Pooling urban commons: the Civic eState

Pooling urban commons: the Civic eState

Naples’ Urban Civic Uses policy is characterised by the way artists, creatives, innovators and city inhabitants are entitled to organise themselves to establish forms of self-government for critical social infrastructure including urban commons such as abandoned, unused or underused city assets. Christian Iaione, URBACT Lead Expert, and LabGov’s director tells us how Naples’ Good Practice is being transferred to other European cities thanks to the Civic eState project.

The Civic eState network is all about the policy challenge of recognising and/or co-designing legal and sustainable urban commons governance mechanisms enabling city inhabitants and local communities constitutional rights to collectively act in the general interest.

The urban commons are tangible and intangible assets, services and infrastructures functional to the exercise of fundamental rights considered by the city of Naples as collectively owned and therefore removed from the “exclusive use” proprietary logic to be governed through civic “direct management”.

The revitalisation of the urban historical heritage represents a cultural, economic and social challenge, but also a spur for the city to re-elaborate its identity, creating a new bond with and between the local activists, civic entrepreneurs and the active citizenship scene.

The city of Naples carved out a policy based on several city council and mayor’s office resolutions to overcome the traditional top-down command-and-control approach bringing city inhabitants to the centre of the decision-making and city assets management process, strengthening participation in political decisions relevant for the care and regeneration of the urban commons.

These are new policy tools that aim to give back to the community public and private abandoned properties.

Transferring Naples’ Good Practice on urban commons collective governance

Watch the interview of Nicola Masella, from the Municipality of Naples and who coordinates the Urbact project and integrated development policies here

Naples’ Good Practice consists of enabling collective management of urban essential facilities conceived as urban commons. This public-community governance approach secures fair and open access, co-design, preservation and a social and economic sustainability model of urban assets and infrastructures, all for the benefit of future generations.

Collective governance is carried out through the involvement of the community of neighbourhood inhabitants in designing, experimenting, managing, and delivering new forms of cultural and social services.

The network’s objective is to transfer, with appropriate adaptations and improvements, Naples’ Good Practice to partner cities: Barcelona (ES), Gdansk (PL), Ghent (BE), Amsterdam (NL), Iasi (RO) and Presov (SK).

The path to civic use

During the last decade, the city of Naples has been experimenting with new urban governance tools to give new life to abandoned and/or deprived buildings. Different movements and informal organizations have highlighted the need for such spaces to be used and managed by city inhabitants in common through self-organization mechanisms that turn such spaces into new institutions. The civic use of these empty buildings implied a temporary use and it represented a starting point for their “renaissance”. It also created a stimulus to start searching for innovative mechanisms to use such spaces as community-managed or a community-managed estate.

By revisiting the ancient legal institution of “civic use” and adapting it to the urban context, the administration structured a new form of participatory governance that intends to go beyond the classic “concession agreement model”, which is based on a dichotomous view of the public-private partnership.

The civic use recognises the existence of a relationship between the community and these public assets. This process makes community-led initiatives recognisable and institutionalised, ensuring the autonomy of both parties involved. On one hand the citizens are engaged in the reuse of the urban commons and on the other hand the city administration enables the practice.

Urban commons

The first asset recognised as common property, to be managed through the collective governance mechanism of the civic use, was the ex-asilo Filangieri, an URBACT Good Practice (resolution of Naples City Council n. 893/2015). It is there that the first Declaration of Civic and Collective Urban Use was carved out.

One year later, 7 other public properties were recognised by Naples City Council as “relevant civic spaces to be ascribed to the category of urban commons”: ex-Convento delle Teresiane: Giardino LiberatoLido Pola; Villa Medusa; ex-OGP di Materdei; ex-Carcere Minorile – Scugnizzo Liberatoex-Conservatorio S. Maria della Fedeex-Scuola Schipa (resolution n. 446, 27 May 2016).

