‘Common-Sense Commons’ as a guiding vision for a Self-Caring System & Thrivable World

Source: Helene Finidori

Our World is in crisis. Much of what we care for and depend on in the various dimensions of our lives is being put under critical threat
by the excesses generated by the application of reductionist theories and models that have been pushed to their
limits, resulting in the explosion of addictions of all kinds and the depletion of much of our
common resources and means for well-being. 

Many people around the globe may have different visions, different views about the crisis and how it should be met. They recommend different paths, are driven by different interests and moved by different types of narratives, but ultimately, we all seek a more sustainable, thrivable and mindful world…

For a while I have been playing with the idea of
bringing together some guiding principles that could help us coalesce streams of engagement and passion… Guiding principles that can help the system take care of itself –
the physical dimension- and underpined by an archetypal vision or aspiration – the metaphysical dimension- with a
power to attract and catalyze potential for action and engagement to seed and amplify
emerging change and  the positive feedback of the system.

After two years of discussions with many groups involved in social change, I believe the approach of the commons as complex living system and embodiment of the change we want to see could constitute the guiding vision we need to face the challenges ahead and generate the driving force for the system to heal itself.

This reflection is inspired from a group discussion addressing the question from UN Secretary General on an Economic Model
for survival, i
n discussion since Feb 2011 on the LinkedIn “Systems Thinking World” forum. 7200+ posts, and many other discussions around the Commons, P2P, collaboration and technology. 

It is a work in progress written with the collaboration of Jessie Henshaw. I welcome your comments and suggestions. Here is a tool where any of us can make suggestions and additions to this text. We are also working with the Commons Action group at the UN to develop a People’s Sustainability Treaty based on these ideas. 



The commons are vital for our sustenance, our social cohesion and our well-being [ An archetype?]

commons is what serves mankind as a whole. We think of it as our shared
environment and resources, and as a medium for interactions. It
includes the natural environment that is our host on earth, and all what
we inherit and create, use and change, and then pass on to future generations.  It connects us and nurtures much of what we produce and accomplish. It is vital for our sustenance and livelihood, our individual expression  and purpose, our social cohesion and well-being.  The 
commons also embody the  relationships we build between people and with
the earth, our  communities and the knowledge they may share. It’s an inheritance, one that all humans now need a living vision of and a feeling of common responsibility for.

    The commons take various shapes [At the same time object – process – result]

    The commons can be described in many different ways and along various dimension. It is at the same time object, process and result
    operating at various levels and scales, from the most global -the whole
    system, to various nested or fractal ‘local’ levels -the parts.

    • As objects, the commons embody the Common Wealth, the ‘Assets’ that are inherited or created, shared in  common, and serve a livelihood (natural, social &   cultural  resources,  genetic and biologic diversity, knowledge, etc),  that people  can take care of, nurture, replenish, grow.                        
    • As a process,  the commons embody the Common Ethos, a  Culture, the ways of being and doing in common that epitomizes in commoning (caring,  sharing, nurturing, governing the assets in relationship with others with  empathy, equity, justice, mindfulness…)                        
    • As a Result: – the commons embody the Common Good, the outcome of the process  (well being, quality of life, prosperity, abundance) which is the life blood of the process and a condition for the growth of the assets.

    The commons is both an input to the dynamic interactions between people and their contexts, and an output thereof.  All these dimensions need each other for the world to thrive. For  progress to  materialize, output must be greater than input. Along all their dimensions, levels and scales, whole and parts, commons must grow. 

    On all dimensions, levels and scales it is a tangible condition that serves as a medium for
    economic and political  cooperation, development of common social and
    cultural values, and the  establishment  of a shared  stewardship of
    the  earth that can be deployed at multiple levels and scales; with a
    goal of satisfying needs and enabling self realization along all its
    various  dimensions.

