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The growing international commons literature on traditional, natural-resource commons allowed scholars to more deeply analyze how commons work and to better understand why they fail. For Elinor Ostrom, it led to her seminal book, Governing the Commons in1990. Ostrom applied a complex set of instruments to eighty-six case studies to commons of different sectors and varying geographical regions. From her analysis, she was able to determine eight design principles that long-enduring, robust commons shared.

The Ostrom design principles62 are:

  1. Group boundaries are clearly defined;
  2. Rules governing the use of collective goods are well matched to local needs and conditions;
  3. Most individuals affected by these rules can participate in modifying the rules;
  4. The rights of community members to devise their own rules is respected by external authorities;
  5. A system for monitoring member’s behavior exists; the community members themselves undertake this monitoring;
  6. A graduated system of sanctions is used;
  7. Community members have access to low-cost conflict resolution mechanisms;
  8. For CPRs that are parts of larger systems: appropriation, provision, monitoring, enforcement, conflict resolution, and governance activities are organized in multiple layers of nested enterprises.

The Ostrom design principles are considered today as useful tools by many scholars in commons study. All the commons in the study, however, were managed by relatively small, homogenous groups. We do not know if these principles scale up nor do we know how the design principles would apply to the microbial commons. We might be able to use some of the principles as a place to start, although certain principles—such as group boundaries being clearly defined—may be harder to apply. Other principles, such as the importance of monitoring mechanisms, may take on even greater importance.

Interest in new commons, for the most part, emerged after the World Wide Web had gained ubiquity in the mid-1990s. They tend to have several characteristics that distinguish them from traditional natural-resource commons. Many are human-made resources, such as open source software, the Internet, and scientific research commons. Or they are resources that have been newly recognized as commons, such as urban landscapes, parking spaces, parks, and even garbage dumps. Many new commons have arisen out of the development of new technologies or the growth of new communities. Unlike traditional natural resource commons, new commons tend to be dynamic, quite complex, and heterogeneous. Many are global in scale and have fuzzy boundaries. There is a great deal that we do not yet know about new commons, particularly how they work and if they can be sustained.

Figure 25–1 is a map of new commons63 based on the emerging literature of new commons sectors. As one can see, the knowledge commons is quite dominant and takes on many forms.


62 See Ostrom, E. 1990. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Collective Action. Cambridge University Press.

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