The recognition will be finalised with appropriate agreements after the communities managing the spaces draft a Declaration of Civic and Collective Use, on the model of those of the ex-asilo, securing inclusivity, accessibility, impartiality and usability of the governance of the assets.

credits: URBACT

In the future, the list can be enriched with more urban common resources. These assets were unutilised or under-utilised urban buildings and spaces, informally occupied and re-generated by informal communities that animate them and still contribute to their regeneration (in many cases, the renovation works could not be completed at the beginning of the informal management and were carried out through self-funding schemes). These assets constitute the civic heritage of the city of Naples, co-used and co-managed by Naples’ city inhabitants in the general interest.

Public-civic partnerships: a transferable model

Naples’ Good Practice (i.e. the civic uses resolution) has forged one of the first examples of a new generation of public partnerships, the public-community or public-civic partnership (PCPs). PCPs are aimed at transforming city assets into sustainable social infrastructures that produce public value and social impact through social & solidarity, cultural & creative, collaborative, digital and circular economy initiatives.

Nicola Masella, lead partner, stresses the value of the Naples’ Good Practice for the EU by saying that “the mechanism proposed by the city of Naples, although anchored in the Italian legal system, is certainly characterised by a high degree of adaptability to other European urban contexts as it is based on largely shared ethical, legal and social values. In contrast to the models proposed by other Italian and European cities, where the municipality is in charge of setting up of the rules for the management of commons, the tool implemented in Naples has been built by recognising the citizens’ self-organization models, through a continuous exchange between the community and the municipality.

A blueprint for the future?

credits: URBACT

The Civic eState approach could generate a prototype methodology for cities to generate a new breed of cooperative agreements or projects between city governments and civic, social, local businesses aimed at developing cities through an integrated approach. In particular the civic uses resolution could be considered a blueprint for a larger category of legal tools in compliance with EU law, especially the relevant EU legislation on public procurement and state aid, stifling cooperation among urban actors in order to build and deliver social infrastructure and services such as education, healthcare and housing.

It might also be able to generate through the hybridisation of these places and economic models new community-based job opportunities and forms of civic entrepreneurships. These cooperative agreements, partnerships or projects could be the basis for more sophisticated and solid forms of financing that could fund social projects through new funding mechanisms including social impact bonds, social project finance schemes and many other new public-private partnerships that involve the participation of long-term investors to generate a sustainability model through social bonds and impact investing mechanisms.

The Co-City Cycle

The Co-City Cycle

The observation and analysis of more than 400 policies and projects enabling co-creation, co- production, and co-governance of urban assets and services in more than 130 cities (www.commoning.city) led us to identify five design principles and a legal and financial toolbox to create partnerships between the urban commons and the public, private, knowledge, social sectors (the so-called quintuple helix). These examples include institutional commons-based arrangements from the scale of the individual resource to the entire city as the resource, and consequently the policies and platforms that enable those experiments become more complex. All in all, our observations and study of the examples show that there are emerging new ways of innovating and supporting new ways to co-create, co-produce and co-manage urban shared resources at various scales.

However, the process used to arrive at some of these experiments and ways that they can be replicated within a particular local context differ greatly. Based on our experiences working in Italian cities and observing work carried out in other cities developing experiments through similar approaches and policies, we codified a project/policy cycle by which interested cities or single actors can collectively undertake to experiment a commons-based approach to face any urban challenge and to apply it to a range of urban assets and services. We call this the Co-City Cycle.

The Co-City Cycle is composed of six phases: knowing, mapping, practicing, prototyping, testing and modeling.

Figure 1 Infographic Co City process (or policy cycle)

The first phase of the protocol, knowing, is aimed at fostering through cheap talking the identification of potential urban commons and the emerging of an active community through dialogues with key interlocutors in the city (scholars, activists, experts, practitioners). Findings on cheap talk in the study of the commons (Ostrom 2009; Poteete et al. 2010) show that it favors cooperation. The act of listening and acquiring knowledge from local actors through face-to-face, informal and pressures-free communication activity is the key activity of this phase. In the Co-City cycle, the cheap talking is realized through discussions and co-working sessions organized in informal settings with experts, key testimonials of NGOs or social enterprises, activists and practitioners active in the city for the urban commons, experts and scholars of relevant areas (urban planning, service design, communication, economic sustainability, governance). The output is the identification of existing or potential urban commons and communities active in the city to realize an overview/picture of the existing practices and start stressing the attention on specific urban areas that could be potentially object of the experimentation.

