Our World is in crisis as its systems have been pushed toward exceeding their limits of resilience. Much of what we care for and need in the various aspects of our lives is under threat. We need a whole system approach, one that enables all parts to thrive while addressing the threats that endanger the whole.
For a while I have been playing with the idea of bringing together some guiding principles that could help us coalesce streams of engagement and passion... Guiding principles that can help the system take care of itself - the physical dimension- and underpined by an archetypal vision or aspiration - the metaphysical dimension- with a power to attract and catalyze potential for action and engagement to seed and amplify emerging change and the positive feedback of the system.
After two years of discussions with many groups involved in social change, I believe the approach of the commons as complex living system and embodiment of the change we want to see could constitute the guiding vision we need to face the challenges ahead and generate the driving force for the system to heal itself. In short, we would need to think sustainability in terms of commons, to coalesce in a self-organizing way disparate sustainability efforts.
This article is inspired from a group discussion addressing the question from UN Secretary General on an Economic Model for survival, in discussion since Feb 2011 on the LinkedIn "Systems Thinking World" forum. 7200+ posts, and many other discussions around the Commons, P2P, collaboration and technology.
The commons can be described in many different ways and along various dimensions. It is at the same time object, process and result operating at various levels and scales, from the most global -the whole system, to various nested or fractal 'local' levels -the parts.
- As objects, the commons embody the Common Wealth, the 'Assets' that are inherited or created, shared in common, and serve a livelihood (natural, social & cultural resources, genetic and biologic diversity, knowledge, etc), that people can take care of, nurture, replenish, grow.
- As a process, the commons embody the Common Ethos, a Culture, the ways of being and doing in common that epitomizes in commoning (caring, sharing, nurturing, governing the assets in relationship with others with empathy, equity, justice, mindfulness...)
- As a Result: - the commons embody the Common Good, the outcome of the process (well being, quality of life, prosperity, abundance) which is the life blood of the process and a condition for the growth of the assets.
The commons is both an input to the dynamic interactions between people and their contexts, and an output thereof. All these dimensions need each other for the world to thrive. For progress to materialize, output must be greater than input. Commons in all their diversity and all the types of value they
create must grow. And ideally each of our sustainability initiatives would be geared to grow a part of it.
On all dimensions, levels and scales it is a tangible condition that serves as a medium for economic and political cooperation, development of common social and cultural values, and the establishment of a shared stewardship of the earth that can be deployed at multiple levels and scales; with a goal of satisfying needs and enabling self realization along all its various dimensions.
The crisis that threatens the survival of humanity as a whole needs a vision that can help transition to a sustainable and thriving world. One that can not only encourage desired behaviors but also inspire us all to work towards it, as we articulate and develop our own designs of who we want to be -- as individuals and as community.
In 1973, a team of researchers from Stanford university established that cultural transformations occured with the presence of a strong image to embody change and crystallize imagination and action toward new visions of the world:
Images of humankind that are dominant in a culture are of fundamental importance because they underlie the ways in which the society shapes its institutions, educates its young, and goes about whatever it perceives its business to be. Changes in these images are of particular concern at the present time because our industrial society may be on the threshold of a transformation as profound as that which came to Europewhen the Medieval Age gave way to the rise of science and the Industrial Revolution. - Changing Image of man -Stanford research institute
- provide a holistic sense and perspective on life
- entail an ecological ethic
- entail a self-realization ethic
- be multileveled, multifaceted, and integrative
- lead to a balancing and coordinating of satisfactions along many dimensions
- be experiential, experimental and open-ended
Think of the various sensitivities or movements that can coalesce under a commons sense banner (gaian, ancient tradition, legalist/human rights and expression, ecology, socio-political, risk/precaution, cooperative ownership and management, craddle2craddle/regenerative economy, conservation/malthusian, thrivability/prosperity/abundance, P2P/hacker/localist, peace/love) that are moved by different narratives and passion, all an expression of the same aspiration...
- The nature of the system is a multiplicity of parts in partnership working individually as whole local parts, and operating at various integrative levels and scales, forming emergent wholes. What connects any part with a whole is most often hidden from any local viewpoint. Each whole self-organizes and self-realizes while being conscious of and responsive to each other's behaviors and locally responsive to its changing environment, not controlled by external forces, only shaped and limited them.
