What is Design’s Role in Amplifying the Commons?

Moderated by Dimeji Onafuwa, Phd Researcher, School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University

‘The commons’ refer to resources that are shared or generated by a group of people. Historically, and in many cultures, the commons have been at the heart of complex economies that over generations have helped individuals and communities co-operate in the creation of their livelihoods and of their social and cultural practices, without degrading their natural environments. The process of ‘commoning’ is guided by collective benefit rather than self-interest, and it empowers communities and challenges centralizing institutions. Furthermore, in fostering non-commodified forms of exchange, commons challenge conventional, neo-liberal economics. To the extent that the commons require the ongoing collaboration and participation of individuals in a process of ‘commoning’, they embody a democratic and consensual way of being in the world, and to the extent that the commons balance long and short-term interests, ‘commoning’ becomes a practice of stewardship. The concept of the commons and the practice of ‘commoning’ are currently undergoing an historically important renaissance, and design has the potential to play key role in this phenomenon.

What is design’s role in amplifying the commons? And in so, doing how can it help transition us to towards a form of society in which the commons play a vital role?

Please join the discussion in the comments section below.

  1. Kirstin

    Do you think different principles necessarily need to guide design for different types of ‘commons’ (e.g., a digital commons like Wikipedia, compared to a physical commons like a park)? What about different levels of access (e.g., belonging to a community (like a university) grants access to common resources that are closed to outsiders)?

    • Dimeji

      Those are very interesting questions Kirstin. My first stab will be that the Elinor Ostrom (nobel prize winning economist) lays out principles that are relevant to maintaining of a commons regardless of type. However, I believe that it is up to commoners to ensure the survival of a commons, and all design does is to ensure inclusion, collective governance, and amplification.

  2. Gavin

    From those digital commons (wikipedia):
    “The commons is the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, including natural materials such as air, water, and a habitable earth. These resources are held in common, not owned privately.”
    I’m fascinated by this more general understanding of the term, one so inclusive that, frankly, no one can avoid being a part of it. (Though they may be opposed to it).
    I also wonder about the grammatical uncertainty that the commons introduce(s), at least on this commonly produced page.

    Curiosities aside, I’d say ‘The commons’ necessarily refer (or refers? In any case, I’ll stick with plural from now on) to resources that are shared and often generated by a group of people (a small but important change). For instance, a corporation privately owns resources generated by a group of people – not commons. On the other hand, the commons are not always designed in common (or designed at all). A park may be designed by some for the sake of all. Nature may be part of the commons (e.g. National Parks), but not designed.

    Next time, thoughts on design’s role in amplifying the commons. I’m still pondering.

    • Dimeji

      (Gavin) While you are pondering, I was once told that commons are always connected to resilience (i.e. in regards to reclaiming, reusing and recycling). What are your thoughts?

  3. Dimeji

    Hi Gavin,
    One important point i agree that the opening statement fails to include is in fact what makes a commons unique – the use of such resource (or even more importantly, the way the resource is used). Thanks for the point of correction. I also agree that we should refer to commons as “a commons” (singular) or commons (plural).

  4. Bim O.

    Design’s role as I see it (and before any amplification) begins with helping kick-start the commoning process itself. E.g. by easing the barriers to entry (how can I contribute? How easy is it to use what’s available? etc) and improving outside access to the commons (either by promulgating awareness, by making the existing available means easier to use, or by some other means). How easy or costly would such an effort be? I’ll leave that one to the phDs.

    Following that, I think the commons could then be amplified – through design – by employing a continuing process of educating and re-educating communities on the benefits of the commons (while simultaneously dispelling widely-held misconceptions about such systems). Technology undoubtedly will/should play a significant role in this education effort. Perhaps through this continuous education design strategy the commons might begin to play a larger, more robust role in our lives.

    • Dimeji

      These are good thoughts Bim. I am curious to know your ideas on if/how privatization and governmental intervention (via intellectual property laws) affect the commons. Also, when are commons not a good thing for society?

  5. Shruti Aditya Chowdhury

    As part of our (first year M.Des+MPS) research for the Interaction Design Studio, we went out and talked to people about their lived experiences in Pittsburgh. One resonant theme was that people don’t feel attached to the commons (parks in this case) and their interaction with the commons is almost incidental. While the younger people do appreciate it the idea of it and are concerned about gentrification, in practice, they venture out and engage with the community only in commercial establishments (bars and restaurants).

    One direction we’re exploring is using spaces in these commons to overcome infrastructural seams in the city.

  6. Cameron Tonkinwise

    Two questions/points:

    From the perspective of Transition, is a Commons a means or an end? If it is an end, then the question is whether you can design a community into treating a shared resource as a commons over time. Ostrom’s empirical accounts of non-tragic management of Commons often emphasize that all stakeholders gather to establish agreements about conduct with respect to the commons. This would suggest that there is no Transitioning toward a situation in which some shared resource can become governed as a commons; it is instead something that must happen from the outset or it does not happen. A different situation happens when a Commons has been established but its membership grows over time. Systems for governing Commons must be carefully designed to handle such growth, which may include limiting growth.

    Hardin argued that the Tragedy of the Commons can be avoided by making the Commons exclusive – only those who subscribe to the principles for managing a Commons are provided access; others, especially new entrants, are denied (sustainable Commons are not necessarily equitable Commons).

