Characteristics of a enduring Common Pool Resource (CPR)

If a common pool resource framework is applicable to a knowledge commons, how simple is it to set up? We need to know the basic ground rules of a CPR first. And here they are.

Seven characteristics and an eight one, in more complex cases, are generally considered to constitute a CPR. As constructed through inductive research by Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom and colleagues, these characteristics are the subject of this entry. We will also discuss pragmatic examples for some of these characteristics listed below.

1. Clearly defined boundaries

2. Congruence between appropriation and provision rules and local conditions

3. Collective-choice arrangements

4. Monitoring

5. Graduated sanctions

6. Conflict-resolution mechanism

7. Minimal recognition of right to organize

8. Nested enterprises (for larger systems)

The most problematic behaviour enduring CPRs face is often depicted as free riding. Essentially this is the act of profiting from a resource shared in common without participating to maintaining it. In the case of institutional repositories, for example, this notion must be adapted because digital goods have, in certain instances, zero cost for being shared (copied).

What is a free rider? It’s the roommate that takes dishwashing soap for his dishes and never pitches in to buy any. It’s the neighbour that wants to share a parking space and never shovels the snow from it. It’s the team that stays past their scheduled time on the court. Those examples are not always a pure CPR, but the idea is representative of free riding.

A more abstract definition of free riding is someone, a group, or entity, that profits from a CPR and fails to uphold their responsibility in maintaining it, including taking more than their agreed-upon share. How are CPRs enduring in the face of this recurring and all too common human behaviour? Here is what transpired from decades of observation and analysis:

1. Clearly defined boundaries

What are the commons boundaries. Who is part of it? You need to know this if you are going to keep some people or groups out, and to determine who will need to participate in maintaining the commons.

We will try to take a shared wireless network with limited bandwidth as an example to illustrate those rules. Who has access to your wireless network at your shared apartment, and how much they pay for it every month is the idea here.

2. Congruence between appropriation and provision rules and local conditions

Rules respecting specific attributes of a resource contribute to an enduring CPR. Adapt to your environment, resource, people. One solution fits all is a precarious choice here.

Position of the wireless hub, thus varying quality signal around the apartment, may be part of how payment levels and bandwidth usage are negotiated amongst users here. Preferred usage, streaming movies using large bandwidth and needing a low latency for gaming, maybe be parts of arrangements between users as well. Peek usage times may need to be drawn out and agreed upon by the users, along with corresponding payment levels, or usage throttle.

3. Collective-choice arrangements

Involvement of most stakeholders in rule crafting. Helps reinforce previous point as well since participation and information exchange is important in maintaining CPRs.

Everyone, or most people, involved in the shared network should participate in the discussion about rules, usage, and maintenance (mostly payment in this case).

4. Monitoring

Monitors keep tabs on both the resource and its users (appropriators). These monitors can be appropriators, or accountable to them.

Ideally a board would display individual usage (bandwidth) of the network daily for all to see and be aware of. This may be grounds for sanctions or praise for respectful usage of the network, accumulating a form of social status based on that. It may even be transferred to good standings in the apartment in general.

5. Graduated sanctions

This is the point most discussed by Ostrom when describing the successful characteristics of an enduring CPR. Empirical research demonstrates that not only are participants in a CPR monitoring each other, but initial sanctions can appear low to the outsider. Why?

The problem here is that punishment tends to be costly to the punisher, while the benefits of the punishment goes to all involved (community). It seems therefore there is little incentive to apply punishment. Nobody wants to be a sucker. Why would I be the guy who has to invest his time coercing others in participating or respecting common rules while everybody will benefit for free?

The success of CPRs relies in lowering monitoring costs, and including notions of prestige and status in our comprehension of the mechanism for CPRs endurance. A prestige or status gain when a participating individual finds a rule infractor, or loss of prestige and status when one is found cheating, can participate in explaining why low-cost monitoring systems can be efficient.

Not only does self-monitoring of a CPR participate in increased information gathering about rule compliance, it also does it about the condition of the resource and contributes in lowering the cost of the act itself, but introducing notions of social capital, if we wanted to use that term. This is a form of social pressure to the benefit of the CPR.

We can see that a sense of community and trust is very central to a successful CPR.

Coming back to our idea of a shared wireless network: a display board with usage information, per participant, would here be used to determine if someone’s access needs to be throttled, or reduced, for using too much bandwidth, or missing payments. Here the idea is to avoid completely shutting out someone from the network without possibility of returning, tolerating they may need to bend or break the rules from time to time. The cost for breaking the rules may be increasing as bandwidth usage goes over limit (throttling), or as payments get overdue for longer periods (pressure to contribute). A generally recognized good user may get away with occasional breach of the rules in those cases, based on social capital. We already function this way, we simply hardly ever realize it.

6. Conflict-resolution mechanism

Although this may not guarantee success, long-term CPR must include some mechanism to allow participants to make amends or resolve conflicts in a manner that is enduring. This may be very informal. Informal methods of resolving conflicts are perhaps one of the most powerful tools human being have for maintaining social cohesion.

Users of the shared wireless would have the means to resolve conflicts in a way that is acceptable to all, and long lasting. Making amends with extra house-work may be a solution, following a group meeting about a breach of participation agreement, or letting someone off the hook because the group agrees it is in everyone’s best interest, and the costs are absorbable by everyone else.

7. Minimal recognition of right to organize

This speaks to non-intrusion from external bodies, including governments. Minimal recognition of legitimacy over their own capacity to devise their own institutions must be achieved by CPRs to be enduring.

The shared wireless network agreement would have to hold on its own, interdependently of landlord or internet provider interference for example. A landlord demanding a certain provider be used and to control the location of the hubs for aesthetics reasons would infringe on the CPR. Likewise for an internet service provider (ISP) that would throttle the bandwidth of the network, trumping the capacity of the participants to do it themselves. The ISP would then be at risk of punishing all users for the exaggeration of only one of them.

8. Nested enterprises (for larger systems)

Producing a complete and enduring system of CPRs must include be blended in multiple levels of government when they exist. There’s no use making up all these rules if they are trumped easily by another governing body.

Reading those points should elicit a sense that those characteristics reinforce community building, a sense of belonging, participating and benefiting from associating to a CPR. If we look around ourselves, we can begin to see how the ensemble of these general characteristic, working together, contribute to the enduring use of a resource by a community.

Cite as:

Calvé-Genest, A. (2014). Characteristics of a enduring Common Pool Resource (CPR). Sustaining the Knowledge Commons / Soutenir Les Savoirs Communs. Retrieved from

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