An interview with Michel Bauwens, conducted by Vasilis Niaros.
Vasilis Niaros: Can you give us a short background of the project?
Michel Bauwens: Ghent is a mid-sized city of about 300,000 inhabitants, with a huge student population, and a prestigious history. It was once the biggest city in northwestern Europe (12th-13th century). It has had a progressive red-green-blue city coalition for more than a decade and has already been active in supporting many citizen initiatives. But as the city became more and more aware of the importance of the commons in these new models, it asked us as the P2P Foundation (myself and coordinator Yurek Onzia for our p2p/commons related expertise) to map the commons in Ghent, and to see what is expected of city authorities in this context. Thus, we have three months for intense conversations with the local players, and to produce a Commons Transition Plan.
VN: In which phase are you at the moment? What have you done so far?
MB: We are pretty much done with the investigative and ‘mapping phase’. We did a lot of online research, about 80 conversations with project initiators, an in-depth questionnaire; and all of this has been put in a open and shared wiki, which is organized by major ‘provisioning’ systems, i.e. food, mobility, housing, etc. In parallel, we have organized, with the assistance of Timelab and Evi Swinnen, weekly meetings in order to stimulate more interconnection between players in particular fields. Timelab is one of the maker cultural centers/makerspaces and has been an essential ally and supporter for this project.
A lot is happening in Ghent. The Flanders region has known a tenfold increase in commons-connected citizen initiatives in the last ten years, but as in many other places, there is still too much fragmentation. We are using the commons narrative to catalyze more convergence across projects, so that they can have a systemic effect on the city ecosystem and even influence policy making. Some areas we are specially focusing on are the economic realities of the commons projects (what are their concrete resources), their regulatory difficulties, and the possibilities of turning them into real economic and social projects that can stimulate the local economy. Our basic hypothesis is that the transition towards these commons models is also vital to morph into sustainable societies.
VN: Which are the main challenges that you have faced by now?
MB: The collaboration and reception we received from both the city and the citizen initiatives have been tremendous. More than 50% have returned our extended questionnaire, and we’ve had good attendance at our collective meetings. Amongst our preliminary findings are:
- Ghent has a dynamic city administration that is effectively engaged in the transition, for the long term, but there are still too many sectorally fragmented approaches;
- Ghent has very dynamic and organized citizens that are concretely initiating and advancing transition projects, but they are also quite fragmented, although some sectors are more advanced than others, such as food and energy;
- amongst the weaknesses is that Ghent lacks an emergent industry, and that university institutions are not visibly connected with citizen initiatives;
- in general, there is a lot of action, but not yet much meta-reflection and inter-connection and alignment between projects.
We made a lot of progress with our wiki, lots of material to work with and analyze, and we will soon be ready with our writing and proposition phase.
VN: Can you give us an idea of some of the directions that you are taking in terms of proposed solutions?
MB: The key issue for me is how we can move from the current situation of fragmentation towards the beginning of an alternative eco-system that is sustainable and socially fair. One of my ideas is to build on the structure that has shown relative success in the most advanced sectors, which is the success in creating the beginning of an alternative food system. Ghent has a wide variety of CSA projects, collective purchasing groups, and the like, in which new producers and active prosumers are creating new relationships. It also has a workshop where the key players of this new economy are studying and reflecting together, and can propose changes to the city. It also has a food policy council and project, Ghent en Garde, that is fully committed to the sustainability transition.
I think this could be the basis of a generic structure for the transition in the other provisioning systems as well; I call this ‘sustainability empowerment platforms’. I’m also looking at how the collective purchasing power of the anchor institutions, could leverage this power in terms of sustainable local purchasing by moving to social procurement practices. Ghent has one million school meals in the city schooling system, which could be locally sourced. Timelab has pioneered a ‘call for commons’ approach in which, instead of competing for scarce subsidies, actors create common solutions through a network approach, which could be generalized in other city-based projects, instead of purely competitive bids. On a more fundamental political level, can city institutions and democratic procedures integrate the ‘right to challenge’ by citizen initiatives, and even the ‘right to initiate’ as is already the case in Bologna for example? Is the city and its administrative and political culture ready to become a ‘partner city’ which can empower citizens to co-create common-wealth more systematically and successfully?
VN: What is the role of the municipality in the project?
MB: The municipality commissioned the project. It is the first municipality in the world to look strategically at the commons transition, that’s not trivial. The mayor and the strategic directorate of the city have been supportive and have nominated a very effective coordinator, which has opened doors for us to meet a series of engaged officials in different departments. In parallel, we received equally enthusiastic support from civil society initiatives and organisations, showing us that the commons are alive and correspond to a true aspiration. The difficulty of the project is not to be underestimated however, i.e. how to get more convergence and systematicity amongst commons actors in the various sectors, and how to realize more voice and political clout. How can we tackle the more infrastructural commons requirements, such as space and land, which is subject to tremendous speculative activity and gentrification? How can we fund the commons transition, for example, through circular finance that tackles the cost of negative externalities and supports commons initiatives which drastically improve the material footprint of human economic and social activities?