Cybernetics of the Commons

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* Article: The Cybernetics of the Commons. By Jon Walker.

Text recommended by Brian Davey.


"The comprehensive review of around 5,000 commonly held resources on both land and sea by Elinor Ostrom has established that a Commons can be self-managed by its stakeholders, for the benefit of all its stakeholders, providing long term sustainable solutions. Ostrom’s work has turned on its head the commonly held view that a Common will inevitably result in “tragedy”, and that either privatisation or State ownership is the only sensible way forward. Ostrom’s recent work has searched for a framework on which to map her findings. In this paper the authors draw parallels between the Viable Systems Model and Ostrom’s eight principles of Commons management, and suggest that the VSM can provide a more comprehensive framework which not only encompasses the vast amount of data gathered by Ostrom, but opens the possibility for the design of new Commons or the restructuring of Commons which are working at sub-optimal levels."


1. Introduction: Two Views of the Commons

"For many decades, the work of Garrett Hardin has dominated people’s views of commonly held resources. In the Tragedy of the Commons, Hardin argued that individual self-interest will dominate behaviour, resulting in over-grazing and eventual exhaustion of natural resources. The idea that people can talk to each other and come to mutually supportive arrangements was never considered. Hardin’s arguments are entirely in keeping with one of the fundamental principles of Economics – that the “rational man” is predominantly motivated by self interest, and have resulted in the extensive nationalisation of Commons, for example the forests of Thailand, Niger, Nepal and India.

Elinor Ostrom, after decades of research resulting in her Nobel prize, demonstrated conclusively that this view is limited, and that throughout history in many different regions and cultures, Commons (referred to as common-pool resources or CPRs) have been well managed for the benefit of all, and that in many cases such as the high alpine pastures in Switzerland, a commonly managed area of land will flourish where individual ownership has failed. As a result Hardin has recently re-named his theory the “tragedy of the un-managed commons”

Many of the mechanisms employed are extremely sophisticated. For example the fishermen of Alanya, Turkey allocate each fishing-boat a clearly prescribed area of ocean, according to the results of a lottery. They then rotate from area to area: from September to January, every day each boat moves east to the next location. From February to May they move west. This gives all fishermen the same opportunity as the fish stocks migrate. The list of areas is endorsed by the fishermen, and deposited with the mayor and local police at the time of lottery. Thereafter, the system is monitored and enforced by the fishermen. Problems are rare – and generally resolved in the local coffee house. As Ostrom notes “Alanya provides an example of a self-governed, common property arrangement in which rules have been devised and modified by the participants themselves and also are monitored and enforced by them.”

This is not an isolated example. Similar arrangements have been well documented for many farmer-managed irrigation systems, communal forests, inshore fisheries and grazing and hunting territories (p21) In many cases these self-managed Commons have been working for many hundreds of years – the legal documents which established the Swiss CPR in Torbel date from 1224. They have survived droughts, floods, wars, pestilence, and major economic and political change. In many cases the condition of the land has been enhanced, despite centuries of intensive use, due to the application of fertilisers and careful husbandry.

Clearly, Hardin’s view (which can be observed in some CPRs) is not the whole story : somehow groups of individuals have found ways of organising themselves for their mutual benefit, and have managed to farm their CPR sustainably for hundreds of years. Ostrom’s work provides a basis for a generalised understanding of how people can organise themselves to achieve these ends.

2. Ostrom’s Eight Design Principles

Following her studies of innumerable long-enduring Commons, Ostrom concluded that the following eight “design principles” were essential elements which were always to be found in the way these sustainable CPRs organise themselves.

1. Clearly defined boundaries, which define who has access to the CPR.

2. Appropriation and provision rules which are tailored to local conditions.

3. Collective-choice arrangements, that allow most resource appropriators to participate in the decision-making process.

4. Effective monitoring (monitors accountable to the appropriators, or are the appropriators )

5. Graduated sanctions for resource appropriators who violate operational community rules.

6. Conflict resolution mechanisms that are cheap and rapidly accessed.

7. Self-determination of the community recognized by higher-level authorities.

8. Nested enterprises. Larger CPRs are organised in the form of multiple layers of nested enterprises, with small local CPRs at the base level.

