The Commons – tragedies, games and corporate citizens

One of the areas we discussed  in our first week in Cambridge was the challenge of  shifting business incentives from the short-term to long-term, which would line up better with sustainability.  We recognised that shifting incentives to the long-term is a major undertaking and the conclusion I felt we were nudged to is that it can only happen if  top leaders make those decisions.   One of the lecturers made a comment that stuck with me:  ‘no CEO wants to be the last’ – i.e. the one that brought the company down.   I agree that key individuals can make big changes.   But that leaves the question of how leaders represent and cooperate with their communities, and how we all look after the things we hold in common – nature and knowledge being two examples of that.  My reason for doing the course was (partly) to look for ways to bring different cultures together in an alliance against ‘global public bads’ such as climate change.    Community management is one way to preserve ‘the commons’ (see evidence for assertion below) but businesses as we know them are called  the private sector for a reason.  How could two such different things cooperate?

My one-line definition of the ‘Commons’ is that it is about how we steward the things we share, i.e. the things which are not privately held – whether that is a place of wild nature, or information on the internet. It is closely connected to the idea of ‘global public goods’, and some policy types have begun talking about ‘global public bads’.

I am not pretending that ‘business’ are the bad guys.  At the social level the challenge of coalescing motivation to tackle climate change is even bigger – I’ve heard people who have children and grandchildren say that they don’t care about climate change because it won’t take effect until after they are dead.  If people don’t care viscerally enough about those specific cute little members of future generations that they play peekaboo with, what hope is there that anyone would care for people from a different class, a different country, or  a different time in the future?

And ultimately if people don’t care enough in their personal lives, why would they be motivated to make a difference at work – to lobby their CEO and lead in their own sphere of influence  – or to be effective as a citizen, helping their community, being clear what deals they want governments to make for the common good, and protect us from our own worst selves.  And so I sink into despair, think  – what the hell, might as well enjoy myself while I can, and leave the course and spend my free time drinking Martinis, sewing cocktail hats, throwing soirees and watching Modern Family.  Actually, I sometimes really wish I was doing that. Sigh.  There has been a Martini soiree deficit in recent months.

But.  If I was to let myself think that humanity in general is doomed to be as driven by short-term incentives as the consumer feeding frenzy of Black Friday suggests, I’d be a total jerk.  The actions of people all over the world prove that people are courageous and civil and smart and rational.  And yes, tutors,  there is academic literature to back that up.

The ‘Tragedy of the Commons’, the 1968 theory by Garret Hardin is supposed to prove that rational economic agents will inevitably over-exploit a common resource.  The logic would be irrefutable if humans were only rational economic agents and not also members of a community, and if you suppose that rationality excludes knowing that if you eat every fish in the sea today, there will be no fish tomorrow.  (Although if you’d eaten every fish in the sea you’d probably fancy something different the next day…)  There is a video explaining the theory and its flaws here by Geof Glas which also refers to fish resources as a prime example of the commons.  I’ll mention fish again later.

The Financial Times wrote an inspiring piece about Lin Ostrom, who worked on a much more positive approach to the Commons, and was the first woman to win a Nobel prize for economics.  If I could time-travel, I would love to spend a day in her Workshop .    Lin Ostrom, working with her husband Vincent, believed that common pool problems needed to be solved by a polycentric approach, i.e. that problems like climate change can be solved bottom up by communities, cities, regions:  FT article: (paywall, but free subscription for three articles a month available).

The intergenerational commons

One of the questions that interests me is the idea of intergenerational commons.  Although at the core of the Brundtland declaration:  ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, ‘ there is also a legalistic argument which says that you cannot make commitments to future generations because they are not yet people in the legal sense.  And my anecdote of people not caring about events that will happen after they die shows that this is not just a legal but a cultural issue, and perhaps an intractable one.

