“Society runs, the economy follows. Let’s (re)design institutions and law together.” ’This is the credo of LabGov – the Laboratory for the governance of the commons in Italy, that was behind the pioneering “Bologna Regulation” – a guidebook on public-civic collaboration in the city. Kati Van de Velde spoke with LabGov’s founder, Professor Christian Iaione. He and his team are currently working on the “Bologna Co-City” project, to implement the Bologna Regulation and to foster the idea of public collaboration in the city of Bologna.

This post is part of our series of articles on the Commons sourced from the Green European Journal Editorial Board. These were published as part of Volume 14 “Finding Common Ground”:

KVV: We probably all know of some commons initiative in our neighbourhood but the commons as a concept is less well known – how would you sum it up?

CI: How do you explain the commons to people who lead a “regular life”, which is basically getting to work, earning money, and then using this money to live and work within the framework of our current society? Well, this life is simple because it is based on two pillars: first, you produce something to take care of your private needs, your subsistence, and maybe more because if you’re able to do well in life, then you accumulate resources and in return you get more influence and social status in life, or wealth. Then as a second pillar, the state takes care of all your individual needs: transportation, infrastructure – how water and light are brought to your house. If you want to make your life more complex you then add a third pillar which is all about volunteering, reciprocating, giving back, etc.

It’s between these lines that the commons work, in a very complex way. And their real nature is underinvestigated. For instance, instead of going to the supermarket to get groceries, one could farm and produce food using a community garden or by placing an urban farm on the rooftop of one’s building. Or one could manage a piece of the city or produce goods and services together with one’s peers, instead of relying on an entity in which an owner or shareholder owns the means of production. These activities are not public nor private, nor even social. So they form a new pillar: the commons. This pillar should be seen both as complementary to, and as a way to rethink, the previous pillars.

For quite a while the commons were perceived as something small, in the sense that some small communities managed themselves without the state or market. They were long seen as something that substitutes the public or the private and this is relatively true in very remote communities, like rural communities in Africa which actually evade the state and the market. But more and more we see the commons spreading in urban areas, complementing the state and the market rather than rejecting them. Think for example about community gardening or cultural spaces.

I am currently working on defining how, in the future, such initiatives can offer a way to update, improve, and change the state and the market. The commons can be an infrastructure for experimentation, a space where new institutions and new economic ventures are born that rely on this idea of cooperation, sharing, self-empowerment, collaboration, and coordination among peers.

How did you get involved in the commons? 

Ten years ago I studied the subject of climate change regulation in the context of urban law and policy, to find out whether it was possible to address climate change issues through action at the grassroots and city level. So I started with a specific case study rooted in urban mobility, public transportation means and systems. And I ended up talking about what has nowadays basically been labelled as both the sharing economy and the urban commons.

My conclusion in this study, ‘The Tragedy of Urban Roads’, was twofold: in the future, on one hand, more cities should invest in forms of sharing means of transportation. On the other hand regulation could enable behavioural shifts of individuals that are willing to embrace more economically and environmentally sustainable behaviours, because I discovered at the time, more than 10 years ago, that two thirds of the emissions come from households and individual consumption. So I thought we need to look at what political economist and Nobel prize winner Elinor Ostrom labelled in 1990 as the ‘governance of the commons’: everyone should be part of a locally rooted but worldwide regulatory scheme in which everyone is a ‘commoner’, and is part of the solution – not part of the problem – by changing their behaviour, shifting from car ownership to car sharing, trying to save water and energy because this creates less emissions and so on and so forth. We need an individualised citizen-centred approach and a regulatory scheme that is based on sharing and collaboration. That’s where I started to study the commons and how governments were designed, especially governments’ mechanisms connected to the commons.

You co-designed the ‘Bologna Regulation for the Care and Regeneration of the Commons’1 . Two years after its implementation, can you give an assessment of the present state of affairs?

Today in Bologna there are more than 200 projects or pacts of collaboration that were approved according to the regulation. People see it as a way to take action as individuals and as groups, formal or informal. The Regulation is also about trying to involve civil society organisations as much as possible, which mistakenly perceived it as a way to bypass them. Bologna is now aiming at an implementation that goes from just sharing to collaboration, from small everyday economically unsustainable practices towards forms of economically viable ventures that are self-sustaining and also more independent.

We’ve learnt that it is important to underpin the ecosystemic nature of the commons in governing them, which could also be a way to design other public policies. There is another public policy called ‘Incredibol’: creative innovation in Bologna – it’s all about creative spaces, more rooted in the idea of start-ups than the Bologna Regulation. We are now trying to merge these two public policies. Through Incredibol for instance, you have a space in one of the main parks, Le Serre dei Giardini Margherita, that was regenerated and turned into a co-working space, with also a kindergarten, and a restaurant.

