How do we communicate about the commons?

Gathering clarity on the multi-facetted concept of the commons and commoning in our modern world may seem quite a task.  Especially since we want to keep things open, evolving and generative rather than simplistic, and specific. How then do we go about communicating the commons with others?

This challenge was what provoked Alain Ambrosi and Franco Iacomella  (with Frédérique Sultan) to organise a side event  at the Economic and the Commons Conference in Berlin in May 2013 on on the topic of Communicating the Commons.  percolab was invited to animate the 1.5 day event. Coming from a tradition of Art of Hosting we like to call it hosting an event – especially since we find this in line with the spirit of commoning.

We found ourselves at the inspiring BetaHaus coworking in Berlin with 25 or so participants from around the world – researchers, advocates and practitioners. An interesting mix, with a varied experience in self-directing work sessions.


During our time together, each of the different activities served to develop an enlarged and more anchored understanding of commoning and in the process offered multiple paths to address the subject of communicating the commons.

I) Our opening question, “How have you been a commoner lately?“,  helped us to arrive and exposed us to the variety of personal relationships to the term that were in the room. The responses were a range from small every day gestures (reading a book on commons, planting outside my vegetable garden for others, being in circle) to partaking in significant commoning initiatives (drawing up a charter of our principles for a time bank, volunteering for 100% renewable energy project)

II) From there we took some time to document three commoning projects that each of  have been involved with or know. What is great about this activity is that by the third project you identify you are getting closer to your own understanding of what is and what isn’t commoning and really thinking through your communicating challenges.

side event2

The four bits of information to make explicit for each project:

  1. What is the intent/purpose of this project/initiative?
  2. How does it connect to the commons?
  3. What are its challenges in communicating about the commons?
  4. Who does this project need to be communicating with?

side event 1

A few of the vast range of projects that were shared:

  • Codigo Sur video documentary
  • Som Energia, renewable energy cooperative
  • Free Basel campaign to free a commoner is in prison
  • Kosmos , magazine
  • Metadata for learning opportunities
  • Petit Dejeuner en Commun
  • Remix the commons
  • Gribo, ongoing. Distribute web
  • Art of Hosting
  • Training incidental activists for change.
  •  Friern Barnet Community Library(
  • Commons Abundance Network
  • EchoFab, a FabLab in Montréal
  • a commons wiki
  • Vivacité, a non-profit community land trust
  • new tech for consensus culture
  • STIR magazine (
  • Impact investment space
  • Crowd-mapping of the Montreal commons
  • City as commons or as a civic commons

Some of the communication challenges that emerged:

  • How do we characterize the commons ?
  • Find the words to show how the commons connects to a larger community process.
  • Inter-commons communications.
  • Intercultural. How to develop something that makes sense here and there?
  • The vocabulary. How we can create a frame to have an understanding, vision of the commons.
  • How critically do we communicate the commons? How radical should we be?
  • Where to draw the line between commons and where, when does it stop being a commons and is something different, e.g. social business.
  • Communicating to people who are in the commons debate for many years and new people.
  • Use of language/lexicon for commons experience, that isn’t exclusive
  • How to link unclear concept of commons to other emerging unclear domains?
  • Complexity of the issue that cuts through the whole spectrum of humanity, nature, everything

III) Then it was time for some deeper exploration of topics important for the group (Open Space).


Some topics were more an opportunity to connect and initiate future work and set up forums on either the Commons Abundance Network or the Economic and the Commons platform.

  • Mapping the commons – principles and practices
  • Media and the commons
  • Distributed approach to film-making about commons

For other groups, for now, the conversation itself was the output.

  • Interculturality and communication – How do you translate the commons across languages? Is there some common symbolism that we can use?
    • Potential of art as a more universal way to get messages across. (story from Marion in Senegal where there are at least 10 commonly used languages (
    • Even across languages there are some universal, almost human conditions to tackling commons-related problems. This can be seen in Elinor Ostrom’s work and the fact that even though she was looking at many different cultures and language groups across national boundaries there were enough universal features of commons’ related issues for her to be able to map out the 8 features of successful commoning (
    • Culture brokers, people who have a decent familiarity with the home culture and then go work somewhere else and are familiar with the host culture (ex migrant workers) might be able to take this message that we’re working on and translate it back into the local context.


  • The logic of the commons and how to represent it
    • Use of transformative stories to help understand the commons and step up to commoning. It is about being an intentional commoner.
    • Need of a delicate balance between a level of fuzziness to help grow a domain and clear commoning principles to help reinforce the domain.
    • Microcommons structure which are points of growth, sometimes seeds, and sometimes they take a while before they have something to say to the macro. And both are relevant.
  •  Interface between commons and the state
    • Need for more recognition that self-organized communities can take control of certain aspects of their life and that this is an interesting model for our society. Need to share how the law can help.
    • Some commons initiatives have gained recognition by the state Ex., autonomous network in Barcelona controlled by the community that gives internet access, achieved the level of an ISP, same level of access as the central backbone, as Telefonica. These stories should be documented.
    • We want the state to recognize some kinds of practices as legal. For example Social charters  (in the, which protect Commons rights as different than human rights or civil rights.
  • Digital infrastructure and tools
    • Idea of developing an internet Top level domain (TLD) like .eu, .com that identifies the commons.
    • Agreement that there lacks the ideal software, but there are lots of open protocol “Horizontal mesh networks” out there: Freifunk,, Freedom Box, Centup (, Diaspora (,, Liquid Democracy, Mumble, etc.
    • What we are missing today is not as much tools but people using those tools to push the edge of what is possible. What will they let your community to do and to become?

