Berlin Commons Conference/ProjectVisits

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Commons alive: Project visits in Berlin

Sunday, October 31, 2010, 2 pm – 5 pm

The three project visits on October 31 have been an integral part of the International Commons Conference (ICC) - Constructing a Commons-Based Policy Platform in Berlin, (November 1/2 2010), organised by the Heinrich-Böll-Foundation in Berlin in partnership with the Commons Strategies Group.

These visits have provided an insight into different commons-based projects. They vary in many ways: in their scope, institutional rules and legal settings. They've built up different links to the market economy and are driven by different concepts of solidarity. But all of them exist and work according to their own values and rules.

The projects

Genossinnenschaft Schokofabrik eG (The visit to the Genossinnenschaft Schokofabrik has been offered only for women):

AKB - Ambulante Krankenpflege Berlin e.V.:

Projektwerkstatt auf Gegenseitigkeit - Projektgruppe Karlshof:

Genossinnenschaft Schokofabrik eG

A women's housing and working project

When was the project founded?

The women's center in the district Kreuzberg of Berlin exists since 1981 as an association, the cooperative was founded in 2003 and bought the buildings (Mariannenstraße 6 und Naunynstraße 72) in 2004.

What motivated the founders and how did they realise it?

With the ending of the redevelopment area in the district Kreuzberg the rent control was also lifted. The imminent rental increase and apprehended sale of property threatened the very existence of the women's center. The idea to buy the houses themselves was then born.

A cooperative seemed to be the legal form which can be realised most easily. This bought the property which the women's center uses and other 5 flats as well.

What are the resources that the women's cooperative Schokofabrik manages at the community level?

The houses: with approx. 1.200 sqm project area of the women's center and the 5 flats for rent. Knowledge and contacts: both are brought in by the association and by the members of the cooperative.

Which legal form has the project and how are ownership and use (possession) of the resources regulated formally?

The registered cooperative "Genossinnenschaft Schokofabrik eG" makes the rooms available for the nonprofit association "Schokoladenfabrik e.V.".

The cooperative manages the residential property in the form of internal community of private apartments (WAY, german: WEG) by 14 women, who bought their flats in the houses themselves.

How is the project financed?

It was purchased with their own funds that was brought in by the members of the cooperative, through private loans and a bank credit.

The current financing is made possible through payments for use by the association and rental incomes from the tenants as well as through voluntary work by some members from the cooperative and association.

Who is involved and how many persons are participating?

The involved are exclusively women:

  • the cooperative has about 100 members.
  • some members of the association as well as 222 "Schoko Aunts" (and 4 "Uncles") donate money on a regular basis,
  • about 1.000 women visit the center every week.

Which products / services are generated at the community level and how are they distributed?

The association uses the spaces with a contract that is not terminable. If a flat becomes free, it is offered first to the members of the cooperative. The use is bound to a membership in the cooperative.

What are the elements of the management that don't follow the rules of the free market economy?

The rooms are given for rent exclusively to women. The user fee for the association is far under the market price and will not be brought into line with market price index. So far no profits are generated, therefore the members of the cooperative so far do not receive any dividends.

Which relationship does exist with the free market economy?

The rental market forms the framework, the housing rents are slowly brought in line with the market rents, new tenants have to pay the usual rents.

Does the state give any support (structurally, financially, idealistically…)?

The cooperative is not supported by the government, only the women's center association receives funds to cover running costs from the municipality and the European Union.

The project visit to Schokofabrik

6 women from Brasil, Canada, Egypt, France, Germany and USA visited the women's center Schokofabrik. Two members of the board of directors of the cooperative, Anna Homann and Carmen Mayer-Bohland, reported and answered the many questions of the visitors. The "Schoko" is Berlins biggest women's center with 1.200 sqm on 6 floors. It is providing a unique mixture of advice, formation, services and offers for recreation.

The center came out of the feminist movement of the 1980th with the aim to advance and encourage all women, lesbians and girls. The Schoko is still a place for contact and communication between women and for women. Women of every age, of different abilities, of each origin or sexual orientation are welcome in the Schoko.

The questions of the visitors are mainly:

  • how to organise such a center?
  • why are men forbidden to be there?
  • what is the principle of the solidary economy?

