Notes | Contemporary Commons: Sharing and Managing Common-Pool Resources in the 21st Century

Posted on Oct 6, 2021

DOI 10.1515/humaff-2019-0007 | Author(s) ANNA ŠESTÁKOVÁ, JANA PLICHTOVÁ | Date 2019


This paper looks at the sharing economy or ‘digital platform economy’ as a new commons. The authors first ground the paper in Elinor Ostrom’s work on the commons and the design principles necessary for a sustainable commons. They then examine how Ostrom’s work can be applied to the digital platform economy of bikesharing. The authors conclude that Ostrom’s framework would need to be adapted for use in urbanand digitalized environments. Further, they note that it may be difficult to create a framework for all use cases and adapting these principles may need be stratified along different types of sharing.

Quote and Observations

“Creating a system based on letting people use someone else’s under-utilised resources means that they no longer need to buy them. The sharing economy is seen as means to avoid over-consumption and pollution while providing access to resources for the less well-off, the poor, people with disabilities and low-income communities.” (75-76).

Working from a US context I think, on its face, this isn’t true. In NYC, for example, getting from the Bronx to Manhattan via a a ride-sharing app is going to be more expensive than using the train. Additionally, there is evidence that ride-sharing services actually increase congestion in the city, which would cause an increase in car based emissions.

A few paragraphs down the authors point out that ride-sharing can move people from more sustainable transit and cheap accommodations may increase people’s travel habits which results in net higher emissions (76).

For a common to exist there must be

  1. a shared resource (material or immaterial)

  2. rights and rules that specify how the resource is shared between the commoners which can be rooted in a legal property regime (contract law, patent law, copyright law, etc) or in customary law;

  3. a governance system for the resource which assures the respect of the rights and obligations of the commoners and outsiders. (77)

Responding to Hardin’s critique the author’s turn to Elinor Ostrom.

“Some of the successful communities were able to manage their common resources for a very long period of time. For example, the Valencian irrigation system in Spain is more than 1,000 years old. The mountain-grazing institutions in Switzerland extend back to the thirteenth century (Ostrom, 1994). The successful cases no only survived droughts, floods, wars and so on but also major economic and political changes.”

Eight Design Principles

  1. Boundaries should be clearly defined. If not clearly defined the resource will be fully open to outsiders which could put the resource at risk of being designed by outsiders.
  2. Unless the pool of users is so small that they will have no impact on each other, they must institute rules on when and how much resource can be authorized to do so. Additionally, the rules must considered fair and legitimate by the users and adapted to local conditions.
  3. Users should be able to participate in creating and modifying rules. Rules can be based on legal systems or community created informal rules.
  4. Compliance with rules is monitored because people not obeying the rules could jeopardize the system.
  5. Observed violations of the rules should be punished. It need not be harsh and can be graduated. Repeated rule breakers are eventually excluded from the group. Sanctions can come from other users or officials.
  6. Users have access to areas for discussion and conflict resolution. “Ostrom’s empirical work showed that while rules are often unambiguous in theory, this is rarely the case in reality. If the disagreements are not resolved, then the actors may loser their willingness to follow them, simply because the others interpret the rules in a different way.” (78)
  7. A minimal recognition of the right to organize from external authorities (read: the government), else the rules could be overturned be overturned by the government.
  8. Nested enterprises. “All of the activities in the common-pool resources including appropriation, monitoring, conflict resolution and sanctions are often organised in multiple layers of nested enterprises. The smaller problems should be resolved in smaller groups while the externalities from one group to others can be addressed in larger organisational settings.” (79)


Bikesharing in Bratislava

“A common problem is the locking system – some users do not lock the bike properly making it impossible for other users to borrow it. On social media, some people complained that other users do not return the bikes within the 30 minute limit. they park them in the docking station so they can take them again and continue cycling for free. This complaint is especially interesting considering the company itself suggests such practicies on its website. Some users, however, deem this kind of behavior to be damaging to the idea of ‘sharing’. We consider this a sign of an informal rule developing which contradicts the formal rules of the providers.” (80)

As they examine bikesharing they note both that in the case studies cited in Ostrom’s work users’ livelihoods were dependent on preserving the resource. Bikesharing barriers to entry are kept intentionally low to encourage more people to use them and Ostrom’s principles of setting strict boundaries has a tension with the stated principles of democratizing access to resources (81). I’m cynical that these public private parternships that introduce a resource for a fee are about democratizing access. They more appear to be an effort for governments to abdicate the responsibility of governance to an outside corporation and for the corporation to have a guaranteed revenue stream backed by a government entity..

Bikes as a resource differ from a natural resource in that a bike does not naturally replenish nor can someone use a bike simultaneously (where you could while fishing a lake (81).

Heterogeneity of users makes a self-governed system difficult to implement.

References to Read

Ostrom, E., Chang, C., Pennington, M., & Tarko, V. (2012) The future of the commons. Beyond market failure and government regulation. London: The Institute of Economic Affairs

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