      The commons as guiding image for a socio-cultural shift
      The crisis that threatens the survival
      of humanity as a whole needs a vision that can help transition to a
      sustainable and thriving world. One that can not only encourage desired
      behaviors but also inspire us all to work towards it, as we articulate
      and develop our own designs of who we want to be — as individuals and
      as community.
      commons approach, with the multiple dimensions, behaviors and values it
      entails, can provide such a vision.
      Images of humankind that are dominant in a culture are of
      fundamental importance because they underlie the ways in which the
      society shapes its institutions, educates its young, and goes about
      whatever it perceives its business to be. Changes in these images are of
      particular concern at the present time because our industrial society
      may be on the threshold of a transformation as profound as that which
      came to
      Europewhen the Medieval Age gave way to the rise of science and the Industrial Revolution. – Changing Image of Man -Stanford research institute
      In particular, it fits the
      characteristics of the transition informing image needed to face the
      challenges ahead, as described by the Stanford research institute in its Changing Image of man survey:

        • provide a holistic sense and perspective on life
        • entail an ecological ethic 
        • entail a self-realization ethic 
        • be multileveled, multifaceted, and integrative 
        • lead to a balancing and coordinating of satisfactions along many dimensions 
        • be experiential, experimental and open-ended

        The commons approach adds to sustainability and resilience a common purpose or interest, the dimension of mutuality -the networks of things we can do with and for each other-, and a vision of the whole where mankind is meant to realize its potential and thrive. It can speak to our logic and reason as much as to our intuitions and emotions. It 
        can be conveyed in may different forms to many of the worldviews and
        streams of initiatives that strive to create a better world. 

        are many triggers of inspiration, points of entry and paths so that people from 
        whereever they are located can learn from each other and their observation of the world and apply their engagement to what they feel the
        urge to do, and the system itself will put things together.

        requires to speak various languages…  We need to find the language in which
        these guiding principles can be expressed so they don’t limit their
        relevance to a particular stream (think of the various
        sensitivities  or movements that can coalesce under a commons sense
        banner (gaian,  ancient tradition, human right, ecology,
        socio-political,  risk/precaution, conservation/malthusian,
        prosperity/abundance,  P2P/hacker/localist, peace/love) that are moved
        by different narratives and passion, all an expression of a same
        aspiration a same flow…

        The commons as complex living system

            system, the world we wish to transform, is a complex living system
            which operates along principles that help the system take
            care of itself. That’s the actual invisible hand. The ultimate commons?:

              • The nature of the system is a multiplicity of parts in partnership working as wholes, and operating at various levels and scales, forming an emergent whole.
              • Patterns of behaviors emerge in each whole: visible externally even when its internal ‘operating system’ is hidden from sight. 
              • It
                takes awareness to be responsive to emerging behavior. This awareness
                allows responsiveness to be active and to anticipate potential conflict
                or collaboration.
              • Being  responsive allows to recognize change as it unfolds, so that new learning can be integrated and made applicable. 
              • Radical
                change can occur when emergent patterns of change converge
                and accumulate into systemic change, initially invisible and often
                coming into sight all at once – a tipping point.
              • Each whole self-organizes and self-realizes while being conscious of and responsive to each other’s behaviors and locally responsive to its changing environment.
              • Any
                person, organization or natural system is organized and animated internally, responding to its environment, only shaped and limited by external forces not controlled by them.
              • Possibilities for convergence and amplification of feedback which shapes a system’s behavior increases with density and tightness of relationships.
              • Change is made continuous by successions of interactions and relationships

                Understanding how things naturally work allows the recognition of natural cultural and ecological organization with multilevel boundaries, object and behavior dependent, not arbitrary.

                complex living systems themselves, described by Elinor Ostrom as “self-organized” and “polycentric”, where the people closely involved
                help “develop rules for themselves”, the commons mimic the conflict-free self-organization observable in natural economic systems
                and embody the change we want to see.

                As a transition informing image, the concept of living
                commons can help materialize the need and possibilities for change and
                give meaning and direction to changes emerging locally so that positive feedback can spontaneously be amplified. 

