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Heuristics for discussing “the commons”

This is a draft paper by @joe-corneli after a discussion between Joe and Helene on how the commons could help coalesce the efforts of disparate movements for change. Open for comments and fine tuning!

"Metacommons" is in important notion because everyone has different goals.

The commons is vastly complicated. And yet, many different people and organizations who want to
work for the common good would also like to funnel you through their world view. This inspires a a meta-heuristic: make sure you ask the right questions to the right audience!

The "channel" is always going to have an influence on the converation. Our strategy is to try to provide a channel, but to be minimally noisy, and to understand how different people shape the channel.

This view is rooted in an understanding of the commons as "Not transcending, but underlying." Our hope is to involve many people who talk in terms of "commons logic" to build the meta-commons — a place where we can coordinate and cooperate effectively.

"By telling our stories and how they relate to abundance and the commons, we can aggregate coherence from a variety of disparate initiatives and accelerate the movement towards new ways of overcoming our current economic, social and environmental crises."

We envision a loose coalescence of narratives, after Ann Pendleton-Jullian (bio). However, we expect this will happen only by light-weight scaffolding. We envision the metacommon to be the ongoing conversation and collective action of a fully "decentralized international". But this is a very important conversation to have: as Peter Sloterdijk reminds us, regarding change, no one has time to wait for an entire generation any more.

So, we seek a convergence of factors that are favorable to the logic of the commons as it is variously understood within different "action logics". Within these various logics, the drivers and goals are not interchangeable: you may not agree on goals, but if you can try and define the common ground in the underlying drivers, you can define the nature of the "push" (image). Connecting with this sort of commons logic can help things go where they are supposed to go.

Our goal with thinking and talking about the "metacommons" is to express the underlying commons logic in words and images can be grasped by every action logic. We're looking for the expression of the underlying logic.

This is something that we all have to face every day. We all have within us many levels, stages, or sides which segment the various drivers of action. The "logic" that we're talking about is implemented by a collection of "virtual machines", to use the language of Aaron Sloman — machines that are ofter capable of representing and acting upon other action logics.

Many of these logics are actually "heuristics". For example, we can consider "all or nothing" logics, which bring to mind a somewhat competitive spirit, even if it is just a race against the clock. Other logics have more to do with a general theme emerging in parts, without an all-or-nothing aspect, and typically without a "roadmap" or "plan".

There are many different, and disparate, conversations that can be hooked into commons thinking. For example, we sometimes here people arguing that the "Public Domain is not a commons". Nevertheless, it can be readily connected to discussions about the commons. Similarly, the general theme of reducing externalities can be hooked to a commons logic. Not-for-profits may or may not have a commons orientation by default, but they can be connected to a commons discussion. "Social enterprise" is also a key topic in many current conversations.

"Profit isn't a problem, it's profits that are siphoned up"

Non-profits can themselves be market-based and enterprised based (e.g Brac from Bangladesh. Compare this post on the P2PF webpage. Non-profits might like to share knowledge and skills pertaining to making websites: how does this generalize?

Different notions of planning

Roadmaps may exist but they can also be misleading. Transformation process e.g. Sometimes the map is totally open, like the one in the Hunting of the Snark

Sometimes it is useful to adopt the strategy of having no roadmap at all, and simply let things emerge.  […] When we are going in some direction – it does not have to mean that we are going towards a specific place – it can simply mean that we need to (re) gain some balance between where we are and that place, and it all about finding that balance.  (Dorotea Mar).

Our action items

  1. We can work on this in several places.
  2. We can create a portable "kit" that can be used to start these conversations and connect them back together.
  3. In particular, we can recreate this conversation with variations, reiterating it in a meaningful way, so that more people can "own" the process of creating a metacommons.

Aiming to build something flexible, something that is not so well-packaged that makes it hard to think. We need to reinvent the metacommons every time we talk about it. This is one place where it's good to reinvent the wheel! In doing this, we will come up with many use cases.