Ostrom admits these 8 principles are “quite speculative” and is unwilling to argue that they define the necessary and sufficient conditions for achieving CPR robustness (p90).

In the following pages, the Viable Systems Model of Stafford Beer is used to see how the 8 Ps listed above correspond to Beer’s view of viability, and to discuss how VSM diagnosis can throw further light on the following questions.

• Do the 8Ps provide a complete description of Beer’s view of viability ? • If not, what gaps can be found ? • Are these gaps identifiable in the descriptions of the working of enduring CPRs ? • Does the VSM provide a more complete understanding of the workings of a CPR ?

It should noted that the authors assume that the “viability” of the VSM can be interpreted to mean “sustainability” (as argued in ref ****) and that in this case a “long-enduring” CPR is assumed to be both viable and sustainable.

3. The Viable Systems Model - Overview

The Viable Systems Model was invented in the 1950’s by a British scientist called Stafford Beer and has been used over the last 60 years in innumerable applications, mainly in businesses interested in becoming more effective and thus more profitable. (Beer S 1975,79,81,83,85,89,94)

The VSM is a comprehensive theory of organisation, inspired by the way the brain and autonomic nervous system “manage” the workings of the muscles and organs, in order to sustain its identity as the environment in which it functions changes

It is summarised as a diagram - a typical VSM is shown below.

The Viable System is composed of five sub-systems:

System 1 : the Operation (shown as an oval shape) containing in this case, 7 smaller viable systems - the Operational elements.

System 2 : Designed to deal with conflicts of interest between the Operational elements in System 1.

System 3 : Designed to oversee the workings of the entire Operational complex and generate synergy.

System 4. The organ of adaptation. Responsible for scanning the outside world (the amoeboid shapes on the left) identifying threats and opportunities and producing plans and strategies to adapt to a changing environment.

System 5. Organisational identity. Closure. The system which defines policies and ensures they are adhered to.

Systems 2, 3 4 and 5 are grouped into what Beer called the Meta-system, (shown as a diamond) defined as “that collection of subsystems which looks after the Operational elements so that they cohere in that totality called the Viable System”

The connections (shown as various arrows) define the way these five systems interact with each other and with the external world. The external environment contains everything of relevance to the whole Viable System (markets, suppliers, weather, legislation, eco-systems etc. etc.) – the smaller shapes inside the large amoeboid shape are the smaller external environments specific to each of the Operational elements.

The VSM rethinks structures in terms of these five systems, and the pattern of relationships they have with each other and with the outside world.

It presents a fundamentally different way of thinking about organisational structures in terms of clusters of autonomous Operational parts coming together under the influence of a Meta-system to create a new larger whole system which is capable of far more than the individual parts working in isolation. The same principles work at all recursive levels from the individual to the global and offers a new approach to creating societies which are good for the prosperity and well-being of their citizens and the health of their eco-systems.

4. Preliminary Comments

An initial perusal of Ostrom’s 8 principles reveals a striking similarity with many of the fundamental aspects of the VSM.

• The VSM is a recursive model, conceived as a nested series of viable systems within viable systems. P8 states that large CPRs are organised as nested systems. • The VSM always considers the organisational structure in terms of the job it has to do in dealing with its particular environmental niche. P2 says essentially the same thing : rules have to designed in the context of local conditions. • The first task in a VSM diagnosis is to clearly define the boundaries of the “System-in-focus”. P1 states that boundaries must be clarified to know exactly who has access to the CPR. • The VSM identifies the need for operational autonomy, in order to adapt quickly and effectively to changes in the outside world. P7 states that CPRs must to be able to organise themselves, without external interference. This is emphasised in many of the case studies : “ . . the villagers lost the rights to change their own rules to adjust to the rapid change . .”

Whereas much VSM application in the Industrialised North has to deal with a fundamentally alien culture characterised by chains-of-command, authority-and-obedience, and hierarchical top-down management, the impression which is given by Ostrom as she surveys the mechanisms behind the management of sustainable CPRs seems entirely compatible with the VSM view of organisational structures. Autonomy is fundamental, the designs have to work and evolve in the context of a changing environment, bottom-up control plays a crucial role, and the big picture is one of nested systems working within larger systems and containing smaller systems.

