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The infrastructure for a 21st Century Commons

Kate Swade

What kind of infrastructure is needed to create a more socially just land system? Kate shares some of our current thinking.

Definition of infrastructure

1: the system of public works of a country, state, or region

also: the resources (such as personnel, buildings, or equipment) required for an activity

2: the underlying foundation or basic framework (as of a system or organization)

3: the permanent installations required for military purposes

In the UK social sector, there is traditionally a distinction drawn between “frontline” organisations who are working directly on social issues (or, for example common good land users), and “second tier” or “infrastructure” organisations. Infrastructure organisations are those that support, network and advocate for the front line organisations. Shared Assets is an infrastructure organisation – we work for a fairer land system and work alongside those working directly on the land. We have long pondered what this “second-tier”-ness means for us, both in terms of our business model, and in terms of how we support enduring change. 

We want to see a world in which land is used for the common good – where it produces the things that people need, in ways that enhance the environment, and where people have a say in what happens to the land around them. We have always provided some level of support to common good land users, but (as our recent research showed) they face many similar systemic issues which call for some kind of coordinated response. A traditional view of the role of an infrastructure organisation would be that it should be advocating for the policy and systemic changes needed to help its beneficiaries thrive. 

As this blog from 2013 shows, there have always been challenges in running successful infrastructure organisations, particularly those that strive to make systemic change. Do you become a membership network? Do you seek to commercialise your services? Do you look to find core grants to support your existence? Over the past seven years the majority of Shared Assets’ income has come from our consultancy services (find out more here!). We get a huge amount of learning from doing this work but it can sometimes feel quite far away from the systemic impact on the land system that we want to see. 

As our Research Coordinator Kim set out in their great blog, we are increasingly seeing our research function as part of the infrastructure for change. Our web platform is perhaps the most obvious “infrastructural” service we provide (and our Digital Coordinator Julian explores more about the role of data and information in supporting the commons here).

Land Explorer helps people find out more about the land around them

If one of the definitions of infrastructure is that it is “the underlying foundation or basic framework (of a system)”, then we want to be working to change these underlying foundations. This means that we need to move beyond more traditional distinctions between first and second tier organisations – and beyond the social sector itself. As Kim said in their blog, how we deliver our work is incredibly important –  “it’s also the approach and structures we use to do the work, and we need to keep developing these as an organisation to make our work meaningful and transformative”.

Many of our existing governance and institutional structures are designed around, or are the results of, a land ownership system that concentrates power and influence in the hands of a tiny number of people. These systems are proving to be entirely inadequate to face the multiple, connected and complex challenges of the 21st Century – from climate collapse to artificial intelligence. Our underlying foundations are not fit for purpose, and the task for those of us working for change is to be actively creating new ones.

Our underlying foundations are not fit for purpose, and the task for those of us working for change is to be actively creating new ones.

The way we use and make decisions about land and natural resources is the place to start in creating these new institutions and governance models. As environmental governance experts, at Shared Assets we draw a lot of inspiration from Elinor Ostrom’s work on the governance of common resources. Our task for 2020 and beyond will be to more actively and publicly work and think alongside those people managing the land to create the new forms of infrastructure – digital, physical and organisational – that we need to create a resilient society and an enhanced environment. We want to support the creation of a movement for change and help bring together those working for change in all aspects of the land system.

This is very much not a traditional “infrastructure organisation” approach of building formal coalitions and writing policy briefings (although both of those things may be involved). We want to build the agency of people and organisations working on the land (and those who aren’t but would like to be), to help connect them to each other and to build on the connections they have, and to map and more clearly understand all the activity in this area. We are thinking less about how we deliver services, and more about how we build movements, strengthen networks and convene and catalyse alliances for change. We are really excited to have some funding from the John Ellerman Foundation to support some of this work, and would love to explore other funding and support options. 

Will you join us in working to change the underlying infrastructure of our systems? 

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