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You are here: Home > Expo2015Diaries > CenturyOfTheCommons00_Introduction

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Published on 2016-02-07 | Updated on 2019-12-07 17:09:27 | words: 1404

Usually, every story has a background.

The title of this book is focused on Expo2015 and the century of the commons, and few pages will be focused just on explaining the title.

Anyway, before that, it makes sense to share some considerations.

First, also if many of my fellow Italians assume that Expo2015 was the latest in a series of XX century "desert cathedrals", I think that we have to go way back before then to understand how the typical "last minute miracle" is embedded within the Italian psyche.

The average Italian has more than once made a reference to a glorious past (generally, the Roman Empire) to mock grand-standing foreigners lecturing Italians on how they should manage Italy.

And while obviously this is a more than biased recall of history (it is doubtful that current Italians would support any politician trying to apply e.g. Caesar's approach to "peacemaking"- the solutions suggested would make Donald Trump's recent statements about foreign policy and torture sound reasonable), it contains a grain of truth.

Despite all the invasions and decay since the fall of the Western Roman Empire more than 1500 years ago, any organization based in Italy usually had a cadre of key bureaucrats with a keen sense of (past) history, notably of how institutions in the Roman Empire worked.

A key element is how those institutions back then evolved, and how, now as then, crises generated by the mismanagement of interactions with foreigners kept forcing evolution.

In Europe, within the current European Union, we are used to this pattern- but we didn't invent it.

An Italian book on key battles that acted as signposts through the history of the Roman Republic first, and then the Roman Empire, refers to a battle of the Allia, that was followed by the first Sack of Rome.

Disregard some ante-litteram propaganda suggesting that Rome bounced back in no time, but if you look at the Italian history since then, you will find plenty of "last minute reversals of fortune".

So many, that sometimes it looks as if the exception (managing a crisis) has been turned into the rule (assuming that managing implies that there is a crisis).

A direct consequence is that last minute 180 degrees turns aren't uncommon, often puzzling our foreign partners that perceive that as being terminally careless, as if nothing happened unless it was at the last minute.

There is a side-effect of this "management" approach: traditional decision making approaches in Italy do not really appear to be compatible with democracy.

The XX century showed more than one example of autocratic ruler (or ruling group), also if almost everybody, including in Italy, seems to remember only the Italian Prime Minister from the 1920s, Benito Mussolini, and his fascist party.

Since WWII, Italians are used to "democratic shortcuts", e.g. unelected or "revolving door" Prime Ministers (in and out in few months, without bothering to ask voters what they think).

This approach, while being incompatible with a mature democracy, allowed to solve more than once crises that involved a form or another of "commons"- from natural resources management, to disaster prevention, to sorting out financial crises.

As you understand, the previous paragraph hints at what is a key element of this book: "commons" aren't just the traditional land, air, water, and other natural resouces.

Unfortunately, the Italian approach had a pre-requisite to work well: an apparently endless supply of financial resources from the State Treasury, either directly, or through one of many State- or local authorities-owned companies.

In Europe, other countries routinely applied a similar approach, e.g. to support "local champions" in a variety of industries, from those delivering manufactured goods, to those delivering services, or even managing "commons" (such as critical national infrastructure management).

Since after WWII, the globalization of our economies took a "structural" turn, de facto removing degrees of freedom in national choices (somebody says that nobody "removed" any sovereignty, but that is a matter of perspective).

Over the last few decades, the various "rounds" of the WTO negotiations expanded the activities whose "command and control" is subtracted from citizens' control via elected officers.

Actually, the XX century added another element to "citizenship": before, a citizen was mainly an individual human being, while gradually anything and anybody acquired a "passport"- from our housepets (for disease and pest control), to our business organizations (for risk and resource management).

"Corporate Social Responsibility" is probably the most visible element of this trend.

Taxation, as a form of contribution to the costs of services provided by the State to citizens, is taking new forms, and the constant struggle to redefine the concept of "jurisdiction" is part of the picture.

Managing commons on a global scale requires a convergence of interests that goes beyond the mere "crisis management mode" that we Italians (and Europeans, since the 1950s) are used to.

Redefining citizenship will require also redefining democracy- and altering the statutes that allow lobbying, by citizens and corporations, to enable a longer-term management of the commons.

In most walks of life, from short-term choices (e.g. deciding what to have for dinner) to long-term commitments (e.g. deciding how to reallocate land between conservation and food-production), "voting with your wallet" will become more common and further altering the democratic process.

Mind the "voting with your wallet": it doesn't mean just how you spend your money, but also how you will make choices based on indirect effects.

Just consider that your car might now be saying to your insurance company how you drive: eventually, this will affect the premium you pay.

In the near future, this pattern might extend to your fridge connected via the Internet, informing the organization providing you with health insurance (State, private, both) about your eating habits: it is a trade-off between freedom and security, something that since 9/11 we got used to.

If you had been raised in the 1960s, you could assume that developing a national industrial policy makes sense.

If you have been raised in the 2000s, until recently you probably never saw a world where all that you consumed was produced locally, using only local resources.

From the humble kiwi fruit, to the car that you drive, globalization implies that there are some shared "commons" that enable the smooth delivery of the resources needed to allow you to have access to most of what you use or consume in your everyday life.

Is democracy the best approach to manage the commons in the XXI century?

Probably, not XX century democracy (and certainly not the "occhio non vede cuore non duole" Italian approach, i.e. akin to "don't ask don't tell").

What is needed is a more "interactive" form of democracy, one where there is a continuous adjustment between ways and means.

But it is beyond the scope of this book to discuss social structure.

Instead, what you will find within the next pages of this book is inspired by the Expo2015 focus on food as a "common" that we all have to share and jointly manage and develop.

Each section will discuss a different element of "commons", across multiple industries- more a set of observations and questions than a description of what you can see with your own eyes.

If just a dozen people around the world were to get inspired to alter their way of considering "commons", and integrate that in their own everyday business and personal life decision making, the purpose of this short book would have been achieved.

As an extended appendix, in preparation of future material, at the end of this book you will also find the reprint (with adaptations) of a quixotic series of posts that I shared online in 2007/2008/2009, involving a fictional hamster organization.

Incidentally: the picture that you see along with this introduction is the map of the Expo 2015.