An Assessment of the International Commons Conference in Berlin: Year Zero of a Global Political/Policy-Oriented Commons Movement

Ethical Markets Community Development Solutions, Wealth of Networks

Here is my assessment of the International Commons Conference held in Berlin, at the start of the month:

With the Commons Strategies Group (David. Bollier, Silke.Helfrich,, Bea Busaniche, and myself) and associates from the Heinrich Boll Foundation (Heike.Loeschmann) and E5 (Julio Lambing), as well as a host of enthusiastic volunteers of a support committee, the first International Commons Conference was held in Berlin, November 1 and 2. It’s subtitle was: ‘Towards a Commons-based Policy Making Framework.

Though we may not have met the goal of policy making itself, I believe we can say with confidence that the meeting was a success nevertheless.

Yes, the International Association for the Study of the Commons has for a number of decades done stellar social-scientific research on traditional commons;

Yes, we have witnessed a strong emergence of a digital commons culture and movement;

and yes, we have seen a number of activist charters, mostly connected to the alterglobalization movement, being pronounced in the last few years. And yes, also, we have witnessed the first stirrings of policy-oriented commons initiatives such as David Bollier, now writing at Bollier.or, the On The Commons blog, James Quilligan’s Global Commons Trust, Silke Helfrich’s pioneering publishing work on the topic with the Boll Foundation, and more.

Including the documentary work at the P2P Foundation ( and

But the point is: these various emergent movements existed separately, did not mesh, and did not work globally on making the commons a reality in terms of politics and policy. This then is the historical significance of the Berlin meet-up. That various branches of the commons movement, material and immaterial, met each other for an extensive dialogue, and for the most part, understood and acknowledged each other, even as many issues need to be debated and trashed out.

While a conference of this scale always has a number of glitches (the program was really over-ambitious for such a short time, though it succeeded in creating a believable framework around the main issues), and a tiny minority proved reluctant (a famous global water commons advocate refused to sit on the same panel with a digital commons hacker), most attendees entered in a open and deep dialogue, and came away with very positive experiences, re-energized. Even a number of jaded activists, who felt at times despondent about the state of activism of more traditional political approaches, felt new vistas were opening up.

So, in a nutshell, these are the achievements of the conference:

– The various constituent movements related to the commons met for the first time, entered in a serious dialogue and recognized the need for joint policy frameworks about the global commons. The wish to continue this conversation and constitute a intermeshed global movement was palpable

– Representatives of the government of Ecuador publicly committed themselves to reframe their policies in the context of the commons

The Commons Strategies Group is therefore committed to continue its work facilitating and supporting this emergence, and is in a process of consultation about the best ways of doing this.

My own feelings, not yet fully discussed within the CSG, about what needs to be done in the future are this:

– Continue the discussion with constituent groups, and perhaps strengthen the links with political ecology and ecological economics, traditional social justice movements (labour, farmers, etc..); strive for even more diversity next time

– Strengthen the representation of those movements that bridge the immaterial and material commons, such as those engaged in the global construction through open design of a new distributed manufacturing infrastructure for appropriate technology

– Find ways to interconnect policy makers and political sympathizers within legislative and policy-making bodies, around thematic areas; through a observatory, online and offline dialogue, and the identification of commons-oriented stakeholders in all domains of social life

Lots of things to do, but it is vital in terms of the re-orientation of our world from its current destructive combination of pseudo-abundance (infinite growth in limited material environments) and artificial scarcities (il-legalisation of global cooperation and innovation sharing through repressive IP laws)

The CSG would be dedicated to intermeshing the global dialogues around reframing issues around commons-oriented policy solutions.

More Information:

For a bonus, see the memorable quotes collected by Christian Siefkes at Keimform.

Neal Gorenflo, at Shareable, highlights some of the contrasting tendencies visible during the discussions:

“The private, small group and plenary discussions were the most interesting to me for this reason. It was in these discussions that the different perspectives on the commons became most apparent, thus giving hints about how they might be combined into a more comprehensive worldview. Here are a few of the dividing lines I noticed during the conference:

* It seems that whenever people gather to discuss the commons, some time has to be spent defining them. The ICC was no exception. Part of one breakfast with Jay Walljasper and the On The Commons delegation was spent exploring the value of seeing the commons on a spectrum with pure commons at one end and private property at the other. Later, during an open space session on governing digital commons, it was pointed out to me that a set definition is important when government funding is tied to one. And at yet another session with Spanish speakers, I was told that there’s really no word in Spanish for commons.

* There was much talk about the proper relationship between the market, the state, and the commons. On the one hand were the purists, who believe that commons should have no connection to the market. More moderate voices tended to think that markets are ancient human phenomenon just as commons are, and that they must somehow work together. During one of the open space sessions I attended, the group outlined a framework that could support commons. The idea was that commons need a strong an institutional support structure like markets have to be truly durable. In his keynote, Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation and the Commons Strategies Group summed up the proper relationship between the commons and the state saying that the state should support social production as a partner.

* Another important axis was activist versus commons builders. Activists contended that the market poses a constant threat to commons and must be defended against vigorously. Free culture advocates and Transitioners had a different perspective – they feel that a good offense is the best defense. In other words, it may be easier to build anew what’s wanted than change what exists. Then some others said that both approaches are needed. Related to this axis was the understanding of commons as lifeboats in a crisis or an upgrade from our current situation.

* While Michel Bauwens expressed hope about combining the traditional and digital commons, I surprised that the cultural gap between digital and traditional commoners seemed fairly wide. And that gap didn’t necessarily have to do with the critical fact that digital commoners interact with a non-rival resource and traditional commoners interact with a rival resource. For instance, on a train ride to visit a home healthcare coop in Berlin, Martin Pedersen explained that indigenous medicinal knowledge is place-based but that digital commoners see knowledge as abstracted from place. Another difference was the digital commoners see traditional commons as occurring naturally in contrast to digital commons which are constructed. This is despite the fact that all commons are social and ecological systems, even digital commons as they require natural resources stay alive.”