The task is now to review both models in more detail and to see how far the areas of compatibility extend.

5. VSM Diagnosis of Ostroms 8Ps

Beer is clear that the VSM offers a rigorous framework to define whether or not a system is viable – whether it can maintain its integrity over time in the context of a changing and potentially hostile environment. If Ostrom’s 8 principles are the whole story, they will be sufficient to describe the workings of a viable system, as defined by Beer.

This will involve two areas:

1) Ensuring all five systems are present.

2) Ensuring the 5 systems interconnect correctly (i.e. that the right people are talking to each other, and information is flowing as required)

3) Establishing they have the capacity to deal both with internal issues and with the requirements of the environment in which they function.

5.1 Identification of the five systems

System 1 the Primary Activities.

System 1 is the people who use the CPR along with the equipment they use: the fishermen with their boats and nets, the cattle-herders and their cattle, the wood-cutters with their axes and saws.

System 2: Conflict resolution.

System 2 is often a difficult concept to grasp for businesses, and yet Ostrom clearly identifies it as one of her 8Ps (P6) Her work covers numerous examples of System 2 mechanisms both informal (a talk in the coffee shop) and formal (resolution by an agreed official – such as the syndic who resolves conflicts at the weekly Tribunal de las Aguas in Valencia) In all cases the job is to ensure conflicts are dealt with quickly and effectively before they become destructive: in Beer’s terms, before they cause the system to shake itself to pieces.

System 3: Operational Cohesion and Synergy.

Beer argues that a System 3 is required to ensure all the Operational elements are brought together into a cohesive whole. System 3 over-sees the entire interacting cluster of Systems 1, ensures they are working within policy guidelines, and intervenes in order to create synergies – ie to ensure the workings of the whole are more productive than if everyone works in isolation.

System 3 is not clearly defined as one of the 8Ps, but throughout her work, Ostrom notes that at regular meetings of all CPR users, the emphasis is on deciding on rules which will maximise the overall productivity of the CPR ****EXAMPLE - water allocation in Spain ??? **** In other cases System 3 decisions (such as the number of tress which can be felled sustainably to maximise the timber yield for the CPR users) is made by one individual who is mandated to make decisions for the benefit of all.

It should also be noted that CPRs have been established after individual ownership of the same land had failed (for example the Swiss villagers of Torbel cultivate their lowlands as individual plots, but found the best way to manage the alpine uplands is as a CPR) . Clearly the way this collaboration was organised involved a System 3 function, looking for the synergies which would create effective management of the land where individual working had failed.

In Alicante the farmers initiated and jointly organised the construction of the Tibi dam in 1594, which doubled the amount of water available for irrigation. This is classic System 3 behaviour : working in isolation, this kind of activity would not be possible: the construction of the dam was a co-ordinated, mutually supportive undertaking, which generated enormous synergy for the farmers.

System 4 : Scanning and Planning.

All viable systems need a System 4 to scan the external environment (in this case the land or water of the CPR, and any other relevant aspects of the outside world), looks for threats and opportunities, and creates plans and strategies to ensure the CPR can adapt to change.

Again System 4 is not clearly covered in the 8Ps, but System 4 activity is clear throughout the descriptions of the way all enduring Commons work: they change the rules over time to adapt to changing circumstances, they monitor the condition of the land and react accordingly.

System 4 in a CPR could be implemented by a meeting of all users : they would meet, discuss the situation and change the way they operate. Alternatively, System 4 work could be undertaken by CPR officials such as the regulation of water in canals according to levels of rainfall.

As a recursive system the VSM identifies the need for a System 4 at all levels: thus the farmers will be adapting to local changes on their part of the Commons, and the “whole-Commons-System 4” will be looking at the whole Commons environment and associated factors such as dramatic changes in the price of commodities, or political changes which may affect the rights of the CPR users to self-management.

