«The City as a Commons» conference in Bologna. Or: phenomenological flânerie as urban commoning pedagogy?

By Luigi Russi

Originally appeared on the Schumacher College Blog on January 15, 2016.


On November 6 and 7, I – along with the ubiquitous Jonathan Dawson – attended in Bologna, Italy, the1st IASC Thematic Conference on the Urban Commons, titled «The City as Commons». So, this is obviously a report on the provocative discussions that took place during that event. At the same time, however, this account is as much the product of my own listening to those discussions, as it is of listening to Bologna itself – in a glorious two-day of early November sunshine – through meditative ambulations and the joys of getting lost in the bowels of its historic centre: those experiences, as well, have helped me get a better sense of how commoning may feel, as you criss-cross and trace the city with your body.

Rather than undertake a linear recollection of all the panels I attended, in their chronological succession, I would like instead to begin by the one question that guided my inquiry, and my attempt at navigating the conference schedule in those two days. The question – which I will expand upon shortly – can be summarised as follows: is commoning a kind of match-making between «resources» and «governance models» for those resources, i.e. a taxonomy or classification of human institution-building practices, or does it refer to something less abstract and more corporeal? By which I mean a practice that interrogates the very relationship of material bodies to place, evoking perhaps a pace and attitude whilst treading in space that remains attentive to the unexpected, the abrupt, the unforeseen, the emergent and – as was once mentioned during the conference itself – the «hallucinatory»?

The commons: a closed set or a heuristic device?

Tine de Moor discussing «How to Be a Critical Scholar of the Commons» in Bologna
Tine de Moor discussing «How to Be a Critical Scholar of the Commons» in Bologna

This question first came to me as I listened to the opening keynote speech by Tine de Moor, the president of theInternational Association for the Study of the Commons, which I – too – have joined prior to enrolling for the conference. Tine’s approach to the study of the commons is that of a historian and her best known work, «The Dilemma of the Commoners», is precisely an attempt to describe and reclaim from the dust of history the wealth of institutional experiments in collective action that were already being undertaken in Europe, since at least the late Middle Ages. In her opening speech, titled «How to Be a Critical Scholar of the Commons?», she presented a fascinating relationship, whereby the rise of commons-centred institutional experimentation could be regarded as an almost spontaneous response to historical contingencies, when the shortcomings and market failures of commercialised relations – shaped after the paradigm of the exchange (as opposed to the gift) – could be felt most harshly. In this sense, she describes three waves of commoning experimentation – respectively in the twelfth and thirteenth century, in the late 1800s and in the last decade – precisely as instances of this phenomenon. Although, of course, the fortunes and challenges met by these different phases of experimentation in the collective use and reproduction of community resources clearly differed, based on the specific historical conditions to which they responded and with which they had to reckon.
In sum, Tine’s speech afforded a fascinating glimpse into the imaginative possibilities that can be disclosed through a patient effort of scavenging for alternative experiences in human community and dwelling, which have oftentimes been lost in the progress narrative of capitalist modernity. At the same time, I found that her view of what a critical attitude to the study of the commons should entail seemed to be confined almost exclusively to an analytical work of taxonomy. In her words, the task of the commons scholar is to provide insight into what works and what doesn’t, in relation to managing a particular kind of shared resource, so as to ensure – and I marked her words here – that the «right resource [be] linked to the right governance model».
While I see the merit in the sort of work she advocates, I also felt a risk that giving too much weight to scholarly taxonomies risks doing for the commons what Linnaeus did to the study of plants. Namely, to superimpose an external classification that simplifies a phenomenon from the position of an external observer (what I think Henri Bortoft would call downstream thinking), but without offering much of an orientation for the purpose of navigating – from within – the «live» transformations of an evolving social form (which, to stay with the metaphor of plants, is much closer to what I think Goethe would do). In other words, taxonomies can backfire when they reduce the world to a closed set of possibilities, as they then risk leading to the (entirely avoidable) problem of having to fit the world into those categories, as opposed to the categories themselves functioning more lightly as heuristic devices to aid and bolster continuous experimentation. Practically, this boils down to a different way of formulating the task of the commons scholar: less figuring out whether «commons institutions work or not in this type of case?» (as though «commons institutions» were a closed set of solutions, to be matched with another closed set of problems) and more «what elements from past experience can I/we rely upon, to gauge whether something may work or not, so as to find a footing in the unique set of practical difficulties I am/we are currently facing?». Call this laborious, but the difference – as was to become clearer to me as the conference progressed – is a very significant one.

