How might the commons paradigm be applied to cities in a more focused, effective way? Professors Sheila R. Foster of Georgetown University and Christian Iaione of Luiss Carli University in Rome, share their insights into this topic after years of study and collaborative experimentation. Their new book, 'Co-Cities: Innovative Transitions Toward Just and Self-Sustaining Communities,' describes lessons from Elinor Ostrom's research, the six distinct phases of the "co-cities protocol," and the work of the interdisciplinary research clinic LabGov, among other things. More about the commons at Bollier.org. A PDF transcript of this episode can be found here: https://www.bollier.org/files/misc-file-upload/files/Foster__Iaione_Episode_37_transcript.pdf
Transcript of Frontiers of Commoning, Podcast #37
Interview with Sheila R. Foster and Christian Iaione
Co-authors of Co-Cities: Innovative Transitions Toward
Just and Self-Sustaining Communities
April 1, 2023
A PDF download of this transcript can be accessed at https://www.bollier.org/files/misc-file-upload/files/Foster__Iaione_Episode_37_transcript.pdf.
Christian Iaione: [00:00:00] We started this project because we believe that cooperation, the commons-based governance, could be an answer to climate change in cities.
Sheila R. Foster: Cities can be the place where innovation happens and also where we foster inclusive urban practices.
Announcer: This is Frontiers of Commoning with David Bollier.
Bollier: My guests today are two leading thinkers and advocates for urban commons: Sheila R. Foster and Christian Iaione. They recently published a great new book, Co-Cities: Innovative Transitions Toward Just and Self-Sustaining Communities. The book just won an annual prose award for scholarly works in the architecture and urban-planning category, an honor conferred by the Association of American Publishers.
Sheila Foster is an urban law and policy professor at Georgetown [00:01:00] University with a joint appointment with the Georgetown Law Center in the McCourt School of Public Policy. She's a leading authority on the role of cities in promoting social and economic well-being, climate justice, better governance, and in addressing racial inequality.
Christian Iaione is a professor of urban law and policy at Luiss Guido Carli University in Rome, Italy, where he pioneers creative ways for city governments to work with urban commoners and other stakeholders. I first met up with Chris ten years ago when he was developing the Bologna regulation for the care and regeneration of urban commons, a seminal idea that has spread to dozens of other cities in Italy and around the world in various permutations. A primary vehicle for Foster and Iaione’s work is LabGov, the Laboratory for the Governance of the City as a Commons, which the two of them co-direct. LabGov is an interdisciplinary clinic that develops new types of collaborative projects in cities working with many other universities and knowledge [00:02:00] institutions around the world. Welcome Chris and Sheila. It's great to have you both.
Foster: Thank you for that excellent introduction…
Bollier: Well, maybe we should start by introducing LabGov to us and then let's circle back to how you both came to get into this area and how you've seen the ideas evolve over the past decade.
Foster: I'll let Christian start. All credit to him.
Iaione: LabGov has been created initially as an interdisciplinary clinic that works on applying this idea of the city as a commons and developing experiments in different cities on the urban commons. And then it evolved into an organization, a research unit both at Luiss University and at Georgetown University at the moment, but also other universities are joining the research side, like Hong Kong University, Universidad Latina de Costa Rica, and also, you know, students and younger [00:03:00] generations of scholars are participating in this effort and they are organizing this NGO that was established as a sort of spinoff from our research units.
Foster: LabGov, as Christian said, is really a platform that's often rooted in knowledge institutions, universities, as well as institutes and other places where we can pool or gather knowledge actors as well as communities and private and public actors to run experiments around the idea of the city as a commons and now the co-city. But also I think to power up this idea that cities can be the place where innovation happens and also where we foster inclusive urban practices.
Bollier: You know, over time, and even right now, there are so many different approaches to how cities might improve themselves. There's Richard Florida's famous "Creative Cities" ideas. There's [00:04:00] the idea of "smart cities," of cities as a tech platform almost. There's the "right to the city" that Henri Lefebvre had pioneered, and many others. Tell me how the city as a commons situates itself in some of those existing approaches and what makes it distinctive.
Foster: So that’s a great question. In some ways, we build on some of those concepts such as the right to the city and take, I think, the best of the idea of the smart city, but add a layer of justice.
