Nobel prize winner: IU's Elinor Ostrom 

Caring for the Common Things

Elinor Ostrom, Indiana University political science professor and winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics, cares about fixing the potholes on your street. Not only does she care, but she's spent her life researching, writing and speaking about ways you, and others like you, can work together successfully to get the job done.

Her work challenges the idea that common resources like water, forests or community green space need to be managed by some kind of central authority if we want those resources to last. Those who are close to the issue or who care about their neighborhoods and benefit from their good management; they are often the best ones to manage the resources they care about.

The pothole right in front of your driveway, for example, is a much bigger deal to you than it is to someone living on the other side of town. If you and your neighbors can work together to keep an eye on the street's condition and manage its repair, you're likely to wind up with a street that is in better shape than one managed by someone who never sees it. Plus the improved condition of your street lessens the wear-and-tear on your tires and lowers your blood pressure a few notches in the process.

The Big Moment

The Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, which Dr. Ostrom co-founded with her husband Vincent Ostrom, IU's Arthur F. Bentley Professor Emeritus of Political Science, is located in several buildings in a residential area just west of the IU campus in Bloomington. Visiting Dr. Ostrom on the day after a big snow, I parked on the street (where most cars were still buried) and made my way up the shoveled sidewalk to the large Indiana limestone building.

Dr. Ostrom met me with a big, infectious smile. It was on Oct. 12, 2009 that she was awakened by a call before dawn from the Nobel Prize committee in Sweden. "If they wake you up at 6:30 and you're not expecting it, it's a big shock," she recalled. She knew her work had been recommended by a colleague a number of years ago but didn't have any idea she was being considered for this year's prize.

"I figured two or three hundred people would be nominated," she said, "and at the time I took it as a very nice compliment."

After giving her the news, the Nobel representative suggested Dr. Ostrom make some coffee and told her they'd call her back at 7:00 a.m. for a press conference. "So I had a little chance to wake up and make some quick coffee... and then we had a very nice chat on the phone."

Dr. Ostrom seems to have "very nice chats" everywhere she goes; she listens to stories and encourages the ideas of others. She laughs often (she has a great, hearty laugh) and seems to live out her belief that small, concerned groups can and do create positive change.

She is quick to point out that her work and the resulting Nobel Prize doesn't come as the result of her effort alone ("Like you might find with a Nobel for chemistry or physics."). Rather, the prize recognizes the work she has produced with research colleagues in Uganda, Kenya, Bangkok and around the world.


Elinor Ostrom started life in Los Angeles, a fact, she says, that has made her very pollution-conscious. She wasn't part of a large family or involved in group activities, as you might expect from someone who is such a force for collective action. Instead, she remembers visiting the public swimming pool one block north of her house and paying 10 cents to get in. "It was very, very cheap, and very big," she says. "But that's a lonely kid activity, not a team one."

In high school, Dr. Ostrom joined the swim team and the debate team - and these were very important experiences that gave her practical experience in the power and potential of group efforts.

That's one reason she worries about the current movement toward the consolidation of schools. She feels that both students and parents lose out when small schools are combined to create big schools. Although the issue often occurs because leaders are trying to meet a resource challenge, the outcome she sees is a negative one.

In big schools, where art, debate or other special groups are either unavailable or very large, many kids will opt out. Students unable to participate will not develop the skills they need to work successfully and effectively in groups.

In the group experience, Ostrom says, students learn important things about taking responsibility. She adds, "a democratic society doesn't sustain itself by just electing officials at the very top."

Ostrom feels that parents in large consolidated schools also miss out on experiences that could help prepare them to successfully lead or participate in groups. "When we had 10,000 school districts, we had a very large number of people interested in the public sector." Parents with kids in school are more likely to be interested in their local school board.

When they get involved, Ostrom says, "they learn about budgeting, they learn about the difficulty of supervising a public enterprise, labor disputes, a building with the roof caving in - what do we do? Repair it or get a new one? Just like I'm concerned about the kids not getting any (team) experience at school, you're taking away a good foundation of democracy because we've falsely identified democracy as voting. Voting's important, but if that's all there is to a democratic society, it won't be sustained."