Commoning as emergent social practice … but also as design choice.

As these questions echoed in my mind, I was to gather snippets from other presenters’ contributions that somehow seemed to speak to my particular unease. For instance, in a subsequent panel, Anna Serravalli – a design lecturer from Malmö University in Sweden, and author of a fascinating Ph.D. on the relationship between commons and design practice – voiced a skeptical view towards talk of «toolkits». This – she suggested – risks introducing what she called the «ossification dilemma», whereby attention can become restricted to a search for the institutional model to «apply» to a particular context. She contrasts this view of commoning, as the deployment of a «toolkit», to one of commoning as a situated practice, fed primarily through live engagement with the vagaries of process in the participatory co-design of always-provisional solutions that be suited to the unique set of circumstances that define a collective predicament, at a particular point in time.
Her talk was followed by an illuminating paper by Johannes Euler, a Ph.D. scholar from Germany, titled «The Social Practice of Commoning as Core Determinant for the Commons». The gist of his argument was the following: in «taxonomic» or classificatory (read downstream) approaches to the commons, the appropriateness of a particular governance model is usually predicated on the particular «nature» of the resources to be managed in that way. Indeed, resources tend to be classified along the lines of subtractability of use (i.e. whether one person’s use rules out another person’s simultaneous use of the same resource – think of an apple as opposed to a road) and excludability (i.e. whether the resource is easy to fence – again compare a toilet to a firework display). This theoretical construction is essential in moving on to step two of the classificatory approach to the commons: if resources present objectively different constraints in terms of their differing propensity towards subtractability of use and excludability, then we can determine which governance model ought to be appropriate for them, based precisely on the relevant features of the resource itself.
In an accessible and elegant manner, Johannes effectively deconstructed this approach, by taking down its founding premise: that it is indeed possible to classify resources based on what features they «objectively» possess. He objected, instead, that what subtractability and excludability actually refer to are social practices, so that the same «thing» may lend itself to additive/generative uses as well as subtractive uses. Along the same line of argument, excludability is actually a signpost for concerted social practices of inclusion and exclusion. In this sense, therefore, it’s problematic to predicate, on the supposed «nature» of a particular good, features that actually descend from socially originated – and therefore variable – conventions of use (he went even further, to argue that one ought also to consider that whether a material entity is treated as a «good» is again dependent on a social evaluation, so he suggested to use the more neutral notion of «matter»). On this view, then, the «commons» are less of a thing and more of a process of «commoning», which he defined as the «self-organised (re)prod-usage [because use and re-production cannot always be easily told apart in practice] by peers, who engage in it with the aim to satisfy their needs». In practical terms, this means that anything can actually function as a commons, so long as the social practices and attitudes to relate to it in this way find room to emerge and to gradually develop.

Ezio Manzini on the relationship between «Commons and Collaborative Services» in Bologna
Ezio Manzini on the relationship between «Commons and Collaborative Services» in Bologna








At the same time, Ezio Manzini’s keynote (Ezio, if this is the first time you hear his name, is the author of a now classic text on collaborative design: «Design, When Everybody Designs»), which bore the title «Commons and Collaborative Services», stressed how commoning – and the collaborative service delivery it makes possible – presupposes the interplay of emergent self-organisation anddesign. The problem, he says, is that when one mentions design, it is frequent that people immediately take as a reference the practice of designing solid objects. Instead, Manzini argued that the commons are better understood asfluid forms, like eddies and whirlpools in water. The design of fluid forms involves working on the environing conditions that (indirectly) make a particular occurrence more likely to manifest, rather than on producing that outcome directly. Hence, commoning entails both an openness to the uniqueness of the circumstances in which a given intervention is to take place, and an accompanying sense of what design choices are possible in the first place (a sense that can only arise from what other/previous experiences one may be acquainted with, and can therefore be oriented by). In this sense, the space for conscious design of the commons that Ezio Manzini foregrounded in his speech is one that is, of course, aided by some knowledge of «models» or «patterns» of collective action, and of their respective potentials and limitations. Yet, I feel that Manzini’s focus on design choices is not at all incompatible with my unease for a closed taxonomy, as he was merely advocating a heuristic use of previous experiences (i.e. to direct ongoing inquiry and responsive engagement with context, as opposed to feed a classification system), within the overarching task of engaging with fluid form and, therefore, of seeking to facilitate beneficial conditions in the light of unique and changing circumstances.