And in some ways it's a critique of some of those platforms such as the Creative City, and to give an appropriate nod to Richard Florida's correction of his own Creative City concept. I mean, he later wrote a book called The Urban Crisis, recognizing that the idea of urban agglomeration and agglomerative economy, which draws creative workers into the city, also has these negative impacts, gentrification, et cetera.
So very much our [00:05:00] framework is distinct from that framework, but certainly builds on the right to the city and certainly builds on aspects of the smart city. Though the smart city, as we explain in the book, doesn't always have a coherent core to it. And so what we try to do is ground it a little bit differently.
And that is to say, to try to articulate the practices that create a real right to the city as a commons. The right to the city has shown up in various legal mechanisms in Latin America, but it's articulated a little bit differently in our book.
Iaione: One of the elements that is overlooked by some of these theories is the link with the fight for climate change. We started this project and this research also because we believe that cooperation, the commons-based governance, could be an answer to climate change in cities.
Bollier: So, in some ways, maybe we should circle back [00:06:00] to Elinor Ostrom, who of course was the pioneer in so much of this thinking. But, of course, the world has evolved beyond some of her thinking as well as picked up by social movements, and as your book itself notes some of her critique has limited applicability to urban commons. Maybe, Sheila, you could explain a little bit about how you ground your analysis in the Ostrom approach and how you go beyond it.
Foster: For sure. So we start with Ostrom. We, Chris and I, I think when we started to look at this conceptually, Ostrom was the big giant in the room.
I mean, her insights are powerful, and they start with the idea that resources can be cooperatively managed. But what we soon discovered – and I think we already knew this in part from our own work in cities; I have a history of working in a lot of disadvantaged communities and on issues of environmental justice historically – when we ground it in the reality of cities, we see that the cooperation [00:07:00] norms and the design principles that she talks about don't fit precisely on that landscape in part for a couple of reasons, quickly: One is it's a much more socially complex landscape. Most cities have lots of people, lots of different kinds of communities with lots of different kinds of needs.
The resources, secondly, are also under the control of political and government actors, and markets are much more of a force in the urban environment than they would be in the natural environment. So, for that reason, and also these different – and I'm going to talk just about the US context for a minute - these different factors that come into play. A lot of them in the urban environment are historical. Some of them are socially and economically rooted, such as racial discrimination and histories of the way that we built our communities. We have to take that into account when we talk about cooperation and sharing in cities in a way that Ostrom…it just [00:08:00] wasn't relevant in the places where she was looking.
Iaione: I will, you know, just from a new perspective, explain how we came to realize that Ostrom, the "Ostrom in the city" hypothesis as we called it, could be a good way, a good approach to redesign urban governance in cities in the European Union where, as you perfectly know, David, at the beginning, especially in the ten years, it was a fight against privatization of public services. And so we wanted to break away from the typical narrative of public-private partnerships.
You know, there was this, I would say, legend that the European Union pushed cities and, in general, public administrations, the governments in Europe to privatize services, to leave behind the management of essential facilities. And so, in a way, cities [00:09:00] were the frontline. These mayors, deputy mayors, were, some of them, they were fighting these battles, but they were losing it in courts and they were losing it in legislative assemblies at the EU level as much as at the national levels where the legislators were passing law bills that would impose on local governments to sell and privatize public services, publicly-owned companies and also physical assets.
Bollier: So the commons as a way to help polemically engage with that in a different way, and to assert certain shared rights to the city, the way others have asserted – but in a more arguably operational way with social dynamic being applied, as opposed to simply asserting the right without necessarily having the participatory structures for moving it forward.
Foster: Right. And one of the insights that we have, and that I've always thought about the right to the city in particular, is that we are in an [00:10:00] era where rights-based claims are not received as well by courts and also by political and institutional operators. And, again, there are some lessons from Latin America on this.
So I believe that the co-cities framework and the commons framework, and we can talk about terminology because I think the commons terminology resonates a lot differently, let's say in Europe than it does in the US in particular in the communities where I've worked.
But I think a different framework that is not rights-based is much more practical and powerful and resonant in a way that pulls different kinds of actors into the conversation and into the production of these new forms of governance of essential goods and services.