A brilliant piece of research ‘Cooperating with the future’ (Hauser, Rand, Peyskhovich, Nowak) created a ‘public good game’ with the intention of finding out if there are means to prevent over-extraction of resources. Their research discovered that creating a democratic system to govern extraction is effective in conserving resources in the game, but only if it is binding.  I loved this as a  fusion of citizenship and sustainability research.

What does the private sector have to do with sharing?

For my first assignment, I looked at the insurance sector and the role it can play, especially in poor countries, in helping people manage risks.  The rationale for studying this is that climate change is going to hit Asia disproportionately; where there are lots of poor people.  The insurance sector, theoretically at least, appears to be among those whose incentives are more likely to be long-term, and more likely to be aligned with sustainability goals.  There is a potential market (in line with ‘Base of the Pyramid’ thinking) and so it seems useful to find out why insurance schemes for low income people are currently not working, or at best are niche products, and to look at what can be done to overcome some of those problems.  I’ll write another blog about my findings, about the importance of non-traditional business models (at least non-traditional to us in Europe) and how co-design could overcome some of the challenges.

I think my deeper interest in this topic is what it says about ‘the Commons’ and how that concept intersects with business.   Climate change and the risks it will bring (is bringing) to millions will, if we don’t stop it, be the ultimate ‘global public bad’.  So looking at cooperation as a concept in the middle ground of ‘the Commons’ and the private sector, I thought that insurance is an example of cooperation within capitalism.  You don’t usually go to the website of a major re-insurer for an inspirational quote, but I can’t describe the concept better than the Willis Research Network did:

“How can society, at local and global level, share the costs of extreme events…?  Populations and institutions share and transfer risk by pooling resources … The principles of insurance underpin this vital function: insurance has been described as the ultimate community product; and reinsurance as the ultimate global community product. All insurance consumers participate in this global system of risk sharing and cooperation but many remain unaware of the role they are playing to support others, just as they will be supported when required. As risks increase, this global system of risk sharing will be fundamental to sustaining resilience for exposed populations and assets.”
It’s actually quite beautiful and surprising to think that through the mysterious workings of the market, we are unwittingly providing help to those who need it.  Unfortunately, this market does not yet reach the most vulnerable.
Fish, community management and the commons
In the group project I am in, we are looking at the role of eco-labels in driving sustainability in the fish and seafood sector.  I have come across several examples of community management as ‘by-catch’ of our research that provide examples of how and why community management works: i.e. for the simple reason that if the community exhausts its resource, its livelihood disappears so people are powerfully incentivised to conserve it.  Community can operate at many different spatial levels, and this article from Swiss Re (another re-insurer) asks whether increasing national responsibility for oceans could help drive sustainability as a larger unit of community.  (Sadly, the link to their earlier discussion on the ‘tragedy of the commons’ in relation to fish no longer exists).

So, to end:

Solving the temporal aspects of sharing the commons may require political action, but there is a lot of work we can do now in civil society and in business by advocating the effectiveness of community management approaches and looking more at the benefits and drawbacks of models such as cooperatives.  And there are indeed drawbacks, as the Cooperative Bank’s widely publicised disgrace in 2013 showed, creating a sense of deep betrayal among many of their loyal customers, evidenced by the number of people switching accounts.  Hybrid models that draw on business traditions and community traditions may be possible.  My open question to all sides of the private/public/community triangle is whether we can learn and be open to change, even if that change comes from points of the triangle where we might not be willing to look for partnership.  Do we care enough about the Commons to work with people with whom we might feel we have very little in common?  Can the cooperative movement and corporate citizens share their ideas?


Leadership and storytelling

I went to a workshop on ‘leadership in collectives’ last week organised by a local community group, The Field at New Cross Gate. Jacob Stringer, a local writer,  led us very effectively and inclusively through an exploration of leadership using story telling.

