Hosting the Commons

Extracted from Percolab, here’s Samantha Slade recounting her experience at last year’s Economics and the Commons Conference.

When I received an invitation to attend the Economics and the Commons conference (Berlin, 2013), I was delighted. The commons is alive in me. It is a new/old paradigm that reconnects with, and brings innovative thinking to, the social and ecological issues important to our collective well-being. I was certain that if ever a conference exemplified cutting-edge group processes, this would be it.

It is true that I have become more and more demanding about the design and wisdom that we accord to group processes. There has been an explosion of methodologies, practice and research around collective intelligence, participatory leadership, genuine dialogue and self-organizing approaches to enhance and transform how we think, learn and meet together. It befuddles me how conferences, panels and public consultations hold on to a conventional, top-down way of functioning. I am actively engaged in the international Art of Hosting and Harvesting network: a community working to develop our capacity in group process to work in service of the common good. As a result, for the past few years I have been deliberately avoiding academic conferences that didn’t seem too concerned with group process.

When I received the invitation to go to Berlin, I was keen to break my self-imposed conference fast, andjoin the 200 or so other advocates, practitioners and researchers from around the world. After all, since the commons is about people coming together to reclaim, create, share and self-govern resources that belong to everyone for responsible use based on principles of equity and sustainability, I was certain this would be reflected in how people would be gathered and invited to participate. And so, myself and a few fellow Montreal commoners made our way to Berlin.


On the first day of the conference, I was surprised to discover that we were to sit in rows of chairs, looking up at a stage where the “important people” would be talking at us with their slideshows. I had assumed that a topic that dealt with the shift from the “I” to the “we” would manifest that ideal in how it would be presented. I had imagined that we would begin by taking time to arrive as a democratic group of equals, nourish the community, and connect with experts (and their important contribution) in participatory and egalitarian ways.

The content of the many keynotes was rigorous and thought provoking – we were looking at the commons from five perspectives: (i) land and nature, (ii) working and caring, (iii) knowledge, culture and science, (iv) money, markets and value, and (v) infrastructures for commoning (See keynote videos: We were exploring the commons as a way to advance human well-being, beyond the current economic and political paradigms. The commons is about reclaiming, sharing and self-governing resources that belong to everyone based on the principles of equity and sustainability. This was exciting, but I could not help but feel that we were not tapping into the incredible collective intelligence that abounded in the room, and we were certainly not “holding space” for connections and community.

The keynotes were followed by thematic break-out sessions where participants would have an opportunity to share and discuss. These were run with still more presentations and with little process design or skilled facilitation. My experience was disappointingly sterile: I witnessed discussion and debates dominated by the more strongly opinionated and extroverted personalities – resulting in what I call “broken circles”. We were not engaged in generative conversation or in developing shared meaning. As a processes designer and group process host, I felt that we were not tapping into our potential as a group; that something was missing. Through chatting with others that evening I discovered I was not alone in my disappointment.

Finding George

I was hungry to discover how fellow collective intelligence practitioners were experiencing the event and so I sought out conference attendee George Por, from the School of Commoning in London, UK,( who I knew was also a member of the Art of Hosting community. We sat in the lobby of the venue and got to know each other. We talked about this connection between the commons and collective intelligence. We commiserated around what George states is the commoners “relatively low level of process literacy in group technologies of freedom and co-creation whichleaves us commoners vulnerable to fall back (particularly, under stress) to patterns of debating and discussing (that means « cutting to pieces » in Latin), when what we need is emphatic and generative conversations about what matters to all of us1.” We arrived at a shared desire to actconstructively: to create a small space within the event to continue this conversation with others.

And so, on the evening of the second day George and I met again, this time as a group of four, each having brought a colleague. We took some time to share our wish for conferences and to design an invitation and a process for the conversation we would offer to host the following day. We talked about the real challenge in coaxing commoning processes and initiatives to reflect a shift from the “I” to the “we”. We discussed how a personal practice, to continuously develop skills for new ways of being together, is essential. I was reminded of what Toke Moeller, Art of Hosting co-founder says: “We must realize that this is the time to work together like never before. It is the beginning of a more participatory democracy. We are rising up to become conscious citizens. Again. But we need practices to allow that to happen.”  This is what Art of Hosting offers. Together we designed a 90 minute session for the next day intended to help us actively practice both hosting and commoning.

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