Bollier: It reminds me of a phrase I recently encountered of how the Czech dissident, Václav Havel, when he was struggling as a dissident to make progress against the totalitarian government. He talked about a [00:11:00] parallel polis that they tried to create and the relationships horizontally, the new archetypes for how society ought to be, as opposed to simply petitioning the state that may or may not want to enact those rights or give them substance.
Which is very difficult in today's times with the budget crunches, transnational capital doing what it wants to do, and so forth. So, I resonate to what you're saying that the resonance of the commons becomes a way to rethink how one engages for making change happen. And it can be both collaborative as well as confronting.
Iaione: It’s also about the way the public and the private should be relating to the communities, and also it's about the way communities should start perceiving themselves vis-a-vis the public and the private sector. That's why one of the insights that we build on in the book is about the idea of creating public-private community partnerships or public community [00:12:00] partnerships. Essentially, it's a claim for communities to receive the same recognition and the same dignity that the private sector finds when it interacts toward the public sector and vice versa. The same applies also in the relationships between the private sector and the communities because we see also a lot of horizontal cooperation between the private sector and the communities. In some of these cases, the communities are acting as publicly minded operators. In fact, one of the things that we say is that we need to conceive communities as a form of the state, as the state community.
Bollier: But given the long history of wealthy corporations or individuals, investors in their relationship with city governments, how are they willing to surrender that or play nicely with self-organized communities? Historically that's been a problem. And how does one crack the nut of that political pattern? [00:13:00]
Foster: So I think this comes back to the role of knowledge institutions, which can serve as brokers actually in a way, in each of the places where we have worked, and are working. What you see is that the knowledge actors in partnership with civic and community organizations in some part of the city, or the state actor really broker these relationships in a powerful way. Just like we shouldn't romanticize communities, I think we shouldn't talk about private actors or corporation in a reductive sense, right?
I mean, we have to be able to distinguish between the Googles and the Microsofts and the local business that is rooted in a community that is really willing to partner with the community. And frankly, sometimes the Microsofts… One of the places where we've applied this protocol, in Harlem, Microsoft donated all of the servers for a community broadband network.
So I think these relationships are complex and the idea that Chris talked about the kind of public-private community, [00:14:00] sometimes philanthropic partnerships, that constellation of actors, the knowledge institution can help broker.
Bollier: So, in other words, there's a lot of different possibilities depending upon the players, the politics, the individual leaders and so forth. Maybe we should talk a little bit about some specific cities you've been working in and tell us some stories of how you've orchestrated new configurations of collaboration.
Foster: And I think we should actually start with Bologna, because I think often when we talk about Bologna, we only talk about the regulation. When, in fact, I think what Chris was doing there far exceeded that, and was really about trying to bring in neighborhood actors.
Bollier: Chris, tell us about your experiences in Bologna.
Iaione: At some point we realized that regulation was not enough. Of course, you need to create and change the way the city is designed.
It's also internally in order to have the city government, the city administration, enabling this kind of corporation. And that's why [00:15:00] I worked on establishing the Foundation for Urban Innovation and in particular the Office for Civic Imagination. And then I left because I started also working in other cities, like Reggio Emilia, Turin in Italy, Rome, but also in Barcelona, Amsterdam, and Budapest through European projects.
In all these cases, what is, and you know, this is the shift from urban commons with the city as the commons to the co-cities, is that it's not enough to just create a legal and policy framework. You need an infrastructure, an enabling state on one side, and also on the other side [you need to] share a sort of methodological protocol so that all these five actors we talk about in the book, the public, the private, the local communities, the civil society organizations, which are an important part of the picture because they are the anchor institutions, especially [00:16:00] in those vulnerable communities, which we suggest we need to work with the priority.
But also, of course, the knowledge institutions that we are talking about in their brokering role, in their role as providers of the kind of technical skills, technical knowledge that normally was accessible only to the public and private sectors because they are the ones that can afford this, you know, technical background.
And that's why we are participating in an E.U. initiative called the City Science Initiative that is exactly about studying these methodological protocols and understanding how scientific solutions, cultural centers, schools can be this sort of platform where all the other actors are convened, and they can talk a common language and they can co-produce the solution to the challenges that the specific vulnerable communities we're talking about [00:17:00] are facing.
Bollier: So, in other words, we're getting beyond commoning as a self-organizing principle to having certain infrastructures and protocols to frame how that occurs in a cross-sectoral way, you might say. And maybe a set of guidelines for how the players in this city as a commons can come together and work collaboratively as opposed to just duking it out through the courts or politics.
