The Possibility of a CO-City – Interview with Christian Iaione

This interview by Anne de Zeeuw and Michiel Hulshof originally appeared on New Europe, Cities in Transition on the 17th of November. 

“Citizens should not just be involved, but they should be driving the process, being the managers.”

What does the rise of bottom-up initiatives mean for our current welfare state? Does it provide a way out of the growing dichotomy between active citizens and non-active citizens?

Professor Christian Iaione (LUISS University, Rome) talks about the idea of a ‘co-city’ – cognitive, collaborative city – which has been implemented in Bologna’s administration.

—————————————————————————————

In the American Journal of Economics and Sociology you write about the City as a Commons, could you describe how the management of such a city differs from the actual situation?

You no longer have one city hall, but a distributed network of city halls in which even the single household could become – if the governance is polycentric – a small atom of the city hall.

-In what way would the single household be an atom?

Well, if household starts producing energy, save water or become part of a distributed and shared wireless network, they become part of a supply chain and do not only react on the demand. This is different than the current situation, where public and private organizations have been producing goods for consumers. The typical city hall is either commanding, controlling or providing services. It is producing something to satisfy the demand of the public by producing an offer. The product can be services just like policing and sanctions.

When looking at the collaborative city hall, the city hall works more on the transformation of the demand through production units. Think of it as all these new co-operations of citizens that produce energy.

– So this means that people become producers and users at the same time?

They produce, they use and they sell their surplus to the grid. That way, they get money out of the grid. With that money they can pay for other services, like wireless internet or even social services. This is something that is actually happening in a few countries, like in Italy. So, in one building there are elderly people who share solar panels for the production of energy and then they collectively hire a nurse to take care of them. That way they do not have to move to residential homes for the elderly. The elderly people stay in their own houses, but they share the health care services. And at the same time they become part of a unit that produces energy.

-How would the management of all that differ from the actual situation? For instance, how would be the local health care system managed?

The difference of this kind of idea of collaborative commons is that this is really based on commons design principles. It means that they should be run by hyper-local co-ops that are more democratic than having just the households that use a grid owned by some company that has its offices somewhere else. There’s a risk, though. The same thing that happened with Uber and Airbnb – where users do not have any voice – could also happen with the production of energy within the households. In that case, users are in a hierarchical structure. Then the ownership of the grid is private, and there is no possible way to include in the matrix social values, social goals or environmental goals. They are not committed to the commons. It is the commitment to the commons that makes the difference.

What kind of goods can be co-produced in this ideal situation?

Not everything. As Tine de Moor would say: ‘you don’t share the toothbrush’ but you can share your kitchen, which used to be the most private kind of environment. You could share the wireless internet, you could share in energy production, you could share food lifestyles. Even for buying food, you have local groups in Italy, the so-called Solidarity Purchase Groups. These groups buy together all the veggies and other sorts of food that is locally grown and this is part of the social and solidarity economy movement. They have a whole chain that is outside the normal distribution chain, otherwise, they would not be able to bare the costs. So they have parallel structures in which basically the local sort of network of local farmers create a logistic platform that then serves all sorts of consumers that create dispatch points within these buildings, private or shared spaces in communities, depends on the area. You create a so-called solidarity economy district.

Where is the solidarity in this system?

Solidarity exists from the producer to the consumer, directly without any intermediary.

This is part of the co-city, which is the polycentric level. It is when you change your lifestyle, instead of buying food that is produced millions of miles away that produces emissions and transportation costs, you buy local, you go local. In cities people are not really living in this paradigm. The current social paradigm is buying things by going to the supermarket and not caring about the origin. For example in New York where I lived ten years ago I had the problem of proper nutrition because the whole food paradigm in the States is very different from the Italian diet. So, it was really difficult for me to go to the supermarket, because there you could  find mainly products full of fats – unhealthy food. Right at that time, the whole foods movement started. Whole foods are supermarkets that bring together all the local products from everywhere in the world. I thought at first that it was a good thing, because you have the genuine thing. But I didn’t think about the kind of travel that this specific food made, because you would have salmon from the North Sea or tuna from Japan. In Italy for instance it is the same, Italy is now shipping Italian products to everywhere in the world. It is pushing to produce more than the land needs. To change that scenario you should look for the local farmers markets.