Another space I always mention is ‘Dynamo’. It’s a former bus depot that has been transformed into a repair shop and a hub for sustainable mobility and bicycle sharing. Some people are working on the re-use of clothing, or creating a library of objects, while others help with the upkeep of local parks. Others still are working on integration of migrants and low-income people, involving them not only in the care or maintenance of the city but also in the creation of social innovation and collaborative economy processes. You have FabLab spaces like ‘Make in BO’ in Piazza dei Colori, community gardening, real urban farming in Pilastro… A lot has been done on the civic restoration of historic buildings in the city centre and on the regeneration of vacant buildings or public spaces. We see groups of “city makers” that take care of the city and have the right to do so – an important measure that fosters social control and which, in this case, is more effective than policing, command, and control and public provisioning strategies. These examples could light the spark for a Europe-wide movement because similar processes are happening in many cities around Europe, as shown by the Cities in Transition project. For me, the most important way to foster social, economic, and institutional transition in cities is through the urban commons.

You mentioned a commons project on the integration of migrants. Nowadays we witness many problems of social exclusion. How do you see this aspect of integration within the commons?

This is a big issue. We need to demonstrate that the commons can be a means of achieving urban justice because there is currently still a lack of diversity among the people who are ‘commoning’. So we need to find ways of including other people, migrants, refugees, etc. in the commons and in commons-based governance schemes. In fact this is important for the work that one could do on the outskirts of cities where there are clusters of people (especially in public housing), immigrants (people that are now living in the city in a stable way), and migrants (people who just landed or are even maybe just in transit to another city because of the current refugee crisis). We need to understand if and how the commons could be an answer.

I am running an experiment in Piazza dei Colori (in English “Square of Colours”) in Bologna. It’s a public housing cluster where 60 percent of the inhabitants are foreigners: people that are now based in Bologna legally. But in close proximity we also have the so-called migrants’ hub, a place where refugees from Africa or the Middle East are now arriving. They are hosted for up to three months before they are dispatched to other areas of the city or to other cities in the region. So, there is a FabLab and a network of cultural and creative spaces in Piazza dei Colori, as well as a pact of collaboration in a nearby area. The CO-Bologna project is now leveraging both the Incredibol policy and the Bologna Regulation to involve the migrants and other people from the public housing compound and the Hub of the migrants in creating a collaborative economy district in which they can all manage the public space through the pact of collaboration and at the same time produce, manage, and manufacture by working in the FabLab or in those spaces.

So the commons, which is about social value, and the kind of connections you build around the commons, could be a way to create a shared set of values in a society that is becoming, or already is, more diverse, especially in European urban areas. In fact, the commons are more about the social process than the results. It doesn’t work like the state and the market where you have only formal rules, only organised structures. Most of the time, the commons are also about social norms in an informal organisation, which is adaptive, intuitive. It is very organic and changes over time. What might be suited to one context is not suited to another. It is very important to have this focus on diversity.

You are coordinator at the Laboratory for the Governance of Commons (LabGov)2. As an expert, what advice can you give other cities with regards to governing the commons?

LabGov is the first step of this Co-City process, which should be established by local knowledge institutions, together with city officials and commons practitioners in the city. It should be creative in a way that it is designed to start debates and discussions on what the commons are in that specific city, what is the entry point to start from, what is the real commons. What is a commons in Gent might not be a commons in Bologna. After all, the community, the ‘commoners’ decide what the commons are, so they should be able to define by themselves what square, what park, what street, what abandoned building needs to be reframed as a commons. Once you worked this out, you have to start mapping the commons institutions in the city because there might already be examples, as well as the ‘commoning’ communities that might not know of each other.

For instance, you decide that food is a commons for Gent. There might be projects, people, associations that are not speaking ‘the language of the commons’ but are already doing precisely that: a commons-based project, in the sense that you have a community that is cooperating and producing in an open way, collaborating with other urban actors, to produce some form of positive spillovers for the city in an open, non-hierarchical way. So you need to go out there, talk to them and invite them to be part of an experimentation process to practice the creation of commons governance tools together. Then you prototype a governance scheme. It could be a public policy regulation, a governance device, an institution, an economic venture, etc. It doesn’t need to be laws or regulations, it could also be social norms like civic uses. But it is vital that you first practice together. Then you prototype, you evaluate, you test the effects of this prototype, and lastly, you might model it into some form of governance. At the end you always need to evaluate and measure the impacts. That is what the co-city protocol is about.


[1] A pioneering policy that regards the city as a collaborative social ecosystem where citizensinitiatives and collaboration are legally recognised, valued, and actively supported by thegovernment.

[2] A place of experimentation where students, scholars, experts, and activists discuss the future shapes that social, economic, and legal institutions may take. LabGov  has been developing the international research and experimentation protocol ‘Co-Cities’ to design the city of the future based on the governance of urban commons, collaborative land use, social innovation, sharing economy, collaborative economy. LabGov adopts a learning-by-doing approach.

The Green European Journal, published by the European Green Foundation, has published a very interesting special issue focusing on the urban commons, which we want to specially honour and support by bringing individual attention to several of its contributions. This is our 4th article in the series. It’s a landmark special issue that warrants reading it in full.

Photo by Dimitris Graffin

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