System 5 : Closure and Policy

The Viable system is completed by the workings of System 5. Here the core policies are created and agreed. System 5 is also responsible for ensuring that everyone works within these policy guidelines. Again, without specific reference to this function, S5 activity is clear in the creation of a commons, and in establishing the ground-rules. Something like a constitution would determine who can have access to the CPR, and on what terms. System 5 creates the identity of the CPR, and then monitors on-going activity to ensure everyone works within these guiding principles.

System 5 is clearly articulated in the meeting of all CPR-users. They decide how things should be organised and these decisions are enshrined in sets of rules, or a constitution.

Summary: identification of the five systems

As detailed above, all five systems can be identified in the many long-enduring CPRs covered in Ostrom’s work. However, it should be noted that the 8Ps only recognise System 2 explicitly. System 1 - the Operational parts are obviously present. Section 6 will assess the implications of this for developing a more thorough framework to explain the organisation of a sustainable CPR.

5.2 Patterns of Relationships between the Five Systems

Effective working of a Viable system requires that the five systems (listed above) are correctly interconnected, that communication flows are correctly designed, and that they have the capacity to fulfil the goals of the system and maintain the system’s identity in a changeable and sometimes hostile environment. All of this is specified by Beer’s Laws and Axioms.

Beer distinguishes between the “inside-and-now” and “outside-and-then” of any Viable system. We begin with the relationships within the former. i.e. Systems 1 2 and 3.

5.2.1 Patterns of Relationships in Systems 1, 2 and 3

Operational Autonomy

One of Beer’s most important conclusions is that Viability requires Operational autonomy. The operational elements must be able to respond quickly and effectively to changes in their specific environment (such as floods, storms, market-collapse, avalanches) and thus they cannot be required to refer all non-routine decision upwards to someone in authority as this inevitably introduces delays. For rapid-response, decisions must be taken locally.

Operational autonomy is covered in part by P8 - the right of CPR users to devise their own institutions without interference from local government, and identified as one of the reasons a CPR may fail as noted earlier (“ . . the villagers lost the rights to change their own rules to adjust to the rapid change . .”)

At the lower level of recursion, a VSM diagnosis would conclude that the users also need to be free to manage their allocated part of the CPR as they see fit. The detailed descriptions demonstrate that this is generally the case ( e.g. each farmer in Valencia is free to select the cropping patterns he prefers (P71) )

Beer also recognised that operation autonomy must have limits - no operational unit must be given so much freedom that it could threatened the survival of the whole. Thus autonomy must be limited by – and only by - the cohesion of the whole system. Every operational unit is given as much freedom as possible: they only have to follow orders if a) System 2 requires them to do so in order to resolve a conflict b) System 3 requires them to do so in order to generate synergy or c) their actions are outside the policy rules defined by System 5.

All of this is clearly demonstrated by the workings of the CPRs. Conflict resolution mechanisms are defined, sanctions are imposed by S3 officials if rules are broken (e.g. confiscation of equipment and horses in Hirano –P68), and users can only use scarce resources as directed by the System 3 understanding of availability ( e.g. water allocation in Valencia). Ostrom’s work covers in detail the mechanisms which articulate the way autonomy is limited in order to maintain the integrity of the CPR.

The Resource Bargain

An essential part of the relationship between System 3 and its System 1 operational units is known as the “Resource Bargain”. System 3 usually controls resources and negotiates with the Systems 1 to allocate them according to the optimised over-view. System 3 then runs the resource bargain : each S1 is allocated resources (usually money) in order to carry out its allocated tasks, and it reports back to show System 3 it is operating as agreed. Thus the resource bargain is a closed loop which requires the allocation of resources, leading to the actions of the Systems 1, leading to generation of accountability information which is fed back to Ssytem 3 to close the loop. Resources keep flowing (from S3 to S1) as long as accountability information flows (from S1 to S3)

Thus, an effective System 3 requires regular information flowing from the Operational parts. This kind of monitoring is extensively covered in Ostrom’s work (e.g. P4), and generally involves each of the CPR users monitoring each other’s activity. In other examples jobs are defined specifically to monitor the actions of the Systems 1 ( e.g. the ditch-riders in the huertas of Valencia). As Ostrom states “The level of monitoring used in the huertas is very high” (p73) Generally monitoring is a universal Principle (P4) to be found in all CPRs