                The commons approach has
                the power to attract possibilities, set contextual conditions for
                optimized interactions, and catalyze action toward the realization of a
                potential so that self-organized emerging change towards a sustainable and triving world can lead to continuous
                radical change… 

                The commons as a whole

                In  the past,
                environmental efforts concentrated on protecting the earth’s “special
                places”, and most attention grabbing problems.  These efforts protected
                only selected parts of the commons, as threats to the whole grew
                unabated.  A different approach is needed to counter the forces that
                exerts ever increasing pressure on all parts of humanity and the earth
                at once. A thriving commons requires no parts to be excluded from
                attention, to assure local solutions don’t create global conflict and
                global activities don’t create local and regional conflict.   

                need a whole system approach not a piecemeal approach, one that enables
                all parts to thrive while addressing the threat that itself is not
                piecemeal, but to the whole at once.
                of the needs of the commons, as what all parts share a need for, starts
                with each part discovering how it uses and depends of the whole and how
                it can contribute to keep the whole viable and thriving. 

                set this type of approach in motion, we need to work toward the
                systemic level with a transition informing process concentrating on a
                set of guiding principles, contextual conditions and a
                few leverage points susceptible of generating the insight and positive
                feedback loops that will seed the emergence of radical

                recommendations seek to describe the dynamic interactions  that help
                build the social and material resiliency necessary for the development
                of a thriving economic and social fabric, allowing at the same time for
                various unintended consequences of human action, and for recovery from
                natural disasters, pandemics, etc.. They also look into what enables an
                economic balance between member communities, ensuring rule of common law
                and accountability underpinned by monitoring and evaluation systems. A
                critical element is the establishment of a framework for enabling
                learning, conversation, evaluation in view of decisions and conflict resolution, in a way that can scale horizontally (P2P) and vertically (subsidiarity).

                Local organization for local needs [P2P, many to many]

                Communities must be encouraged to cultivate and produce their own
                livelihoods and co-govern their utilities, services and resources, in relational dynamics that foster self-realization and adaptation.
                A variety of  innovative, creative small and local initiatives and
                projects are actively pursuing alternative and more sustainable forms
                of agriculture, industrial production, social and economic
                organization,  currencies and credit systems, education,
                (self-)governance, and ways of life. At the edge we find the collaborative and P2P economy.
                Communities, groups and individuals develop a sense of ownership of the process, a sense of
                immediacy and transparency, of shared destiny and emotional experience
                that foster trust and resilience, and a shared ‘commons sense’. Local
                collaboration and peer to peer (P2P) dependencies are something
                graspable and immediate, and also expand awareness of what empowers one
                another and larger systems, creating channels by which they can
                discover opportunity and be brought into balance.  
                Positive feedback:
                Continual community learning about how those regional systems work
                should be encouraged and  supported. This is key to sustaining the
                complexity of larger scales of  integration, and the specialization of
                remote services that empowers  them. Then trust, co-creation and
                co-governance  practice and working skills develop at each scale, and so
                also spread to the whole in a distributed manner. This encourages
                conflict resolution and transparency  approaches.  It develops a sense
                of enduring responsibility for the  commons and roles shared with future

                Coordinated Regional Emergency Interventions 

                Application: An
                immediate application would be to promote the use and testing of these
                innovative methods and initiatives in ‘innovation zones’ established in
                areas damaged by disasters, or to reverse damage caused by past and
                current  practice.  Promote the study of how interventions affect each
                scale of the systems they take place in.  Responding to the threats of
                disasters, cultural and technological dislocations, as a need to develop
                resiliency and adaptability, and so also anticipating, avoiding and
                allowing more effective response, should all be be encouraged and
                funded, now aimed at making the commons work more smoothly as a whole
                too.   Projects directly aimed at relieving the growth of crippling debt
                without continued growth of demands on the earth are inseparable from
                reducing emissions, reversing desertification, soil erosion,
                deforestation, overfishing, increased disparity between rich and poor, 
                corruption, abuse of power. 

                Expanding cooperation at higher levels and wider scales [subsidiarity principle]

                Subsidiarity is an organizing principle stating that a matter ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest, or
                least centralized authority capable of addressing that matter
                effectively, and that a central authority should have a subsidiary function,
                performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a
                more immediate or local level.