Helene's advice on building a movement of movements

  • It is important to be aware of the various action logics that drive movements.
  • Action logics are not interchangeable, and they can be hard to put under 1 banner.
  • 'shared goals' are expressed differently in various actions logics.
  • "Building a movement of movements" involves finding an underlying logic & its various expressions, locating the immanent drivers and not depending on transcendant ones.
  • Our working assumption is that each has its own immanent logic, with some commonality, acting toward a better world

Joe's comments on Helene's discussion questions about "commons logic"

What I particularly like about the questions Helene asks is that it's possible to answer a few or many of them, add new questions, make different connections between ideas and projects, etc. — and this way we can build a shared discussion that covers many different aspects of exploitation/flow/enclosure/growing/commons/generation/livelihood/etc., without being tied to one way of thinking.


  1. Helene's slideshare
  2. Joe's thesis
  3. The book "The Question of the Commons"
  4. Building a global movement of movements, 11 & 12 November 2013
  5. Spiral Dynamics – evolutionary psychology – action logics by Suzanne Cook-Greuter
  6. Deleuze "Bergsonism" (1966) (in french)

Discussion (23)

  1. Adding this somewhere to the mix:

    We  see the CAN evolving into constellations of interrelated projects and  as a network of commons practitioners, activists, researchers, and  change agents across traditional boundaries who each bring a piece of a  response to the transformation process to create a cohesive sense of  possibility. The goal is to stimulate interdisciplinary collaboration  and experimentation in order to advance learning, collaboration,  innovation, advocacy and communal action and set conditions for  transformation to occur organically with the commons as transition  informing image.
    We will be working at the intersection, junction of several domains, bridging theory and practice.
    • Psychology   and cognitive science regarding what triggers people to intend, engage   and act the way they do, and how this brings the awareness of   'difference'
    • Culture,   languaging and art regarding how engagement and action logics and   differences can be expressed and made sense of in diversity of ways
    • Technology and design  regarding how complexity and multiplicity of possibilities can be represented and accessed in simple ways
    • Complex systems regarding how conditions can be nurtured to certain effects
    • Systems dynamics regarding how change occurs and movements can achieve their goals
    • Communication and collective intelligence regarding how people can understand each other and collaborate
    • Geography   regarding human-environmental interactions, connecting human and   technological systems with the larger natural environment
    • Sociology,   political science, economics and management studies regarding the   design of institutions that promote abundance and thrivability.
    In  the near future we are seeking to provide actionable output in the  following areas, as a result from our participation in the Johannesburg  process and the WOW conference:
    Documentation/mapping of what is observed
    Deliverables: practical learning & discovery tools 
    §   In particular we will examine how experience on the ground and commons  practice can be documented in relation to various action and engagement  logics as well as needs and resources and how both the documentation  process and its discovery can be part of a learning or educational  process. This relates to our work around NORA on the Commons Abundance  Network, and our partners at Commons Spark, building the Commons Atlas. 
    §   At  present, after less than a year of work, over 70 pages of the  knowledge  base have been written or are in process. The ultimate goal  is a  knowledge base with around 1000 pages, available in numerous  languages.  Cooperations with organizations such as the FLOK project in  Ecuador, the  UIA, and GAP International, as well as with university  professors, will make it possible to bring in the diverse people and  organizations  necessary to make this a powerful, easily navigable  knowledge base in numerous languages that can serve as a catalyst for  action.
    At  the WOW workshop in June: we will interface with groups of researchers  working on collective action and commons practice experimentation, and  on knowledge systems and sharing.
    Transforming diverse engagement logics into convergent outcomes 
    Deliverables: a strategic change framework & communication tools
    §   In particular we will explore how a commons based transition informing  and cohesiveness forming vision can be constructed both in substance and  from these experiences and diffused widely, combining findings of  developmental psychology with complexity theory and story telling to  'activate' change agents where ever they are at. This relates to the  work we have been doing with Barrett Brown and at the 'imagine the  common good' conference. 
    At the WOW conference: we will interface with researchers working on cognition and norms.
    Applications to multi stakeholder dialogue practice 
    Deliverables: dialogue & networking methodologies
    §   In particular we will explore how change agents can network and learn  from each other and collaborate in multi level settings for governance  and conflict resolution purposes, and for policy development. This  relates to our work with participants in various collective intelligence  initiatives. 
    At  the WOW: we will interface with researchers focusing on addressing  social dilemmas across multiple perspectives and working on the further  development of Ostrom's Institutional Analysis and Development  framework.
  2. This is related to the workshop we are facilitating with Wolfgang at the Workshop on the Ostrom Workshop in June 2014. More information on our session is available here:

    For those who would like to attend don't forget to submit an abstract before december 6th.

  3. The word "heuristics" is commonly defined as:

    a way of solving problems by finding solutions based on your own experiences

    So I read that as defining a "learning method", such as the "action learning" which is specifically a cycle of internal and external world explorations, intended to have accumulative results.


    Would it make a good learning method for the internal "meta commons" to alternately engage in searching the internal meta-world commons and the external "material world" commons of our life experience?

    • Yes indeed Jessie, we will be exploring several learning methods and accumulative processes. I need to run now. Will get back to this soon. Maybe @joe-corneli has some things to add here.

    • Profile photo of Joe Corneli Joe Corneli says:

      Hi Jessie:  That sounds like an intriguing "meta-heuristic".

      I know in my plans for 2014, I'm going to try to make a fairly careful study of what activities are actually useful, and which ones are not going anywhere.  It can be hard to know in advance without giving things a good solid try.  Anyway, the "grid" that I'm using for my study started with a lot of good old introspection, and will (slowly) come back to connect with more shared endeavors.  So that seems like one possibly shape this could take.


  4. One part of how I build my images of commons (and create concepts as meta-commons in my mind) is by recognizing and studyng real world commons as they go through their stages of organizational growth and change.   Communities, networks and businesses emerge organically as individual whole systems that work as commons for their parts, that develop designs for internal cooperation by a sort of "ladder" of development stages.  So by watching them closely, my "meta-commons" learning takes plase in connection with their own development and "actual-commons" learning.   So when I notice things emerging in an environment, I don't look for the "cause" responsible for it but look for the open system or "commons" responsible… !

  5. Yes, Helene.   Don't forget I was an architect and theorist before I came across the natural phenomena that let me study their growth and development as locally emergent systems, getting me back to my physics to develop a general method of studying living systems.  The struggle for me, nearly from the start, was with the general lack of terminology for what I was studying.  That affects Alexander too, that any language for the patterns of natural design seems rather esoteric.  It has taken me a long time to realize the problem comes from the whole subject being so alien to the dominant language of "linear cause & effect", and the cultures of modern science and commerce).   So, finding familiar language to use for "normalizing" the awareness of natural systems and their design processes, has become a big focus of effort.  (1)

    Recently, Pat Thompson's insight into how our culture of linear thinking developed historically, along with the male/female divide, has helped me a lot.   It's been a guide to finding more familiar subjects to tie in with the pattern languages of natural design. (2)  Her key insight seems to be recognized that the two principle gods of very early Greek culture were actually "archetypes of nature", not "archetypes of power" like the later Greek gods.  Hestia represented home culture as "the sacred flame" of culture, and Hermes represented communication and commerce as relationships between homes, through an open environment.  Thought about in modern terms, you could say that's "THE principle of ecology", homes and links.