Foster: And I think to that point, I'm going to wrap my response around the two places where I'm working. You've made the point, I believe, David, in your work, that there's the common pool resource and then there’s the commoning, right, the process. And I think we're focused on both. We have this co-city protocol that starts with cheat talk that draws in actors and then builds trust and then prototypes and puts that in place and comes back and measures. At the same time, we're very focused on what is the common pool resource that people are trying either to innovate around, co-produce and/or co govern. [00:18:00] So let me give you two examples of that. When you ground that, it looks very different in different places.
One of the things that Chris said that is so important is that, I often say I don't go into communities, I’m invited in, because you need some anchor institution that has trust in a community in order to organize the other actors around it. So, in Harlem, we helped to create a community-based broadband network that is based on an innovative edge cloud technology that would bring in one of the three households in parts of New York City, in one of the smartest cities in the world. One in three households do not have access to broadband.
And we started with the a community anchor actor, Silicon Harlem, and then built around that, the city, which had to give us access to the smart city infrastructure to be able to connect this, Microsoft, a number of knowledge actors from various universities that were engineers, as well as myself and others to create the governance and other structures [00:19:00] and other civic and private small businesses in the public housing authority, et cetera. in Harlem.
In Baton Rouge, we were invited in by the redevelopment authority, which is not in the city, but is a public actor and the common pool resource there is a four-mile African American neighborhood that used to be a commercial powerhouse way back when, and is now an infrastructure desert; that is, lack of sidewalk, lack of adequate street lights, lack of good housing, et cetera, because the redevelopment authority holds all of the land that's vacant in the city. And around that we then brought in other actors and created a combined community land bank and land trust that could hold that property, but also redevelop it into, for instance, an eco-park, a food incubator because the food economy is strong down there, to housing and other goods that we're creating there.
And in both instances we started with, again, the cycle that [00:20:00] brings people together and from there, through that cycle created the governance mechanisms that one needs to govern the common pool resource. In one instance, it's a network, and in another it's really kind of land and housing and eco-parks and entrepreneur spaces.
Bollier: So it sounds like it was mostly a matter of coordination and communication as opposed to deep political division over how things should happen, or correct me, maybe you had to negotiate through that too.
Foster: Of course you do. And it comes back to…in each of these places there are conflicts. There are political and social, in each of these places, and I think that's built into the co-city cycle, which Chris can talk more about, which is that it's why we start with Elinor Ostrom's notion of "cheap talk," that the first thing you want to do is to try to get a sense of those conflicts and those tensions, and then to kind of build around those.[00:21:00]
Iaione: I can bring the example of Reggio Emilia where you have a city that is redesigning itself and the relationship and the cooperation with the local community in a way that is so deep, so entrenched in the regulatory and the institutional architecture that they passed a new regulation that is now covering the whole cycle of democracy from direct democracy all the way to collaborative democracy, because they established not only neighborhood architects, as they call them, which are not architects, they are community organizers but working for the city in these neighborhoods in order to help communities co-design and create these new projects, but also citizens assemblies that, for each neighborhood, they discuss all the topics and the issues that are related with the climate change and the social justice issues, the public services, everything is put on the table [00:22:00] and discussed. And from this discussion, which can also bring forward the conflicts and the contrasts, the opposing views inside the community, between the communities and the government and the other actors.
But by discussing and deliberating, they come up with solutions. So they decide to put the elephant in the room, for one second on the side, and see what brings us together and what can we do together and they create projects. They create solutions.
Bollier: Sounds like a more rational structuring of dialogue as opposed to the sniping or maneuvering that often is the essence of politics. So, in other words, you're able to get the key players into the room, you're able to have a substantive, real discussion as opposed to posturing and beating of the chest and try to work more intelligently towards a collective solution. Is that a fair summary?
Foster: Yeah, and I think we shouldn't romanticize, [00:23:00] this notion of talking through things. I mean, David, all the places I've worked in actually, but in particular on the Co-City, these are places with thick conflicts among, first of all personalities, among all of the actors and jealousy, and people who want to frustrate the purpose, people who have their own incentives.