                Principle:  Learning from
                grassroots community practices and early adopters, fostering growing
                awareness in each locality of the nature of local and
                global integration. This would draw from the people-context-interactions- assets-culture-resultant dynamic that defines and powers local relationships to the commons, and enable scaling vertically from there.
                Simple  principles for a  more realistic and purposeful
                science of economics and management for an  animated world, drawing
                from “systems intervention”,  “action learning”,  “systems thinking” and
                “whole system assessment”  practices, among others, to deal with the
                systemic complexity of the  relationships and the shift required.
                Amplificators: Promoting “connections” conversations to help build on interactions
                and facilitate  integrated shifts in larger and smaller scale practices
                allowing stakeholders to discover new ways to solve their mutual
                problems. Adopt  appreciative methods of enquiry and conflict
                resolution, being open to seeing things as they are, to experiment, learn and adjust.  Encourage
                questioning, learning, discovery and innovation, and our capacity to
                bootstrap, to invent seeds of  change, plant and nurture them, and
                evolve. Find ways to work together and actively engage in learning
                processes that enable co-creation and  co-governance and conflict
                resolution on all scales.
                Positive feedback: Expanding from the above on the “whole system” approach to learn from example, to
                mimic the  conflict-free self-organization observable in natural
                economic systems, and other “exemplars” recognized good design; to observe patterns of behaviors emerging
                and to recognize change as it unfolds, so that theory is always
                checked against reality of what is observed and emerges, and new
                learning can be integrated and made applicable. 

                Application:  This
                includes finding the boundaries and governance principles best suited to the needs of the commons at local levels (subsidiarity), acknowledging multiple logically or physically overlapping or intersecting commons, and devising more practical means of enforcement for laws,
                treaties, and agreements at all levels by making them confirmations of nested and/or fractal common needs.

                A Commons Sector, alongside the Private and public sectors

                Principle: Reinforcing and developing a sector of the commons alongside the
                private and public sectors, conferring  rights and responsibilities to
                communities over resources on which they depend. There is no question
                here of ending private property or the role of the state. Rather it is
                to establish a provision for ‘sanctuarizing’ within appropriately
                governed institutions a certain number of commons from public or private
                overexploitation and enclosure to ensure access when exploitation and
                enclosure for the pursuit of profit impinges on the rights or
                livelihoods of the users of the commons or the viability of the common.
                The most obvious examples are the air we breathe or the human or natural
                genome, the internet is another. Defining modalities would be in the
                political realm.
                Emergence:  New forms of
                cooperatively or mutually governed organizations to steward the commons
                at various levels, starting with the enforcement of existing common
                Amplificators: The commons must be acknowledged as the foundation of the collaborative
                free markets needed for the health of competitive free markets, enabled
                by effective education systems, research and development programs, and
                universal telecommunications infrastructure that enable distributed networks to operate mutual sense making and exchanges of all kinds.
                Positive feedback:
                This would prevent the double risk of ‘Tragedy of the  commons’ either
                from overexploitation by individual parts detrimental to  the whole or
                from private enclosure and appropriation for the benefit  of the few.
                This would ensure that the people who have a long-term stake  in the
                preservation of these resources (natural, physical,  intellectual,
                social, cultural; from local to global) would protect  them while
                enabling the development of a flourishing commons-based  economy around


                This may include linking and embedding the commons in existing systems 
                such as the international  commons of Outer Space, Antarctica and the 
                Law of the Sea.>  See approaches here: Blueprint for P2P society by Michel Bauwens, ‘Stewardship Corporations’ by Jack Harich; Commons Trusts and Social Charters developped by James Quilligan and the Global Commons Trust.

                Transition to a circular economy
                Our  economy’s current purpose is to maximize flows (of goods, capital). It is a machine for perpetual growth that uses its profits and its  knowledge to continually escalate its demands on 
                humanity and on the  earth and to constantly multiply its capacity to 
                inflate itself as  private wealth and power. As such, it is brittle and 
                prone to breakdown,  undermining productive activity as well as
                leading  to the abuse of the  commons in a never ending spiral.
                Principle: The
                challenge we are facing is to ensure the conditions under which profit
                and growth can be viable and sustainable, and improve at the same time
                the material and non-material (intellectual, emotional, spiritual…)
                wellbeing of the people, and the
                viability of the commons that enables it. 
                Emergence: The
                “circular economy” model focuses on optimizing the flow of goods and
                services over time in relation to the size of capital and resources
                (stocks). It is a replenishing and regenerative model based on closed
                loops and systems resilience, and the rebuilding of natural and social
                capital. Products are designed for more complex cycles of disassembly
                and reuse, the out-design of waste and toxic emissions.

