This excerpt is the Introduction to Part II: The Triad of Commoning from Free, Fair, and Alive by Silke Helfrich and David Bollier. You can find out more about the book and read excerpts from it here.


Over the years, there have been a number of attempts to conceptualize commons with greater clarity. But no one has yet imagined a framework that at once speaks to the mundane realities of self-organization, the inner transformations that commoning catalyzes, and how these might transform the political economy over time. That is the challenge that we take up in the next three chapters by offering a comprehensive framework for commons and commoning. We hope to get beyond the growing confusion and faux-populism associated with these terms, and provide a more rigorous conceptualization. If the notion of commons is used as a buzzword for everything in the world we would like to see shared, it loses its transformative power. 

Frameworks are gateways. They subtly but deeply influence the ways that we perceive the world. They usher us into a specific interpretation of the world, much as opening a door takes us into one room and leaves others unexplored. Frameworks structure worldviews. They provide an analytical scaffold and a language for making sense of what we can observe. For these reasons, we provide in Chapters 4, 5, and 6 a scaffold and language for looking at the world of commons and commoning.  

Our framework builds on the insights about the role of subjectivity, relationality, and language described in Part I of this book. Our Triad of Commoning: Social Life, Peer Governance, and Provisioning is based on the premise that commoning is primarily about creating and maintaining relationships — among people in small and big communities and networks, between humans and the nonhuman world, and between us and past and future generations. This relational understanding of the world will necessarily bring about new ways of thinking about value. It also helps us escape from standard economic and policy frameworks, and from overly economistic, resource-based understandings of the commons, both of which fail to express its social dynamics.  

Two years before writing these lines, when we began to think about this book, we didn’t aspire to propose a new framework. However, as we progressed, we felt increasingly uncomfortable with the ontological premises and languages used by most of the commons literature. They often did not come to terms with many of the things we had observed in the contemporary commons world. After a year of wrestling with this unease, we decided to start from scratch. In March 2017, we began to reflect more deeply and imagine a framework — one step at a time, slowly, iteratively — that could blend theory and practice. It was as if we were changing the point of departure for a journey. To explore the outskirts of Paris, for example, we could depart from either of the city’s two most important train stations — Gare du Nord or Gare de l’Est, each only a stone’s throw away from the other. Choosing Gare du Nord would take us towards Lille in northern France, or to St. Quentin in the Hauts-de-France region. But were we to instead enter Gare de l’Est, just five hundred steps away, a whole new set of destinations would be possible: Mulhouse in Alsace or Stuttgart in Germany, along with dozens of others. The distance between the gates is trivial, but the actual point of departure makes a huge difference in what kinds of worlds we can travel to. So it is with the frameworks we choose to interpret the world. The more a framing structure is true to our humanity and aligned with our aspirations and circumstances, the more likely that it will take us to destinations that are right for us. 

Our framework aspires to articulate the deep correspondences among the bewildering diversity of the commons. Despite vivid differences among commons focused on natural resources, digital systems, and social mutuality, they all share structural and social similarities. Their affinities have just never been adequately identified and set forth in a coherent framework. Our idea was to make visible that which connects commons experiences in medieval times and today, in digital and analogue spheres, in cities and the countryside, in communities dedicated to water and to software code. Unraveling the tangled “genetic history” of commons to identify these connections can help explain why the commons is as old as mankind and as modern as the internet. 

The structural commonalities that we identify are based on the recurring elements and relationships that we call patterns. Patterns help us see the common core of diverse world-making commons without ignoring their differences. A patterns approach recognizes that each commons develops and evolves in a different context, in different spaces and times. Each is shaped by different people, in different societies and environments. It is thus entirely logical that every commons will enact patterns according to its singular context. To fairly allocate water in the Swiss Alps in the sixteenth century requires a different set of rules than to fairly share bandwidth in the twenty-first. To govern a commons within a modern capitalist society is a different challenge than doing so within an Indigenous culture. What matters in each instance is for participants to produce a fair share for all. 

When you have a closer look at how things are done in diverse commons, you begin to discover a world ordered by patterns. Using a patterns-based approach, we can grasp the idea that commons are enacted in myriad ways, without being merely arbitrary or accidental, and without ever being implemented exactly the same way twice. We can identify recurrent features of commons that are often not explicitly named. John C. Thomas has written that patterns “are one way to capture what is invariant while leaving the flexibility to deal with the specifics of geography, culture, language, goals, and technologies.” In this respect, patterns resemble DNA, a set of instructions that are underspecified so that they can be adapted to local circumstances. “Does the DNA contain a full description of the organism to which it will give rise?” asks Christopher Alexander in his book The Nature of Order. “The answer is no. The genome contains instead a program of instructions for making the organism — a generative program — in which cytoplasmic constituents of eggs and cells are essential players along with the genes like the DNA coding for the sequence of amino acids in a protein.”