I mean, we could spend a whole hour just talking about one of these case studies and what that looks like. So, I want to make sure to note, and it comes back to this point, you know, moving beyond Ostrom, that when you work in these urban communities, urban environments, with market actors, with community members sometimes who don't have the capacity, some community members have a lot of capacity and others may be developers coming in…all kinds of tensions.
So I don't want to move past that because part of the reason this work takes so long in each of these places, three plus years in Baton Rouge, still going on, is because these conflicts and tensions are constantly rearing their heads. [00:24:00] So it is rational in that sense, but it's also political in another sense, very political, but small ‘p’, small local politics.
Bollier: You are situating the commons, whether common pool resources or commoning in a much larger, complicated context, such that it's unfair to say, the "city as commons" is encompassing at all, because there's a lot of "city as non-commons" that’s going on here that has to be negotiated and worked out.
Having said that, I think that we all agree that the commons plays a certain animating role, certain legitimacy, certain trust, certain organizing of people and things that has to occur. What you're describing to me seems such a very complicated endeavor that varies from one city to another.
Foster: Yea, and as Chris has always said, it's an adaptive model, which is to say that there's no cutting and pasting.
Iaione: In fact, that's why one of the key design principles inspired by Ostrom, [00:25:00] we tried to move also beyond the Ostrom approach that was rooted in small, very homogeneous communities working especially on natural resources. While we are working in highly politicized regulatory tech environments and politically conflictual, probably, environments like the urban environments.
So we understood that failure is always around the corner, because the times that these processes end with nothing is very high. But guess what? This happens also for the market and for the government. They fail a lot of the time why are communities not allowed to fail? Why can't we accept that, you know, some of these attempts can end up with nothing in our hands? We should be entitled to say that much like every other human phenomenon, commoning can lead to failures. But it's rewarding when instead it changes [00:26:00] the way things are done in that specific community when things go right.
And then when communities are able to really get some results and they change the paradigm because immediately it goes viral, everybody wants to imitate. One of the key experiments that are now becoming very viral are energy communities in Italy and in Europe. We were, you know, at the forefront seven, eight years ago in creating and pushing for the creation of neighborhood-based co-ops that would run energy communities.
And people were saying, you're crazy. And we failed so many times and seven, eight years it took for us to get off the ground. So now energy communities, the self-production and the community production of energy is a reality because it's embedded in the regulatory framework at the EU and national level. And now even the regulatory authorities and the utilities are negotiating terms with local communities, [00:27:00] who are proposing themselves as nodes of production in the energy distribution, and with the energy crisis now it's very important.
Bollier: We're talking solar and wind, for example.
Iaione: Yes. Mainly solar, but also wind, yes.
Bollier: That's a fantastic example and I love the idea that, one, it's okay to fail because you know, the faster you fail, the quicker you succeed, as the Silicon Valley people say. But the point also is that there isn't much of a research and development framework or history to develop these things.
Obviously, the first time out, you're not necessarily going to succeed. So the idea that there can be some persistence, some learning and iterations to get it right, makes perfect sense. I think that often, the expectations are too high. And I suppose the other thing is there's so many floating variables that it's hard in a scientific way to say, this was what was wrong.
Foster: That's right. I mean, there are a lot of floating variables, both at the [00:28:00] macro and the micro level, right? And I think that while we're not conducting the kind of experiments that tries to control for the various variables and say what's right and what's wrong, and even if we did, I don't think it would be very helpful, the very idea of commoning, I think, isn't susceptible to that kind of reduction, right? That quantitative reduction. The idea is to get your hands dirty.
And let me also say something very important, which is that we start these experiments intending to scale up even if they start at the neighborhood level. The idea of the city as a commons is to create the blueprint and that's what's happening right now in, let's say, Baton Rouge with our experiment there is that we're now at the point where they want to scale what we're doing to other parts of the city. And it's really to create the blueprint to change the economic operation of the city, not for every block, not for every actor, that's too romantic, but as a kind of intervention into the things that we know are wrong with our economic and [00:29:00] social system. And I must add here that in the US the structural racism is a huge factor in every experiment we're ever going to have. And so we're also trying to change how that operates.
Bollier: Which only underscores that social engagement is so key to all of this and that it's not just a matter of the top-down innovation saying, ‘Oh we have this policy or these resources.’