Ok, so we can share energy, food lifestyles, and more?

Also water efficiency, and waste treatment. Maybe in large cities, in global cities, recycling by now is really both mandatory by law and it is also a social norm, but if you come to Rome or you go to the cities in the Global South waste is widespread. Even Amsterdam and other Western cities produce a lot of trash. So we should start thinking about the way people act in the city by saying, like the FabCity movement says, ‘let’s produce things that have nine lives of recycling’. So, it is a social paradigm that has to change.

To go polycentric you need to change behavior. People should understand that they need to buy things that are recyclable, that they need to recycle, they need to be more careful and more conscious about what they buy and, in general, about their behavior in the city. That is the very last layer or ingredient of a co-city.

-How do you make sure in such a polycentric city everybody gets what he needs?

There are different levels. You go from sharing to collaboration, then cooperation and then polycentric. You start basic, you start simply by sharing the urban commons. Then you start creating collaboration between local businesses to run some areas. Then you might end up creating institutions that are cooperative in their DNA. And then you go polycentric when you create a regulatory framework that sparks and fosters the kind of behaviors that I was talking about.

-Could you also make the welfare state polycentric or is this a step too far?

No, this is all about the welfare state. If you think about hospitals, they are usually perceived as the place where you have to go when you are sick and this creates a congestion. But most of the care could start in the single household. You could have doctors who are dedicated to single households, to single buildings. So instead of having the hospital as a concentration, as a hub, you would have a distributed health care system.

Like my grandfather used to do, he used to be a doctor in a small village in the south of Italy. Because there were no hospitals he would go house by house to take care of people. So this started in medio-Romania as a way not to create concentration and therefore congestion – many people have sicknesses that could be prevented easily by taking care of them at home.

We actually have this system in the Netherlands, you first need to go to your local doctor before you can go to a hospital.

What I am saying is that maybe you should not have a patient going to the doctor, but rather the doctor going to the patients. It would cost less, because when there is a pool of inhabitants then you could also have a dedicated pool of doctors. You see intermediation. You group the demand, and you group the offer and you enable the encounter between these two pools.

My own example, I always make is about the elderly people. Also because of my personal experience: my grandmother died because she fell down in her apartment because of her carpet. If doctors would visit people at home, they would probably give them advice like: ‘You should have a light here, because you don’t see the steps, you should take out the carpets because you can slip.’ These are simple things, that matter.

-So this system is focused on individual needs, how does it take care of the general needs?

The answer is straightforward – by treating the individual needs and aggregating then you help the public. So, if you look at the figures how many home accidents of elderly people occur and they could have been prevented by just giving them some good advice. It is about a lot of money that you could safe, so it is taking care of the public.

I-f you have this distributive system, parts of it will fail and parts – flourish. So there will be experiments that work and experiments that do not work. Who is paying for the costs of failure?

Who is paying for big, giant programs that do not really have an impact? How much time do we need to change the framework before we understand that something is wrong? How much money do we spend the time that we realize that something is not working anymore? There are giant public policies that use a lot of money yet only lead to  a new reform. By the time you understand that it is obsolete you have spend a lot of money. When we want to realize a huge infrastructure and we don’t ask the people and the people then oppose the infrastructure and this makes the whole financial plan to go rogue. That’s the cost. This cost is concentrated on the state on the collectivity – we are all paying.

-But in the distributed system, not all of us would be losing. Only some people would lose.

It is not about losing or winning it is about common learning. Justice Brendice of the supreme court used to say that states in the US are laboratories for experimentation. He said so, because states could learn from the mistakes of the other and improve the public policy through cycle after cycle of experimentation. So distribution, polycentrism, federalism is about this basically, it is about learning from each other. So giving autonomy means that someone could find new ways, and then look at these new ways and maybe improve by learning from each other. And then the other aspect is the ring-fencing. By giving more autonomy you decrease the amount of risk. Because when someone fails it is contained. You may have to make sure it doesn’t spread through the system.

-What to do with these few people that are in this nasty position?

You have to create a kind of parachute for those who fail. There should be no stigma in failing and making mistakes. We should have a cultural and economic investment on reframing failure as just the next step for a future success. And, of course, you should have come to balance that people do not become failure oriented, but you should have some form of recovery.