    For a few thousand years now, in what became ‘western culture’, men were more suited to be trained to serve rule-ers and think of life in terms of conceptual rules and definitions, for controlling outcomes (for their roles in war and commerce for rulers seeing life as a battle of control over man and nature…).  That great wave of deterministic thinking, for ever-expanding control of others… has really affected everything modern culture became!!   Domination doesn’t work for home life, though (!), so that women are naturally more immersed in making homes work, has also let them retain more awareness and talent for negotiating the complex non-verbal relationships of things that are individually developing their own ways and cultures.   

    The big problem seems to be that human language culture was largely stripped of terms and ideas for understanding nature, by repeated deterministic revisionism reducing all subjects to "cause and effect", discarding awareness of cultural growth and develpment.  So we lack cohesive awareness of complex cultures and individual roles in them, ecological growth and cultural relationships, etc. a true mental blinding to how to live in nature.  I find it hard, but am still looking for "bridge language", hoping to find and reconnect bits of thinking from various communities, preserving the ancient awareness of living we have an aptitude for, but also able to connect with the language of deterministic control and commerce.  My best present effort “may be” my still developing work on providing “better information” on “what’s profitable”, comparing the decidedly costly results of ignoring the world as a commons…  (3,4)   I still, the basic pattern, is our needing to join not conquer nature, making our home and niche in life our own true "commons”, not at war with the world around it.
    among others..

    • Yes @jessie-henshaw, I agree.

      But as we have discussed before, people speak from where they are, wih the language and information processing logic they have and which makes sense to them. So rather than trying to change the way they create and process language and action decisions, the idea of a pattern language would be to create a grammar or the building blocks that would help change agents within each cluster to compose, in the logic and process type of the cluster, the narrative that can best operate the change of paradigm. So that as a whole the commons can progress.

      @joe-corneli, the idea of 'thirdness' in Benjamin's paper is indeed interesting because it conveys the idea that there is no 'superior' vantage point, but rather an 'in between' that can connect and 'nurture' the parts…

      I think if we are talking of pattern language and how we would construct this, we should continue the discussion on the pattern language doc.


      • Yes, BOTH a work of enriching the pattern languages that people have AND connecting them to each other and the realitis of nature they are able to recognize in common.   The trouble with "paradigm shifts" is they're fun for the people who build them, but a serious annoyance to nearly everyone else…   For me that means doing what we can to stick as much as possible with things people can relate to in common. 

        • Indeed @jessie-henshaw! When people ackowledge the things they can relate to in common, the 'task' is 'easy' -though not as we would hope it would be-. Usually paradigm shifts try to funnel people through some form of thinking patterns, 'changing minds' in the process. The whole point here is to get people to connect to things they can 'relate' to individually and 'in common' even when they don't conceptualize and formalize it as being 'in common' in the first place- -think archetype… 'Relating to' refers to a connection with meaning and mutual understanding. Meaning is first subjective, and mutual understanding operates at the intersubjective level. That's also the Thirdness Joe was talking about.

          So we would be working from observation to describe the essence or underlying logic of what people can relate to to 'change the world' (not necessarily directly related to commons) in observed clusters of action logics and then work back to 'translating' this in various languages and narratives  that people with various worldviews can relate to.

          So as a result, we will indeed BOTH enrich the pattern languages that people have AND connect them to each other and the realities of nature they are able to recognize in common BUT that will be at first recognizing things in common within their clusters of action logics, and gradually expanding what is recognized in common across action logics.

          Basically, we are bringing in the elephant, getting the blind men to recognize each part of it from where they stand, and bringing in the pattern language elements so that the reality of the elephant is contained in the description of the part, and the elephant materializes as a whole when each piece is described…

    • Profile photo of Joe Corneli Joe Corneli says:

      Wow!  Beautiful essay.    And again, reminiscent of Jessica Benjamin, although she doesn't talk about Hestia/Hermes but the classic Freudian idea of pre-Oedipal mother, Oedipal father, plus a new(er, or new-old) interpretation of a post-Oedipal "thirdness".  (This thirdness could be a good ingredient for a "bridge language".)

