November 2017



Co-Designing With PTU using Recommoning Tools

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Portland Tenants United is a local collective comprising of tenants as well as a few landlords agitating for policy changes with housing, as well as attempting to redefine the relationship between landlords and tenants by creating better mechanisms for negotiation. They aim to intervene at different levels of the problem. PTU forces the issue that housing is a fundamental human right, something that we all need to survive, by mobilizing tenants to build a counter-power to the “landlord lobby.”

PTU has enjoyed a few recent successes, one of which is an amendment to what is called the Relocation Ordinance (Ordinance 188219), which was passed on February 3, 2017 to provide protections for tenants facing no-cause evictions. The amendment added a clause that mandated relocation assistance when these tenants are involuntarily displaced . While modest, these additions to the law are quickly becoming a legislative template for other laws in Washington State as well as other parts of Oregon. However, PTU members are well aware that these laws, while they are modest gains, need to be ratified and made permanent. Through a series of workshops, they are looking at different ways of converting these temporary laws into permanent cultural shifts. For example, they are investigating ways to reward positively deviant landlords with “tenant-approved” seals that indicate their commitments to tenant rights.

When it comes to getting their message across to neighbors and others living in the community in order to build solidarity, PTU members struggle to achieve this objective. They are having problems with engaging willing landlords, homeowners, even a minority of tenants to be advocates for change as well as to understand that tenancy is a fundamental human right. They have tried expanding tactics such as door knocking strategies to overcome this shortcoming. They also flyer neighborhoods as a means of direct action for tenant emergencies that need immediate response. PTU also struggles with issues of minority representations as well as racial disparities with their effort. For example, a lower income African-American tenant will struggle with activism because of the fear of disproportionate blowback or even more dire consequences. As a result, they are more reticent to join a public protest and act in the best interest of the whole. Another issue for them is to be able to find other rental housing if they were in fact to be evicted. In this regard, members of PTU are often confronted with their privilege, as they continue to struggle with finding ways to engage other renters much unlike them to participate in working on making tenancy a commons.

The workshop exercises with the Portland Tenants United were conducted at a community center in a local church in Portland Oregon. A total of 12 participating members attended. The participants were divided into two tables of 6 individuals each. The tables were arranged in a way that allowed individual members to be able to see each other and to talk across the table. The workshop was in three parts (which was presented as three “acts”). Recommoning cards were redesigned for the purposes of the workshop. The workshop with Portland Tenants United took a total of three (3) hours.

After collective governance rules were established, workshop participants were asked to select from four dilemmas and negotiate the stalemates. These negotiations were done within open and closed rule systems. During both open and closed rule options, the participants were presented with additional information that was re-introduced into the discussions.



The outcomes for the Portland Tenants United workshop included:

Capturing Narratives

Poster or postcard for potential/current tenants to write narratives around housing from personal stories. Members wrote “love letters” to the city of Portland.

“Tenant-Approved Landlord

Many of the workshop participants were initially reticent to participate engage willing landlords. But through the course of the workshop, as well as the scaffolding process they were able to reverse their judgement on what such participation would look like. Participants were able to express the characteristics of a landlord ally, and potential modes of engaging them. However, many participants still remained skeptical about cooperating with landlords, and believed that most landlords were motivated entirely by profit. They explored scenarios, and through the letter writing process to the city of portland, they began to create ideas about what it could mean for the city of Portland Oregon to have a “tenant-approved landlord.”

Improving door-knocking strategies – door knocking kit

Another important outcome from the workshop was the need for a door-knocking kit that will help their door-to-door campaigns. The kit was to be able to provide skeptical landlords with information about being a “tenant-approved” landlords, to work with neighbors in the communities being represented to explain how the might be able to participate, and finally a “door knocking kit” displaying door-knocking strategies as well as the ethics and challenges will be able to allow direct action unionizers to make a case for tenants about the need to participate and build counter-power measures to the “landlord lobby.”

Value in the hybridity of modalities for “recommoning”

One clear outcome was the importance of a hybridity of modalities for recommoning. They include, but are not limited to, the personality of face-to-face discussions as well as the privacy of the autonomy and pseudo-annonymity that online platforms afford in private discussions. These private communication spaces  should have a “request – notify – enter” mechanism.

A more honest platform

A recommoning platform should also be honest – and should share data equitably and within context.

