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According to the press release of the Nobel Foundation, Elinor Ostrom was awarded The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel aka Nobel Prize in Economics “for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons”.

Both, economic governance and commons are recurrent themes in this blog. And while most of Ostrom’s works deal with traditional commons such as forests or fisheries, Creative Commons’ Vice President Mike Linksvayer was eager to point to an article on knowledge commons she co-authored with Charlotte Hess titled “Ideas, Artifacts, and Facilities: Information as a Common-Pool Resource”.

Nevertheless, I fear that applying Ostrom’s insights for transnational governance of transnational commons is far from trivial. This is emphasized in the very article mentioned above for the example of scholarly information:

“But analyzing the whole ecosystem of scholarly information is much more tenuous than in Governing the Commons, where (1) the boundaries were clear, (2) the resource systems studied were small and easy to observe, (3) solving problems was of high salience to appropriators, (4) institutions were long-enduring and had evolved over time, and (5) extensive field observation was available.


Information, on the other hand, often has complex tangible and intangible attributes: fuzzy boundaries, a diverse community of users on local, regional, national, and international levels, and multiple layers of rule-making institutions.” (p. 132)

And as Sean Safford at orgtheory states, Ostrom’s main conclusion for governing traditional commons is “that coordination happens through self-organization and local (very local) governance”.

Consequently, Ostrom herself makes a difference between local and global commons. Together with others, she lists the following “challenges to establish global institutions to manage biodiversity, climate change, and other ecosystem services” in a Science-article titled “Revisiting the Commons” (2007, p. 282 f.):

  • Scaling-up problem. Large numbers of participants lead to greater “difficulty of organizing, agreeing on rules, and enforcing rules.”
  • Cultural diversity challenge. While diversity can be an asset, Ostrom et al. fear that it also “can decrease the likelihood of finding shared interests and understandings.”
  • Complications of interlinked common-pool-resources. Global issues have more interactions and, with increased specialization, become more interdependent, which also increases the difficulty of governance.
  • Accelerating rates of change, which make, due to Ostrom et al., “’Learning by doing’ […] increasingly difficult, as past lessons are less and less applicable to current problems.”
  • Requirement of unanimous agreement as a collective-choice rule for global resource management.
  • We have only one globe with which to experiment, which leaves “less leeway less leeway for mistakes at the local level, while at the global level there is no place to move.”

To sum it up, as far as transnational governance of common pool resources are concerned, Elinor Ostrom’s work predominantly helps in identifying difficulties. For finding solutions, however, these works – according to herself and her colleagues – at best “provide starting points for addressing future challenges.” (p. 282)


The Book

Governance across borders: transnational fields and transversal themes. Leonhard Dobusch, Philip Mader and Sigrid Quack (eds.), 2013, epubli publishers.
June 2023

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