why engineers should study Elinor Ostrom

(New Haven) Next week, I will lead a discussion of the Nobel-Prize-winning research of the late Elinor Ostrom. I will be with a group of engineers, natural scientists, and social scientists who are concerned about water, one of the basic scarce and contested natural resources.

Ostrom studied water-management, but she was a political scientist concerned with “civic engagement,” especially the practices that ordinary people develop to manage common resources. Why should an engineer or a scientist concerned with water care about civic engagement, as Ostrom analyzed it?

One reason is that ordinary people’s deliberate and creative action is a more important condition of successful resource-management than analysts had thought before Lin Ostrom wrote. The dominant 20th century view held that resources were either public or private. If they were private, the owners would have incentives to protect them (although market failures might occur under specific conditions). Public resources, however, would be destroyed by the Tragedy of the Commons in the form of free-riding, overuse, underinvestment, etc. Thus public resources had to be privatized or else governed by a central state. Water was quasi-public because you can’t own the oceans or clouds (“fugitive resources”), although you can own a gallon of water or a spring. Applying the theory that public goods were doomed, 20th century regimes either privatized or nationalized forests, grazing lands, and water. The results were frequently catastrophic, contributing to mass human and animal death. (See Governing the Commons, p. 23. All subsequent quotes are also from that book.)

Ostrom discovered that, contrary to the simplistic theories of collective action, people were capable of managing public goods, including waterways and fisheries. They did not always succeed, but they did not always fail, either. Variation in the ways that they worked mattered to the outcomes. To succeed, they needed institutional arrangements, skills, norms, motivations, and habits. All of these factors then became important predictors of preserving or destroying natural resources. An engineer or a chemist cannot ignore these factors if she actually wants to contribute to good water management. Discovering a process or inventing a technical system does no good unless someone uses it. That someone cannot be an omnicompetent and incorruptible state, because there is no such thing. Somehow, people have to adopt any technical innovation, and often they can contribute to designing it as well.

An example is a crisis of overfishing off Alanya, Turkey (pp. 19-20). The fishers solved the problem through an ingenious system of randomly assigning all the licensed boats to specific starting points and rotating these locations on a fixed schedule. Privatization could not have solved the problem because this was already a system of private boats and workers, and the fish are a “fugitive resource.” Nor could it have been solved by the state, except at high cost. The fishers knew exactly where to put each location, and the state would have had to recreate that knowledge—assuming that it acted fairly and without corruption. The best solution was a self-created one.

If the first reason to read Ostrom is that she studied citizenship and found that it mattered, the second is that she was a citizen. She was a scientist who won countless NSF grants as well as the Nobel and a MacArthur “genius” award. But she was a scientist who wanted to improve the world, and that made her a model citizen. For instance, after introducing the prisoner’s dilemma, she writes, “As long as people are described as prisoners, policy prescriptions will address this metaphor. I would rather address the question how to enhance the capabilities of those involved to change the constraining rules of the game to lead to outcomes other than remorseless tragedy (p. 7).”

This is a complex pair of sentences, worth unpacking. Ostrom’s ultimate goal is to avoid “remorseless tragedy.” The stakes are high, and they are defined in moral terms, even though Ostrom is a scientist. To avoid tragedy, she will not propose direct solutions. Instead, she wants to “enhance the capabilities of those involved.” These people will not merely act within a system, discussing issues and making choices. The limiting case of a person who makes a choice within a fixed system is the prisoner in a prisoner’s dilemma. “Individuals who have no self-organizing and self-governing authority are stuck in a singe-tier world. The structure of their problems is given to them” (p. 54). In contrast, Ostrom wants people to change the rules. And she is part of that process, because she discloses her own goal in the first-person singular: “I would rather address. …” In real life, Ostrom actually worked with peasants and fishers because she had to learn from them and because she wanted them to benefit from her findings.

In short, Ostrom not only discovered that complex social/environmental systems involve deliberate human collective action. She also treated social science as part of those systems, and herself as one of the human beings who was trying to manage the commons.

Other insights from Governing the Commons:

“Instead of presuming that optimal institutional solutions can be designed easily and imposed at low-cost by external authorities, I argue that ‘getting the institutions right’ is a difficult, time-consuming, conflict-invoking process” (p. 14).

“… as long as analysts assume that individuals cannot change … situations themselves, they do not ask what internal or external variables can enhance or impede the efforts of communities of individuals to deal creatively and constructively with perverse problems such as the tragedy of the commons” (p. 21)

“Empirically validated theories of human organization will be essential ingredients of a policy science that can inform decisions about the likely consequences of a multitude of ways of organizing human activities. Theoretical inquiry involves a search for regularities. … One can, however, get trapped in one’s own intellectual web” (p. 24)

“The basic strategy is to identify those aspects of the physical, cultural, and institutional setting that are likely to affect [the results.] Once one has all the needed information, one can then abstract from the richness of the empirical situation to devise a playable game that will capture the essence of the problems the individuals are facing” (p. 55).

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.