Monday, 18 June 2012

FuturICT remembers Elinor Ostrom

Elinor Ostrom

Elinor Ostrom, the first and only woman to win the Nobel prize in economics and a professor of political science at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, has died at the age of 78. She received the 2009 Nobel prize in Economic Sciences for her outstanding research on better understanding the management of common property. Elinor Ostrom was named among Time magazine's 100 most influential people of 2012.
Lin, as many knew her, was born and raised in Los Angeles, and devoted her career to studying the interaction of people and natural resources. Through her research, she contended that individuals and communities could effectively manage their own collective resources — such as fisheries, forests and water supplies — without the intrusion of government regulation or private industry. “What we have ignored,” she said after her Nobel Prize was announced, “is what citizens can do . . . as opposed to just having someone in Washington or at a far, far distance make a rule.”
For much of Dr. Ostrom’s career, many economists were deeply influenced by misuse of shared resources, "the tragedy of the commons." Named for the overgrazing of pastures during the 1800s, the parable suggests that individuals acting in self-interest will ultimately deplete a resource — such as a pasture — that is open to everyone. Scholars used the parable to demonstrate the need for government regulation or control by private industry.
Dr. Ostrom challenged Garrett Hardin’s concept of the “Tragedy of the Commons”, showing through detailed case studies that local people could manage the environment without destroying it. She pointed to empirical evidence she had gathered around the world to prove that local knowledge, cooperation and enlightened self-interest could be more effective than regulatory leviathans. In essence, Dr. Ostrom contended that individuals and communities could effectively manage their own collective resources — such as fisheries, forests and water supplies — without the intrusion of government regulation or private industry.
Be it environmental protection, the international financial system or the dimensions of inequality, Ostrom's work sheds light on the direction society must follow to avoid misuse of shared resources. She was centrally involved in the emergence of game theory in economic and political thought, which itself became integrated with evolutionary theory. In her most influential book,  "Governing the Commons", she rejected the thesis that "the tragedy of the commons" is inevitable.
Dr Ostrom was a staunch supporter of the aims, objectives and ideals of FuturICT with its focus on sustainability and resilience, knowledge for and in service of the public good, with which resonate with the agenda of the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis of which she was Senior Research Director.
Dirk Helbing, Scientific Coordinator of FuturICT called Dr.Ostrom the “goddess” of self-organized solutions to public goods problems and “tragedies of the commons”. She identified the principles that would make bottom-up, community-based cooperation work well, as compared to the classical paradigm of the need of a state to establish social order top down. From this point of view, she was paving the way towards mechanisms of self-organized bottom-up social control.
FuturICT supporter and Economist Alan Kirman’s vision of her contribution is that many "public goods" are, in fact, local public goods, that is they actually concern only a limited community. Most of the literature has focused on the problem of what Samuelson called pure global public goods.
However, what Elinor Ostrom was at pains to point out was that for most cases the communities involved do a better job at organising the exploitation of rare resources than some authority from on high which is not directly concerned. With many cases to back up her arguments she showed how systems of self organisation emerge and regulate the use of their resources. Yet, the actual solutions may differ. She did however evoke a certain number of principles which she regarded as necessary conditions for such arrangements to be viable.
How does this concern us? Well, this idea of emergent self-government fits well with the idea of participatory arrangements, and now that information is more easily available there is no need for centralised collection and dispersion of that information. Although our technologies are highly sophisticated, we can learn lessons about governance from the way in which "less advanced" societies organise themselves. It is also probably much easier now for communities to organise themselves when they have a common interest. In earlier societies the groups were largely geographical but now they may be much more thematic.
"We have to think through how to choose a meaningful life where we’re helping one another in ways that really help the Earth".  
With these words Elinor Ostrom taught that good science has to do with real life and real choices. Challenging the mainstream fields, she constantly explored the confines among disciplines, and showed that time has come to take seriously the burden of innovation. Rosaria Conte with FuturICT says “She gave us a hope, perhaps to women more: that heterodox science can really make the difference”.
“Little by little, bit by bit, family by family,” Dr. Ostrom once told the Indianapolis Star, “so much good can be done on so many levels.” Elinor Ostrom paved the way for future generations to do interdisciplinary research, and it is up to us to make the best use of the opportunities she generated. At a time when the world desperately needs to share resources, her wisdom will be greatly missed.

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