It was a very atmospheric space to work in. The Field have been working for some months to renovate their space, bringing the small building they are using back from a state of unloved and unused ruin. It’s very simple but beautiful – bare brick walls and stripped wooden window frames. The large table was turned into a smaller one by the simple means of taking a big board of the trestles, nudging them together, and putting a smaller board on top. It was also in the evening, and the room was lit only by a desk lamp, so I was lulled into taking off the usual professional masks I wear during the day and I probably opened up to the discussion much more than I would have done in a more conventional training room.  Leadership is such a slippery, protean topic and so personal, so storytelling was a better way to think about it for me than trying to read what some survey of 10 or 1000 leaders have in common.  Should a leader tell a story,  listen to a story, co-author a story?  Telling stories in the dark can’t nail the jellyfish of leadership to the wall, but it might have helped me dance with the jellyfish and have some fun with the idea.

I took away several ideas that I am still chewing on. The workshop made me realise how much my image of leadership is shaped by my work in international NGOs.  If done badly, NGO work can lead to serious risks and dangers, either to ourselves, or to the people we are trying to help. In an emergency, you need a chain of command which generates a specific kind of leadership, which is difficult to shake off back in the London office. Even outside an emergency there are standards that are non-negotiable in so many areas – child safeguarding, project delivery to donor rules, financial accountability, keeping the teams safe.   Getting the details of design right so that you don’t forget to send people the food they need to survive for a month.  So while you might make as much space as you can for entrepreneurship and creativity, part of the leader’s job is also to hold the boundaries and keep discipline.

The first part of the discussion centred around different types of leadership, including functional or task leadership. It struck me that this is the kind of leadership being exercised in the group project on sustainable fisheries that I am involved with. No-one person is the expert or has any externally awarded authority, so different people take on responsibility for different areas.  I deliberately held back from the project management role as I’ve done that so often and I wanted to see what new roles I could embrace.   I can’t let go of my project management training too much as that’s what earns me my income, and I’m certainly experiencing some cognitive dissonance about the group project,  but I’m trying to be more meditative about it and notice my responses to different situations and the different leadership responses that the group try out. And, I frequently remind myself, this is not NGO work. If we get this wrong, even if we get it 100% disastrously wrong, nobody will die. I am trying to relax more. I am bad at relaxing.

Earning the right to lead:

In the workshop, people talked about what had inspired them about the best leaders they had ever seen. I realised that one of the things that has inspired me most until now is bravery – either the physical bravery of our humanitarian team leaders whom we can deploy into an earthquake or a conflict zone and trust them to know what to do to save lives, or the bravery of people like LGBT campaigners in many parts of the world who risk stigma, imprisonment and violence to speak the truth about sexuality. I realised that this is part of my problem with my vision of leadership, because not all leadership involves confronting such visceral risks, and also because leaders should be allowed to have a personal life (which trauma or overwork can destroy), so it was incumbent on me to reimagine my vision of leadership.  And playing with synonyms can be helpful in translating the concept to more ordinary life in the UK.  The first thing I ever thought about the man who became my husband was ‘uh huh, bold…’   Bold is a good thing about leaders.

One of the other people at the workshop talked about being comfortable with a boss once, because he knew that they were working harder than everyone else in the team. I find that interesting because the boss who is working very long hours (visibly so, at their desk) is not necessarily a boss who I think is on top of their job and I would find a martyr-boss off-putting.   But maybe hard work is a form of bravery, or at least of the combination of resilience and self-sacrifice that you could unpack bravery as being made up of.   That train of thought led me to resilience and self-sacrifice as being more applicable than my first image of the brave leader as a hero in literally dangerous times. I toyed with the term ‘servant leadership’ but then decided it did not work for me, and neither did self-sacrifice. I have a family and I have ambitions other than work. And I want to be able to spend an afternoon in the garden without feeling guilty, watch cat videos and House of Cards and see my friends. I don’t want to take on a form of leadership that involves throwing away all the good things that make my own life worth living.

So that left me whittled down to resilience.

