This blog is part of an online learning platform which includes the Pathways to New Community Paradigms Wiki and a number of other Internet based resources to explore what is termed here 'new community paradigms' which are a transformational change brought about by members of a community.


It is intended to offer resources and explore ideas with the potential of purposefully directing the momentum needed for communities to create their own new community paradigms.


It seeks to help those interested in becoming active participants in the governance of their local communities rather than merely passive consumers of government service output. This blog seeks to assist individuals wanting to redefine their role in producing a more direct democratic form of governance by participating both in defining the political body and establishing the policies that will have an impact their community so that new paradigms for their community can be chosen rather than imposed.


Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Ostrom, the Commons and the Green New Deal

In the course of this effort to find new community paradigms, there has been an ongoing, albeit unexpressed, tendency to gravitate towards what can be viewed as a cluster of three thought leaders, all of whom are women. All three are seen as being clustered around the concept of positively addressing and engaging complexity.

They are Donella Meadows, who has an NCP wiki page, Jane Jacobs, for whom though I haven’t yet built a wiki page, is foundational to Placemaking and the work of Project for Public Spaces particularly her ideas on organized complexity and, although until now neglected despite growing awareness and appreciation, Elinor (Lin) Ostrom.

The initial resource for this post, through Marginal Revolution University, was Elinor Ostrom | Women in Economics. The reason for the current focus, in addition to an understanding that the environmental resources introduced in the last post are not enough on their own to face the wicked challenge of climate change, is due to a question asked on both Twitter and the Facebook group The Ecology of Systems Thinking, “Wondering how Elinor Ostrom's ideas could be applied to the Green New Deal and scaled up to be applied not only nationally but globally?” The result of which was a number of additional useful resources and an enlightened, educational discussion.

With the world’s climate being considered as the ultimate commons, Ostrom’s Eight Principles for Managing a Commons can be seen as a counter to Garrett Hardin’s more pessimistic perspective on the Tragedy of the Commons problem, which is a systems thinking archetype (number 2 in the list). ”Unnecessary tragedies, like ozone holes and national debts, greenhouse effects and urban air pollution are examples of the Tragedy of the Commons”. In these examples provided by Daniel Kim two different Causal Loop Diagrams display how the archetype works. As he points out, “Perhaps the trickiest part of identifying a 'Tragedy of the Commons' archetype at work is coming to some agreement on exactly what is the commons that is being overburdened.”

Upon closer examination, Hardin’s approach seems less a top-down means of command and control to the benefit of greedy landlords and more an understandable concern regarding how to address unsustainable population growth. The primary point of disagreement is that Ostrom ”challenged the presumption that rational individuals were helplessly trapped in dilemmas.” 16:04

The above quote is taken from the primary resource for this post, Ostrom’s 2009 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences lecture at Indiana University in which she goes over her basic ideas discussed more fully in her Nobel Prize Lecture paper, on polycentric governance complex economic systems, and the Institutional Analysis and Development Framework (24:14) and of particular note, ”Demonstrated that complexity is not the same as chaos in regard to metropolitan governance” (21:13 & 22:13).

A number of her other ideas expressed in the lecture were found especially noteworthy.

The rules that we use to govern a university, a private firm, a water resource or any kind of problem need to fit the socio-ecological area or field that they are supposed to control. Having one kind of rule that will work everywhere is a ridiculous kind of thinking.” (17:05)

“The second is that polycentric systems with multiple scales enable a fit between human action situations day to day situations and nested ecological systems.” (17:34). Ostrom seems to use the term situations and the complex environments in which they occur in a manner similar to Russell Ackoff’s idea of messes and others in systems thinking.

So likely any top-down systems, even those well-intentioned such as the Green New Deal, at least in its present form without far more bottom-up policy and technical input, could be suspect.

“Panaceas are dysfunctional” 17:52 I have no doubt that she would have included any specific instance of her own systemic approach and any derivatives, directing attention to the first principle listed above.

“The internal would be actors who are in positions that can take action in light of information that they have and how much control they can take and their net benefits and outcomes and then choose outcomes.” (26:35)

“And when they made decisions anomalously and there was no communication, they did what the theory predicted Just as we found in the field that when it was very big and they couldn’t communicate they over-harvested. All we had to do was introduce the possibility of face to face communication, which is referred to in-game theory as cheap talk, doesn’t make any difference, that enabled them to increase cooperation greatly, and then we allowed them to design their own sanctioning system and they went up to 90% of optimal, a fantastically positive result…” (36:42)

What has to change then is the framework in which these complex interactions occur making the transformation into new paradigms for communities possible. The most important requirement, trust.

“We find that learning to trust others is central. You cannot have a small, medium or large or very large governance mechanism that works over time when people do not trust one another.“ (41:17) This point was also emphasized within the Ecology of Systems Thinking group. The issue considered by the participants is whether the networks of trust could be expanded or scaled up to be effectual against wicked challenges such as climate change.

“But the important thing was if it didn't work you could exit and exit turns out to be a very important, powerful, possibility for citizens and if you have only big units, how do you exit?” (19:52)

Ostrom finishes with the “idea of reform” (43:55) and in particular for me the idea “We must learn how to deal with complexity, not just reject it”. (45:01).

The Ecology of Systems Thinking discussion extended the political and economic perspective of the Tragedy of the Commons problem to a more biologically based orientation. A recommended article by Dr. David Sloan Wilson connects Ostrom’s work with evolutionary biology and in doing so establishes cooperation as a viable evolutionary strategy and points out major transitions becoming higher-level organisms in their own right, such as the rise of the first bacterial cells, multicellular organisms, eusocial insect colonies, and human evolution.

Part of the debate, delineated by the disciplines of physics and biology, was on the initial starting point and slope of the trend between population, population density and food that brought us to our current predicament and applying that to predict a future course of either potential transformation or inevitable destruction. Having only cursory knowledge, I did not take a side. Another topic was on the increasing complexity inherent in wider circles, larger groups or higher levels of polycentric governance which from my perspective I saw as similar to Dunbar's Number. Here is a RSA video of Dunbar explaining his theory.

Past NCP posts looked at the scaling of networks based on Dunbar's Number applied to Asset Based Community Development, as well as the concept of carrying capacity being applied to communities. These will be returned to for closer examination and likely some revision in future posts already begun raising new questions and some simmering old ones.

According to Cormac Russell, Managing Director of Nurture Development, the average person has fifty-one other persons in their associational lives but he argues that we each need one hundred fifty persons citing Robin Dunbar, the originator of Dunbar's Number.

The number of 150, according to Dunbar "refers to those people with whom you have a personalized relationship, one that is reciprocal and based around general obligations of trust and reciprocity." Cormac asserts that these need to be friends and neighbors, not other service users, professionals, or even family. “It comes down to how many unforced and unpaid for relationships of acceptance we have in door knocking distance.” Including ”family” in the later group should have been questioned back then more closely as kinship is a primary basis for Dunbar’s number.

There is not, however, a single Dunbar Number but rather a scale of numbers, of ever-widening circles of connection constrained by a cognitive limit because this limit is a direct function of neocortex size, and this in turn limits group size where stable interpersonal relationships can be maintained. This cognitive constraint or gap needs to be overcome, logically to my mind, by some systemic means. The working hypothesis is that Asset Based Community Development can contribute to this but doesn't seem to solve it on its own.

Elinor Ostrom’s work cannot in my view be said to be mainstream which is actually part of the reason she appeals to New Community Paradigms. Her work continues through the Ostrom Workshop now the cornerstone of the beginning of a new NCP wiki-page.

Past Posts