Next is the mapping/calling phase which develops in a twofold direction: analogic (or offline) and digital (online or e-mapping). The main tools of this phase include fieldwork activities in the relevant area from which information gleaned in the cheap talking phase is employed to begin to map potential urban commons. Starting from them, the mapping process goes deeply in order to understand the characteristics of the urban context in order to design and prototype appropriate governance tools later on in the process and to select an area of experimentation. This phase might also include the use of tools developed in previous applied and experimental research on the urban commons, such as ethnographic work, as well as active field observation and exploratory interviews or surveys. It can also include the creation of a collaborative digital platform as a tool for disseminating information and engaging the community. The mapping phase provides a visualization of urban commons through relevant civic initiatives and self-organization experiences and the output is the identification of the most appropriate areas where to conduct the experimentation.

The third phase, the practicing phase, is experimental in nature. At the heart of this phase there is a “collaboration camp” where synergies are created between emerging commons projects and local authorities. Collaborative actors are identified from various sectors from the quintuple helix who are willing to participate in co-working sessions organized to identify possible synergies and alignment between projects and relevant actors that might culminate in a “collaboration day” which might take the form of placemaking events—e.g. micro-regeneration interventions, creation of a neighborhood community garden – as a leverage to make the proactive communities emerge and start test and prepare the actions for start of the co-design process.

The fourth phase, the prototyping phase, focuses on governance innovation. In this phase, participants and policymakers reflect on the mapping and practicing phases to extract the specific characteristics and needs of the community served. This phase also foresees the realization of co- design prototypes to solve the problems identified in the previous phases.

The fifth phase is the testing phase, that also includes evaluation. In this phase, the governance/policy prototype is tested through implementation, monitored and evaluated. The evaluation has both qualitative and quantitative metrics to assess. The evaluation is mainly aimed at measuring whether the implementation of the prototype is consistent with the design principles and objectives identified throughout the process by the different participants, similar to the ex post policy analysis that is aimed at determining to what extent it has performed as expected. (Wu & al. 2018, 124/128). Of course, evaluation methods cannot be copied and pasted uncritically. It is important to adopt the evaluation methods and techniques to the local conditions and the peculiarities of policy tools for urban co-governance. The evaluation was first tested in the Co-Bologna process. The evaluation was focused on the implementation of the Bologna Regulation, that indeed has to be considered a prototype also according to its article 35. The evaluation was carried from October 2016 until May 2017. The unit of analysis are 280 pacts of collaboration signed under the Regulation from March 2014 to December 2016. It was based on both quantitative and qualitative methods and consisted of three steps: 1) qualitative and quantitative coding of the pacts’ text 2) Survey for analyzing democratic responsiveness of the Regulation, addressing the civic signatories of the pacts 3) confirmation of the results and deepening of analysis through group interviews/focus groups with a respondents’ sample. On the basis of the results of this evaluation the City of Bologna as well as any other city which adopted a similar piece of regulation could transform the 2014 prototype regulation into a model regulation. Therefore, the utilization of the evaluation in the Co City cycle is that of policy learning (Dunlop, 2017) of two types: social learning, involving different types of actors from inside and outside governments and existing policy subsystem, in this case the actors of the quintuple helix of urban governance of innovation) and government learning, that involves reviews of program behavior by government actors and is aimed at improving the means by which certain policies are administered (Wu & al. 2018, 132-135).

Finally, the modeling phase, where the governance output prototyped and evaluated in light of the first implementation adapted to the legal and institutional framework of the city in order to ensure the balance with the institutional and legal urban ecosystem. This phase is realized through the study of urban norms and relevant regulations and administrative acts and through dialogue with civil servants and policy makers. This is an experimental phase involving perhaps the suspension of previous regulatory rules, the altering of bureaucratic processes, and the drafting of new policies which might also have a sunset clause and then a re-evaluation period. It can also involve the establishment of external or internal offices or support infrastructure in the city to support the policies and the “commoning” across the city.

