‘ has been cited 41000 times, indicating its role as something of a bible for newcomers in studying the commons. According to Perry,“Elinor’s work is more important now than ever” as the world faces a global pandemic attributed to some extent at least to humanity’s failure to govern the common goods we use and share.

Ostrom’s former colleagues and friends Bonnie McCay Merrit, Carl Folke and Barbara Allen further described her work. Through her talk, “Between the Thick and the Thin,” McCay Merrit described Ostrom’s outstanding work on the development of the IAD framework, her design principles and her focus on polycentricity to govern the commons. Folke spoke about “Governing for Emergence in Social-Ecological Systems” and showed us an initiative on a how science can be connected to transnational corporations to foster transformation towards sustainable seafood production. Allen delved into “(Mis)Information, Knowledge, and Know-How in Self-Governed Commons” outlining how we can move from self-managed to self-governed systems.

Four panel sessions followed the keynote talks. The panelists included members of the PECS scientific committee. In the first panel ‘The Impact of governing the Commons on Social-Ecological Thinking and Practice,’ Harini Nagendra argued that the hallmark of Governing the Commons is that it is interdisciplinary, straddling boundaries across economics, anthropology, geography, evolutionary biology and system modelling. In the second panel, we learnt from panelists about how “Connecting Governing the Commons and the Broader Themes of Polycentric Governance” are applied in practice. The speakers of the third panel introduced us to the ‘New Commons’ which incorporate recent discourses on public health, cyber security and infrastructure concerning urban spaces and smart cities. What connects these aspects is the reminder that different principles are required in different contexts. Another issue which was touched upon in the first three panels was accentuated in the fourth session – ‘Governing the Commons and Justice’. Here, not only social, but also environmental injustice was addressed. This lead to questions on how to manage public safety as a common, as well as questions on power relations and knowledge production.

All in all, the Ostrom workshop showcased not only a variety of approaches to carry on Ostrom’s work, it also presented diverse voices from all over the world.

The virtual symposium was recorded and can be re-watched on the Ostrom’s Workshop youtube channel.

By Amanda Manyani and  Johanna Hofmann