      I like your Hestia/Hermes idea as a way of encapsulating Alexander's more recent discussion of connections between centres as the essence of life.

      But is there a "3rd wheel" to the dichotomy?  (BTW, these 2 figures themselves are nicely written up in Jean Robert, "Hestia and Hermes: the Greek imagination of motion and place".)

      Here's a nice snippet from Finnegan's Wake:  «Thothfolly making chilly spaces.»  I think the obvious answer to my question is to add a 3rd dimension, countering space with time.  (Remember, Thoth/Hermes himself is "three times great", so he subsists in time.)

      We can also riff on Derrida, thinking about this point of his writing about Theuth as god-doctor-pharmacist-magician:  «A pharmakós in Ancient Greek religion was the ritualistic sacrifice or exile by the sorcerers of a human scapegoat or victim. […] This was a purification ritual, a form of societal catharsis.»

      «Derrida deconstructs several texts by Plato, such as Phaedrus, and reveals the inter-connection between the word chain pharmakeia-pharmakon-pharmakeus and the notably absent word pharmakos. In doing so, he attacks the boundary between inside and outside, declaring that the outside (pharmakos, never uttered by Plato) is always-already present right behind the inside (pharmakeia-pharmakon-pharmakeus). As a concept, Pharmakos can be said to be related to other Derridian terms such as "trace".»

      If we think historically, the human body has become a new terrain for exploration, and there are new anti-bodies that we seek to "cast out" with modern medicine.  This is linked with Hermes and language, but also linked with Hestia and the home (embodiment).  The 3rd aspect, though, is the evolution of our cultural practices over time.

      • Joe, delighted to have your response, and thanks for the great link to Jean Robert, "Hestia and Hermes: the Greek imagination of motion and place".   I'll read with interest, but I'm not following your  " '3rd wheel' to the dichotomy" question, unless the answer is indeed just "time".

        One of the true dimensions of nature totally lost in concepual thinking is "time" as a process, that reason needs to construct as meerly a numeric variable in a theory of an "everpresent", and so of a "timeless" perceived state.    To reinflate that "flat land" of conceptual modeling one might indeed restore time to its legitimate place as the universal process of change, for both mind and nature, correcting the error of considering time as just another variable in a set of changeless dicotomies.

        • Profile photo of Joe Corneli Joe Corneli says:

          Yes, "time" is my answer to that "rhetorical question" about a third wheel.

          The more general scenario of First, Second, and Third is described or invented by C. S. Pierce in his essay on the Architecture of Theories (towards the end).  Long but an enjoyable read in my view.  The thought I had in mind was that if Hestia is First and Hermes is Second, what's Third?

  6. I was thinking the importance of asking if 'time' is the missing dimension is the ambiguity of calling time "a dimension".   A dimension is most frequently referred to as a number sequence.   That would fall short for describing the general ungoing process we see, as locally animated change everywhere and on every scale at once.  😉

  7. I like the description :
    "an ongoing process of locally animated change everywhere and on every scale at once" This is indeed what we would like to trigger through this work here!

    Here's an article from 2011 on research on tipping points.

    Not sure what the article and the research are worth and how novel this is, but the image it conveys is powerful: the edge is not at the periphery, it is distributed. And it can trigger a shift if local agents are inspired, empowered, enabled to change >> catalyzed locally…

  8. Well, technically that characteriazation: "an ongoing process of locally animated change everywhere and on every scale at once", was referring to time itself, thought it certainly also applies to individual instances of change too, at least of the kind that are "cellular", and develop as little universes of relationships of their own like growth systems do.   What makes that way of viewing change unique is partly how it refers to both the information we have and the information we're missing at the same time…  That's part of what's needed to study what triggers change of that kind, ending with that it's usually not a 'trigger" as much as emergent organization that uses both known and unknown parts of the environment.   So, it's in part a habit of thinking of both the information you have and that you don't have at the same time, that lets you recognize what's possible or what's already happening that involves the hidden parts of the environment.  