Learning about the Commons

Ostrom's awareness of the power of collective action began to blossom in graduate school. "It was a very simple world then," she says, laughing at how much she would learn about the complexity of systems in the years to follow. As her work with systems continued, she began to see a common element that led to success in user-managed projects.

In response to a 1968 paper by Garrett Hardin that suggested that individuals are trapped helplessly in a process that inevitably leads to the destruction of their common resource, Dr. Ostrom began to test his "tragedy of the commons" theory. Was it true that, left to our own devices, we will use up the water, eat the food and destroy the resources we collectively need for a healthy planet? Do we need a government or privatized organization to oversee the management effort or could we manage resources effectively ourselves?

The research effort was huge as Ostrom and her colleagues explored case study after case study to identify the common principles in resources that were successfully managed by those who used them. They found a wide variety of characteristics that influence what works - including a governance style that springs directly from the people and resources involved, not a one-size-fits-all answer that is mandated from an administrative level.

Vincent Ostrom's work with polycentricity, which refers to the many ways different types of governance can work together to achieve good results, was helpful in seeing how groups small and large can work together toward a common effort.

"If we're going to talk about local parks, I don't want Washington deciding where the local parks should be in Indianapolis or Bloomington. I'm working with Burney Fischer (IU professor) and I'm very concerned about street trees. Again, I don't want Washington worrying about street trees - I want us to figure out where are they and how we get them better, and all the rest."

She continues, "So that's why we use the concept polycentricity, because it does involve small units ... the family is a governance unit. And the kitchen sink is a commons."

And if it's not going to be a messy commons, everyone has to communicate about it, agree to the rules, and monitor the result. "We as a staff sometimes get into it ... okay, what's the rule about remembering to put your name on something in the refrigerator and not letting it sit in there and rot?"

This is where polycentricity is particularly helpful; because if the smaller units fail (and they sometimes do), the larger governance system is there to back it up. In this way collective action groups, as well as private and government organizations can work together to ensure resources are managed in the way that best fits the resource and the people relying on it.

Over time, Dr. Ostrom's research showed that a number of design principles were used regularly in successful groups.

The "tragedy of the commons" theory was not supported - users can manage shared resources successfully if those involved can communicate, trust one another and make their own rules about how the resource will be monitored and shared. If those pieces are in place, users will be mindful of what they use; both for the good of others and for the sustainability of the resource. Everybody wins.

Caring about the Earth

Dr. Ostrom's early research began with the study of groundwater basins in California and she has worked with researchers all over the world focusing on the governance of a variety of natural resources, including pastures, lakes, woods, and fisheries. Her work offers a natural and hopeful response for our ability to impact critical issues like climate change and renewable resource management.

After accepting the Nobel Prize in Sweden last December, Ostrom attended the COP15 talks in Copenhagen and delivered the paper "A Polycentric Approach to Climate Change." Her paper suggested that a uniform approach at a global level won't bring the result we need to reduce global warming; rather, citizens and organizations can join in collective action to work locally, which will ultimately culminate in a healthier planet and better use of shared resources.

"They were pretty discouraged in Copenhagen," she recalls. "We needed something to mobilize." She argues that although having a consensus among world leaders on climate change would be great, citizens don't need to wait for an agreement to make a change now. She describes the economic concept of "externality," giving the example that when we drive a car, the car exhaust is a bad externality both locally and globally. When we over-consume, dispose of things improperly, run our furnaces and so on, we are creating bad externalities.

But there is also the potential for good externalities and these are very real benefits that impact us locally, not just globally. For example, riding a bike to work is not only better for the local and global environment, it gives you exercise and improves your health - which is a substantial local benefit.

People can also take collective action for issues like energy consumption, recycling, alternate energy sources and green space. Ostrom described cities that are offering 20-year low-interest loans for those who want to improve the energy efficiency of their homes; the costs are shared, everyone benefits, and the community isn't getting the externality.

