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).