Then someone else talked about a person who had inspired them in the environmental movement. She described someone who had taken a negative message (the environment is being ruined and it’s all awful) to something positive (we can do transition towns). The energy and interest in her voice as she described that leaders’ ideas, and the sense that this leader was shaping a positive story about how we can reimagine our way out of the climate crisis, was a joy to hear. Futerra talk about this trait in a brilliant, charming, funny paper called ‘Sell the Sizzle.’ It resonated with the things we talked about in advocacy at international NGOs – we need to keep reminding people about the success stories like vaccines, we need to keep making the case that aid works. Positivity, encouragement, hope, saying ‘good job’ and ‘thank you’, listening, helping other people shape their story, making people feel recognised and valued.   It’s the bit that it’s too easy to let go of under racking pressure, but this woman’s story reminded me that positivity is at least as important as resilience.

Another person at the workshop talked about the ‘gift of listening’ – that sometimes it’s lovely to give someone the gift of just listening to them really intensely.   Which brought me back to my idea of the leader as someone who hears (or sees) – really hears, or really sees, each member of the group.  (I put ‘sees’ as well as hears because I’m quite an aural learner but some people I know I visual.  Tactile leaders must find it difficult not to touch and pat but they probably need to hold back.   I think we can all agree that leaders should probably not lick or sniff their team-mates).  Something I picked up at my Lean In circle a few weeks ago:  in leadership, you ask simple, powerful questions.   A leader asks questions and listens.

So there I go, my three takeaways from the workshop. My vision of what leadership looks like is a leader who is resilient and positive and who really hears/sees the members of the team. There’s quite a lot more to unpack there but it’s a start. As always, it brings me back to the words about work that I turn to often when I’m unsure:

“Work is love made visible.”  Khalil Gibran.

I can’t love every day at work, but there is always something I find I can love in the big picture of my work. And what better source for resilience and positivity and the desire to really listen and see, than love?

They work for who?

I’m still puzzling over the problem of localism.  I can see all its virtues in terms of making democracy feel more meaningful and enabling decisions to be made closer to the point of impact.  I’m not cynical, and I believe that people want to engage.  Yet there’s something about the debate on handing cities ‘control over their own destinies’, or at least their own tax-raising powers, that makes me uneasy.  The lack of local accountability mechanisms is a main blocker.

I do think localism would be good for governance.  But it has to be accompanied by a conversation about how we hold together as a society.  For example, there have to be means to carry out fiscal transfers from richer to poorer areas to avoid entrenching regional inequalities.  Also, I’m not sure how genuinely popular a move to localism would be.  The current turnout for locally elected officials such as police commissioners is poor.  Although there was a widespread passion for Scottish independence, there is not (anywhere that I have seen) the evidence that localism at the level of smaller units will be a smash hit.  Presumably part of the issue is citizenship education, building confidence, skills and interest in building local societies.

I’ve seen my local area convulsed in a debate about a PFI streetlighting contract between our council and a construction contractor.   Some of the issues might seem small to outsiders, in which term I include the council and the contractor – but they are vividly felt by residents.  It seems fair to say that even if the contract is a success in terms of the metrics the council and contractor set themselves, it is a failure in terms of public engagement.  Even someone as stroppy and well-informed as me was told that information I requested about safety standards was ‘commercially confidential’.  I found the feeling of being told to shut up by my Council interesting, as previously I have always had a good experience of contacting people like my MP or MEPs.    I am noting it down here to remind myself of what it feels like.

So (recognising of course that anecdote is not evidence) my experience suggests that people do feel passionate about their micro-locality, and the Scots referendum  suggests that people feel passionate about their national identity.  But if we are to make localism a success we would need to find that spot between the micro-local and the national where people have a sense of belonging and responsibility; decisions can be made; citizens can engage, and hopefully the work of local authorities can be made more efficient with higher quality results.  Digital solutions such as City Dashboards, if stepped down a level to the local authority, could be one of the tools to help create a sense both of belonging, transparency, relevance, and even socialising and fun: And the system of effects should be monitored to see that greater localism does not entrench postcode lotteries in issues like health services.

Greening the Whites

For the last month, I have been a bit in love with my garden. It is uncomplicated, it shows results in a fairly short timeframe, and it doesn’t induce guilt when I ignore it for a few days. Perfect.