Tell me some more stories about individual cities, perhaps in other countries than the US, say, in Europe or Africa where some of your protocols have been developed, and [where] you've mentioned the eight principles of a co-city. Maybe just so we have a little clarity, you could name some of those.
Iaione: I could speak about the experiments in Europe now mainly led through the Project EU arenas, transforming citizens to arenas of collaborative democracy and deliberation. Reggio Emilia is the Italian example, but we are working also with Gdansk in Poland where they [00:30:00] are, they have created, for instance, this social innovation foundation that is working at the city level to enable the creation of community land trusts, collaborative social housing, forms of so-called neighborhood houses, where you can have a one-stop shop for community-based collaborative services so that, you know, people can be presented with an amicable face of the administration, not the typical shopping window you normally talk to when you go to city hall…they look more like co-working spaces than administrative offices.
Budapest is also a very interesting case because you have there working in a city that is somehow the last bastion against the authoritarianism from the national government and the city is the place and the mayor of Budapest and some other cities in Hungary are fighting this battle for democracy.
The other examples [00:31:00] are more from Western Europe. Here, the thing is that after fighting the fight against privatization, Amsterdam and Barcelona emerged as the cities where movements were able to also see a new economic paradigm, much like, Jackson, Mississippi, where our friends of Cooperation Jackson were able to create a self-standing economic model that they can have this economic diversity in the city. Now, if you ask me about the future, what we're doing in the last year, year and a half, is how do we propose this as an approach for the larger Mediterranean area and for sub-Saharan Africa, because these are the regions where discussion is ongoing on the migration phenomenon due to climate change, which is only the tip of the iceberg. There is a huge migration crisis happening in Africa due to climate [00:32:00] change.
Foster: You know, we did go to Ghana and began some initial conversations in Accra with some community and various actors down there. I think obviously every context is different and I think for both Chris and I that we'll continue to work to figure out how to facilitate the co-city principle, framework, cycle in places in Sub-Saharan Africa around climate or other issues.
I think there's a lot more movement in Latin America around these concepts. But also when we've had convenings around this approach, for instance, we do work with people like Catalytic Communities in Brazil. Theresa Williamson has been at the forefront of trying to create, in the favelas in Rio, a community land trust, which is a very different model than in the US or Europe, because you're talking about people who already have some title to their house transferring their titles into a CLT versus land in which no one really has proper title.
So the co-cities framework, we don't [00:33:00] necessarily want people to take it and, again, paste it onto a particular context, but to be inspired by the principles and to be inspired by the specific experiments and the kinds of micro institutions and other innovative mechanisms that we've created in various places to figure out how they can be adapted to different contexts.
So I think that's what we want and we continue to be in conversation with people who are doing that in a lot of places, even if they're not using the terminology of co-cities or frankly, the terminology of the commons, which we don't really use in the US experiments. I mean, because people in the community don't connect, right?
Bollier: So tell me why a city might see it attractive to invite a co-cities project there. Is it because they have an enlightened mayor or city council, or is it because they're at loggerheads and can't figure out how to go forward or, from your experiences, what type of cities want to invite you [00:34:00] in and explore the possibilities?
Foster: All kinds of cities, and it's not… so let's think about what the city is. It's not this thing that we interact with; it's rather a constellation of actors who are in different agencies. There's the mayor, there's the deputy mayors, but then there are all these agencies. So, typically, whether it's New York City, whether it's Baton Rouge, I've talked to folks in Buffalo and Los Angeles, sometimes you just need the crack in the door, that light shining through. And it's someone in an agency that wants to do things differently and knows that some parts of the city aren't functioning for its inhabitants. And so it's really a person inside the city with some power, with some ability to get this started.
So in Baton Rouge, it was again, again, the redevelopment authority, which sits outside of the mayor's office. And in Harlem it was the agency along with the civic actor that controls the smart city apparatus.
Bollier: I see the deck is shuffled in a different way each [00:35:00] time, and you find different opportunities based on that. Get back to the co-city's principles that to the extent that there are some recurrent ideas at play in the model, tell me what are some of those recurrent principles of a co-city are.
Iaione: Of course, we believe the idea of co-governance that can take place at different levels. It is evident from the conversation that the government, the state, the enabling state we call it, does play a key role, it's even more important if the city invests on capacity building, on infrastructuring itself with the right skills that can enable the self-organization in the corporation of communities and local actors.