-Do you then think that there should be a combination of a welfare state and a polycentric state?

Yes, definitely. The welfare state is there to stay.  I am not saying that we should get rid of the Leviathan State or the Gargantua State, but we need to rebuild the form of State. I call this the third institutional revolution. Going from the Leviathan to the Gargantuan, from the Gargantua to a new type of state.

-How do you deal with the division between active citizens who innovate and non-active citizens who remain dependent on the welfare state?

So far, we are used to having these two morphologies. What I am saying is that City Makers, social innovators, active citizens and urban farmers among others are giving birth to a third form of state – which is not the Leviathan or the Gargantua. These are there to stay, because you still need someone to exercise safety, like the police. I wouldn’t have the police be run as a private entity. That is not the governance of the commons that is something else. That is big society, or substitutions, or private cities. You have these neighborhood watches. I don’t think that they should be perceived as governance of the commons, because they are more substituting the public. What I am saying is that instead you should have forms of co-management. I don’t want to end up in a private city, a gated community, in which the police is a private, and where I have no democratic rights.

-Do you have to have a strategy to prevent such a complete privatization?

The first strategy is to be aware of it. This could be interpreted as going towards a complete self-organization, complete privatization. That is the difference between the studies that Elinor Ostrom has carried out and our studies – mine and Sheila Fosters’ studies. Because in a city the self-organization is not enough, you need co-organization. You need co-governance. You don’t need self-government. You need to have the public involved because the public should take care of both the needs of those who are not able to take care of themselves and you also need to have the public as a watchdog, as a referee, as a sort of seeing entity that is also preserving democracy. That is the ultimate, the universal service, what is called the universal service in EU terms should be guaranteed by the public.

-So there is a key difference between self-organization and co-organization

Yes, that is why I call it ‘urban co-governance’ instead of urban self-governance. Actually, Ostrom said, with the eight design principles, that once the scale of the commons is higher and the stakes are higher and more complex, then you need to have multi-layered nested enterprises. For me, that is what urban co-governance is about. It is about creating nested enterprises. In the city, you need to have nestedness. Because you cannot run the city as a commons without involving the private sector. I think it is stupid to think you can throw out the economic sector, since they are an important actor this would only create conflicts. Which does not mean you give them veto powers, but you need to take them into account.

You need to enable citizens. They should not just be involved, but they should be driving the process, being the managers. Then you have the public overseeing the process, and as a last resort the judicial system should be in some way public.

-If you would make a map of bottom-up initiatives, just starting spontaneously, it is usually only certain groups, right?

Yes, that is the sharing level, which is the first level. If you stay at this level in a city, these initiatives are going to die, they are not going to survive, maybe just a few of them. On this level you do not turn the whole city into a commons, you just cultivate sharing practices. You do shared governance for single urban commons, single assets. You do not update the whole framework. In the city as a commons, urban democracy is completely different. Elections may become useless. Elections we know now do not always ensure democratic quality to democracy, the system could be broken and could be contaminated, influenced by the money that is injected to the electoral process.

-In the previous discussion on The Commons and the Principle of Equality you mentioned we need to differentiate between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. Could you shortly explain ‘equality of outcome’?

This can be explained by the metaphor of a running race. The first dimension is equality before the law, a formal equality. This means that everybody should be able to participate in the race. Then equality of opportunity means that everybody should be on the blocks, even those that are poor or have sicknesses. That is what the welfare state is doing, trying to put everybody on the starting blocks. That is all ex ante, but nobody cares about ex post.

So, equality of outcome asks: how do we make sure that the race does not end up with perpetuating divide? This is very complex. While at first, someone is going to win, now we make sure that no one is going to win at all. For this, we should change the differences in the prices, which should not be so large that you create deeper divides in society. If you don’t care about what is happening during the race, of course during the race everybody should first of all stick to the rules, but then if the winner wins the first price and the first price is 5.000 times more valuable than whatever the third in the rank gets. Or 10.000 more than the last in the race, someone who participated, who co-produced the race, because he participated. What if he was not there, what if at some point these people do not participate anymore. So this is also about a redistribution of power.

Thank you, Christian.