Principles and Patterns

In describing the critical dimensions of a commons, what is the difference between a principle and a pattern? And why do we prefer to speak about patterns rather than principles of commoning? When patterns are expressed in a succinct form — as in “Ritualize Togetherness” and “Practice Gentle Reciprocity” — the phrase sounds like a principle. But patterns and principles are not the same. Each points to a different way of understanding the world and bringing about social change.

A principle points to an ethical or philosophical ideal that everyone should follow. It implies a universal, invariant truth. “Thou shalt not kill” and “the separation of church and state” are two familiar examples. Principles bring to mind scientific axioms, a term that comes from the Greek word axíōma which means “that which is thought worthy or fit” and “that which commends itself as evident.” Axioms are considered so self-evident that they don’t need to be justified or explained. The same idea applies to principles, whose adherents regard their general claims about moral or political truth as beyond argument.

A pattern, by contrast, describes a kernel idea for solving problems that show up again and again in different contexts. The pattern will be the same, but concrete solutions will be different. For example, managing a cooperative in a German city will face similar problems as a co-op in an American city, but each will require approaches that take account of different legal, economic, and cultural realities. The idea of using patterns derives from the pioneering work of Christopher Alexander and colleagues in the 1970s in the field of architecture (see Chapter 1). A pattern isn’t an ethical or philosophical ideal, but a concept that distills the essence of a variety of successful solutions that people implement because they work well and are life-enhancing.

Principles tend to make universal claims. This is problematic because it is virtually impossible to find the same institutional structures, cultural beliefs, and social norms in different places and contexts. By contrast, universal patterns of human interaction already exist. Take marriage: as a pattern it describes a universal social practice with countless variations in which people declare their commitment to each other (or have it declared for them). A pattern does not overspecify the details of marriage, such as the sex of the people involved or the conditions under which it occurs. It is a kernel idea for working solutions derived from observing real-world situations. In this sense, patterns describe, they don’t prescribe. They start with the need to deal with tensions that cause problems. And tensions are omnipresent in our lives. A formal pattern description frankly recognizes the positive and negative forces that affect a given situation and does not assume that these forces can be resolved by invoking principles. The discourse of principles is less concerned with addressing these messy, complicated forces than in asserting a golden, inviolate ideal. In addition, a principle is usually presented as a standalone truth that need not take account of other principles with which it may conflict. For example, invoking freedom of expression does not address the tensions of that principle with the principle of respect for privacy and the dignity of others.

By contrast, patterns amount to design tools that help us address our practical challenges while speaking to our inner ethical, aesthetic, and spiritual needs. Patterns serve as a vessel for helping aliveness blossom. They are not a configuration of rules and metrics for how things can be controlled and regularized, nor abstract statements of principle with moral or normative meanings like “solidarity” or “sustainability.” This is not to say that there is no underlying ethics; it’s just that patterns recognize that ethical aspirations must take account of situational realities. This helps explain why no pattern is complete unto itself and necessarily relates to others.

Our framework naturally draws on the robust scholarly literature exploring the commons — a body of work that has proliferated since Professor Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in Economic Science in 2009 for her pioneering studies of collective resource management. The International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC) and its journal continue this valuable work. Ostrom’s famous eight design principles for enduring commons institutions — set forth in her 1990 book Governing the Commons and developed over the past generation with hundreds of colleagues — represent a major beachhead of understanding. But these principles do not say much about the inner life of commons or the complexities of what it means “to common.” (They do speak strongly to issues of governance, which we take up in Chapter 5.) 

Our Triad framework points to the idea that commoners are engaged in “world-making in a pluriverse” because that phrase captures the core purpose of commoning: the creation of peer-governed, context-specific systems for free, fair, and sustainable lives. At the heart of the Framework is what we call The Triad — the three interconnected spheres of Social Life, Peer Governance, and Provisioning. Or, in more conventional terms: the social, the institutional, and the economic spheres. We find it useful to structure our thinking around these realms, which doesn’t mean that they are separate and distinct. Each sphere of the Triad simply provides a different perspective for looking at the same phenomena. Each is deeply interconnected with the others, as the accompanying image suggests. 

The Triad of Commoning

It is reasonable to ask, how we can possibly generalize about the commons, knowing that there is no such thing as cultural universals? Is a coherent, general understanding of the phenomenon really possible? We believe it is — if such an understanding acknowledges the immensely varied on-the-ground realities and distills their essential regularities! That’s what patterns do. They avoid the trap of reductionism, don’t oversimplify messy realities, and help to avoid a totalizing way of understanding the world. Patterns provide a way to generate insights while relying on situated knowing — people’s experiences, know-how, and intuition. And, most importantly, they help us create an open framework that is adaptable by design, and certainly not the last word. We therefore offer a flexible template, not a blueprint, and a commons vocabulary, not a classical, prescriptive taxonomy.