Dirk Holemans: When Michel Bauwens, founder of the P2P Foundation, started his research for the development of a “Commons Transition Plan” for the Flemish city of Ghent, he was overwhelmed by the sheer number of commons-oriented programs. In three months time, he discovered 500 initiatives. A remarkable figure, related to recent research indicating a tenfold increase in commons.
So what is happening? Is it a coincidence that Ghent is one of the frontrunner Sharing Cities? Fortunately, historical evidence gives us a clue. We are witnessing the third big “wave” of what scholars like Tine De Moor call “institutionalised forms of collective action.” The first wave developed in the late Middle Ages in a period of rapid urbanization with commons being established in great numbers. As there was no real state, people had to organize themselves to respond to the new market developments. And what about Ghent? Well, it was at that time the second biggest city north of the Alps, with more than 50 different guilds.
The second wave came during the industrial revolution, with workers and their families living in miserable conditions. People, in the midst of a market and state failure, built their own institutions like cooperatives and unions. Again, Ghent was the leading city in the region. It was the center of the textile industry and the breeding ground for a wide array of citizen associations. This leads us to the current period: Given the city’s tradition of progressive politics, present-day Ghent has a distinct political and administrative culture that is really supportive of citizens’ initiatives.
So, is Ghent really heaven on earth from a commons’ perspective? Not yet, according to Bauwens’s report. There are very promising developments, but the efforts of the city and the commons initiatives are highly fragmented. Though commons initiatives are present in every sector few activities are is aimed at real production. Also despite its historical legacy, the current cooperative sector is quite weak. To put it frankly, there is no existent support infrastructure for start-ups of the generative and cooperative economy that could work with commons infrastructures.
This is the reality: If Ghent doesn’t give the same level of institutional support to the commons as it does to the mainstream start-ups, the commons could remain marginal as an economic player. This brings us to the crucial part of the Bauwens’s report — coherent proposals for new institutions that allow the consolidation of the third wave. I see three clusters of proposals:
- The first is a clear structure that installs a supportive relationship between the city government and people running and participating in commons initiatives. Bauwens proposes the creation of a City Lab that helps people develop their proposals and prepares Commons Agreements between the city and the new initiatives, modeled after the existing Bologna Regulation on Commons.
- Second, commons should play a key role in the transition towards a resilient city. Fortunately, Ghent already has a transition food strategy — Gent en Garde — which embodies the core institutional logic needed. Central here is the Food Council, which meets regularly and brings together relevant experts. It includes representatives of the current forces at play and has the strengths and weaknesses of representative organizations. The latter have power and influence but will probably defend the existing food system. The Food Working Group is one of the members. It mobilizes those active in commons’ initiatives and works along a contributive logic. This means people are not looking to extract value (make private profit) but want to generate social value in the first place. For Bauwens, the combination of a representative and contributive logic can create a more performant Democracy. This, however, requires people participatings in the commons to have a greater voice in the city. Bauwens proposes the establishment of two new institutions: the Assembly of the Commons, for all citizens active in commons’ initiatives, and the Chamber of the Commons, for all social entrepreneurs creating livelihoods around these commons.
- Last not but least, why don’t we provide people who want to engage in the commons with the same support a mainstream profit-driven start-up gets? In Ghent (and in other cities, too), this entails at least three things: The creation of an incubator for a commons-based economy, the establishment of a public city bank, and the development of mutualized commons infrastructures through inter-city cooperation.
The task in Ghent and beyond now is to shape the institutions of the 21st century.
Header image of De Site, an urban agriculture commons project in the neighborhood of Rabot in Ghent, courtesy of Dirk Holemans