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The Laboratory of the Commons

February 7, 2024

Contribution to GTI Forum What’s Next for the Global Movement?

The challenge of building a global citizens movement to address our interconnected crises is an exciting prospect and a much-needed course of action.

In this forum, there have been many different perspectives on and definitions of what the crisis is. Are we in a polycrisis or metacrisis or permacrisis or civilizational crisis, etc.? Is it patriarchy, capitalism, an industrial mindset, or a deep pathology within the human species? How can we formulate actions without a clear shared diagnosis and analysis of what the problem is?

I learned early on through the World Social Forum process that the various social movements that are driving and advocating for change have a variety of definitions of the problem, with distinct temporalities. They conceptualize change depending on the movement of which they are a part and the issues that they are addressing. Each has implicit narratives and temporalities of change which are embodied—they exist within the experiential and relational mix of how different communities have come into being over time.

A global citizens movement will inherently express this kind of diversity with its accompanying diversity of analyses and narratives. I am therefore skeptical of the ability, let alone the wisdom, of trying to settle on one analysis and create one vision. So do we need to abandon the search for, and advocacy for, the single definition of the problem, the single diagnosis, the single vision? Do we need to be looking for the relational congruence between the variety of perspectives across the various actors and social movements whose hearts and livelihoods are connected to a desire for change?

The practical and theoretical work on commons and commoning is another way to consider the myriad alternatives emerging. The many people that commons scholar Elinor Ostrom has inspired have pluralized the notions of commons into a wide variety of domains, whether they are ecological, urban, digital, affective/emotional, atmospheric, etc. These different commons, furthermore, have been studied with great rigor, and we have learned that the internal logics within the variety of commons are indeed different. They cannot be easily conflated—there is no one-size-fits-all. We can only say very generally that something on which we mutually depend for our survival and well-being is a commons, and through our implication into a commons, we are called forth to action, toward the need to collaboratively govern this commons together (be it digital, urban, educational, atmospheric, etc.). But beyond this, their logics are diverse.

Unfortunately, the World Social Forum process, with all the richness of its diversity, failed in seizing the opportunity to create a strategic program for change. It did not allow itself to be a voice or representative actor for the many groups within its orbit. Despite the efforts of some, there was never much respect for manifestos and vanguardism. What I have learned from this is that it is not enough to create a space that holds diversity, we need coordinated and targeted strategic actions and programs of change. Many people acting together. We are implicated into shared commons, and many groups and people must learn to collaboratively govern and protect these.

But what if this acting together is not one but a multiplicity of change efforts with relational congruence, part of a larger tapestry? What if these became a social ecology of alternatives that supported each other?

The crux of the challenge is that a global citizens movement is required to mobilize and drive change, but this GCM is marked by fundamental diversities of culture, geography, sectors, themes, and organizational types—different embodiments related to different commons. How do we support the emergence of a powerful GCM that expresses strategic and relational congruences (of analysis and action) within a GCM where diversity (ontological and epistemological) is inherent?

The following are some ideas to this effect:

  • Strategic Pressure Points: Identify the targeted strategic pressure points necessary to trim tab change and create high-profile and high-impact opt-in projects that many organizations join. These need to be laser-focused efforts that allow many organizations and people to join and support.
  • Bee-and-Flower Logic: Identify the types of strategic congruences that do not require people or organizations to be or think the same: “bee-and-flower logic.” The bee does not consciously know it is “exchanging a service for a product” (my pollen distribution for your pollen). The flower does not know it is exchanging a product for a service (my pollen for your transport). However, they sustain each other despite never entering into an agreement. Cosmolocalism, for example, relies on this logic, as people do not need to agree on an analysis or vision to share in the fruits of the virtuous cycle. Let us look for all the places this bee-and-flower logic can be enacted.
  • Swarm Futures: As there are many contexts, we need many images of the futures, stories, narratives, and temporalities. Today, the nihilistic stupor of late capitalist imagination pervades. Participatory futures projects can be used to intervene in the public images of the futures. Many relationally connected images of the futures can inspire and galvanize across diverse populations. As these futures grow in richness, quantity, quality, and power, they can eventually become louder, drawing out the nihilism of other “used futures,” which can fall away into the dustbin of history.
  • Protocol Commons: As the internet was born of HTTP when invented by Tim Berners-Lee, we may need to create our own version of HTTP for the global citizens movement. This Protocol Commons is a hypothetical way of enabling bee-and-flower logic across the relational diversity of a GCM. It is a potential meta-language or meta-system that allows for distinct groups and organizations to join the tapestry to connect and find their own relational congruences.
  • Planetary Commons: What are the commons into which all humans are implicated? Where none of us can opt out? These are things that without we cannot mutually survive, let alone be well. The atmospheric commons is one. A denuclearized world, a global public sphere free from mis/disinformation, a world with real equity and free of oligarchs, these may also be considered commons. These general commons can become the basis for allowing many GCM people and organizations to play a role in collaborative governance (support, decision-making, etc.). We could also create prototype governance systems for these various planetary commons.
  • Living Labs for Living Webs: We do not know how to build a GCM, yet. Much of what will work can only be discovered through a sustained commitment to experimentation. We will need to try, try again, and learn and learn more. We will need a diversity of experiments (trying new things) in a wide variety of contexts to find out what works. We can draw from the action research and living labs communities to learn how to do experimentation for building a GCM.

José Ramos

Jose Ramos is the director of Action Foresight and co-editor of the Journal of Futures Studies. He has published widely on vision-driven social experimentation