Design principles for commons

Elinor Ostrom and colleagues have found that communities are more likely to succeed at producing and protecting common pool resources if they employ the principles listed below (as phrased in Levine 2022, drawing on E. Ostrom 1990 and E. Ostrom 2010, 653)

For the underlying theory, see this video lecture by Peter Levine on Ostrom’s basic ideas (17 minutes)

The principles

  1. Clear boundaries: Both the resource and the community of people who use it should be delimited in ways that are relatively uncontroversial and inexpensive to define. This is often a reason to use natural boundaries, such as rivers, to delimit resources and communities. All the enrolled students at a university or all the individuals who have passwords for a given website may also be easily defined groups.
  2. The users of a resource should do their own monitoring. They should monitor both other users and the resource. Ideally, the act of monitoring will be built into other acts. For instance, farmers near Valencia traditionally watched their neighbors take water from shared canals while they worked on their own fields ( E. Ostrom 1990, 71–76).
  3. Sanctions should begin modestly but rise with repeated infractions. It is important that violations of covenants lead reliably to sanctions; otherwise, people will free-ride. However, if sanctions are draconian, the community may hesitate to use them at all; and when harsh punishments are imposed, they may provoke resistance and social raptures. Therefore, many effective communities impose minor penalties, such as merely naming a violator publicly or levying a small automatic charge. Such penalties impose costs and can harm reputations, but violators can recover fully from being penalized. The costs are gradually increased with repeated infractions.
  4. The rules must be congruent with local physical, cultural, and institutional conditions. For instance, water comes periodically with rain, flows downhill, and sinks into the earth or evaporates. Trees stay still, grow slowly, and reproduce. Therefore, rules for water and trees should differ. Water may also have different cultural meanings in different places, and local governmental authorities may view it differently. All these factors must be considered.
  5. Participation: most of the users should be able to help make and enforce the rules. Participation tends to yield wiser choices and increases support for the rules.
  6. Conflict-resolution mechanisms should be rapid and easy to use. The main objective is not that every resolution is perfectly consistent with an abstract ideal of justice, but that people can get clear resolutions with minimal effort.
  7. Smaller systems should be nested in larger systems, and the more powerful big systems should recognize or at least tolerate the authority of the smaller ones. This is an application of the Ostroms’ broader principle of “polycentricity.”

These principles enhance social capital, and some might argue that they consititute social capital.

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