Overview of the Economics of the Commons Conference

Introduction 

One of the most significant impediments to change is the entrenched power of the neoliberal economic and political paradigm. The prevailing economic dogma is that individual self-interest, expansive private property rights and globalized free trade can solve most social and environmental problems. Many challenge this view, of course, and continue to decry the dysfunctionalities of the market economy, the inadequacies of the welfare state and threats to the biosphere from climate change and resource depletion. But despite the important work of many heterodox schools of economic thought in addressing these issues, few political thinkers and players seem interested in or capable of developing a new political/economic philosophy based on practical alternatives. We are stuck at an impasse. 
 
“The Commons: From Seed Form to Real Provisioning System,” seeks to open up some new vistas in in political and economic discourse by exploring the economics of the commons as an alternative provisioning system, worldview and vision for the future. Commons-based principles and models have the potential to build a rich array of stable, equitable and ecological alternatives to conventional markets while strengthening communities and networks. Indeed, the proliferation of commons-based models – for natural resources, digital spaces, civic life and many other arenas – suggests the feasibility of a new Commons Sector. This conference seeks to expand and empower this work by helping crystallize the economics of the commons as a coherent field of inquiry and action. The conference will showcase key actors and initiatives, discuss theoretical analyses, identify conflicting schools of thought, and visualize new action-plans for moving forward. 

Any inquiry into this topic is challenging because the very idea of the commons demands that we expand standard economic definitions of “value” especially at they apply to land and nature, culture and knowledge, labor, money, infrastructure, and everyday human life. To understand the commons in these areas, we must understand how different types of social exchange and cooperation create different forms of wealth, much of it non-quantifiable social and ecological in nature. The commons also requires that we address structures of power and control in a political economy, and develop better understandings of how collective governance regimes work. 
 
Building on the work of those who criticize the mechanistic models of conventional economics, we must consider the complexities of human agency, collective organization, and human relationships with nature. We must move beyond the standard definition of economics as the allocation of scarce resources because this category assumes a priori scarcity, and confuses quantitative and qualitative value and meaning. In a sense, commons-based provisioning implies a profound redefinition of “the economy.” The commons helps us re-connect with the original meaning of “economy,” which derives from the ancient Greek word, oikos, for “household,” the most basic unit of social, economic and governmental action. 
 
This conference will explore the foundations of a commons-based economics: What makes a commons so generative? What core principles of commoning can be identified across different resource domains? In what circumstances can commons-based provisioning models substitute for conventional markets, or interact constructively with markets? 
 
To probe these and other questions, the Heinrich Böll Foundation (HBF) in cooperation with the Commons Strategies Group will organize and host a major international Economics of the Commons Conference (ECC) to be held from May 22 to 24, 2013. The event will be preceded several months earlier by three two-day workshops supported by the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation (FPH), each held on different continents in the fall and winter of 2012-2013: for Europe in Paris, in cooperation with FPH and Vecam; for Latin America in Mexico City, in cooperation with the regional office for central America and Mexico of the Heinrich Böll Foundation; and for Asia in Bangkok, Thailand, in cooperation with the Böll Foundation’s South-East Asia office.                                                                                                 
The Organizers 
The Commons Strategies Group and Heinrich Böll Foundation are the joint organizers of this conference, which is an outgrowth of the landmark International Commons Conference in Berlin in November 2010. That event brought together about 180 commons activists, academics and project leaders from 34 countries, and for the first time started a cross-disciplinary political and policy dialogue about the commons in diverse international settings. 
 
Building on the energy from that conference, CSG has just completed a major book anthology of 73 essays on the commons that has been published in German and English. CSG has also participated in strategic planning for the Rio+20 environmental conference in Brazil in June 2012, and its principals have made dozens of presentations about the commons at various conferences, universities and public events. This Economics of the Commons Conference (ECC) is a logical next step for the CSG in working with networks of commoners around the world to advance the commons paradigm. 
 
The Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation has supported the attendance of some partners to the International Commons Conference that took place in November 2010 in Berlin and wishes now to continue its support by co-funding the ECC regional consultation process together with Heinrich Böll Foundation. Both FPH and HBF consider the commons a key element for the transition toward commons-based economics and cultures. Both foundations focus their strategic support toward this end, either in cooperation with partners or through their own initiatives. This “cross-granting” partnership between two European foundations seeks to advance a new culture of collaboration among like-minded political actors and funders. Both foundations believe that a culture of dialogue, sharing and common programmatic approaches among grant makers is a necessity. 
 
Objectives 
We need to formulate a plausible and compelling vision for the future by showing the breadth and feasibility of commons-based provisioning and by forging a coherent public narrative and analysis about it. This conference aspires to speak to the need by: 

  • Convening key researchers, practitioners and advocates from around the world to discuss shared concerns; 
  • Consolidating their knowledge into a common field of inquiry; 
  • Reconceiving our economy as a constellation of commons-friendly provisioning systems; 
  • Developing practical plans for moving a commons provisioning agenda forward; and 
  • Deepening and broadening relationships among key individuals and institutions, including after the conference itself. 