"It's a collective action problem like any other," says Ostrom. "Some people say, 'What neighborhood would ever do that? It won't make very much difference... ' Well, a few people won't. But if we can get more and more people recognizing that they're making a positive difference at other scales, then they cumulatively make a difference on the globe. It isn't simple, but just sitting around arguing isn't making any difference."

She continues, "There's a way of doing cap-and-trade where some of the money coming in at the cap is redistributed. The question is, what do you do with the money in the cap? I think you could do two things with it: invest in new technologies and give some of it back to the poorer people who are most adversely affected; or uniformly. Give back some of that. So the people who are contributing to the pollution are paying for it and everyone is benefiting."

What Works?

The beauty of Ostrom's work is that we can see it working all around us. People do join forces to change things for the better. We aren't hopelessly trapped in a web of bureaucratic regulations that will keep us helplessly stuck, consuming resources like there's no tomorrow. The shared energy, creativity, and initiative of the group is a real catalyst to getting things done. We can affect positive change in the areas we care about when we join forces with others who have the same passions.

Look at successful organizations and you'll find teams, Ostrom says. Many of the most successful businesses today, such as Google and Apple, were started by individuals with a good idea, perhaps in a garage working with limited equipment and perhaps a friend or two.

The key seems to be to welcome and learn about the complexities involved, begin to invest our energies into local causes we care about, and realize that the efforts we make locally, having also a local benefit, combine to make a bigger change for the planet on a greater scale.

If you're thinking about pulling together a group of neighbors to talk about an issue you'd like to change, remember that Ostrom's research has identified a number of design principles that will help ensure the success of your group. The ones that rise to the top again and again in research studies of successfully managed collective action groups are these:

* Communication is key.

* Trust is vitally important.

* The group needs to create a means of monitoring to ensure the resource is being managed well.

It's important to remember that there's no one right way to govern every common resource, and that the governance a local group develops will be most effective when it springs from the needs of that group and resource. "Would you like it if somebody gave you the same dinner every night?" Ostrom quips. "But we have policies saying this is what we should do... and we have academics recommending it."

So whatever you're passionate about: potholes on your street, green space in your city or a better education for your son or daughter, start a conversation and find out how you can join with others and begin making a positive difference. And know that you've got Elinor Ostrom, Indiana's newest Nobel Laureate and the only female award winner in Economics in the prize's 40-year history, cheering you on.

About Elinor Ostrom

Elinor Ostrom is the Arthur F. Bentley Professor of Political Science in the College of Arts and Sciences, and she also is a professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs. She serves as the senior research director of IU's Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, which she co-founded in 1973 with husband and colleague Vincent Ostrom, and she is founding director of the Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity at Arizona State University.

Dr.Ostrom shared her Nobel Prize in economics - formally titled the 2009 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel - with Oliver Williamson, emeritus professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley.

To find out more about Dr. Ostrom's work, follow these links:

* Nobel Prize lecture (reprised):

* Nobel

* Ostrom, Elinor (1990) Governing the Commons, University of Cambridge Press:

* Ostrom, E. (2009). "A Polycentric Approach for Coping with Climate Change." World Bank Policy Research working paper no. WPS 5095, Oct 2009. []

On Oct. 15, 2009, the 2009 World Food Prize was awarded to Purdue University distinguished professor Gebisa Ejeta for his work in developing drought-tolerant and weed-resistant sorghum and in helping farmers in rural Africa to develop viable agricultural enterprises. Sorghum is commonly used in bread, porridge, and beverages.

Dr. Ejeta's efforts involve working with poor farmers to educate them about fertilizer use, soil and water conservation, and other means of crop management. In addition, Dr. Ejeta created ways to monitor the processing of the seeds - from production to marketing - so that the effort is sustainable and replicable.

The World Food Prize recognizes individuals from any field involved in food supply who advance human development by improving the quality, quantity, and access to food sources. Nutrition and sustainability of food supply are two critical considerations for all people, and the World Food Prize seeks to honor those who have made significant impacts in improving food conditions throughout the world.

For more information about the World Food Prize or Dr. Ejeta's award, go to

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