Intervention Rules

Beer defines the other critical System 3 function as the creation and enforcement of “intervention rules”. These are sanctions which are imposed when an operational unit fails to carry out its task as agreed with System 3. Ostrom’s P5 – Graduated Sanctions – is a straightforward example of such an intervention rule: the CPR users are left to their own devices unless their activities move away from pre-agreed norms (i.e. they break the rules) at which times sanctions are applied – again according to a pre-agreed procedure. The officials who, in some CPRs, provide this policing function, are part of the System 3.

Patterns of Relationships between Systems 3, 4 and 5.

Beer’s model of the relationships between systems 3, 4 and 5, based on the neuro-physiology of the brain, reduces to a few simple principles.

• System 4 scans the outside world, looks for threats and opportunities and begins to formulate strategies to ensure adaptation. • System 4 is in regular contact with System 3 which utilises its knowledge of the internal workings of the system to ensure any plans are firmly rooted in the practicalities of the inside-and-now. • The S3 S4 loop (illustrated by the two bold circular black arrows) continues the exchange while plans are discussed, refined and concluded. • System 5 monitors the S3 S4 loop, in order to ensure any new plans are strictly within policy guidelines. S5 will intervene if necessary to demand policy compliance. • Once concluded, a strategy is used by System 3 to re-direct the tasks of System 1, according to the rules defined for Systems 1, 2 and 3.

These process can be seen in the organisation of the Commons, which generally occur at a General Meeting of all CPR-users. In previous work the authors have argued that a meta-system composed of all the members of a co-operative, articulates an highly effective means of putting Beer’s ideas of effective organisation into practice. (ref . . .)

In the case of a general meeting of a CPR, the same principles can be identified, as follows:

• A problem is identified concerning the effect of an outside influence on the CRP (System 4 scans the environment and finds a threat. S4 in this case could be a CPR-user or one of its officers) • The problem is discussed by the whole group. Someone may have done some preliminary research and have some ideas about what to do. • The S4 planning discussion evolves in the context of S3’s knowledge of the practicalities of the day-to-day workings of the CPR (The people who work in the CPR are involved in the planning discussion) • A decision is finally made which is within S5 policy constraints (Again the whole group is involved which means it is the “will of the people”)

System 4 obviously has to be alive and well in any long-enduring CPR which can adapt to floods, droughts, avalanches and other natural perturbations. The exact mechanisms by which this adaptation functions involves Ostrom’s P3 (p93) : the rules are changed by the people who are affected by them. In VSM terms this needs to involve the information flowing from the environment to the S1 CPR-users, who then call a meeting to articulate Systems 3 , 4 and 5 as outlined above.

The power of participation in this process has been previously covered by the authors (Ref . . . .) and is of relevance to the current discussion in that we argue that participation engenders an identification with the Meta-system, so that the CRP-users would be as concerned with the whole of the CPR rather than just their particular part of it. Perhaps this explains, the extra-ordinary levels of compliance despite the generally low level of sanctions.

Summary: Patterns of relationships.

Throughout the descriptions of CPRs, the interactions of Systems 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 can be identified and generally seems to be entirely in line with Beer’s model of viability.

• CPR users (S1) have the autonomy they need to manage their part of the CPR effectively and respond to local changes in their environmental niche. • Limits are put on this autonomy as defined by the need to maintain the integrity of the whole CPR (system cohesion) • A System 2 is always present to resolve conflicts, responds rapidly and effectively, and is driven by “high levels” of monitoring. • A System 3 is always present to ensure that the interacting cluster of operational S1s are a) acting within the agreed rules and b) that synergies are created through mutually-supportive decision making. The workings of the Resource Bargain are clear. Intervention Rules are defined and enforced. • The meeting of all CPR users to make important System 3 decisions means that a System 3 model (a thorough, real-time model of the Operational cluster) will be available through the contribution of all: the information will be presented as needed by all users who, between them, know everything of relevance. • The necessary information channels – such as the monitoring - are defined and implemented • System 4 behaviour is clear in the way the long-enduring CPRs adapt to what can sometimes be severe changes in the external environment. System 4 can be articulated by the meetings of all CPR users or by officials appointed to ensure the whole CPR adapts to external perturbations. • The meeting of all CPR users means that the required relationships between Systems 3, 4 and 5 are all in place, and that all strategies are created in the context of both S5 policies and the current S3 knowledge of the day-to-day workings of the CPR.