The Ubuntu State

Adam Smith used the image of the Leviathan State to depict the command-and-control State, Vincent Ostrom together with some collegues coined a new image for the welfare state.

Since Reagan and Tatcher attack on Big Government, advocating for Small Government, until the moderate progressives decide to come to terms with conservatives and dilute the idea of Big Government, suggesting to take a third way (Blair and Clinton) which is after all bigger Government than Small government and a smaller government than Big Government.

Obama kicks in and at least start a new discourse. “It’s not an issue of big government versus small government. It’s an issue of smart government“. He says in 2010. That’s something similar to what I purported for local government in 2006 with local public entrepreneurship, which will then better framed and expanded to the national level by Marianna Mazzuccato who spke of an “entrpreneurial state”. But we were not framing the question in the right way. I started studying government through the lenses of the people and no longer through the lenses of an expert studying and advising government, local or national. In 2008 I started studying government through the lenses of city inhabitants. And there I realized we should have asked what Bob Reich today calls the most was able to conclude with

Ubuntu is a complete desktop Linux operating system, freely available with both community and professional support. The Ubuntu community, backed by Canonical, is built on the ideas enshrined in the Ubuntu Manifesto: that software should be available free of charge, that software tools should be usable by people in their local language and despite any disabilities, and that people should have the freedom to customise and alter their software in whatever way they see fit. “Ubuntu” is an ancient African word, meaning “humanity to others”. The Ubuntu distribution brings the spirit of Ubuntu to the software world. Ubuntu 12.04 LTS is the current long term support version, released in April 2012, codenamed Precise Pangolin. Take an online tour: http://www.ubuntu.com/tour/en/

Poolism: sharing economy vs. pooling economy

Sharing economy builds on new or revived social patterns having important business, legal and institutional implications: the social practices of sharing and collaboration. They both build on the well known social practice of co-operation.

Given its innovative and dynamic nature, the concept cannot be ultimately defined. It encompasses however phenomena presenting the following features:

(i) its main agent does not act as the standard economic agent, the homo oeconomicus;

(ii) the sharing economy adopts a platform approach whereby relations, reputation, social trust and other non-economic motives within a community become one of the main drivers;

(iii) on a large scale the sharing economy makes intensive use of digital technologies and data collection. Data becomes primary raw material. Fixed costs are mostly externalised;

(iv) on a smaller, local scale some sharing economy initiatives might be limited to the common use or management of physical assets (e.g. co-working spaces, urban commons, etc.) or to new forms of peer-to-peer, sometimes street or building level, welfare systems.

Many think that the main actor of sharing economy is no longer the “consumer” willing to own something or buy some service, but rather a citizen, commoner, user, maker, producer, creative, designer, co-worker, digital artisan, urban farmer willing to have access to some service or asset that is needed to satisfy some of her needs. However, others argue though that the sharing economy actor is in many instances also someone willing to act and take care of, manage, generate or regenerate a common, open access resource, material or immaterial, without the intermediation of a public or private provider, on a peer-to-peer, person-to-person small scale level. Thus in the sharing economy the actor is not a mere “economic actor”. It could rather be a social or personal or civic actor for whom traditional economic motives are secondary or entirely absent. Some of the SE realms are not necessarily “economies” in the strict sense, but social communities and networks of collaboration that generate new economic ventures or are functional to existing economic activities.

In any case sharing economy seems to question the homo oeconomicus, a self-interested profit or utility maximizing individual, as its main agent[1] and be able to give rise to a new economic identity. An individual not guided by the perpetual quest to maximize its own material interests, an individual unwilling to act alone[2]. It is an archetype of individual who, while not giving up the pursuit of her passions and interests, understands that her individual freedom is nothing if it is not associated with a commitment to the community, if the “acting alone” is not paired with the “acting in common”[3]. Sharing economy main agent might be thus framed more as a “mulier activa”[4]. An individual able to act in the public – social, economic, political – arena and to place herself in relation to others in order to take care of the general, common interest which is the main of the three pillars of a “vita activa”[5]

A distinction between the various forms of sharing economy is however needed. They all use the same social paradigm, the act of sharing, collaborating, cooperating. Yet they are very different from one another. There is room to spell out those forms of sharing economy that perpetuate in some way the same social and economic dynamics of the pre-existing economic model and apply to each of them a different legal regime. The profit/non-profit divide does help in reading sharing economy initiatives, but it is not sufficient to draw the line between different forms of sharing economy. There are forms of profit/non-profit activities in almost each of the sharing economy realms. Also the profit/non-profit criterion is increasingly questioned even by standard economics as new hybrid forms of business arise.

