Recreating the commons

How a new generation of entrepreneurs who work with nature can transform cities and economies.
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Cities need to rethink the way the commons are designed so their universal use can be ensured.

When I presented core concepts and findings on local economic development as a possible report to the Club of Rome under the title "The Blue Economy: 100 innovations, 10 years, 100 million jobs," in April 2009, I sketched out a vision. This was based on an understanding that nature in general – and a wide range of ecosystems in particular – has overcome nearly every imaginable challenge over the past millions of years, and therefore provides an inspiration for how society can chart a pathway towards the future.

We can build on the ingenuity of ecosystems that provide the wealth of products and services on which life depends, and then strengthen the social systems that build up culture, tradition, and social capital. This approach provides resilience in adverse times and joy during the better moments of our lives. It also permits us to learn how to live within obvious limits while evolving from scarcity to abundance.

Observing ecological and social systems over decades can guide our quest towards a world where nature regains its evolutionary path and society strengthens its social web, enhancing everyone's quality of life by empowering them to know how to respond to their basic needs with what is locally available. This challenge has become even more relevant in an urban context. How can we achieve a fast transition from traditional business and economic development to an economy that would perform better and transform agriculture and industries faster than often has been considered viable?
These past eight years have taught me many lessons and permitted me to better understand the fundamental shortcomings of the existing economic model, where practice differs greatly from theory, and where a simple focus on core business based on a core competence has blinded many to seeing the wide portfolio of opportunities that we could pursue. The management of companies with short-term objectives – translated into financial terms void of social and environmental considerations – considers the commons as a place to exploit (as we do with excessive water consumption) or to release our excesses (as we do with the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere). How can we believe in Adam Smith's "invisible hand" of the market when self-interest faced with scarcity is bound to lead to destructive behaviour?

Modern society has believed in the freedom to exploit the commons, and has offered companies a license to act accordingly. We have confused the free market with the free exploitation of the commons. Now we realize that the freedom to add extra sheep to graze on public land leads not just to overgrazing but to soil erosion, loss of water retention, and desertification. Thus, freedom to pursue one's own interests leads to the destruction of the very basis of the ecosystem that supports life. The laissez-faire approach that has been applied to the market is unknowingly applied to the commons too. This reality is widely recognized for ecosystems, but few have noted that the commons in cities suffer even more, because space is so limited, the air so dense, and the water so scarce.

The key for business is not to grasp the latest strategy for cost reductions, the newest technology of the Internet of Things, or the return on investment that pleases shareholders beyond expectations. Rather, business urgently needs to rethink its model of operations. That is what entrepreneurs do so well. By the same token cities need to rethink the way the commons are designed so their universal use can be ensured. We need business models that enhance and secure not just "the functioning of the market", but strengthen the very conditions on which life depends. For the past few decades, the search has focused on how to design a business that is capable of responding to basic needs while ensuring that the commons thrives, and still offering a return.

We in the think tank of the ZERI Network – created in 1994 in Japan at the United Nations University with the support of the Japanese government in preparation for the Kyoto Protocol – and in the “do tank” known as the Foundation for the Blue Economy – which emerged after the publication of my Report to the Club of Rome under the same title, harvesting the insights and experience of fifteen years of academic and field research – have learned that community can be created, and that sharing is possible.

The ZERI Network has so far implemented over 200 projects; witnessed how investments of $5 billion were channeled into projects that turned mining waste into mineral rich “stone paper”, cleaning up regions of China; produced natural gas and fertilizer from seaweed platforms that regenerate biodiversity in Indonesia: transformed thistles into green chemistry using old petrochemical facilities in Italy; and encouraged 5,000 start-ups on four continents converting coffee waste into mushrooms. Thanks to entrepreneurs who rapidly took these ideas to scale we see light at the end of the tunnel.

We envisage a radical transformation, creating an economy that embraces the commons, where technologies may be patented, but the business model is shared as an open source. In this economy, jobs are created in cites, and waste turns into one of the most precious sources of life: soil, which regenerates more life, food, and indeed abundance. This approach is disruptive for existing businesses, who may well react in traditional ways to this threat to do much better with what we have. But we are convinced that there is no stopping the wisdom of the people or the unleashing of entrepreneurship because, yes, we need to wake up the innovator within us, and know that we are the ones who make decisions. The future of air, water, health, topsoil, biodiversity, and clean energy, can be based on design principles for cities and economies that live and let live, use all that is locally available, moves, recycles, senses, and shares.