- Patterns of behaviors emerge -or arise- in each part and whole out of a multiplicity of interactions, initially invisible and often coming into sight all at once (tipping points). Emerging behaviors are often the only thing visible from parts or wholes that may be hidden from sight (the unknown).
- Change is made continuous by successions of interactions and relationships generated by the system. Radical change can occur when emergent patterns of change converge and accumulate into systemic change. Possibilities for convergence and amplification of feedback which shape a system's behavior increase with density and tightness of connections.
- Encouraging self-organization and self-realization at the local level for the parts to be resilient and to thrive while learning from and empowering one another through expansion of partnerships and interactions; learning both how to work independently and together at various integrative levels or scales to empower larger systems and share responsibilities as a way to assure individual freedoms.
- Encouraging the understanding of how things work and the awareness of emerging behaviors to be responsive, anticipate potential conflict or collaboration and recognize change as it unfolds; and ultimately enable positive trends to be amplified and new learning to be integrated and made applicable.
- Enabling the parts to be aware of other parts and wholes, and the whole system from discovering their behavior, even when they are hidden from view. Enabling them to be aware of how they use and depend of the whole and how they can contribute to keep the whole viable and thriving.
As complex living systems themselves, described by Elinor Ostrom as “self-organized” and "polycentric", where the people closely involved help “develop rules for themselves", the commons mimic the conflict-free self-organization observable in natural economic systems and can help materialize the need and possibilities for a systemic change.
There are clear opportunities making a commons approach relevant today. These complementary parts seem ineffective mostly for being disconnected. The commons provide a guiding vision and operating principles for learning how to search for the matching parts as the solution, and the system itself will start putting them all together. It provides a role for everyone to play in making the transition to a sustainable future; it provides opportunities for everyone to contribute to organizing efforts in a self-organized and multi-path yet converging way.
- To amplify emerging change, encourage local organization for local needs, users to become producers or stewards of their own resources. Starting on the short term by testing innovative methods in coordinated regional emergency interventions.
- To accelerate convergence, expand cooperation at higher levels and wider scales, and foster learning and collaboration processes that enable co-creation, co-governance and conflict resolution on multiple scales, adopting subsidiarity principles to define the boundaries of the commons.
- To protect the viability of the commons, develop a commons sector alongside the private and public sectors, conferring rights and responsibilities to communities over resources they create or on which they depend. Embedding the commons approach in local and national sustainable strategies.
- To replenish and grow the commons, develop circular and [re]generative economic models that ensure the conditions under which profit and growth can be viable and sustainable.
- Use finance to grow the commons and restore the natural generative and replenishing functions of the economy, revalue future value, find KPIs that measure progress and the actual creation of common wealth and abundance.
- Stop growing toxic and harmful practices toward the environment, health, human rights. Fight abuses of power and corruption. Establish basic responsibilities.
- To make sense of emerging change, create assessment and reporting systems for transparency and monitoring of impacts, growth of the commons and compliance with sustanability goals and targets.
- Create frameworks and platforms to support the transition and collaboration, make needs and solutions as well as possible partnerships visible and actionable.
'We' here is the emergent 'collective', all those who undertake converging actions.
Application: This includes finding the boundaries and governance principles best suited to the needs of the commons at local levels (subsidiarity), acknowledging multiple logically or physically overlapping or intersecting commons, and devising more practical means of enforcement for laws, treaties, and agreements at all levels by making them confirmations of nested and/or fractal common needs.
Amplificators: Introducing clarity between consumables and durables, it puts the responsibility of the performance of the product and its becoming as a new resource at the end of its life on the producers, leading to a whole new approach of production, consumption and ownership as it encourages leasing, renting and sharing while giving way to new approaches of business co-evolution and integration of the commons.
living in a changing world may make important. See articles A biomimicry for self-regulating commons and Self Organization as niche making. The Giving Pledge is a move in this direction, that needs to be adequately channelled...
- setting up sensors for detection and sense-making;
- making initiatives and what emerges visible to the whole and to each other
- understanding issues and what is at stake across silos;
- inspiring, empowering, enabling people to collaboration and action;
- facilitating deliberation and implementation;
- providing means for horizontal (P2P sharing) and vertical (subsidiarity principle) scaling of processes
- diffusing, applying, improving, sustaining solutions
- monitoring performance, accountability, early detection of new issues and feedback