6. Principles of Organisation for a CPR.

So far, we have argued that a long-enduring CPR exhibits the presence of all five VSM systems, that they are properly interconnected, that all the required information channels are working, and that, consequently, the working of such CPRs can be pronounced “Viable”, in Beer’s terms.

Ostrom’s 8 Principles have been discussed thoroughly, and although there is a remarkable correspondence between them and the basic VSM understanding of the way viable organisations work, they do not exhaustively cover the workings of a Viable System. That is, they are necessary but not sufficient.

What follows is a proposed series of Principles, attempting to extend Ostrom’s model in the light of the VSM. It is presented as the table which follows:

Principles Explaining the Organisations of a long-enduring CPR

- Table not available in this version

7. Conclusion

Ostrom’s work presents an extra-ordinarily thorough review of thousands of CPRs many of which have demonstrated their viability over hundreds of years. Her 8 Principles, based on these long-enduring CPRs, offer an explanation of the way such a Commons must be structured. The Viable Systems Model was invented in order to present a set of rules which explain how any “viable” systems functions. The paper has presented the commonalities between the VSM approach to organisation, and the conclusions Ostrom has drawn concerning the way people have organised themselves in order to preserve the lands or seas on which they depend. In both cases, autonomy is fundamental, conflict-resolution is necessary, the designs have to work and evolve in the context of a changing environment, bottom-up control and participation play a crucial role, and the big picture is one of nested systems working within larger systems and containing smaller systems.

More detailed comparison suggests, however, that the VSM might have much to offer in deepening our understanding of the way in which a long-enduring CPR works:

Beer’s observation that a viable system is composed of an Inside-and-Now and an Outside-and-Then, means that a CPR can be re-thought in terms of these two interacting parts. Thus the CPR users work their specific part of the resource, have their conflicts resolved and find ways to optimise the workings of the entire CPR. All of this is under the watchful eye of whatever kind of System 3 they design to ensure the CPR and its users work as effectively as possible, for the benefit of all. As Ostrom notes, monitoring and intervention rules involving sanctions are an essential part of this part of the structure.

Simultaneously, the Outside-and-Then (S4) is scanning the outside world for changes which may affect the CPR. All long enduring CPRs have demonstrated their ability to adapt and learn and change the way they operate to survive in what can be a hostile environment. Thus the Outside-and-Then is clearly present and working properly. The mechanisms which define how this functions in many of the long-enduring CPRs involve meetings of all CPR-users. However the case studies of the Los Angeles underground water basins show how representatives of the various CPR-users joined to together to form a Meta-system designed to work together to deal with the common threat of the destruction of their common resource. They commissioned extensive studies (environmental scanning) proposed strategies to cope with the threat, and by a combination of agreement and litigation, established a set of rules to ensure their water was managed sustainably.

The relationship between these two elements is crucial : both must function effectively, communicate regularly , and work within the policy constraints defined by System 5. If Systems 3, 4 and 5 are articulated by a single large meeting, then all of this functions through the communications and structures within the meeting. If they are articulated as separate bodies, then further design is necessary.

The VSM and the 12 design principles for the Commons offers what the authors believe to be a more thorough framework to explain the remarkable success of the many and varied long-enduring CPRs. It is based almost entirely on the work of Elinor Ostrom as presented in her 1990 book, Governing the Commons. Further work may be illuminating : it would be interesting to return to the original case-studies and see if the VSM can offer insights in a complete diagnosis of a small number of Commons. It would also be instructive to do the same with failed CPRs, and attempt to diagnose the inadequacies in the structures which should be present."