IV) Two initiatives were shared with the group that helped to further reflect on the commons.

  • Commons Abundance Network

A network so people can see how big this movement is and how comprehensive and how it addresses everything that we need, if we’re thinking of a needs-based economy. The tool belongs to us all and includes wiki functionalities, social media and collaboration tools.  Everyone is welcome to join

Thanks to Wolfgang and Hélène!

  • Wiki sprint

Bernardo shared the experience of the first international wiki sprint that took place in March 2013 and resulted in the documentation of over 200 P2P initiatives in Latin America and Spain. There was a 14-hour non-stop hangout in the internet with 23 countries (via think commons). This is real-time connection building on an existing network of friends and a movement and having a very simple step of criteria,  very simply defined and you allowed people to err slightly at the edges.

V) The closing question was grounded in the spirit of the commons: What’s my contribution to the whole? What will I do to be of service to the commons movement? The variety in our responses helps to better understand and communicate the commons. Here are a few:

  • Max: Help rewrite the narrative around human social capacity.
  • Roberto Verzola: I’ll be contributing case studies arising from our work with farmers, as well as protection of the seeds from enclosure.
  • George: An offer to be accountable to the community for holding this perspective in whatever conversation we’re participating, the perspective of the next phase of the evolution of the commons movement towards a better world.
  • Helene: Keep practicing in the commons and try to communicate by linking to the commons approach.
  • Samantha: make explicit the connection between art of hosting and the commons
  • Denis: Disentangle the many human capacities that have been demeaned and damaged by enclosures, in my experience the psychological enclosures. Facilitate the power of love and interrupt the love of power.
  • Bernardo: Connecting people and creating these kind of open and distributed processes in order to create a new narrative and imaginary. We have to prototype things in an open way, so let’s do it.
  • Marvin: Hold the multiple understandings of the commons that have come up here, try to focus more on what is a sustainable and just economy.
  • Jose: Providing some capacity for strategic conversation about pathways to the futures that we want. Using the tools and perspectives of strategic foresight to help us think about the strategic issues that we face and how we might take better pathways towards a commons world.


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Le Cercle Mandalab : la co-création interorganisationnelle

L’initiative Mandalab à Montréal s’insère dans un mouvement de transformation de la société québécoise vers de nouvelles structures et de nouveaux modes de fonctionnement. C’est un laboratoire vivant citoyen pour l’incubation d’innovations sociales, technologiques et économiques en développement dans la région métropolitaine.

Un cercle d’apprentissage a été mis en place pour que le développement du Mandalab avance en cohérence avec l’esprit de l’initiative. Le lancement du cercle a eu lieu le 6 mars 2012 autour de la question :

Comment nos projets et nos organisations s’inscrivent dans le laboratoire vivant citoyen, le Mandalab ?

Plus de 50 participants ont répondu à l’invitation à participer au lancement du cercle Mandalab. La demi-journée s’est déroulée en trois temps.

I) Établir une compréhension commune du Mandalab
Quatre citoyens experts ont tenues des discussions sur quatre aspects clés de Mandalab :

  • Sa raison d’être et description, par Monique Chartrand
  • Ses services, par Joëlle Sarrailh
  • Ses valeurs, par Alain Ambrosi
  • Les caractéristiques d’un laboratoire vivant (co-création, exploration, expérimentation, évaluation), par Yves Otis

II) Connecter ses projets à l’initiative Mandalab

Les organisateurs avaient fait l’hypothèse que les participants auraient des projets en cours, en émergence ou en rêve qui seraient en lien avec Mandalab. Les participants ont identifié et partagé leurs projets sur une ligne de temps collective, portée par l’initiative Mandalab. Le détail des actions à venir dans les prochains mois de tous ces projets permet de constater des convergences insoupçonnées.

III) Démystifier le concept et le fonctionnement du cercle Mandalab

Les six piliers des cercles Équipage ont été présentés, laissant place à une discussion sur la manière dont ils s’appliquent au Cercle Mandalab. Dans un cercle, chaque membre :

  • assiste à une série de rencontres
  • explicite ses intentions
  • apporte un projet au cercle
  • contribue à l’avancement du projet collectif, dans le cas présent, le Mandalab
  • cultive sa curiosité, son initiative et son expérimentation dans le cercle
  • agit avec authenticité (« parler du coeur »)

Finalement, les participants ont pu indiquer leur niveau de participation dans le développement du projet Mandalab durant les prochains mois : en tant que membre du cercle, ami de l’intiative ou en faisant partie du réseau élargi. Le cercle Mandalab se rencontrera à cinq reprises d’ci la fin du mois de juin 2012. À suivre donc!

Visionner le vidéo du lancement :


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