The gap is closing between academics and practitioners (activists) in the International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC).
In the last nine years I have been to six IASC biennial conferences (Cheltenham, England; Hyderabad, India; Kitafuji, Japan; Edmonton, Canada and Utrecht in the Netherlands), and two regional conferences (Umeå, Sweden and Bern Switzerland). At all of them since Cheltenham (where I was completely new to IASC) I have expressed my strong belief that, to remain relevant to a wide audience, IASC must embrace the practitioners (including campaigners) who are working on commons. Practitioners and researchers need each other. The scholars provide the independent evidence and analysis to support the practitioners’ actions.
The IASC’s founder, the late Elinor (Lin) Ostrom, appreciated the role of practitioners and at the last few conferences there has been recognition of their work, not least with the presentation of the Ostrom Award to practitioners. Of the 700 attending the Utrecht conference, 150 are practitioners, and some are running practitioners’ labs to promote discussion about their work.
Already at this conference much has been said about and by practitioners. The Rector Magnificus of Utrecht University, Bert van der Zwaan, said at the opening ceremony on 10 July: ‘Where governments are stepping back, privatisation is increasing and collective action is more important. … There is a phenomenal link between academics and practitioners. Students are taking action for the future—that’s how it should be.’
Later that day, at the IASC members’ meeting, there was talk about how IASC could do more for practitioners. It was suggested that IASC might be a matchmaker between academics and practitioners, since it is difficult for each to locate the other working in a similar field. One contributor to the debate said: ‘This organisation needs the energy of practitioners’.
It is increasingly evident that a hard distinction between practitioners and academics is a false one. I went to a practitioners’ lab where we discussed games for collective action, whereby field workers encourage communities to play games which help them gain information about managing the commons: deciding which crops to grow and how to manage water, for instance. The researchers are helping people to achieve beneficial and sustainable outcomes, blurring any distinction between academics and activists.
When registering at the conference we picked a lanyard to reflect our role—green for academics, blue for practitioners. Some dithered, wondering which lanyard to choose—for many are both practitioner and academic, or they have switched from one to the other. Some, such as Ruth Meinzen Dick from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in the USA and Jagdeesh Rao from the Foundation from Ecological Security in India, took both.
Things are changing: at this conference we are distinguished by the colour of the lanyards, but next time (Lima, Peru in 2019) I suspect that the sessions will be more integrated, so that practitioners and academics really are recognised as interdependent. The progress is encouraging.