    Unfortunately our situation includes scientific knowledge being prone, just as conclusions of nieve observers often are, the error of considering only the information available, and ignoring the information unavailable.    That's like failing to characterize the information you're missing about things happening in the environment of your subject of interest.  What that "missing information" turns into if you characterize it is "good questions".  

    So far I like the reaction to my current research note on the subject, written on  "Sustainable Cities" for discussion at the UN this week, on the importance of characterizing a city's footprint on its environment, that to date has been completely ignored!    I know it's been completely ignored because I've been pointing that out at UN meetings on the subject, and elsewhere, for a number of years, getting no recognition for the interesting problems and questions it raises at all,  except from a few small voices in the "peanut gallery".    Sustainable Cities: Caring for the Greater Commons

    The problem at root is the flaw in thinking formalized by deterministic science, that of relying on the information we have as being all there is to know.   Which of course just isn't the case!     😉



  9. Interesting Jessie, I can't quite understand that "an ongoing process of locally animated change everywhere and on every scale at once" IS time itself, and I would welcome some explanations. Though indeed I see it happen OVER time as a result of myriads of unrelated and related generative processes, what you describe as "individual instances of change… that are "cellular", and develop as little universes of relationships of their own like growth systems do".

    You write "What makes that way of viewing change unique is partly how it refers to both the information we have and the information we're missing at the same time…" It's exactly this that we are doing. That's what I tried to explain with the elephant fable. And as far as triggers are concerned, that's where I think Bonnitta Roy's generative systems model can help, browse to that section of the article. Bonnitta will be participating working further on her model with a perspective on the  project.

    And certainly "thinking of both the information you have and that you don't have at the same time, that lets you recognize what's possible or what's already happening that involves the hidden parts of the environment" and asking the good questions about the information that may be missed is part of the heuristics we are developing here -and I understand heuristics as a way tio inquire into what is not known or knowable…

    As far as what we know and don't know and therefore in terms of how/when to apply heuristics, what comes to mind is Snowden's Cynefin Model that can help as a start point because this is something people know of and can relate to, at least in the distinction of what is known, knowable and unknown.

    • Profile photo of Joe Corneli Joe Corneli says:

      Helene, if you read that Bergsonism book by Gilles Deleuze you'll see a very nice discussion of the idea that "locally animated change everywhere and on every scale at once is time itself".  🙂   That said, I think it's still hard for me to grasp the idea after having read the book.   I think Bergson's basic view is that time and subjectivity are linked (essentially, you don't have time without subjectivity, and vice versa), and that memory describes a real place that we "visit" when we remember things.  History becomes a locus for intersubjective experience.  I apologize that my terse description of the book does not do it justice, but if you read it, I'll re-read my copy and we can discuss further.

      • Cool Joe! Thanks! I will try and read Bergson revisited by Deleuze… but that may be VERY hard for me if its hard for you! 🙂 You seem to like French intellectuals a lot 😀

  10. Profile photo of Edgar Edgar says:


    In the above discussion and document I would suggest that a starting point is to consider the question of values upon which outcomes, structures and policies can be developed. Values can be seen in a more traditional analogy as the 'foundation stones'. Or alternatively in a more dynamic ecological structure, as an being like memes or genes, upon which a wide diversity of 'things' then emerge. Values are more abstract than policies or structures, which can be material and concrete, but they guide the development of these things.

    • Yes indeed, and values materialize in/as culture, paradigm, engagement logic. Donella Meadow's work on leverage points shows well how systems goals, and subsequently structure and rules derive from paradigm. The discussion continued on this other document, and on the work and papers that underpin the Pattern Language project some of us are currently focusing on. If you look at the set of slides, you will find a nice illustration of Donella Meadow's levarge points (slide 12), with some hints how there feed into each other (that I will be elaborating on).

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