Monica Bernardi, writing for LabGov gives a well structured overview of Michel Bauwens’ Commons Transition work in Ghent

Monica Bernardi: Commons represents an issue which has been subject of many studies and discussions. LabGov used to deal with the topic of the commons and its co-founders themselves (Prof. Sheila Foster and Prof. Christian Iaione) talk of  “The City as a Commons”.

Today, indeed, we witness a rise of commons-oriented civic initiatives as a result of a growing inadequacy of Market and State. A commons can be intended as a shared resource co-governed or co-owned by its user community according to their rules and norms. In both BollierBauwens and Helfrich’ opinion there is no commons without commoning, namely without active co-production and self-governance.

A commons emerges from the dynamic interaction of three related aspects: a resource, a community that gathers around it, and a protocols for its stewardship. As pointed by Bollier, it is simultaneously:

  • social system for the long-term stewardship of resources that preserves shared values and the community identity;
  • self-organized system by which community managed resources with no reliance on the Market or State; the wealth that we create and pass on to the next generation (based on gift of nature, civic infrastructure, cultural and creative works, traditions and knowledge);
  • sector of the economy that create values in ways that are often taken for granted – and often jeopardized by the Market-State.

The commons becomes a challenge for the city, that should become what Bauwens defines a “partners city”, enabling and empowering commons-oriented civic initiatives. For the market, that should sustain the commons and create livelihoods for the core contributors; and for the civil society organizations, that still have bureaucratic forms of organization and management, not in line with the commons initiatives.

Bauwens has recently released a report based on the study of the City of Ghent, conducted together with Yurek Onzia – project coordinator and editor-in-chief, with the support of an artistic makerspace (Timelab), the P2P Lab scholar Vasilis Niaros and Annelore Raman from the city council. The study was commissioned and financed by the City of Ghent, in the northern Flanders, with the support of the mayor, Daniel Termont, of the head of the mayor’s staff, the head of the strategy department, and the political coalition of the city (Flemish Socialist Party SPA, Flemish Greens – Groen, and Flemish Liberal Party – Open VLD).

The main request of the administration was to document the emergence and growth of the commons in the city and identify strategies and public policies to support commons-based initiatives, involving the citizens. The three-month research took inspiration from other cities (such as Barcelona, Seoul, Bologna) already engaged in the recognition and promotion of commons practices. It culminates in a Commons Transition Plan that describes the role, the possibilities and the options for optimal public interventions in terms of reinforcing citizens initiatives.

During the research, the team:

  • Mapped 500 commons-oriented projects per sector of activity (from food to transportation, energy, etc.) using a wiki
  • Interviewed 80 leading commoners and project leaders
  • Administered a written questionnaire to over 70 participants
  • Managed 9 open workshops divided per theme (Food as a commons, transportation as a commons….)
  • Developed a Commons Finance Canvas workshop based on the Hinton methodology (economic opportunities, difficulties, models used by the commons projects)

Bauwens described the city of Ghent (300,000 inhabitants) as a city with a distinct presence of commons-oriented initiatives (more than 500), a lively urban tissue sprinkled by smart young, as well as coworking, fablabs and maker spaces, active civil society organizations that support urban commons projects, and an active and engaged city administration. The city indeed is already involved in actions for carbon and traffic reduction, and it has a staff of social facilitators, connectors, street workers engaged in enabling roles at the local level. In addition, there is an important policy to support the temporary use of vacant land/building by community groups.

Nevertheless, the research highlighted some weakness points of the city:

  • the initiatives are often fragmented;
  • there are some regulatory and administrative obstacles (especially about the mutualized housing);
  • fablabs and coworking spaces lack of real production’s activities;
  • there is no connection between university and the commons project, neither a propensity to open source and design projects;
  • many commons-project are set in post-migration communities and limited to ethnic and religious memberships;
  • civil society organizations often perceive the projects as mainly directed towards vulnerable categories and not as general productive resources; the cooperative sector gives a weak support; the major potential commons are vulnerable to private extraction.