The first day in Bologna ended with a conversation between David Bollier (an independent scholar, and co-editor, with Silke Helfrich, of «The Wealth of the Commons» and «Patterns of Commoning») and Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation, which bore a distinctively «strategic» flavour. Specifically, they grappled with the tension between the commons as infrastructures that ensure open cooperation – i.e. productive coordination between an open set of contributors/users, as opposed to a fixed constituency – and the need to ensure that the value generated through such a process of mutuality does not end up being harvested by capitalist firms, but can actually resist enclosure and act as the catalyst for further commoning experimentation. In other words, what Bollier and Bauwens seemed to advance was the hope for «meta-networks» that enable synergies between different commons-based initiatives, making the whole ecology of commons-based production mutually reinforcing and, therefore, more resilient.

Commoning is something the body does!

Silke Helfrich sharing her vision for the (R)Urban Commons in 2040 in Bologna
Silke Helfrich sharing her vision for the (R)Urban Commons in 2040 in Bologna

The importance of a vision, of the sort proposed by Bollier and Bauwens, was at the same time brought down to the level of everyday practice in the opening keynote of Day 2 on «Imagining the (R)Urban Commons in 2040», which was delivered by Silke Helfrich (who is Bollier’s co-author on the two volumes on the commons mentioned earlier). In her presentation, Silke reminded the audience that, yes, commoning is in part about institutional design. But it is about design in tandem with practice on the ground. It is through a combination of the two that commoning needs to take root in the material life of individuals and communities as primarily an embodied experience. For this same reason, she underscored Ezio Manzini’s suggestion to regard commoning as design dealing with fluid form and which, therefore, has to work with the kinks and unpredictabilities of concrete predicaments, and nurture an ability to find freedom in relatedness to who/what else is already available.
In this sense, there was a hint of something «permacultural» in her approach to the commons, insofar as her vision had less the flavour of a grand utopia. Instead, it felt more like the narration of a process of mutual recognition and reciprocal implication between a constellation of different experiences, brought together by the attempt to re-think, in a participatory manner, the use of what resources may already have been at hand (this stress on starting from the existent is what I found akin – but not exclusive – to the permacultural approach to design). The process just described – in Silke’s view – could coalesce into a kind of con-federation of independent initiatives, thereby blending autonomy with conscious participation in a larger ecosystem of urban commoning practices.
What I took away most vividly from her contribution was precisely the importance of nurturing an embodied appreciation of openings for alternatives, that can be found by parsing attentively the grain of everyday experience and actively re-thinking use in the process.

The commons as performance of space

Performing cinema «out of the box» in a park
Performing cinema «out of the box» in a park

How this could actually be done in practice became more apparent to me in what I thought was one of the most fascinating panels of the conference, on «Art, Performance and the Commons». Alanna Thain, a professor of English at McGill University in Montréal, approached commoning as a question of developing «alternative techniques of togetherness». Her presentation offered a glimpse into the way she had engaged such question, through experimenting with a bike-powered cinematic projector –«Cinema Out of the Box» – which could be carried and activated anywhere using a bike as its source of energy. In this sense, impromptu screenings in spaces that were not explicitly conceived as cinemas (e.g. public parks, woods, or even cemeteries) confronted her students and her with a series of interesting situations and realisations. Specifically, they disclosed interesting possibilities for «stretching» and «tweaking» what forms of collaboration and joint action spaces can afford and accommodate, beyond those they are assumed to be cut out for. For instance: can a public park house a cinematic projection? Can a cemetery? Should one ask for permission in either case? (Alanna and her students only chose to ask in the case of cemeteries) And how is the cinematic experience different when it has to accommodate itself alongside other concurrent modes of inhabiting space? Take the noises … or people’s unexpected reactions to the discovery of a «cinematic body» in their midst (or their lack of acknowledgment of it)?
In all these instances, the «Cinema Out of the Box» turned out to afford a «slow pedagogy of emergent experience», due to the improvisation outside of the bounds of received architectures of space: noises, as well as people moving and leaving, all became part of a different kind of cinematic experience. In this sense, Alanna’s experiments conveyed for me the sense that

at a foundational level, what commoning entails is this: a careful attending to the possibilities of space, parsing it for overlooked niches, where new streams of collaborative action may perhaps take root.