But the most important variable for us is what we call "pulling economies," because the idea is that at some point, these local communities, these co-governance experiments, can really self-sustain and this will [00:36:00] insulate them from the destiny of the policy and political cycle. Really achieving what commons-based governance is about, which is bringing political and economic and social diversity to the city and reducing the power asymmetries in the city.
We then discovered that as we access and we encounter the new technologies, we realized that tech justice, the idea of a smart, sustainable city has to be also about granting the right to manage and go on this technological infrastructure. And that's where, you know, the work on energy democracy and energy communities is one of the most important epiphanies.
But in Reggio Emilia, we have now of recent the broadband community wireless network that was able to, which is called Coviolo Wireless, which was able to also build a sort of community-based business model that [00:37:00] by paying back all the investments now is able to self-finance itself to fund community-based projects: from assistance to elderly people to having a better condition for the urban commons, like the green spaces and social services.
So this network is financing the community ownership of this broadband network is now financing the social services. So, in a way, it is reinvestment process that was inserted by Coviolo Wireless and if you think about it, this is very sophisticated.
Bollier: I don't know, Sheila, if you have anything more to add on that?
Foster: No, those are the principles. I mean, I do want to… so we have collective governance, enabling state, pooling economies, experimentalism and tech justice. And all of those, again, are what we both have seen in practice, but also the empirical part of the project.
When we looked at over 550 examples in over 200 cities, these are the things that we extracted that were [00:38:00] present in projects and policies that embody this idea of the city as a commons. And I would just add that the energy democracy, it's something that we're working on in the US because that importantly also involves a different kind of economy and transition that is so important, I think, to bring this framework to.
Bollier: Tell me a little bit about how LabGov as a globally networked institution, you might say, helps implement all this. Who are some of these other partners? What are they doing in conjunction with you? What kind of coordination among themselves does it have?
Foster: So the latest LabGov to establish itself is in Hong Kong University.
And so this is a good model where there are people in an institute or in a university that are connected to communities, are connected to other actors in the local area, and want to bring this model of how do we create a platform where we can bring people together and to begin to experiment and get things done.
So [00:39:00] I hope that's what you’re asking.
Bollier: Yeah, yeah, and I suppose you have different universities and think tanks and other players who you have these horizontal dialogues to sort of trade notes and support each other, I assume.
Foster: Yes. And then lots and lots and lots of really talented researchers, post-docs, master students from our universities as well as people in policy positions at different levels of government. And, of course, you know, some often the private sector and foundations, for instance, in the case of Harlem, it was a National Science Foundation money that funded us. And in the case of Baton Rouge, it's a combination between the JP Morgan Chase Foundation and a local foundation.
And all of these are people that come to us or that we approach them to support what we're doing in terms of building up the capacity to run these experiments.
Bollier: And I assume that the co-city's book that you've just released really is quite a synthesis of your learning over the past ten or fifteen years on this [00:40:00] front, and I assume you hope that it will open up new doors in expanding the co-city's approach.
Foster: As well as to help improve the model. As Chris has always said, it's like the 1.0 model. We are open and willing to improve and to develop it as other people experiment.
Iaione: The book is also about the empirical data and the experiments that we talk about. There's also a specific context in which you can see the different case studies, but there is also a live database, which is commoning the city, on which we welcome city researchers, civil society organizations, activists to contribute by inserting case studies in order to improve the approach, to learn from new case studies that we are sure will be developed and that are being developed also, that we do not know of at this time because it's really a movement. It's an intellectual and it's [00:41:00] also a political and social movement and economic movement.
We do not have the ambition to capture everything, but we just are trying to give our contribution and tell our story essentially of researchers that were really engaged. As you taught us, David, commons is about commoning, you and Silke, Silke Helfrich, reminder here, because you inspired us so much, you know, especially from that point of view we understood the importance of practice. The commons is about practice.
Bollier: Well, thank you, Chris. I want to congratulate Sheila and you for this fantastic book Co- Cities, and I really hope that it does catalyze new activity on this front, which has shown so much promise over the past several years. And, of course, we have so many urgent challenges to which it can and should be applied. So thank you for taking time out to talk with me.
Foster: Thank you for having us. [00:42:00] Always a pleasure.