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Public-Common Partnerships

R. Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Map
The stakes really couldn’t be higher, the fate of the world depends on humankind’s ability to collectively govern the global commons of the atmosphere. Public-Common Partnerships (PCPs) represent a training in democracy that, by increasing the capacities of those doing the commoning, can help set the conditions for a democratic solution to the biggest issues we face today.
              –
Keir Milburn and Bertie Russell
Community land trusts are rooted in the philosophical conviction that land is part of a Commons to which we all need access. Monies earned from renting land are therefore understood as a transfer of public value to private individuals, leading to the growing wealth gap.

Community land trusts encourage private ownership of buildings and other “improvements” on the land, but not the land itself. Instead land is held in non-profit, regionally based, democratically structured organizations that lease the land on a 98-year basis according to detailed site plans that incorporate social and ecological objectives. Lessees own and can sell or transfer buildings on the land, but the land itself remains in trust for future generations.

Some would also place utilities in the Commons and would argue that the privatization of utilities is also a transfer of public value to private interests that leads to further imbalances in the economic system. But is the alternative state ownership of utility companies?

Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s handling of fire threats in California by employing sweeping power outages is a case in point. As a privately held company, PG&E is first accountable to its shareholders to maximize return. That does not always translate to the most responsible solution for its broad base of customers, dependent on electricity for daily needs.

“Power Outage over Berkeley” by D. H. Parks
In a recent report for Common Wealth titled Public-Common Partnerships: Building New Circuits of Collective Owners, British authors Keir Milburn and Bertie Russell propose an alternative structure for utility companies, one that could strengthen local public ownership, give power back to communities, and eventually help reshape the economy.

“PCPs offer an alternative institutional design that moves us beyond the overly simplistic binary of market/state. Instead, they involve co-ownership between appropriate state authorities and a Commoners Association, alongside co-combined governance with a third association of project specific relevant parties such as trade unions and relevant experts. Rather than a mono-cultural institutional form applied indiscriminately PCPs should emerge as an overlapping patchwork of institutions that respond to the peculiarities of the asset concerned, the scale at which the PCP will operate (whether it be city-region wide energy production in Greater Manchester or the commercial activity of a North London market), and the individuals and communities that will act together as commoners.” This three-part board structure mirrors that of community land trusts and creates a balance of stakeholder groups in decision-making.

Buckminster Fuller called for an interconnected global energy grid powered by regionally organized renewable energy sources. Local PCPs could hold the key to shaping distributed production within a planet-wide system.

This October, at the 39th Annual E. F. Schumacher Lectures, Greg Watson will introduce his initiative to update Buckminster Fuller’s World GameTM  for today’s world. The World GameTM  was devised by Fuller to help community groups imagine how to allocate our shared natural Commons to benefit everyone.

Buckminster Fuller organizing a World Game workshop.
A World Game workshop in session.

Tools like the World GameTM  provide opportunities to explore pathways to sustainable, equitable energy systems on a global scale. Democratizing and decentralizing ownership of energy utilities through public-commons partnerships have the potential to implement such a vision.

Please join us if you are in the Berkshire region of Massachusetts on October 27th. This year’s Schumacher Lectures will later be added to the growing online collection of voices for a new economics.

Best wishes,

Staff of the Schumacher Center for a New Economics

P.S. For additional information on Commons initiatives, see Reinventing the Commons Program Director David Bollier’s newly published Free, Fair, and Alive: The Insurgent Power of the Commons.