Life With Alacrity

A blog on social software, collaboration, trust, security, privacy, and internet tools by Christopher Allen.

10 Design Principles for Governing the Commons


Resource SharingIn 2009, Elinor Ostrom received the Nobel Prize in Economics for her “analysis of economic governance, especially the commons.

Since then I've seen a number of different versions of her list of the 8 principles for effectively managing against the tragedy of the commons. However, I've found her original words — as well as many adaptions I've seen since — to be not very accessible. Also, since the original release of the list of 8 principles there has been some research resulting in updates and clarifications to her original list.

This last weekend, at two very different events — one on the future of working and the other on the future of the block chain (used by technologies like bitcoin) — I wanted to share these principles. However, I was unable to effectively articulate them.

So I decided to take an afternoon to re-read the original, as well as more contemporary adaptions, to see if I could summarize this into a list of effective design principles. I also wanted to generalize them for broader use as I often apply them to everything from how to manage an online community to how a business should function with competitors.

I ended up with 10 principles, each beginning with a verb-oriented commandment, followed by the design principle itself.

  1. DEFINE BOUNDARIES: There are clearly defined boundaries around the common resources of a system from the larger environment.
  2. DEFINE LEGITIMATE USERS: There is a clearly defined community of legitimate users of those resources.
  3. ADAPT LOCALLY: Rules for use of resources are adapted to local needs and conditions.
  4. DECIDE INCLUSIVELY: Those using resources are included in decision making.
  5. MONITOR EFFECTIVELY: There exists effective monitoring of the system by accountable monitors.
  6. SHARE KNOWLEDGE: All parties share knowledge of local conditions of the system.
  7. HOLD ACCOUNTABLE: Have graduated sanctions for those who violate community rules.
  8. OFFER MEDIATION: Offer cheap and easy access to confict resolution.
  9. GOVERN LOCALLY: Community self-determination is recognized by higher-level authorities.
  10. DON'T EXTERNALIZE COSTS: Resource systems embedded in other resource systems are organized in and accountable to multiple layers of nested communities.

I welcome your thoughts on ways to improve on this summarized list. In particular, in #10 I'd like to find a better way to express its complexity (the original is even more obtuse).


I love it Chris. Our conversation this morning was about playing the role of the "translator." You work fast. Quick notes: #7 has a typo (sanction). Could number 10 be rephrased as Internalize Externalities? (that may be even more abstract) And at what level is ten really about feedback loops> -- particularly since resources actual "cost" can be hard to even estimate, particularly when those resources are the result of thousands of years of natural processes (ex: oil, or fertile soil).

Matthew Schutte

Thank you. Linked here;


Christopher, let me suggest the following revisions to items 3, 5, and 10, based on: Cox, M., G. Arnold, and S. Villamayor Tomás. 2010. A review of design principles for community-based natural resource management. Ecology and Society 15(4): 38. [online] URL: 3. ESTABLISH LOCALLY APPROPRIATE RULES FOR USING AND MAINTAINING RESOURCES: Rules for use and maintenance of resources are adapted to local needs and conditions, and provide benefits to users that are correlated to their level of inputs. 5. EFFECTIVELY MONITOR RESOURCES AND USERS: There exists effective monitoring of the system by monitors who are accountable to the users. 10. TIE-IN TO RELATED SYSTEMS: The resource system is appropriately connected to parent/fraternal/subordinate resource groups and to governmental systems.


Excellent version. I think a critical adaptation is the active voice, as you've done in the bold verbs. #10 expresses a dynamic relationship with #9, yes? Thus, "govern locally" (or "organize locally") is in relation to "don't externalize costs." That is, within holarchies or (spatially, temporally, institutionally) nested set of commons or jurisdictions, both other levels and other holarchies are recognized and respected. Perhaps the positive flip on "don't externalize costs" would be "seek to externalize benefits"? In other words, seek to transmit one's learnings from such local organization up the holarchy and across to other holarchies. Like Ostrom did, and one seeks to do, by developing design principles!

Howard Silverman

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