A first distinction could be drawn between “sharing economy in the strict sense” and collaborative forms of sharing economy by framing collaboration and cooperation as added layers of sharing. As a matter of fact a distinction could be made between sharing economy initiatives that create and ossify a distinction between different typologies of users (consumers-users vs. providers-users) and sharing economy initiatives that foster peer-to-peer approach in which every user could be provider and consumer at the same time or even be involved in the platform governance. Even further cooperation could suggest a commons-based approach to sharing economy[6]. If the actors involved do not just share a resource but collaborate to create, produce, regenerate a common resource for the greater public, the community, they are co-operating, they are pooling for the commons.

Two main realms of sharing economy and four forms of sharing economy seem to emerge:

  1. “sharing economy in the strict sense” composed of:
  • “access economy”, for sharing economy initiative whose business model implies that goods and services are traded on the basis of access rather than ownership. It refers to renting things temporarily rather than selling them permanently;
  • “gig economy”, for sharing economy initiatives based on contingent work that is transacted on a digital marketplace;
  1. “pooling economy” composed of:
  • “collaborative economy”, sharing economy initiatives that foster peer-to-peer approach and/or involve users in the design of the productive process or transform clients into a community;
  • “commons-based economy”, “open cooperativism”, “open platform cooperativism” [7] for sharing economy initiatives that are collectively owned or managed, democratically governed, do not extract value out of local economies but anchor jobs, respect human dignity and offer new forms of social security.

Finally, the growth of sharing economy should only partially be considered a revolution and/or a consequence of the crisis[8]. For some aspects it might also represent, thanks to information technologies, the reverse-transformation[9] or the transition[10] of some sectors of the current economic model to long-standing economic traditions and economic models’ (e.g. cooperative economy, social economy, solidarity economy, handicraft production, commons economy etc.) and even to ancient forms of economic exchange (e.g. the bartering economy), which are alternative to capital-intensive forms of market economy.



[1] Encyclical Letter Laudato si’ of the Holy Father Francis on care for our common home (24 May 2015). See paragraphs 13, 14, 90, 211. See also L. Trotsky, Attention to small things, (1 October 1921).

[2] For an archetype of individual willing to collaborate or “reciprocate” see for instance  the “homo reciprocans” of S. Bowles, H. Gintis, Homo reciprocans, 2002.

[3] A. de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835.

[4] See C. Iaione, Economics and law of the commons, 2011.

[5] H. Arendt, Vita activa, 1964.

[6] D. Bollier, Think like a commoner: a short introduction to the life of the commons, 2014. S. Foster, Collective action and the Urban Commons, 2011; C. Iaione, The Tragedy of Urban Roads, 2009.

[7] J. Schor, Debating the sharing economy, 2014.

[8] K. Polanyi, The great transformation: The political and economic origins of our time, 1944.

[9] M. Bauwens, A commons transition plan, available at: http://commonstransition.org/

[10] See P. Conaty, D. Bollier, Toward an open cooperativism, 2014, available at http://commonstransition.org/toward-an-open-co-operativism/. See also T. Scholz, Platform cooperativism vs. the Sharing Economy, available at https://medium.com/@trebors/platform-cooperativism-vs-the-sharing-economy-2ea737f1b5ad

Governing the urban commons

When Elinor Ostrom decided to start the study of the commons, it was almost immediate for her to start from the commons that had the most long-standing tradition in terms of social practices, economic sustainability and institutional design.


Sharing or collaboration?


Urban Commons Institutions are already there (they need mapping)


A public-private-civic/commons infrastructure vs. urban commoning


A protocol for urban commons (governance processes not government products)