When we first moved in, just over two years ago, the beauty and productivity of the garden was not a priority as I was seven months pregnant, which is lucky, because the garden was hideous. Beyond the strange pink patio, two thirds of it was covered in concrete, and where the concrete was not, there were only perennial weeds as the whole garden was blighted by the canopy of two trees. The trees were handsome in their own right, but massively too big, and they blocked out light and sucked up water from all the gardens around. The previous owner had left the dismembered limbs of another gargantuan tree at the back. On a bitterly cold day (it snowed that March) I observed uselessly as Toby cleared the rotten logs, with my enormous bump unable to do much more than be ready to scream if there was something nasty in the woodpile. We drove to Lewisham dump where the attendants barked ‘no pregnant women out of cars at the dump!’ and I slid, relieved but guilty, back to my warm seat while Toby cleared our lives of the slimy, fragmenting things in the icy rain and slicing wind. I cried on the way back. I missed our small modern flat in Waterloo, felt lonely in our new house with its vile garden, in the suburbs with their isolated and freezing streets, and was fed up of being pregnant. I take a while to put down roots.

The two positive things we did do were break up the concrete and start a compost heap. I don’t remember talking about buying the compost bin, we just went shopping on one of those strange, hazy, stressed-out just-moved-house-and-about-to-have-a-baby days and came back with a compost bin. Toby came home after work, went out with the lumphammer and bashed the concrete to bits, swearing sometimes when he discovered that under the concrete, was – more concrete. His parents descended on us like freakishly strong garden clearance fairies and got rid of the concrete, again, I don’t remember how. When She-who-is now-the-Ten-Ton-Toddler was two months old we sorted out some tree surgeons, of whom the least said the better. I hid from them with my newborn and left my mum to sort it out. We kept the nicest, curliest willow branches for supports for other plants, but for several months, looked only occasionally at the hill of earth and leaf mould in the back and let the perennial weeds take over while we freaked out about caring for a soft small bundle of human beauty which never slept.  But we did start to fill up our compost bin. After a few months my mother pointed out that we had accidentally grown butternut squashes from some seeds which had fallen out on the way to the compost heap – you could see the big leaves tracking the path to the back of the garden where the compost heap stood. Unfortunately we’d paid too little attention and the slugs got some and the rest were too late in the season to fruit fully. Still, it was encouraging. Even after years under concrete, our London clay soil could grow butternut squash plants. And we had flower beds, courtesy of my in-laws, who had lifted up the slabs around the edges of the border and planted annuals. We had a place to sit in the summer evenings when Toby came home and took the wee baby reverently in his arms while I sat back revelling in the fact that for the first time in twelve hours I wasn’t holding her and had free use of both arms. One of Ten-Ton-Toddler’s grandmothers, or possibly both, had planted some courgettes, which grew so prolifically that Toby was still announcing well into the next year that he never wanted to see a courgette again. The courgette issue was compounded by the fact that we kept forgetting to pick them until they were marrows, and then in our sleep deprived state the only thing we could think of doing with them was to stuff them with stilton. There are only so many times in a week that you can eat marrow and stilton without passing into a sort of twilight zone of blue cheese devils and green man nightmares. My mother gave us a peach tree for my birthday, and put irises to bake their corms in the sunniest corner. The whitewashed back of the house could, in the sun, appear quite Italianate. We didn’t have a garden, but we did have a space to sit.