                Introducing clarity between consumables and durables, it puts the
                responsibility of the performance of the product and its becoming as a
                new resource at the end of its life on the producers, leading to a whole
                new approach of production, consumption and ownership as it  encourages
                leasing, renting and sharing while giving way to new approaches of
                business co-evolution and integration of the commons.
                Positive feedback: The
                circular economy can contribute to create a positive entrainment
                effect. In the economic sphere there is an acknowledgement that as
                externalised costs become internalised benefits prices will increasingly
                reveal full costs. This entails a
                natural shift towards renewables and internalization of externalities. 
                In systems terms
                the system will be exhibiting increased interdependence and the use of different scales, niches and possibiities. See The circular Economy and the Compression Institute.

                Application: In
                the spirit of circular economy closed loop urbanization and community
                utility & production systems and projects and initiatives that have
                multiple effects, and serve several different objectives, such as co-generation, closed water/energy/food production systems or solutions
                such as developed by the Blue Economy or systemic approaches around buildings/energy/transport should be encouraged. 
                generally, sustainability as “circular economy”, also involves that
                whatever available resource or asset businesses or other economic actors
                don’t use, other parts of their environment can, with mutual benefits. This includes local policies to make use of idle resources to strengthen local economies.

                Use finance to grow the commons.

                Principle: The
                transition to a circular economy for the investment and financial
                commons must start at natural limits to profitable growth and for
                vitality and balance
                , sustaining investment profitability and guiding
                investors to higher purposes for their profits than putting money into
                the productive economy to take growing amounts out of it.  The world
                economy doesn’t yet have a “purpose” to live better, only to grow and
                grow even as it becomes unprofitable, brittle and toxic; ignoring a natural need for “maturation”, time to turn our attention from inward to outward.
                Emergence: The practical
                transition is for investors of all kinds to find higher purposes for
                their profits, such as healing both their world and environment,
                avoiding direct liability for growing hidden impacts, and in the spirit
                of the commons and well-being. Developing some responsiveness to the
                emerging and unexpected needs of their environment, and ready to explore errors and omissions in their own teachings and past conclusions, that
                living in a changing world may make important. See articles A biomimicry for self-regulating commons and Self Organization as niche making. The Giving Pledge is a move in this direction, that needs to be adequately channelled…
                Amplificators: More trivially, shifts from taxing income to taxing depletion of commons such as non renewable
                resources and waste will reinforce this, as will real world commodities
                and energy price rises. The removal of perverse subsidies which promote extraction over regeneration or stock over flow would add impetus.
                Positive feddback:  Since money and money as debt is an
                endogenous variable in the whole game an unaltered financial sector
                undermines efforts and money will work best as a medium of exchange
                (issued debt free). Other ideas include the use of negative interest
                rates to promote long term investment in productive activities (see
                Bernard Lietaer) as against the compound growth driver which is compound
                interest that systemically reduces future value to negligeable.

                Stop growing toxic and harmful practices
                Application: This
                process can be accelerated by identifying and targeting investment practices
                that systemically undermine productive activity and future prospects,
                such as speculative manipulation of finance instruments and resource
                shortages, mechanisms causing systemic credit and asset bubbles,
                development of addictive appetites of various nature at the cost of
                public, environmental and financial health, the promotion of faster use of
                depleting resources serving to increase not decrease the economy’s
                dependence on them, etc.  These are both some of the most profitable
                investments and increase rapidly as people take the profits from them to
                inflate their investment in them. This include creating incentives,
                regulations and taxes and eliminating subsidies and loopholes that
                encourage these practices.

                >> As a leverage point: to
                remedy the above reinforce and enforce anti-corruption laws and
                eliminate ‘legal’ corruption and political manipulation by banning or
                strongly limiting the use of private funds for political financing and
                political speach.    See: (Larry Lessig, the founder of creative commons
                is campaigning against this see Republic Lost, Jack Harich’s study of political power.

