From urban commons to the city as a commons: an emerging community

Here is my report from the first IASC thematic conference “The City as Urban Commons” in Bologna, 6-7th of November. I was there to presented my work on crowd-mapping (i.e. TransforMap). The conference was the first of its kind, gathering scholars from the commons community, activists, and local governments. It had very much the feel of a foundational conference that answered a strong need for such a discussion arena.

In this post I’ll use intensively what I’ve tweeted on the spot (WARNING: if you use Adblock, disable it for that page or you won’t see any twee). Let’s start with some introducing points from Tine de Moor, historian, specialist of the commons and President of the International Association for the Study of the Commons.

(if you haven’t yet seen any tweet you may have not disabled Adblock)

Bringing commons to scale

For grassroots and social innovations up-scaling is problematic. It is often that I hear activists saying they don’t want to grow their initiative. Indeed, growth (up-scaling) of a social innovation seems to quasi systematically involve a normative loss: growing beyond the niche implies to conform itself with the mainstream values. Indeed, up-scaling generally involved financial capital or sometimes coopting by state institutions. Instead replication of grassroots or social innovations seems to have the potential to conserve their transformative potential (in terms of power and agency in particular) while being brought to scale. Ezio Manzini from the Politecnico Milano got it right:

Mapping the urban commons: a strategic component

I was presenting my paper about mapping alternative economies, including urban commons. But mapping was also present in various contributions, and of course in Silke Helfrich’s.

I was very happy to present aside Paula Segal and Amy Laura Cahn presenting their work in supporting grassroots accessing urban land in New York and Philadelphia (something I wrote about earlier). They reminded us that it’s hard to commonify what you can’t see.


Polycentric governance

Polycentric governance has been around for a while among commons scholars as a way to understand how various self-governed common-pool resources can be be part of a wider governance system. And I reacted to Silke Helfrich call for a distributed approach:

Silke elaborated on her point by stressing the fact that many activists call for decentralization (check discussion on Twitter). However, she reminds us that the concept of decentralization generally refers to the reorganization of top-down power, not to a change in the nature of power. By encouraging activists to rather think in terms of distributed governance, she emphasizes bottom-up processes. In that sense, it is potentially complementary with a polycentric understanding.

Challenging the smart city approach

Going digital: Ecosystems, Crowd-equity, Platform cooperativism

Bringing to scale (urban) commons-based economy/systems was very much in the center of the discussion between Michel Bauwens and David Bollier.


Here is an interesting clue: it seems to me that it is much less problematic to focus on up-scaling the ecosystems for social/grassroots/commons-based innovation than the innovation itself. With supportive collaboration ecosystems, actors can collaboratively develop commons to unlock the issue of scale.

Platform cooperativism is an alternative to the “death stars” (Uber, Airbnb…) to build online platforms for shared consumption and production, applying cooperative principles. Another clue in solving the puzzle of how to leverage the technology without kneeling to venture capitalists. Bollier and Bauwens pested that too many traditional actors of the cooperative movement haven’t realized that potential yet.

A case study: Comunità is a prototype digital commons to support Bologna’s collaborative governance

The city of Bologna has coopted a civil society’s initiative to create a collaborative platform for citizens called Comunità. It is now hosted under the website of the city administration, which creates some confusion on the ownership of such platforms: the city administration or a group of citizens? If one wants to setup an online infrastructure that is to be owned by the people, should not the infrastructure provider be independent from the city administration?

I exchanged on the topic with Michele Restuccia (@m1chele_r) who is one of the people running the Comunità platform. Good to know that it is open source, based on Drupal and open for reuse and forks on Github. Unfortunately so far no local developer has started to contribute to the software development. Another issue we identified was that we don’t know of an inventory of all open source platforms focusing on enabling citizens to take part in urban governance. They must be a few, but hard to find them or even compare them. So this is what I thought:


Creating a research community on urban commons

As said this was the first big conference, under the patronage of the IASC, to focus on the urban dimensions of commons. That map is a step in further building upon that conference to facilitates the emergence of a global trans-disciplinary community.

In line with this ambition, I referred, in my presentation, to calls for a less traditional descriptive approach of research and more action research (e.g. Wittmayer and Schäpke 2014). To do this I believe we should think our research as knowledge commons that we’re caring for. Doing so we can give back agency/power to practitioners and activists. This implies publishing in open source journals (not like the excellent article I just mentioned above. And if there is not enough of them, reclaim them says Silke Helfrich:

We cannot publish research that is only accessible to rich universities. It’s not only in contradiction with the commoning principles, but defeats the purpose: we researchers studying the urban commons cannot live in our own academic world, we have to work hand in hand with the people on the ground.


Other things that caught my attention:


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