    Ostrom’s recommendations foreground face-to-face encounters (you are less likely to betray someone in a prisoner’s dilemma game if you know that you will leave the room with them afterwards) and social commitments (public vows are more binding than private ones). Design tends to be the process of making interactions more efficient, often by replacing messy people with reliable things (forms, tools, automated processes, etc). If there is Transition Design toward treating more aspects of our natural and social worlds as Commons, this would suggest that Design can smooth the awkward process of negotiating with your fellow humans as to how to treat a Commons-based resource. But in streamlining such social conversations, might not Design betray exactly what Ostrom is arguing is crucial to Commons governance? How to make the establishment and maintenance of Commons easier, by design, without de-socializing the interactions around a Commons?

    • Lydia Yoder

      Cameron, I think design could support Ostrom’s argument if used in the right way. Design could create the platforms on which people interact to care for the commons – not skipping past the messy process of negotiation, but creating a space for it.

    • Michael

      Regarding the question of negotiation raised above, perhaps in Transition Design activities, design needs to function in other ways besides smoothing/streamlining. For governance-related matters, to paraphrase John Cage, we need designs that make us do more work. Designing with a stance towards supporting friction, highlighting difference and irregularity (to lend participants criticality and analysis when discussing different viewpoints) rather than smoothness is an alternate way, and possibly a more useful way to approach the agonism of governance.

      The approach towards designing for ‘commonsing’ may lie in making complex more comprehensible, and highlighting and engaging the differences of the participants as a resource for understanding the spectrum of goals and uses for the commons. Supporting the move of human actors attaining comprehension of complexity is a different kind of move than streamlining.

  7. Lydia Yoder

    We have more distance today from the traditional forms of the commons, particularly in urban areas. Many of these traditional types (e.g. water, forests, soil) are very tactile. I’m not sure if there’s research on this – but I think people have an easier time understanding the health of the commons when they can see it and feel it. Those in direct contact with tactile commons can see how their interactions with those commons have clear outcomes. Design may have a place in making this generation’s more abstract commons visible.

  8. Ahmed

    One of the oft-overlooked aspects of this is the that of identity and identification: how does a commons manifest as such for individuals, what is it that gives it boundaries and cohesion, and how do individuals see themselves as belonging to it and each other such that there is an imperative to preserve and expand the boundaries\structure? In this sense, it might be useful to look at cultural theorists like Benedict Anderson on imagined communities or Alberto Melucci on collective identity and philosophers like Habermas on social imaginaries and the public sphere. I feel like a look at the role that the material has to play in forging the sense of collective identity and belonging to a commons or acts as a divisive\distancing\estranging force in the claiming of\identification with a common, might be useful trajectories to follow.

  9. Eleni

    Even moving further from the idea of the (physical) commons only being natural resources (air, water, forests and so on), I still believe that the commons cannot be designed as such. You can design the resources; a park, sidewalks and so on, but they can adopt the identity of ‘a commons’ as soon as they are used and altered through everyday life of people. For example urban space can be either identified as public or private but not necessary a commons. It is the process of appropriation and alteration by the residents’ actions that can turn it into ‘a commons’. In that sense I think it is more important to talk about the process rather than the outcome. ‘Commoning’ per Linebaugh, is the process of co-creating, managing and maintaining a commons. And in that process I think Ahmed is right in saying that the issue of identity and belonging is important. Design can create the conditions for commoning to take place and also assist in the negotiation process mentioned above.
    I think that the main problem in amplifying the commons (scaling up) is on how to maintain them equitable and sustainable while avoiding exclusion through privatization as Hardin proposed. Scale in governance of the commons has been the real issue, and I have found the ideas of Ostrom (nested structures) and Bookchin (confederalism) insightful in addressing such issues.
    However if we are talking about the everyday, and commoning as a process that also creates identity and belonging in a place, I think it is important to look into the ‘tragedy of the urban commons’ as posed by Harvey. How can design help avoid the appropriation of ‘the commons’ as created daily by citizens for private interests?

  10. James Paskett

    Ok so this is what I am seeing… the models of “commons” have mostly been constructed from rhetoric. This hermeneutic process uses speculation and rhetorical recomposition. Forming a perspective from such a disembodied perspective misses the latent and tacit knowledge needed to take action.
    For a participatory role in amplifying the commons I propose a different hermeneutic process. An evidence-based hermeneutics with the desirable qualities of reliability, of replicability, and of consistency in knowledge. An “InterpretationTranslation” feedback loop, of theoretical frameworks applied in generative design research. This would provide an evidence-base of latent and tacit knowledge for amplifying the commons.

    A move from theory to generative design research:

    -For a policy definition of “Commons” read Illich’s “Silence is a Commons”.
    -For a value-function that equals Minimizing Enclosure Amplifies the Commons read Bollier’s “Ivan Illich and the contemporary commons movement”
    -For a model in the opening of a commons and how to setup generative design research read Liz Sanders and Pieter Stappers’ ”From Designing to Co-designing to Collective-dreaming : Three Slices In Time”

  11. James Paskett


    Learn more about why I respectfully think that this discussion is a waste of time. You should design if you really know how to….