                Methods of assessment and reporting

                transparency and reporting for monitoring and evaluation systems.  
                Create  metrics to measure impacts and outcomes, that measure each
                part’s demand on and contribution to the whole, and not just local
                visible effects.  Provide open access to knowledge, data, and
                information to allow comparative studies and the correction of
                misconceptions. Promote a general knowledge commons, and creative
                commons, allowing all to see inside the silos of others so their
                different views of common subjects, their values and ideas, can be
                understood and connected. Share methods for recognizing irreversible
                processes and anticipating their tipping points of transformation as
                well as recognizing seeds of change and anticipation of limits of
                change. Set up processes to ensure that what follows is right and
                continues to be right, exploring means of confirmation, and a
                meta-process of reflection and evaluation of measures. Enable trial and
                error and the possibilities to readjust.  Respond to the abuse of
                misleading and selective metrics and evaluation systems, defining
                subjects with only selective variables, and generally assure the
                fidelity of information to its subjects and their changes.  Apply rules
                of fiduciary duty to the speach of corporations and lobbyists,   to be
                liable for being misleading about the true interests of their  
                investors, customers, employees and other stakeholders, as having  
                natural concerns for their own and their society’s wellbeing. See Jay
                Youngdahl’s expansion of fiduciary law at Harvard

                Frameworks and platforms [tightening connections – amplifying positive feedback]

                approaches would be well supported with frameworks and platforms to
                deal with the systemic complexity of the relationships and the shift
                required.  A platform would help the various problematiques and existing
                initiatives to be made visible to each other and encouraged in the
                context of a global sustainability & resilience objective, and to
                connect the dots in order to help people pull and pool resources and
                collaborate to grow what works for them and for the common good. It
                would enable learning, exchange of knowledge and experience, engagement, 
                coordination of cooperation and action, and evaluation, debate,
                deliberation, decisions of specific projects or outcomes. Ultimately
                this could facilitate the first steps and adjustments of the formation
                of commons governance systems that would where required enable the creation of new
                institutions. (see A Global Framework)

                such frameworks and platforms could be an instrument for the
                transition. It would provide the support for the embodied characteristics of
                the transition informing principle listed above and the signs of emerging change to become visible as
                interconnected in a whole. It would enable the discovery of possibilities and the application of solutions at
                multiple levels throughout the cycles of the transition:
                • setting up sensors for detection and sense-making;
                • making initiatives and what emerges visible to the whole and to each other 
                • understanding issues and what is at stake across silos; 
                • inspiring, empowering, enabling people to collaboration and action; 
                • facilitating deliberation and implementation;
                • providing means for horizontal (P2P sharing) and vertical (subsidiarity principle) scaling of processes
                • diffusing, applying, improving, sustaining solutions 
                • monitoring performance, accountability, early detection of new issues and feedback
                  All this in an emergent manner. (See platform project)

                  Thank you to
                  all who have engaged in a common generative and reflective conversation and provided
                  actionable thoughts and material during this and other discussions. In particular:

                  Jessie Henshaw, David Price,Thoebjoern Mann, Nicolas Stampf, Mary 
                  Saunders, TA Balasubramanian, Ken Webster, Douwe Jan Joustra, Dawna Jones, David Alman, Bill Williams, Bill Smith, Dan Strongin, Nick 
                  Ananin, KK Aw, David Hawk, Vlad Kunko, Eero Hollming,
                  Stephen Scott Wright, Patric
                  Roberts,  Gene Bellinger, George Por, Anna Betz, Jack Harich, James Quilligan,
                  Michel Bauwens, Rob Wheeler, Lisinka Ulatowska, Wolfgang Hoeschele, Irma Wilson, Glistening Deepwater, Bonnitta Roy, Erika Ilves
                  , Alex Lavigne Gagnon, Dante Gabriel Monson, Markus Loponen and all the many participants and contributors to this and other discussions.
                  These discussions have also inspired the intents of “Commons based economic
                  models” submitted to the 2012 RioDialogues.org
                  process  and the various articles on the commons I have posted here.

                  The various individual and small group outputs of the discussion is available here. This conversation and the Linkedin group discussion format highlighted how difficult it is to capture and harvest collective intelligence to reiterate and reprocess its content effectively, other than doing it ‘by hand’ in real time… A new tool has been put very recently at our disposal to search and mine the richness of this discussion. Don’t hesitate to contact me if you have suggestions.

                  Another output in the past months is a pealtree map of the alternatives viwed via wikipedia for a start. Many of the concepts explained here can be found on the ‘exploring the alternatives’ pearltree I started last month: http://www.pearltrees.com/t/team/id5509379

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