Elinor Ostrom sits in house

The Legend of Lin: Futureseer, Economist, and Commons Specialist

Words about the Commons, from President and co-founder of Plan Systems, Brandon Wallace


Elinor ‘Lin; Ostrom – Champion of the Commons

Dear Fellow Traveler,

The heroines of the past will be revealed in legends. When future generations tell the story of how civilization moved beyond the Tragedy of the Commons, they will tell of Elinor “Lin” Ostrom. So let us name into being “The Legend of Lin:” champion of the commons, defender of the public good, soothsayer for resilient communities, and visionary of new economies.

It was Fall, 1933, the 7th of August, when Lin took her first breath of coastal L.A. air. She was born three years into the Great Depression, when a full quarter of the US workforce was unemployed, and the Gold Standard had just been abandoned.

Lin grew up on the sharp edge of poverty and misogyny in Beverly Hills. However, she had access to the tools of knowledge, once unusual for the “fairer of our kind.” She challenged herself through debate, public policy, and scientific questioning. Notably for the times, she obtained a Ph.D in Economics. 

As a field scholar, Lin conducted research and analysis of the water industry, studied resource and personnel management, and was eventually awarded a professorship at UCLA. These experiences laid the groundwork for her interest in the commons. She spent the next 15 years researching police industry structure and performance. This exposed her to organizations and decision-making processes that impacted people on a daily basis.

Lin finally returned to study the commons. Her experience gave her the clarity to begin uncovering an ancient domain of innate human organization. She began to name this framework. 

She focused on how communities organize to manage commonly held resources, and how they govern systems that sustain those resources. In formal vocabulary, Lin presents a method of evaluating how communities self-organize, and the framework that emerges in communities that are successful.

From Tragedy to Triumph via Cooperative Strategy

The Tragedy of the Commons is a famous myth, one which claims humanity is destined to bring about the collapse of ecological systems; according to this myth, when a resource is unowned, the collective is destined to mismanage and overuse it.

The Legend of Lin asks us to reevaluate this. Lin proposes an alternative solution to the commons dilemma (rather than depending on government action, privatization, or some other external means of control over the commons). Instead, Lin asserts a “cooperative strategy” for community management.

Lin saw the critical need for an “analysts toolkit … whereby a group of principals can organize themselves voluntarily to retain the residuals of their own efforts” (Ostrom 1990). Her analysis resulted in a framework to understand, characterize, and even catalyze the cooperation necessary to allow communities to survive and thrive in a commons. She proposes eight design principles for her method, listed below.

This framework isn’t new; she based it on real communities she studied. Lin formalized what she saw into a system that is adaptable, scalable, and repeatable.

The Legend of Lin & the Legacy she Left Behind

Lin made it possible to demand localism. She demonstrated that “within communities, rules and institutions of non-market and not resulting from public planning can emerge from the bottom up to ensure a sustainable, shared management of resources, as well as one that is efficient from an economical point of view.” (Felice, 2012)

What was special about Lin was not that she was the first female economist to win a Nobel Prize in Economics, or her “analysis of economic governance, especially the commons;” it was her ground-level field research focused on real local communities, and her ability to break down barriers in the knowledge silos of western academia. 

Lin showed profound wisdom in recognizing that the “power of a theory is exactly proportional to the diversity of situations it explains” (Ostrom 1990). The Legend of Lin imagines a reality in which individuals voluntarily self-organize and self-govern, creating communities capable of successful cooperation that sustains environments, resources, and lasting human relationships.


8 Design Principles for Managing a Commons 

Note: the following framework has been abbreviated and restated for simplicity and brevity. Please refer to her original work, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action.

  1. BOUNDARIES: the group and resources being managed have clearly defined users and boundaries.

– DEFINE BOUNDARIES: There are clearly defined boundaries of a system/resources from the larger environment.

– DEFINE LEGITIMATE USERS / BOUNDARIES: There is a clearly defined community of legitimate users or members.

  1. MATCH RULES: Match rules governing the use of common resources to the local needs and environmental conditions.

– SHARE KNOWLEDGE: All parties share knowledge of local conditions of the system

– ADAPT LOCALLY: Rules are adapted to the local needs and conditions of the community, resources, and environment

  1. DECIDE INCLUSIVELY: Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in decision-making in modifying the rules.
  2. GOVERN LOCALLY:  Ensure the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities or hierarchies. Ensure community self-determination is recognized by outside authorities.

– Consider how local, county, state, national, and international jurisdictions impact your community

  1. MONITOR EFFECTIVELY: Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring the common resources. Ensure monitors of the rules and resources are accurate and accountable.
  1. HOLD USERS ACCOUNTABLE: Use graduated sanctions for rule violators and free riders, avoid excessive or disproportional sanctions.
  2. OFFER MEDIATION: Provide accessible, easy, and low-cost means for conflict resolution before a situation escalates.
  3. DON’T EXTERNALIZE COSTS: Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system.

 ― Elinor Ostrom


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