Should resources essential for human survival be placed in the control of the people who need them? What would this mean in practice – and how could it be achieved?

At the New Economics Foundation we are opening up a broad debate about the control of ‘the commons’ – the resources we rely upon to survive and flourish. This began with a roundtable we held on the 18th July, which focused on two kinds of common resource: land and care.

The concept of the commons is a useful tool for progressive change-makers. Whether we are concerned with land or wealth, or with water, energy, transport, fisheries, parks or libraries, the ‘commons’ enables us to think through a range of important issues, including ownership and control and the links between top-down and bottom-up politics.

As an organising principle, it challenges orthodox market economics and implies a radically different role for the state. At a time when long-established political certainties are increasingly shaky, the ‘commons’ emerges in the current moment as an idea of enduring and widespread relevance.

It draws on – and deepens – our understanding of universal human needs and the dynamics of wellbeing.  It speaks directly to the systemic links between social, environmental and economic resources, and introduces into this ‘triumvirate’ a crucial fourth dimension – that of power.

It offers a framework for making decisions about access and distribution. It implies entitlements that are shared by all, and it offers a critique of some forms of private ownership.

It provides a route towards sustainable development, which according to the 1987 Brundtland Report, means ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ The ‘commons’ are resources required to meet both present and future needs. Only by understanding which resources are essential and how they can be secured for the benefit of all, over time, can we achieve long-term sustainability.

Another great strength of the concept of commons is that it makes sense to people outside ‘expert’ circles – it belongs to all whose lives depend on essential resources. People decide for themselves what the conditions are for a decent life. Codified knowledge and professional expertise can inform and support such decisions, but cannot determine them.

Different kinds of commons call for different strategies. What are considered essential resources and how these can be claimed will be established partly by where people live and what they decide they need. Strategies for managing the commons will vary from one kind of resource to another.

The process of ‘commoning’ goes beyond markets and states, but not without them. Where markets are concerned we can learn from current work developing models for a sharing economy, and from innovations in collaborative consumption, where value is attributed to people’s access and use of things, more than to ownership. Digital platforms can help to support these developments, as they have potential to transform relationships between producers and consumers.

Commoning calls for a new kind of ‘partner’ state, with which people can work to regulate for guaranteed access to essential resources, as well as standards, sustainability and fair distribution. It follows that new, stronger forms of participatory democracy are essential to transforming public institutions and holding them to account.

This raises questions about duty and obligation, because not everyone has sufficient disposable time to contribute, or has the desire to be heavily involved. Could the courtroom jury – where individuals are randomly assigned to take a decision on behalf of others for a limited period – provide a useful model?

The question of ‘who’s in’ matters. In some communities where resources are held in common for a defined group of people, membership can be hard to establish and members may choose to exclude ‘outsiders.’ This underlines the importance of regulation for equal access to the commons. But according to what criteria? Citizenship could be too narrow a qualification. Would residence work better?

There are two mutually reinforcing steps that can be taken. One is to build power among people to own and co-produce a story of the commons that gains real traction and helps to reframe politics for the coming decades. The other is to demonstrate and develop new ways of enabling people to define, claim and control essential resources so that everyone benefits from them.

We can start by supporting local innovation, and by building on existing examples of shared control. Examples include parent-led childcare co-operatives, Bristol’s municipal energy company, shared land ownership in ‘garden cities’ such as Letchworth, and land owned by local authorities and the Crown Estates. Further examples are detailed in NEF papers on land reform (publication forthcoming) and the social commons. Smaller cities and towns may be the best place to start building locally generated actions to share essential resources.

We can also learn from ideas and initiatives that are closely linked to the commons, such as work around the foundational economy and social wealth funds.

We are keen to hear more about these and other examples. And all comments on these reflections will be very welcome. Please send them to anna.coote@neweconomics.org.