Most interesting:

  • The cycles of reflection the collective did – to learn from what didn't work and what did work – how they kept evolving.
  • How they listened to different stakeholders (e.g. the need of Turkish women for hamam – which gained the support of Turkish men because 'women-only' environment – which was eye-opening for radical feminists and lesbians involved that they could build bridges like this).
  • It is an example of good 'commons' learning – building as you go along, learning in adaptive manner.
  • The walk threw the center deeply impressed the visitors with the beauty of the buildings und their artful configuration.
  • The rooms seemed to be very attractive and inviting.

New ideas:

  • The power of squattering... private property is almost sacred is US – so helpful to see the power in claiming land in this way and the importance of land reform to open up alternative ownership/ access/ use structures.

What missed:

  • I did wonder whether cooperatives are commons - need to think through whether this distinction matters – but would have been interested in debate on this.
  • I was pleased that this fieldtrip brought out a lot of gender questions. My one big complaint re/ the conference was lack of attention to gender – since women often are linked to commons – especially when economically marginalized. And, the ideologies of commons and anti-commons have important gender dimensions.

A visitor wrote down: "Also, a very good field trip."

AKB - Ambulante Krankenpflege Berlin e.V.

Community based nursing as ambulant care

When was the project founded?

The AKB was founded in 1981 by a small group of nurses (in the beginning both women and men).

What motivated the founders and how did they realise it?

The founders wanted to get out of institutions and hierarchies and work in their own structures and realise their idea of holistic care.

As a formal condition for that they founded an association.

What are the resources that the AKB manages at the community level?

The most important resources are information and knowledge in the fields of:

  • care and consultation (expertise),
  • economics and administration of a social service station (business management and organization),
  • collaboration and common responsibility (selforganisation),
  • knowledge about special patients and their relationship with the nurses.

Which legal form has the project and how are ownership and use (possession) of the resources regulated formally?

The project is a registered non-profit association "AKB - Ambulante Krankenpflege Berlin e.V." where all employees are members. It has only a small capital. All decisions are made preferably in consensus.

How is the project financed?

No initial investments were necessary. The running costs are being covered out of incomes generated through the nursing care. These come from nursing and health insurances, social welfare offices, and from the patients or their families.

Who is involved and how many persons are participating?

Currently 17 women are working in the AKB, they are all examined nurses.

Which products / services are generated at the community level and how are they distributed?

The AKB offers care (basic care and treatment care) and home help. If necessary additional consultation and provision of medical appliances, mobility and social security benefits. Every year they organize a summer trip and a Christmas celebration.

The services are offered at the prevailing market conditions.

What are the elements of the management that don't follow the rules of the free market economy?

Consultation and organization as well as trips are not usual in the market of nursery.

All employees get the same salary and they don't have to work under strictly timelines as in other care companies. They work with personal responsibility, organise for themselves training and supervision.

The AKB is limiting his own size. It is working only in the district Schöneberg in Berlin and does not accept currently new patients.

Which relationship does exist with the free market economy?

The prices for the services were negotiated between the insurance companies and the umbrella organisations. As such the competition with other providers takes place only over the quality of the services.

Does the state give any support (structurally, financially, idealistically…)?

Formerly the AKB received public funding, but it ended with the inception of the nursing care insurance.

The project visit to AKB

15 persons visited the AKB in Schöneberg. There were many questions about how the members realise their own principles despite economic specific obligations. For example by accepting an economic loss, for giving better training to new women, or for taking more time for a patient that needs it, than they get paid for him or her.

The care is subject to a set of external requirements, which must be brought in agreement with the collectively practice. The commitment and the effort around the patients were very impressing. For their collaboration the collectivity plays a large role, knowledge and experiences are divided.

The members are all between 40 and 55 years old. They have the impression that this form of collective work addresses rather older people. To the question, whether they would not like to expand their successful model, they said clearly, that they would not like to become larger. But maybe they could give their business model to others?

Most interesting:

  • How regulatory and free market disadvantage cooperatives.
  • The growing and developing of knowledge and skills in a collective.
  • That the women only use bicycles, no cars.

New idea:

  • Needs a regulatory framework to support local worker coops.
  • Starting an open franchise system for nursing.

Projektwerkstatt auf Gegenseitigkeit (PaG) - Projektgruppe Karlshof

Non-commercial agriculture (NKL)

When was the project founded?

The Projektwerkstatt auf Gegenseitigkeit (PaG - project workshop on reciprocity) and the foundation Stiftung für dissidente Subsistenz (foundation for dissent subsistence) were founded 2001, the Karlshof was bought 2004 by the foundation. The present project group Karlshof manages the farm since 2005.

