Mutual Aid, looking for popular books; book notes: Heffernan, Margaret. A Bigger Prize: How We Can Do Better than the Competition. New York: PublicAffairs, 2014.

Below are my book notes for Margaret Heffernan’s A Bigger Prize. I learned about this book when discussing mutual aid with my colleague, Bonnie Smith, who is an expert in HR and sustainability. She mentioned Heffernan’s TED Talk, which is quite good, where Heffernan covers the failures of zero-sum competition, which reduces everyone’s individual achievement and loses out on much greater work made possible through collaboration. She uses an example with chickens, where the constant pecking order leaves to dead chickens and unproductive (no egg) chickens, and then walks through how the same process of degradation happens with people in competitive. Her discussion of collaboration includes conflict, but conflict where we all build together for greater outcomes individually and collectively. Before reading this book, I didn’t know of Elinor Ostrom’s work, for which she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics (to date, the only woman to have won), and it is particularly useful for thinking about mutual aid, maintenance, feminist research, situated perspective, and true collaboration.

I am posting my notes here for my own ease of access, and in hopes that others may use them, and ideally may share other references on mutual aid, collaboration, and polycentrism.

From the Wikipedia page for Ostrom’s work:

Design principles for Common Pool Resource (CPR) institution

Ostrom identified eight “design principles” of stable local common pool resource management:[31] She also discussed the eight “design principles” on Big Think.[32]

  1. Clearly defined (clear definition of the contents of the common pool resource and effective exclusion of external un-entitled parties);
  2. The appropriation and provision of common resources that are adapted to local conditions;
  3. Collective-choice arrangements that allow most resource appropriators to participate in the decision-making process;
  4. Effective monitoring by monitors who are part of or accountable to the appropriators;
  5. A scale of graduated sanctions for resource appropriators who violate community rules;
  6. Mechanisms of conflict resolution that are cheap and of easy access;
  7. Self-determination of the community recognized by higher-level authorities; and
  8. In the case of larger common-pool resources, organization in the form of multiple layers of nested enterprises, with small local CPRs at the base level.

These principles have since been slightly modified and expanded to include a number of additional variables believed to affect the success of self-organized governance systems, including effective communication, internal trust and reciprocity, and the nature of the resource system as a whole

Heffernan, Margaret. A Bigger Prize: How We Can Do Better than the Competition. New York: PublicAffairs, 2014.

297-298: Simon Kuznets, the inventor of GDP, “wasn’t entirely gratified by the wholesale adoption of his work. A meticulous econometrician, he believed that a true measure of national output out to include unpaid work—like housework. It made no sense that a parent cooking dinner for the family contributed only the ingredient costs to the economy, while a business executive dining alone apparently contributed more. The US Commerce Department didn’t take the distinction seriously and refused to incorporate the value of unpaid labor, so Kuznets moved on to study inequality—but not before warning [298] Congress that ‘the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measure of national income.”

299: “When the United States is not at war, lower defense spending brings down GDP, but that does not necessarily make American lives poorer or Chinese lives any richer.” […] “National economies are not zero-sum games in which one’s gain is another’s loss. In fact, as we’ve seen throughout the economic crisis, quite the reverse is true: one failure provokes multiple failures.”

317-318: “[Elinor] Ostrom’s work proved to her that what works best is collaborative pluralism: lots of different solutions, applied and devised locally by those with an immediate and personal investment. Left to their own devices, individuals can create solutions together that are superior to those imposed by external authorities or managing agents. […] she found that individuals can and do collaborate effectively in the management of shared, limited resources—and do so without tragic consequences, The commons, she argued, need not be a tragedy, the commons poses an opportunity.  Ostrom called this opportunity ‘polycentrism,’ by which she meant that the hard problem of managing limited resources creatively was best organized from the ground up in ways that fitted with, and articulated, social norms. As it turns out, communities are very good at organizing themselves, but design principles apply. Discussion must be face to face because [318] it depends on and deepens trust. Smaller units work better than large ones. […] Operating across multiple levels is both more sustainable and more robust. ‘Such an evolutionary approach to policy,’ Ostrom noted, ‘provides essential safety nets should one or more policies fail.’ […] The community must be self-monitoring, and it must design its own sanctions.”

318: “The emphasis on personal relationships and self-management, the absolute requirement of trust, the sharing of resources and denial of dominance—these principles lie at the heart of all successful collaboration. […] She saw that we thrive when we acknowledge our mutual dependency—but that we all have to pull our weight and not try to buy our way out of social relationships.”

322: “Innovative institutions and organizations thrive not because they pick and breed superstars but because they cherish, nurture, and support the vast range of talents, personalities, and skills that sustained creativity requires.”

322-323: “Conflict is inevitable because that’s how new ideas emerge. So great collaborators do conflict well. ‘Scrapping,’ as the Wright brothers called it, is how we stretch, test, and develop new ideas and possibilities. The conflict-averse can’t do this well, and those who love a fight can’t either. But the mediators, listeners, and scrappers enjoy unfettered exploration, sure in the knowledge that intellectual risks and experiments are how new ideas emerge and that conflict is how organizations think. The impresarios of creativity make their [323] breakthroughs because they support and unleash the genius and energy of people around them. Like the pianist Fou Ts’ong, they recognize the brilliance of others.”

323: “Trust, not rivalry, is what makes relationships and institutions effective and efficient. Trust is both what we need and what we create when we learn to work together.”

323: “The reason why employee ownership matters and proves so powerful is because it motivates and rewards mutual assistance and support, openness, and honesty. While every business leader says that people are a company’s most precious asset, employee ownership makes this a structural reality, creating the conditions in which trust derives from mutual interest and success is shared.”

324: “We have science on our side. A team of scientists recently revisited game theory, challenging the original conclusion of mathematician John Nash that selfishness must always prevail. If Nash was right, why is it that cooperation prevails—in the animal kingdom, in the microbial world, and in human society? The answers turns out to be something that Nash left out of his equations: communication. Being able to talk to one another, to bring in a wide range of opinion and expertise to debate, argue, and negotiate, changes the game. That’s what super-collaborators excel at: they listen, make connections, and share. They’re the interstitial people.”