This study aims to highlight whether people can avoid the tragedy of the commons and undermining the social fabrics of public life in contemporary society while preserving a sense of democracy by raising awareness of individual’s civic duties.

Today’s world is experiencing a wave of totalitarianism. Bureaucracies have been failing to respond quickly enough to societal issues and people are demanding immediate change. Conventional corporate structures allow individuals to wield large political power, endangering the agency of communities. We are placing radical leaders into our government in the desperation to see something happen. Rationality and coordination is being replaced by emotional appeal and marginalization.

This study focuses around the work of Elinor Ostrom and how a designer can intervene to establish a more polycentric governance to ensure sustainable consumption of pooled resources and most importantly restore liberty back in society.





Tragedy of the commons, first coined by British Economist William Forster Lloyd, is an imminent threat to life-sustaining resources like water, air, and food. Common-pool resources are not only difficult to exclude from potential beneficiaries but also shares subtractability of use like private goods.

It is challenging to specifically cite the reason individuals exploit the commons. People have various motivational models that determine their behavior. In a time when non-coordination both at local scales (racism, class hierarchy, sexism, etc…) and at global scales (state rivalry, war, nationalism, etc…) is peaking more than ever, it is crucial to understand and employ effective management systems to establish sustainable practices.

Why IT is a tragedy

Most scholars describe the exploitation of common resources as a tragedy because of the view that isolated and autonomous individuals can and will deplete the commons. I offer a different view. The tragedy of the commons is a tragedy because many democracies around the world are focusing on disunity and exclusion, leading to the disorientation of citizen’s civic obligations. The economic structure of today’s world offer the opportunity of amassed wealth at the cost of dismantling what is sure to be a more effective governmental structure - self-government.


The commons is any type of cultural or natural resource that can be accessed by all members of a community. Up to the mid-twentieth century, a dichotomous view dominated the distribution of goods. Economists contended that the most optimal distribution of private goods is through the market and the distribution of natural resources should be regulated by a central governmental unit. This worldview traces back to studies revolving around game theory and the ontological adoption of simple systems.

Contemporary research has proven that this view does not fit the realities that individuals face in social dilemmas. In reality, agents are allowed to communicate, establish rules, and set sanctions to effectively manage the consumption of common pool resources.


At the end of the day, the study of issues to open access resources is establishing a sustainable practice while maintaining human development. The source of the tragedy is often cited to the independent choices people make that accumulate to a depletion of a common resource. While there are various types of commons that face this threat, my aim was to analyze the design principles that may apply across all types of open access resources in order to ensure sustainability.

Establishing a Design PHILOSOPHY

There are many presuppositions when it comes to sustainable design. Certain designers contend that sustainable design is establishing a system in which the participating users gain autonomy and agency within a community. Others may simply believe that longevity should be the only aim of sustainable design. I think these are all true, and it is truly difficult, or even impossible, to take on a clear metaphysical stance on design practices promoting sustainability. Dr. Peter Scupelli notes in one of his writings that ultimately the value of design resides in “in the resulting task well done.” It is the process, the storytelling, and most importantly the learning experience through design that transcends the user to perceive the value in sustainable practices.

As an environments designer, I try to design an experience in an empty space shaped by artifacts. Thus, it is my role to bring in artifacts into an environment that prompts the user to come out with an experience that convinces people to perceive the commons as a finite resource that requires maintenance.



Meter-Rate Reusable Trashbags.jpg

A Clear Threshold

One of the defining elements of sustainable “commons” is a strong affordance of a sense of publicity that clearly defines the boundary between a public and private resource. Public branding is associated with civil responsibility, and such awareness reminds the users to treat these resources as a communal asset.


Other times, communities create their own commons through a collaborative process. The Rivers of Steel is an example of an abandoned space that evolved into a communal platform for artists to expose themselves. Since the introduction of graffiti artists to this space, the Rivers of Steel has revived into a cultural resource from a relic of the past.

Photo: Trevin Shirey via Flickr

Photo: Trevin Shirey via Flickr

When it fails

Not all resources are treated with equal care. Pittsburgh’s air quality, despite significant improvements, is still rated as one of the worst in the United States. Environmental groups face difficulty enforcing industries to commit to permitted levels of pollution. This results in substantial public health and environmental costs. Currently, solutions to prevent these issues are ambiguous and costly - city leaders face challenges in moving on from the status quo, and legal action is not always the most practical option.





My goal in this experiment is to try out multiple methods of sustaining organization in the studio by:

A. Establishing Publicity

B. Communicating Values

C. Demonstrating Leadership