Tim Harford has an interesting article in this week’s Financial Time’s Life and Arts section (or Magazine for British readers) describing a famous academic dividing line around the question whether people will work together to save the “commons”. The key protagonists who have produced different answers to one of the most important social questions of our times are: Garrett Hardin who wrote “The Tragedy of the Commons” versus Elinor Ostrom who won the Nobel Prize in 2009 and passed away last year.
The FT: “The Tragedy of the Commons” is a seminal article about why some environmental problems are so hard to solve. It was published in the journal Science in 1968 and its influence was huge. Partly this was the zeitgeist: the late 1960s and early 1970s was an era of big environmental legislation and regulation in the US. Yet that cannot be the only reason that the “tragedy of the commons” has joined a very small group of concepts – such as the “prisoner’s dilemma” or the “selfish gene” – to have escaped from academia to take on a life of their own.”…
The story goes as follows: imagine common pasture, land owned by everyone and no one, “open to all” for grazing livestock. Now consider the incentives faced by people bringing animals to feed. Each new cow brought to the pasture represents pure private profit for the individual herdsman in question. But the commons cannot sustain an infinite number of cows. At some stage it will be overgrazed and the ecosystem may fail. That risk is not borne by any individual, however, but by society as a whole.
With a little mathematical elaboration Hardin showed that these incentives led inescapably to ecological disaster and the collapse of the commons. The idea of a communally owned resource might be appealing but it was ultimately self-defeating.”
Having heard Hardin explain the “Tragedy” Lin Ostrom who had been working on common pool problems like water management refused to accept that the proposition was unstoppable. “Lin Ostrom knew that there was nothing inevitable about the self-destruction of “common pool resources”, as economists call them. The tragedy of the commons wasn’t a tragedy at all. It was a problem – and problems have solutions.”
She subsequently started a quest to describe and analyze the various common pool challenges around the world which turned out to be a major challenge: “Vincent Ostrom, Lin’s husband, had developed the idea of “polycentricity” in political science: polycentric systems have multiple, independent and overlapping sources of power and authority. By their very nature, they are messy to describe and hard to compare with each other. Unfortunately for any tidy-minded social scientist, they are also everywhere….Complicating the problem further was the narrow focus of academic specialities.”
To tackle these “wicked problems” that require interdisciplinary focus (a common pool resource problem in itselfl), she ultimately developed new intellectual tools that produced a set of design principles (that got her the Nobel prize).
Of particular interest was how she had to circumvent the academic stovepiping: “Ostrom’s research project came to resemble one of the local, community-led institutions that she sought to explain. In 1973, the Ostroms established something called the “Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis”. Why not a school or a centre or a department? It was partly to sidestep bureaucracy. “The university didn’t know what a workshop was,” says Michael McGinnis, a professor of political science at Indiana University and a colleague of the Ostroms. “They didn’t have rules for a workshop.”
But there was more behind the name than administrative guile. Vincent and Lin believed that the work they did was a kind of craft. (The couple had built their own home and made much of their own furniture, under the guidance of a local craftsman – the experience made an impression.) The students who attended didn’t call themselves students or researchers. They called themselves “workshoppers”.”
Considering current governance challenges as common pool challenges seems also to require a change in how we study and address the re-design of solving public problems. We need a “collaborative to study collaboration”, a core part of GovLab’s mission.