Mapping the New Commons

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* Paper: Hess, Charlotte, Mapping the New Commons (July 1, 2008).

Available at SSRN:


"This paper is a guide to the rapidly growing area of research and activity I call 'new commons.' Simply put, new commons (NC) are various types of shared resources that have recently evolved or have been recognized as commons. They are commons without pre-existing rules or clear institutional arrangements. The paper introduces a map that outlines the NC resource sectors and identifies some of the salient questions that this new area of research raises. In addition, it examines the relationship between new commons and traditional common-pool resources and common property regimes.

This overview includes a survey of the physical resources, the user communities, the literature, and some of the major collective action activities. Tacking new commons over several years has demonstrated that this vast arena is inhabited by heterogeneous groups from divergent disciplines, political interests, and geographical regions that are increasingly finding the term 'commons' crucial in addressing issues of social dilemmas, degradation, and sustainability of a wide variety of shared resources. The resource sectors include scientific knowledge, voluntary associations, climate change, community gardens, wikipedias, cultural treasures, plant seeds, and the electromagnetic spectrum. All of these new resource sectors and communities require rigorous study and analysis in order to better grasp the institutional nature of these beasts. This map is designed to serve as an introductory reference guide for future scholarly work."

Charlotte Hess on the purpose of this paper:

"The purpose of this paper is threefold:

  1. to identify the various new commons6 sectors and sub-sectors and representative collective-action communities involved in new commons;
  2. to survey the ways commoners, practitioners, and scholars discover and then conceptualize the commons. I call the discovery patterns “entrypoints” that can be thought of as catalysts that change one’s conception of a resource as a private, government-owned, or open access resource into a commons. The entrypoints reveal how the notion that a particular resource or group was a commons might have arisen; and
  3. to attempt a viable definition of the new commons. It briefly surveys various definitions given by some of the authors of recent literature and attempts to discern connecting threads.

This is not an easy assignment, since new commons are usually not analyzed in terms of property rights or economic goods as with much of the traditional commons literature. There is no general usage for the term “commons.” And, indeed, authors of the new commons take carte blanche in their use of the term. Besides the commons, what exactly is “new” in “new commons?”

The last part of the paper will discuss some of the challenges of new commons research." (


Entrypoints into the New Commons

Charlotte Hess:

"How do people arrive at the commons? What are the triggers that lead to the naming of a resource a commons? What I saw repeatedly in reviewing works on new commons were disparate meanings and uses of “the commons” as a descriptor of a resource, movement, or phenomenon. Yet, they all had a sense of “sharing” and joint ownership. Six common entrypoints are:

(A.) the need to protect a shared resource from enclosure, privatization, or commodification;

(B.) the observation or action of peer-production and mass collaboration primarily in electronic media;

(C.) evidence of new types of tragedies of the commons;

(D.) the desire to build civic education and commons-like thinking; and

(E.) identification of new or evolving types of commons within traditional commons; and

(F.) rediscovery of the commons."


What is new in the 'new commons'?

Charlotte Hess:

"The map also tells us that the “new” in new commons does not necessarily mean newly evolved or created through new technologies. They may be resources that, particularly because of some kind of encroachment or threat of enclosure, have been newly conceptualized as a commons. This is the case with cultural and neighborhood commons.

New commons, in contrast to traditional common-pool resources or common property regimes such as forests, fisheries, irrigation systems, and grazing lands, are often uncharted territories. Successful traditional commons have customary (formal or informal) rules regulating the use and management of the resource. In some cases, local and national governments recognize a local commons rules and laws; in others, it is a constant struggle to be recognized.

Traditional commons have a history. The history is of human-resource interaction. The resource has an ecological history. The user community has a history of demographic change or stability. And the interaction has a history of natural and human events that include adaptation of rules pertaining to the use of that resource.

“New” has meaning in two distinct ways:

  1. It is in contrast to traditional (established) commons. Ostrom’s design principles (1990) and the characteristics of long-enduring traditional commons do not necessarily apply to new commons. Some are newly created through new technologies. Such is the case with digital commons.
  2. “New” is an important adjective, a signal of the recent emergence of the awareness of the commons. “New” evokes a sense of awakening, of reclaiming lost or threatened crucial

resources. This is the “new” in many neighborhood commons. However, whether “commons” is just a current buzzword or a lasting social phenomenon will only be known with the passage of time.