This sense was brought down to an even more elemental level – to the body’s relationship to space – in the suggestions advanced by Mexican philosopher and dancer Mayra Morales. Specifically, Mayra was concerned with the potentials disclosed by a process view of the body. She suggested we take the body not as a fixed, bounded entity, but rather as a process of «bodying» amidst currents of ongoing movement – what she called the «ongoing composition of pushes and pulls» – so that «the body» as discrete form really becomes just a discernible passage in the co-creative dance of motion in space. If that is so, this liberates potential for alternative directions of «bodying» to materialise. In other words, if the body is a negotiation amidst current of ongoing movement, of pushes and pulls, then this means that, at any one time, there is a myriad of alternative compositions of space that could be accessible, if only one hesitated enough to attend to them. This virtual field of innovative directions in the bodying of bodies, Mayra called the realm of the «hallucinatory», even though I find it easier (you be the judge!) to think of it as the ephemeral moment where the «adjacent possible» makes itself accessible, i.e. where matter invites unexpected possibilities for engaging with it (think of the «invitation» of a bench, as a virtual possibility in the differential bodying of your stroll, in its here-and-now). Developing a relationship to this realm of experience-in-its-occurring entails – as Mayra argues in another fascinating paper on the politics of moving and not moving that I stumbled upon while writing this blog – a «practice of action-non-action», which

can indeed aid to generate new forms of life and therefore new geographies of creativity. But we are not to generate them, we are better to attend to them and to non-do, in order to open space for them to manifest and self-organize themselves. Geographies of new territories yet unexplored.

To bring this back to bear on the commons, perhaps the final speaker on the same panel – Eleonora Diamanti – put it in a way that ties it all together nicely for me (this is what I wrote down on my notebook, so the quote may differ slightly from what she actually said): «Spontaneous occupation of public space, even as ephemeral artistic performance, helps re-design the city as a commons».

Getting lost … or retrieving alternative ways of composing the city?

Bologna, Piazza del Nettuno by night
Bologna, Piazza del Nettuno by night

This much, then, is what I took with me at the end of a marvellous, if intense, two days. At the end of the conference, I shook hands and traded cards as is customary, and finally took to strolling through the crowded streets of Bologna – aided by an agreeable Indian-summer-like temperature – joining a collective body of other people enjoying their Sunday walk. By the time I reached Piazza del Nettuno, however, it was a quarter past seven, just fifteen minutes before a coffee shop – which I had carefully eyed during the previous days – was due to close for the evening, meaning no new beans to feed my coffee-collector body. So I picked up the pace, now pushing through the alleys with the drive of a Man With Something to Accomplish, swinging my arms vigorously as though holding walking sticks, dodging the flows of other bodies that seemed to force me down to a stroll, when I was really trying to get something done! There it was, a corner away. Zip and … no. Shut … it had been shut all day …
My coffee-bodying suddenly began dissolving in a cloud of disorientation, undone by infinite possibilities: what is Bologna making of me now? Bologna, I was to find out, would be calling out my number: 54/46 that is (a number that calls me out, as aficionado of what is one of my formative movies … if there is such a thing). Blasting from a speaker mounted on a shopping cart, it gathered me in Via Ugo Bassi, and had me join ranks with the flow of a protest-bodying. And in the larger flow of the protest-bodying I morphed into a Toots-and-the-Maytals-bodying, being swayed and vibrating in song, tempoed by punk boots stomping on the cobble-stoned alleyways. And the protest bodying bodied forth (and I with it) gathering steps and music, but also cheers from windows that opened above our heads, and other heads peering through the windows, and the waving of comradely fists, and even a flag of Albania.

My protest-bodying in Bologna: «The event activates us into an ecology of new forms of living. We stop wanting. We practice letting ideas go. We stop working and it starts working! It works in action-non-action. That kind of working of the imperceptible» (M. Morales).
My protest-bodying in Bologna: «The event activates us into an ecology of new forms of living. We stop wanting. We practice letting ideas go. We stop working and it starts working! It works in action-non-action. That kind of working of the imperceptible» (M. Morales).

Thirty minutes of receptive flânerie had me experience letting go and being won over by the pushes and pulls pulsing through Bologna, so that in the end

I was left with a now-embodied sense that a careful attending to experience as it unfolds moment by moment – a kind of phenomenological stance – could indeed afford access and visibility to the many possible forms of life thriving simultaneously in a city, including as the bodying forth of a commons.

And that much, for me, has been a fascinating find since, so much as to colour – as you will have probably noticed – the entirety of my experience of this fascinating event.


Perdersi o recuperare modi alternativi per ripensare la città? La Prima Conferenza Tematica sugli Urban Commons promossa dall’International Association for the Study of the Commons si è tenuta a Bologna il 6 e 7 Novembre.