 
Substantive discussion at the conference will focus on several key themes: 

  • The commons as a way to move beyond economics 
  • Alternative economic/provisioning models 
  • Macro-economic transformations: making the transition to a new type of economy 

 
A number of specific sub-themes will also be emphasized: 

  • Economics of physical commons: What can we learn from the governance and economics of local physical-resource commons? 
  • Economics of digital and cognitive commons: What can we learn from the economics of digital and knowledge commons? 
  • Financial and credit commons: from local credit commons to transnational monetary reform. 
  • Natural resource commons: How can they help solve the biospheric crisis? 
  • Justice and equity in commons: How does a commons re-conceive the role of labor and its entitlements and responsibilities? 
  • Spiritual (traditional and religious) commons 
  • Issues of governance and power 

 
The Six Topical Streams 
Land and Nature 
Responsible for stream: Saki Bailey (Italy) 
 
Money & Value 
Responsible for stream: Ludwig Schuster (Germany) 
 
Labor 
Responsible for stream: Heike Löschmann (Germany) 
 
Culture, Science & Knowledge 
Responsible for stream: Mike Linksvayer (US) 
 
Infrastructure 
Responsible for stream: Miguel Said Vieira (Brazil) 
 
By Miguel Said Vieira: 
One of the main challenges in advancing commons as a solid alternative paradigm is the issue of the infrastructures needed for commons-based projects. How can we, for instance, avoid competition and inequality between different commons in the use and access to this kind of infrastructure, and turn this competition into cooperation? In other words, is it possible to build and manage the infrastructure itself also as commons? We also have to consider the possibility that, while some aspects of infrastructure issues might be tackled in P2P fashion or at the local, community level, others might not: car pooling and distributed power generation help in dealing with transportation and energy dillemmas, but they often depend on roads and power grids, which are typically built by states; 3D printing helps in localizing industrial production, but does not avoid the need for basic industry — typically provided by markets (and sometimes subsidized by states). In which cases this dependence on states and markets poses problems, and in which cases there are better alternatives available? In which cases it is possible to forgo states –arguably the strongest actor in the provisioning of infrastructure during the last century– without reinforcing the economic and social inequalities that underpin our society, and how can it be done? Finally, what lessons can we learn from already existing instances of commons-based infrastructure? One case in hand is the logical layer of the internet (its protocols). On the one hand, it is clearly an example of infrastructure that has strengthened other commons-based projects (not necessarily related to the internet); on the other hand, the commons- character of this layer hasn’t stopped the arisal of extreme cases of private concentration and state abuse (or state dependence) on the internet itself, in its physical and content layers. How does that translate to other areas of infrastructure? What commons-based infrastructure solutions currently emerging around that realm (mesh networking, decentralized P2P “clouds” etc.) could be adapted to other areas? 
 
Life, Meaning & Spirituality Responsible for stream: 
Andreas Weber (Germany) 

The Plan for the Conference 
More than fostering an exchange of information, the conference is intended to help build new working relationships, personal commitments, and a group ethic of listening to each other and caring for each other. Active participation by everyone and commoning will be vital. This will be facilitated by an online wiki and listserv, which will include a bibliography of resources, profiles of participants, and other resources to be determined. 
Day One: 
What Does the Economics of the Commons Mean? 
9:00 am – 10:30 am Keynote remarks + two short talks 
 
Special care will be taken to avoid a “sectoralization” of commons discussion. CSG believes it is important to develop a “general narrative” of the commons that applies cross-sectorally. Even with differences in the rivalrous/nonrivalrous nature of resources, certain principles and ethics of commoning can be seen in each case. 
Rest of day: details to follow 

Day Two: 
From Stocks to Flows, and from Market Assets to Commoning 
9:00 am – 10:00 Recap the principles of commons and core design principles. 
10:15 am – 1:00 Begin two sets of sectoral discussions focused on these resource domains: 

  • Land & Nature 
  • Money & Value 
  • Labor 
  • Culture, Science & Knowledge 
  • Infrastructure 
  • Life, Meaning & Spirituality 

Task force hosts will facilitate breakout groups to discuss specific action steps for synthesizing knowledge, convening key players, publishing strategic documents, organizing institutions and/or the public, etc. 
Self-organized Break 
11:45 am – 1:00 pm 
1:00 – 2:15 Lunch 
2:15 – 4:30 Reconsidering Provisioning Systems 
An un-conference format where participants divide up into specific commons sectors of their own choosing. A key question for each group: What does it mean to reconceptualize that domain (labor, knowledge etc.) as commons? How exactly does needs-based production work? 
4:30 – 5:15 Groups report back to plenary session with five minute reports. 
Day Three 
(for task force leaders and participants who choose to stay) 
How Do We Get There from Here? 
 9:00 am – 1 pm