The challenge of communicating about the commons

Silke Helfrich, international expert of the commons, was one of four special guests at the Montreal Art of Commoning event that took place in 2014 organized by the Montreal Art of Hosting community.We wanted a format that would allow us to tap into the wealth of expertise and wisdom of our international guests and allow conversation with all the participants. We choose the « fishbowl » methodology and carried out the four fishbowls in parallel, each specialist speaking in their language of choice.   Here is the summary of the conversation with Silke Helfrich as recorded by Samantha Slade.


Silke : The word « the commons » makes us think of a thing. The commons is not an object, but rather a relation that I construct with others. For this it needs to be a verb.  The biggest community in the world is the community of commoners, it’s just that the community doesn’t realize its existance.

There are a few challenges when communicating about the commons. How to translate the theory and practice of the commons into our own language? How to create a language of the commons so that we have a common language of the commons? Another challenge is the development of consciousness.

There is another challenge, even greater. I am speaking to a public that is not on the same frequency. Normally people describe politics, economics, legislation, based on other pillars. These notions are cartesian. They have the idea of a division between human and nature etc. How can we describe the commons to people who are on this frequency?

We need to create categories. We can base our discussion in the world on the idea of « ownership ». I am in the world that I observe. I am not outside of it. The most visible example  is private and public. We defend public against private. We forget that there are other ways of doing. We can co-produce very sophisticated things. Our regime is different than that of a typical business.

It’s a thought culture that is difficult to overcome. For example, how can you explain something to someone who has never lived them? How does a mother explain the experience of child birth to her partner? There is another logic that we are living. It needs to be lived, to experience the commons. We can have someone live an experience and then to recognize it as commoning.

We need to update the idea of commons in our practices by connecting with practices that people already know, and build something new. But there is also the intellectual part, to find the words. Without that, how can I build a movement? At the instituional level – the commons is older than institutions, the commons is precapitalist. Connect the commons with what is already there. Live new experiences with others. Create spaces of opening. Reflect and create a language of the commons.

C : The fishbowl is opened. Those who wish to join the conversation may take a chair in the center.

F : Throughout my experience as an architect, I try to develop awareness with others. How can we succeed in transmitting a vision, emotions, values, to people who are not connected to our values, or the reverse? We all have a child in us. It is difficult to enter into relation with people. I force myself to be with people. I lack a bit of time to take care of my values. Do we construct to rayonner or to be  Est-ce qu’on construit pour rayonner ou pour être à l’affut des gens pour comprendre l’autre et créer des ponts? Quels sont les choix à faire en premier?

Silke : I worked in Latin America where it’s a battle « against » for a lifetime. That took my strength and energy.  I decided to work in conscious construction. Building another world. The free software movement, 20 years ago there was Microsoft. The battle transformed into construction. We can build another kind of software based on values and divert the conflict.It is not a short cut. Today, 90% of the internet is built on open source. That gives energy. A new language.

Wherever I go I meet amazing people. I connect with them. I have hard working days. No weekends off. Family life is complex. My children defend what I am doing because they think it makes sense. If you feel that there are too many things you are doing that don’t make sense then change the strategy.

F: I try to stay connected to the notion of flow.

C : Community is not made up of people with similar interests but people who feel they are part of something bigger then themselves. How do the commons become inclusive of people who are different?

Silke : The question of the commons is not based on values. Who defines good values? That could become difficult because who is going to define them? It’s about the enchantment of the commons. Elinor Ostrom, the first female economist to win a nobel prize, documented cases of commons throughout the entire world. She saw that commons are done with everyone. You can choose your comfort group. But when I speak about commons as a concept, an idea, a pattern, to structure our society, it’s for everyone. The challenge is to develop tools, methods, institutions based on the idea of structural inclusion. We have the opposite; our world is based on exclusion. How can we build fairness, freedom and sustainability within the institutions and projects and society. It’s not an idea based on values, but more building projects, institutions,  with fairness, freedom and sustainability.

F: One value system does not displace the other. How to build an approach, a process to establish these patterns? Not to give lessons. It’s not about convincing people. We need to  shine.

J:  Not convince, but spread. That resonates for me. I have been an activist and that takes a lot of energy. It didn’t provide the results. Today I am in agriculture, the idea of nurturing villages nurturing with edible plants. We go with what people want. We will not push people. We just need to launch beautiful ideas and people catch them. Slowly we see the that they travel from there. No need to rush.

Silke – Normally I show people lots of projects that are not in the news. People are inspired.

Now I need to put a grain of sand into this conversation as we are all in too much agreement. You need to give time to time. On the other hand, we do not have time. Climate change. We have a challenge. What is our response?

J – I live in a region with a pipeline project. It’s very confronting for us. It’s not just the ideas of individuals that it will impact. Sometimes we have a choice and sometimes we don’t have a choice. It’s uncomfortable for me to get involved to stop this project. I am trying to reconcile that within an action. How can you join that into a single practice? Something is inspiring me these days, it’s Joanna Macy. Three dimension in the great transformation in which we are already living.  Holding actions – how to protect the commons? The construction of alternatives that are necessary. I wonder, can I live with the three within the same practice? We aren’t alone.

The question of values. People have different organisational cultures. How can we connect to what links us? How to develop consciousness of people who are not part of the commons?

Silke:What do seeds and software have in common? They don’t talk to each other and they fight for the same question : freedom, access sharing, adapting technologies to our local culture. They want to control their own seeds and own their own software.

A: How do you create a space that does not come just from the individual experience? How can the structures? There is a dialogue for changing this paradigm. What ways can we create these spaces?

J: Today is such a space. Sustainable spaces.

Silke: Create « memes », notions that travel by word of mouth. No one knows exactly what it speaks about. For example the 99%. What is in digital network helps us to construct memes. What do you do when you are looking for a definition? You go to wikipedia. If we create the infrastructure, we can be a collective definition.

C : And your interest for the commons, where did that begin?

Silke: In 2006, in Mexico. around the question what do software and seeds have in common. human genes, agriculture. At the very end of the conference. A friend stepped on to the stage and put the light on. Whom does your computer work for? And she told us the story how software was created to work for people and it works for people and it works for corporations. Actually my initial question, my fire comes from that question, what do software and seeds have in common?

Ajouter un commentaire

Votre adresse de messagerie ne sera pas publiée. Les champs obligatoires sont indiqués avec *