Platform design

An important future implication for recommoning is with the creation of platforms that might be used to reclaim resources. For example, understanding how the different roles and negotiation structure might influence the creation rules around an online platform, how these shifting roles might be built into a system as well as how these differentiated roles may be distinguishable as absorbed roles or assigned roles.



November 2016



Recommoning Transitions

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I was recently invited to give a talk at the By Design or By Disaster Series at the Free University of Bozen/Bolzano. I shared about the overlap between recommoning research and transition design.

“With an understanding of a richer commons landscape, we may be able to overlap different types of commons within a system of networks to reveal new patterns of self-governance. Recommoning presents us with the opportunity to take “micro acts” of commoning and amplify them to “macro acts” that may shift the way our societies transition to more sustainable futures.”

Additional details of the talk are here:

Dimeji Onafuwa




January 2016



Framing Tenancy as a Commons

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Frames—the unconscious structures we use to think of problems (Lakoff 2012)—are also important to design because they allow us to scale ideas or problems within the context of certain boundaries. Frames are always present within overarching systems that help contextualize them. For example, a community situated tenancy problem frame includes different stakeholders such as residents, tenants, landlords, community assets, neighborhood groups, political representatives, residences, and the small businesses serving the neighborhoods that form that community. When such a frame is evoked, the entire system around it is considered. In essence our frames are very much linked with our emotions. Designers have a particular skill that enables them to think in terms of frames about deeper factors that influence our needs beyond they underlying emotional motivation that stakeholders find in common. Kees Dorst sees framing as something useful to expert designers to help them better re-address what he calls unsolvable problems (those with changing requirements), and to create solutions where none may be apparent by expanding the current problem structure and concentrating on patterns and deepened themes that provide a promising path forward. Framing allows for easier identification of a problem’s limits (Dorst, 5). However, this approach excludes the non-designer’s agency because frame creation absolves the non-designer from the responsibility of decision-making.  But as we unpack the complexity these unsolvable problems present, we see that Dorst’s ideas limit the usefulness of collective action, especially because social problems requiring these forms of framing cannot be solved with algorithmic or generalized toolkits.

Reframing tenancy as a contribution to the commons, “what if tenancy is approached as a contribution to the commons,” raises important questions about the typologies of tenancy where design interventions may reside. Tenancy is seen as a market problem that is controlled via property rights, private ownership and government regulation, but it is seldom approached or perceived as a common resource. Market based approaches to tenancy bear among other things huge transaction costs. Members of a community can create mutual agreements governing tenancy while developing monitoring mechanisms to sustain these agreements. When these members collaborate on these types of decisions, their collaboration reduces the costs between the participants (Ostrom 1990).



January 2016



Tragedy of the Commons

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A commons is a resource that is shared by a group of people. Historically, a commons has been a physical resource (for example, a land resource), but its definition has now expanded to a non-physical, man-made resource such as peer-to-peer information networks (Marttila, Botero 2013). Physical commons therefore relate to physical resources and their use (Seravalli 2014) and digital commons relate to certain aspects of the non-market networked information economy that are controlled and negotiated by social exchange and agreements. Networks here represent systems of human interactions that emphasize human action and structural patterns (Benkler 2011). Physical commons may also be further categorized into open commons (like oceans, air, highway system) and limited access commons (like pasture agreements for farmers), or regulated (like forests that have restrictions of use placed on them) and unregulated commons (like grazing pasture for farmers with no use restrictions) (Benkler 2006).

Garrett Hardin explored the impact of individual influence on disrupting a commons by arguing that selfish human behavior depletes common resources to the point of destroying the commons (hence the term Tragedy of the Commons). According to Hardin, privatization or governmental oversight are important to maintaining these resources through limitation of access (Hardin 1968). However, research in domains as varied as Design, Economics (Ostrom 1990), Law (Benkler 2006) and several others demonstrate the value of a perspective on human cooperation different from Hardin’s. Elinor Ostrom shows that the solution to the over-consumption problem with a commons is not just access limitation by external regulation as Hardin believed, but is instead the creation and stewardship of the right conditions for use and common governance (Ostrom 1990; Bauwens 2012). Self-governance and regulation, and not external oversight, are instrumental to preventing “the tragedy of the commons” (Ostrom 1990). The praxis in commoning also involves “cooperation (or pooling of common resources for group benefit), and community (defined as a group of people who coalesce around collective identity and collective action)” (De Angelis 2010).