The recent identification of all types of resources as commons belies the important need to see solutions beyond the government-private paradigm. It calls for new or renewed processes of participatory self-governance, particularly of local communities. Some of the new commons literature calls for “reclaiming” the commons. In Bollier’s important book (2002b) on American commons (public forests, minerals, knowledge, the Internet, broadcast airwaves, and public spaces) he exclaims “we as citizens own these commons (my emphasis)” (Bollier 2002: 2-3). Later on, he writes that “common sense tells us that wildlife, genes, and the atmosphere cannot really be owned...” (ibid: 60). This is the enigma with many types of commons: we “own” what we can’t own. One solution to the puzzle is that we own in the sense they are the common heritage of humankind. We are “owners’” in the sense of needing to participate in the protection of them. We don’t own them in the sense that no one should own them – i.e. they should not be privatized.

Surveying the wide variety of new commons, there are a number of observations that can be made:

  • Collaboration and cooperation are particularly vibrant in the knowledge and neighborhood commons
  • Many new commons are on a much larger, often global scale; at the same time there is a growing sense of commons on a local level
  • There is often a larger vision of responsibility—“beyond our own back yard.”
  • It is the upside of globalization that there is a greater consciousness of geographically remote communities. Even neighborhood commons that may be focused solely on local issues, often have an eye on the impact of present decisions on future generations
  • Sustainability is an ubiquitous issue. There is often a vision of effective management for the preservation and sustainability of a resource
  • Equity is often an important consideration in new commons
  • The concept of “gift economy” is becoming more familiar
  • Commons resource users are often aware of their interdependence
  • Unlike public goods, the commons is vulnerable to failure through encroachment, privatization, commercialization, congestion, scarcity, degradation.
  • Appropriate rules are necessary to govern the resource.

Why are so many people calling upon the commons? We are seeing a growing number of people discovering what individuals working together, developing self-governing skills, can accomplish independently of governments, corporations, or private owners. Understanding the commons leads to awareness of the need for participation and collective action in order to protect and sustain our valuable shared resources. People need to know that the “tragedy of the commons” is not inevitable; that there are comedies of the commons all around us."


Charlotte Hess:

"My aim with this paper has been to document the work on new commons that I have been tracking for the past fifteen years. This is a rich and challenging new area of research and one that leads to many interesting questions. The new commons map identifies seven main sectors and numerous subsectors. Some new commons are created as the threats of privatization and enclosure change. One of the reasons for the development of new commons is that new ways of caputring a resource can radically change the nature of that resource from a pure public good to a common pool resource, or more generally to a commons where the resource needs to be monitored, protected, and managed by a group in order to sustain it.

New commons can also evolve from institutional changes within traditional commons, such as the case with protected areas. Online collective action and mass collaboration make possible the building of new commons, such as with wikipedias and shared websites as well open source software projects.

This paper also discusses the challenges of defining “commons” as well as “new commons” and suggests a possible definition. It also proposes future areas of research: how people come to understand or recognize that a resource is a commons—that is, the entrypoints into the commons. Many contemporary commons are not just academic areas of study but also movements aimed at changing the way people think and behave. The idea of the commons provides an alternative to the private-public (government) dichotomy. Its focus is on communities working together in self-governing ways in order to protect resources from enclosure or to build new openly-shared resources."

Specific Commons

The text reviews:

  1. Cultural Commons
  2. Neighborhood Commons
  3. Infrastructure Commons
  4. Knowledge Commons
  5. Medical and Health Commons
  6. Market Commons
  7. Global Commons

Civic Commons

"Peter Levine has written extensively on the civic commons (Levine 2002a&b, 2003, 2007a&b; Gastil and Levine 2005). A very interesting and useful text for business managers was put out by the Institute for the Future in 2005 (Saveri et al.). The authors explore emerging fields of knowledge and practice, looking for ways to think about two key business questions: “How can new insights about the dynamics of cooperation help us identify new and lucrative models for organizing production and wealth creation that leverage win–win dynamics; and How can organizations enhance their creativity and grow potential innovation with cooperation-based strategic models?” The authors draw heavily from the commons and collective action literature of Ostrom and colleagues." (


Levine, Peter. 2001. "Civic Renewal and the Commons of Cyberspace." National Civic Review 90(3):205-212.

Levine, Peter. 2002a. “Building the Electronic Commons: A Project of the Democratic Collaborative.” (Report)

Levine, Peter. 2002b. “Can the Internet Rescue Democracy? Toward an On-Line Commons.” In Democracy’s Moment: Reforming the American Political System for the 21st Century. R. Hayduk and K. Mattson, eds. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Levine, Peter. 2003. “A Movement for the Commons?” Responsive Community 13(4):28-39.

Levine, Peter. 2007a. “Collective Action, Civic Engagement, and the Knowledge Commons.” In Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice. C. Hess and E. Ostrom, eds. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Levine, Peter. 2007b. The Future of Democracy: Developing the Next Generation of Citizens. Lebanon, NH: Tufts University Press and University Press of New England.