Economics and the Common(s): Opening Speech

May 22, 2013
Barbara Unmüßig


On behalf of the Commons Strategies Group, the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation, Remix the Commons and the Heinrich Böll Foundation, of which I am one of the two Presidents. I welcome all participants of the Economics and the Commons Conference. I also wish to welcome all other guests who are joining us this evening for the opening of the conference. 

It is a great pleasure for the Heinrich Böll Foundation to be host and co-organizer of this second international conference on the commons. Many of you may have participated in the first one, in this very same spot, in November 2010. It makes us confident to bring together some of the most active, thoughtful commoners from around the world. I am looking forward to two and a half days of debates and mutual exchange. 

There are great expectations for the learning that will take place, and new friends and colleagues that each of us will get to know. Once again, this conference, like the last one, is an experiment. We at the Heinrich Böll Foundation see ourselves as providing an important space for networking, learning and the incubation of new ideas and projects.

Let me explain how we have designed this conference – and what it is not designed for. 

First, as you can see, this is, above all, an international conference. We have more than 200 participants from more than thirty different countries of the world – Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, Croatia, France, India, Indonesia, Italy, Mali, Mexico, the Philippines, Poland, Senegal, Spain, Tunisia, the United Kingdom and the United States, and this list is not even complete.

We have commoners who deal with forests and fisheries ... and with water and farmlands. We have commoners who deal with software and the Internet, and with social media and open source hardware design. We have commoners who are trying to reclaim urban life and spaces ... and commoners who are trying to preserve and extend scientific knowledge and creative works. We have commoners who are defending subsistence commons and commons maintained by indigenous peoples.

Whatever the commons, we want to organize them in ways that take gender differences into account and overcome structural injustices that still disadvantage mainly women. This diversity is our strength. 

Our overriding goal is to explore the commons as a shared paradigm that embraces ALL of these commons.

As I understand it, the distinction between natural commons and knowledge commons is somewhat artificial because all commons are based on knowledge in one way or another. Whether it is free software or open access publishing, or a forest or shared farmland, a community’s collective knowledge is an indispensable part of commoning. In short: All commons are knowledge commons ... and all commons are social commons. 

A great deal of the conference will be devoted to exploring how to bridge the lines that appear to separate us: the divisions between so-called natural resource and digital commons; and the divisions between those of the northern industrialized countries and those of the global South; and the divisions between commoners who use a scientific or academic discourse and those who are more political and activist-oriented. 

The way to overcome these divisions is to recognize that the commons movement is about much more than any particular resource, location or historical experience, important as they are. This is why we want to take special care to avoid sectoralization of the commons or the further fragmentation of commons discussion and activists. Over the last few years, it has become clear that there is truly a great convergence among commoners .But it is not an easy, automatic or uniform process. 

A key intention of this conference is to further clarify our understanding of the commons and to make concrete plans for moving forward – both theoretically and practically. Inevitably, our visions and plans will reflect a great diversity of ideas and approaches – but unified by certain fundamental principles and shared commitments. 

Let me even add, let´s not be afraid of utopia. Only if we imagine the world of tomorrow, can we start building it in the world of today! 

We see this conference as an open space that will allow us to explore the commons freely and honestly – with critical intelligence but also with tolerance and respect for our differences. Perhaps the most important technique of commoning is the capacity to listen, really listen, to each other, even if we disagree. Being aware, acknowledging disagreement and understanding its origin should be considered an asset – a way to come to deeper understandings. I see this as the only way that we can come together to forge a shared political vision and to coordinate plans for moving forward in the future.

But even as we try to forge a sense of common purpose amidst difference, we want our conversations here to have some focus and structure. That’s why we devised five different streams with their own coordinators, themes and breakout sessions. These streams deal with the commons as they deal with land and water; working and caring; knowledge and culture; infrastructure; and money and value. We will also have a concluding keynote on a topic that cuts across all of these streams – life, spirituality and the search for meaning.

We are very, very grateful to the stream coordinators for their hard work in pulling together their respective stream. Thank you Saki Bailey, Mike Linksvayer, Miguel Vieira and Stefan Meretz, Ludwig Schuster, Heike Löschmann and Andreas Weber.

The Commons Strategies Group, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation and Remix the Commons – the four co-organizers of this conference – see these streams as critical to the future of the commons. We need to clarify the challenges that we face in each of these areas. 

We hope that the conference will provide some space for helping us identify the key political challenges that need to be addressed – to catalyze imagination and formulate the most strategic and effective ways to advance the commons paradigm – in your country and around the world. 

All ideas are most welcome, well beyond these two and a half days.

While the Heinrich Böll Foundation is thrilled to be hosting this Economics and the Commons Conference, please know that this is your conference. Let us make best use out it. 

Let me end with a big, big thank you to the all too many to name here that have worked very hard for many month ahead of this opening to conceptualize, to set the stage, to get you here and to provide you with food and shelter. Thank you and our cooperation partners all so much! 

But allow me to single out just few individuals, first the members of our strategic partner, the Commons Strategies Group: my personal thanks to you, Silke Helfrich, David Bollier and Michel Bauwens! A special and very cordial thanks goes to Heike Löschmann and her team here in Berlin. Thank you also, Frédéric Sultan and Nicolas Krausz and your teams in Paris and Lausanne. Without you it would not be possible for me to declare this conference now open! 

Barbara Unmüßig

From 1996 to 2001, Barbara Unmüßig chaired the supervisory board of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, and was elected president of the foundation in May 2002. Her numerous contributions to periodicals and books have covered international trade and finance, international environmental issues, and gender policy.



The commons is about reclaiming, sharing and self-governing resources that belong to everyone. As a form of governance it is defending traditional or building new systems for managing our resources, based on the principles of equity and sustainability. The commons is a practical means for re-inventing society in ways that markets and governments are unable or unwilling to entertain. » Dossier

    Conference Documentation

    Economics and the Common(s): From Seed Form to Core Paradigm

    The international conference took place from May 22nd to  May 24th and opened up some new vistas in politics, economics and culture by exploring the commons as an alternative worldview and provisioning system, as well as a coherent field of inquiry and action. more»