What motivated the founders and how did they realise it?

PaG: The property at real estate should be neutralized for the creation of free spaces for alternative drafts of life and economies. By the realization of the project the influence of banks and constraints of credit financing should be reduced. For that the PaG cooperates with the foundation SDS. Besides the Karlshof there is a second project (Wukania Projekthof). Land and buildings of the Karlshof are used by the project group free of charge. The PaG advises and supports the project group.

Project group Karlshof: As an alternative to the merchandise-producing system they try out a non-commercial agriculture (NKL) for production and distribution that does not follow the rules of the free market economy.

What are the resources that the Karlshof manages at the community level?

Physically: 50 hectare of agricultural land and buildings (farm)

Immaterially: Knowledge about farming and organization.

Which legal form has the project and how are ownership and use (possession) of the resources regulated formally?

Project group Karlshof: There is a using contract for land and buildings which sets criteria for new agreement in case of failure.

PaG: selfmanaged network, that administers the foundation.

Foundation SDS: Owner of the land and building.

How is the project financed?

The purchase of the real estate was realized through funds from the foundation without bank loans.

The running costs are being covered through financial contributions, sponsorships and other funding. However, the money is not sufficient,so they try to raise more money through various campaigns.

Who is involved and how many persons are participating?

Project group Karlshof: 10 adults and 5 children are living on the farm.

PaG: about 40 persons from the project groups, from cooperating groups and single persons.

The highest decision-making organ is the "Full House" which is the gathering of all participants.

2 external bakery-groups, a potato-café in Berlin, 10-15 different projects and groups that consume the products and cooperate.

The project has a network and an environment encompassing about 100-150 people.

Which products / services are generated at the community level and how are they distributed?

Potatoes and grain are cultivated, the cultivation and further processing of other cultures is being experimented.

The distribution takes place free of charge, without any return, according to the needs of the people in the project's environment and to the bakery-groups. They give their contribution to the project according to their interests and capabilities (discussions, help during the harvesting, financial contributions).

What are the elements of the management that don't follow the rules of the free market economy?

The use of land and buildings free of charge.

The voluntary work of the members of the project group.

The distribution of the products free of charge.

The voluntary work by people from the project's environment.

Which relationship does exist with the free market economy?

Besides the agricultural production within the larger NKL framework it is the approach of the project group to possibly gain greater autonomy in the long run in other fields of basic needs. The basis for that is currently a self-supporting garden and possibility of constructing with self initiative garages (fittery, carpentry, bakery etc.) and the cooperation and collaboration through solidarity with others. Everything which is otherwise needed and which could not be produced or organised in these ways, they have to buy in the marked economy.

Does the state give any support (structurally, financially, idealistically…)?

No, the Karlshof is not supported in any way by the state.

The project visit to Karlshof Potato Cafe

19 ICC-conference guests visited the Potato Cafe in Kreuzberg. There the project group from Karlshof welcomed the international guests with coffee and cakes to the meeting. About 80 to 100 participants attended at the Potato Café, which is a regular meeting; taking place once a month in Berlin.

The project group informed the participants about the political concept of the Projektwerkstatt auf Gegenseitigkeit, PaG (project workshop on mutuality), and also about the project Karlshof and regarded the legal basis of their organisation.

Most interesting:

  • Learning about the legal framework.
  • Specially the concept of protecting and using the organisation's resources (sharing resources and responsibilities) and also the processful experiment of the project.
  • The idea of the mutuality and the project itself was very interesting, stimulating and encouraging.

What missed:

  • Details on the economics and longterm possibilities.
  • Relations between commoners and large-scale society.
  • What is the meaning of the project has to live from donations, sponsoring and fundings? How far is that according with the intended independence from the system?

New ideas:

  • Comparative research on this and similar groups in other contexts/countries.


This documentation was prepared by Elisabeth Voß, with the help of:

Silke Helfrich: idea of the visits, discussions about the assortment of projects and questions for the presentation.

The colleagues of the Heinrich-Böll-Foundation:

  • Arfasse Gamada: report about the project visit to Karlshof Potatoe-Café,
  • Lena Kunze: report about the project visit to Schokofabrik,
  • Tsewang Norbu: help with the English language.

The visited groups Schokofabrik, AKB and Karlshof themselves.

Some feedbacks from the participants of the project visits are incorporated into this report.

Thanks to all of you!

Elisabeth Voß, business economist and publisher in the field of solidary economy, [email protected]