The next year, when she-who-is now-the-Ten-Ton-Toddler was nearly one, we had another go at things. I got an amazing book called ‘How to Create an Eco-Garden’ by John Walker.  The book was perfect for us because it’s written for people with small urban gardens like ours, who like getting their hands dirty.  I started to track the sunlight round the garden throughout the day to understand better what to plant for sun and shade, although I was still far too hopeful about what would grow in shade and lots of flowers never opened. For three weekends we enlisted the support of Ten-Ton-Toddler’s Aunties and adoptive Aunties (thank you Jess, Reeb, Astrid, Annika) so that they entertained her while we furiously dug and levelled the post-tree surgery hill of earth, rolled it, and fed it, or in Annika’s case, picked up a shovel and laid the turf. My mother brought us lavender plants, and strawberries in pots.  Our friend Sue gave us tomato plants. We dressed the Ten-Ton-Toddler in a bee costume and put her on the new lawn to be photogenic and she burst into tears at the strange new environment and asked to be picked up.  My mother and mother-in-law planted bulbs in the front garden. I was back at work so although my physical strength was coming back, we had little time for much more. But the tomato plants were fantastic and at the end of summer, I picked dozens of green tomatoes that would never ripen any more and made chutney. Toby, I think, felt it was rather like the courgettes all over again and begged me repeatedly to give away more chutney. I think one lesson for me is that Toby would like more variety and fewer gluts in the garden.

This year, I have been working at home a lot and so I discovered a new love for the East-facing front garden, with its beautiful crocuses, irises and soon-to-open tulips and daffs, thanks to the thoughtful planting by Ten-Ton-Toddler’s grandmothers. I do emails there on sunny mornings with a mug of coffee in my hand and thank my lucky stars I’m working in my own front garden. And in the back garden, we moved the compost bin and got our first harvest of composted kitchen matter. I found a new potato in it. There are no lengths that nature will not go to, to grow. And there were worms. ‘We’ve got worms!’ I told Toby. ‘We’ve got worms!’ I told my new friends at the Field at New Cross Gate. It means that two years after the concrete left our lives, we now have a living soil. Today, Toby and Ten-Ton-Toddler watched a blackbird eat a worm. I’ve seen bees. We’ll get the fences fixed on the South-facing border and hopefully get some veg in there and some fruit canes, interplanted with marigolds for the bees. The peach tree is blossoming.  Ten-Ton-Toddler has her own gardening kit and enjoys helping with planting and watering. Even more to my joy, I have an excuse for my hoarding instincts and claim that I need to keep things because ‘they might be useful for the garden’ and can now also justify that as a ‘Circular Economy’ approach thanks to the Masters’ Course. Hopefully this autumn I’ll do some more of the things recommended by ‘Eco-Gardening’ like planting green manure, which will hopefully deal with the perennial weeds and improve the soil for crops next year.  Hopefully our garden so far has been a net positive for the environment – although two trees were lost, they were not right for the space and I hope our planting, insect hotel and commitment to growing food will help balance the carbon loss.  I’m fairly sure that our garden is already much more biodiverse.  Some of the ideas from ‘How to Create an Eco-Garden’ were too much for me right now.  I’d love to have the fish-free pond that John Walker recommends, but Ten-Ton-Toddler needs to be older.  Similarly, having a lawn is not really that eco, but is great for her to kick a ball around on.  And we did try to keep an area of long grass and wildflowers for the bees but something kept coming to crap in it overnight and I couldn’t risk Ten-Ton-Toddler tumbling into fox faeces so Toby mowed it flat.  But a garden is a work in progress and for me part of the value is taking things slowly, being prepared to wait a few years before the compost is made, before the trees can fruit, and before I learn the ways of our micro-climate enough to plant the right things.  The parameter that the garden must be child-safe will change over time as Ten-Ton-Toddler grows.  It’s been a happy project to which the whole family and many friends have contributed their time, strength, plants from their gardens and ideas over Facebook.

So in the spirit of giving something back to the world, I went with Toby and Ten-Ton-Toddler to pick litter at the library meadow-garden today. Ten-Ton-Toddler was in a supervisory capacity only, but I think we all agree that the shouting of encouragement and juice slurping from her turquoise wheeled throne made it all much more efficient. My secret agenda is that I’m hoping to inveigle my way into the affections of the people who manage the library garden, and if I build my credibility with litter-picking I might be allowed a go at some pruning in time, or perhaps even some planting. I’ve got the bug, as much as the garden has worms.