Commoning and Relational Approaches to Governance

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* Report: Ontology as a Hidden Driver of Politics and Policy Commoning and Relational Approaches to Governance. By Zack Walsh and the Commons Strategies Group. CSG, IASS, September 2019


A Deep Dive co-hosted by the Commons Strategies Group and the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, September 9-12, 2019


"Ontology is the study of how we perceive the nature of being. Reading political and economic texts through ontological perspectives allows us to uncover the underlying hidden assumptions informing them. Different frameworks of governance presuppose different assumptions about reality (Stout and Love, 2019). Today’s mainstream political and economic discourses are increasingly sterile and unfit in large part because they are based on incorrect assumptions about the nature of being. The whole explanatory apparatus informing mainstream politics and economics is fundamentally Eurocentric and outdated, informed by centuries’ old science and philosophy. In this moment of crisis, rethinking governance requires more than re-thinking organizations, structures, and positions—it requires re-thinking the underlying belief systems, value systems, and ethics that inform them.

We must re-examine our assumptions about humans and nonhumans, agency, rationality, and society. This is especially true within the discourse on the commons. The logic of the commons is so different from liberal democracy and market capitalism that it is necessary to rethink the ontological premises informing it. Elinor Ostrom’s institutional analysis and development framework, for example, is the dominant approach to understanding the commons, yet it takes for granted many of the same foundational assumptions of standard political and economic thought. Shifting the paradigm within which we understand governance offers immense transformative potential.


Making an OntoShift, or ontological shift, toward process-relational ontology helps provide a better apparatus for explaining the complexity and diversity of the commons and offers much greater potential to transform society via the logic of the commons. This report builds on this insight by offering a synthesis of findings from 18 experts who, at a three-day workshop, discussed how shifting the ontological premises of political and economic thought toward process-relational ontology could transform society. The workshop, called “Onto-seeding Societal Transformation,” was co-hosted by the Commons Strategies Group and the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, in Neudenau, Germany, between September 9-12, 2019. It consisted of three successive sessions focused on process-relational approaches to ontology, design patterns, and politics. A final, fourth session focused on the integration of ontology, patterns, and politics in concrete case studies. This report concludes with new questions and next steps for strategically advancing relational approaches to governance and the commons."