Despite these weakness points, the City showed a great commitment in finding ways to improve and expand the urban commons at local level since it is aware of its potentials for the social and economic life:  1. “the commons are an essential part of the ecological transition”;

  1. they “are a means for the re-industrialization of the city following the cosmo-local model which combines global technical cooperation in knowledge commons with smart re-localization of production”;
  2. they “are based on self-governance of the value producing systems and are therefore one of the few schools of true democracy and participation”

The report is divided in four parts:

  1. The context on the emergence of urban commons (largely increased in the Flanders in the last ten years). This part provides information on the challenges for the public authorities, for the market players and for the traditional civil society organisations and on the opportunities related with the spread of the commons (i.e more active participation of citizens as city co-creators, in solving ecological and environmental issues and in creating new forms of meaningful work at local level).
  2. An overview of urban commons developments globally and especially in European cities.
  3. The analysis of the urban commons in Ghent with its strengths and weaknesses.
  4. A set of 23 integrated proposals for the creation of public-commons processes for citywide co-creation.

The part 3 with the map of the urban commons projects highlights some similarities with the commons-driven digital economy, demonstrating some specificities:

  1. productive communities are based on open contributions;
  2. the urban commons and their platforms may bring to generative market forms;
  3. the communities, platforms and possible market forms require, and receive, facilitative support from the various agencies and functionaries of the city, and the civil society organisations.

About the proposals in the part 4, the report presents:

  • some public-social or public-partnership based processes and protocols to streamline cooperation between the city and the commoners. Taking as example the Bologna Regulation for the Care and the Regeneration of the Urban Commons, the report suggests that commons initiatives present their projects and ideas to a City Lab in order to sign a “Commons Accord” with the city. With this contract the city sets-up specific support alliances combining the commoners and civil society organisations, the city itself, and the private sector;
  • a cross-sector institutional infrastructure for commons policy-making and support divided in transition arenas and based on the model of a pre-existing practice around the food transition.

Among the recommendations and suggestions listed in the report there are:

  • The creation of a juridical assistance service consisting of at least one representative of the city and one of the commoners, in order to systematically unblock the potential for commons expansion, by finding solutions for regulatory hurdles.
  • The creation of an incubator for a commons-based collaborative economy, which specifically deals with the challenges of generative start-ups.
  • The creation of an investment vehicle, the bank of the commons, which could be a city bank based on public-social governance models.
  • Augmenting the capacity of temporary land and buildings, towards more permanent solutions to solve the land and housing crisis affecting commoners and citizens.
  • Support of platform cooperatives as an alternative to the more extractive forms of the sharing economy.
  • Assisting the development of mutualized commons infrastructures (‘protocol cooperativism’), through inter-city cooperation (avoiding the development of 40 Uber alternative in as many cities).
  • Make Ghent ‘the place to be’ for commoners by using ‘Ghent, City of the Commons’ as an open brand, to support the coming of visitors for commons-conferences etc.
  • As pioneered by the NEST project of temporary use of the old library, use more ‘calls for commons’, instead of competitive contests between individual institutions. Calls for the commons would reward the coalition that creates the best complementary solution between multiple partners and open sources its knowledge commons to support the widest possible participation”.

In addition, the team also propose:

  • A specific project to test the capacity of “cosmo-local production” to create meaningful local jobs (organic food for school lunches) and to test the potential role of anchor institutions and social procurement.
  • The organisation of a CommonsFest on the 28th of October, with a first Assembly of the Commons.
  • pilot project around circular finance in which “saved negative externalities” which lead to savings in the city budget can directly be invested in the commons projects that have achieved such efficiencies (say re-investing the saved cost of water purification to support the acquisition of land commons for organic farmers).
  • The setting up of an experimental production unit based on distributed manufacturing and open design.
  • Projects that integrate knowledge institutions such as the university, with the grassroots commons projects.

The report is the executive part of a short book on the Ghent experience that will be soon available. Many useful indications and more precise recommendations can be found in the “COMMONS TRANSITION AND P2P: A PRIMER”. This Commons Primer co-published with the Transnational Institute, explains the Commons and P2P, in terms of interrelations, movements and trends, and how a Commons transition is poised to reinvigorate work, politics, production, and care, both interpersonal and environmental.

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