Life With Alacrity

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

A Revised “Ostrom’s Design Principles for Collective Governance of the Commons”


Resource Sharing

The traditional economic definition of “the commons” are those resources that are held in common and not privately owned. This is closely related to economic concept of public goods, which are goods that are both non-excludable (in that individuals cannot be effectively excluded from use) and non-rivalrous (where use by one individual does not reduce availability to others).

My own personal definition for the commons is broader — any regenerative, self-organizing complex system that can be drawn upon for deep wealth. These can include traditional commons, such as lumber, fish, etc., but can also include other regenerative systems such as communities, markets, intellectual property, etc.

In 2009, Elinor Ostrom received the Nobel Prize in Economics for her “analysis of economic governance, especially the commons”. In that, she listed 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 also has been some research resulting in updates and clarifications to her original list.

I also wanted to generalize her principles for broader use given my broader definition of the commons, and apply them to everything from how to manage an online community to how a business should function with competitors. I went to the original version, more contemporary research, as well as a number of modern adaptions to define a new set of design principles.

My first draft divided up her 8 principles into 10. I then ran this list by a number of experts in this field, and here is my second draft based on their feedback. This draft in fact breaks up her principles into 12 different ones, but I have retained her old numbering system as there are large number of works that refer to the original 8. In addition, there appears to be some differences in thoughts on number 8, so I've included two variations.

Ostrom’s Design Principles for Collective Governance of the Commons


How to Avoid the Tragedy of the Commons within Self-Organizing Systems

1A. DEFINE AUTHORIZED USE: The community of those who have the right to use the common resource is clearly defined.

1B. DEFINE COMMONS BOUNDARIES: The boundaries of the commons are clearly defined so as to separate the usage rules from the larger environment.

2A. MAKE COSTS PROPORTIONAL: Costs for using and maintaining the commons are proportional to the benefits that those users receive from the commons.

2B. PAY ALL COSTS: People that use the commons keep costs inside the local system as much as possible. They do not externalize costs either to neighbors or future generations.

3A. DECIDE INCLUSIVELY: Everyone who benefits from or is affected by the use of the commons makes choices about it. This includes decision-making on resource allocation and on rules and responsibilities for use of the commons. Members of the community operate with respect and mutual regard for each other.

3B. ADAPT LOCALLY: Members of the community adapt the rules and culture for the commons to local needs, resource qualities and environmental conditions.

4A. SHARE KNOWLEDGE: All members are actively engaged in observing and sharing knowledge about the conditions of the system.

4B. MONITOR EFFECTIVELY: Monitors who are members of (or supported by and accountable to) the community view and report on the use and maintenance of the commons by community members and others.

5. HOLD ACCOUNTABLE: Violators of the rules or culture of the commons face graduated sanctions, proportional to the seriousness of the transgression. These are applied by members of the community or by others who are accountable to community for applying such consequences.

6. PROMPTLY RESOLVE CONFLICTS: The community offers inexpensive, fast and easy access to mediation for effective conflict resolution.

7. GOVERN LOCALLY: Community self-determination is recognized and supported by higher-level authorities.

8. CONNECT TO RELATED SYSTEMS: Any side effects or other repercussions by one community to another in managing their commons, should be addressed in the context of larger, nested communities that have a legitimate role in those consequences. These externalities should be resolved by the community at the most immediate or local level (aka subsidiarity) that can operate from effective human relationships, rather than by a faceless authority.

ALT 8. COORDINATE WITH RELATED SYSTEMS: For groups that are part of larger social systems, there must be appropriate coordination among relevant groups. Every sphere of activity has an optimal scale. Large scale governance requires finding the optimal scale for each sphere of activity and appropriately coordinating the activities, a concept called polycentric governance. A related concept is subsidiarity, which assigns governance tasks by default to the lowest jurisdiction, unless this is explicitly determined to be ineffective.

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