top of page

The Commons Reimagined: Empowering Communities Through Biodiversity Legislation and Web 3

I got a call last week from an an excited friend living in the UK. He said there was a large development (200 houses) in his area and the developer was carving out a piece of land near the houses to turn it into a biodiverse “commons”. He was part of a local community group who effectively wanted to become custodians of the land on behalf of the developer and local community. 

Apparently new ground breaking legislation has just come into force in the UK that compels land developers to compensate for loss of nature.  From my initial research, in a nutshell the “nature market” or biodiversity net gain (BNG) has some key features:

  • All new building projects must achieve a 10% net gain in biodiversity or habitat. 

  • The land developer is financially incentivised to achieve this “on site”, if they can’t do this then they must consider “off site” and if they can’t do this as a last resort they can buy credits. 

  • The land owner is legally responsible for creating or enhancing habitat, and managing that habitat for at least 30 years

  • There are various levels of diversity with financial incentives for the developer to increase diversity

It got me thinking…..

The heart of the issue that this sort of legislation is trying to solve is the fact that our capitalist system does not account and protect “the commons” (the stuff that nobody owns like the air / environment). So in order to maximise capital (profit) the inevitable result is an extractive approach and the “tragedy of the commons” (i.e. carbon/biodiversity crisis). 

Without getting into the details and pros / cons of how the UK has done it, it seems inevitable that this kind of legislation (i.e. laws making the developer / homeowner offset the damage) has to be part of the solution going forwards. The main questions then becomes how best to do it, and can we do it quick enough. So let’s assume that is the future. Hold that thought. 

The powerful forces of capitalism and globalisation / centralisation / disintermediation have caused a massive power shift towards the free market (big companies) and the state (government) at the expense of communities. This shift and the negative effects on society is described elegantly in Raghuram Rajan’s book The Third Pillar. Raghuram (ex head of the Indian Reserve band and chief economist at the IMF) argues that to address this imbalance we need to find ways to give more power to communities.  Most of us intuitively know that communities working together at a hyper local level to solve local problems is a wonderful thing. It’s good for our mental / physical health and there is plenty of research / science to support this. In Johann Hari’s seminal book Lost Connections he introduced many people to the concepts such as “social prescribing” (imagine your GP or mental health professional “prescribing” joining a gardening group instead of Prozac).  Studies such as the Frome study also give us hard data around the health benefits of building community. 

Nobel prize winning economist Elinor Ostrom famously said “There is no reason to believe that bureaucrats and politicians, no matter how well meaning, are better at solving problems than the people on the spot, who have the strongest incentive to get the solution right.

In Johann Hari’s book he also studied the health benefits of being in nature. The mental health benefits are strong and well researched.

So let’s start to string this together and look at some incentives (and I’ll unapologetically make some generalisations):

  • Central government wants to take pressure off health systems and become good international citizens in the international carbon / biodiversity ecosystem

  • Land developers want to make money with the least amount of risk / time / stress

  • Homeowners want the value of their property to go up (i.e. their house become more attractive to others) and to live in places where there is a strong sense of community

  • People living in a suburb want localism (working together to solve local problems and improving their local environment) and a sense of community

  • Everybody wants bio-diverse nature for their wellbeing

It seems to me that as carbon and biodiversity legislation starts to roll out we finally have some aligned incentives that could start to change the power balance between profit driven companies, government and community. 

Imagine the following:

  • The land developer and/or property owner is forced / incentivised by governments to turn part of the land “to nature” (i.e. a “commons”) and maintain it in perpetuity. They are also financially incentivised to increase its biodiversity and carbon absorbing ability over time. 

  • Once the initial earthworks / planting is done the community (the people who live physically close to the commons) comes together to act as custodians of the land. They benefit the most from making it an amazing local resource.  They receive ongoing funding from the developer and/or homeowners that is linked to some kind of measure of biodiversity / carbon sink measure (i.e. if they increase it they receive more money each month). They can do whatever they like with the land within certain pre-agreed constraints (i.e. as long as they maintain or increase the “nature” measures). If they don't, the backstop is that the developer stops the funding and has to find other ways to look after the land. Legal measures are put in place to stop power abuse by the developer / homeowners. 

  • This community could break up in to minority groups who may have different needs/desires for the land and apply for funding from the central funding pool

So this all sounds wonderful, however one of the key challenges (that anybody who has been part of a diverse community group that controls money has encountered) is how to make decisions fairly and transparently without a top down power hierarchy.  It’s hard.

In the world of Web 3 there has been a cambrian explosion of experiments in new governance / voting systems and are designed to solve exactly that problem. The Wellbeing Protocol has been on a three year journey funded by the New Zealand Government to look at how web 3 design patterns can be used to empower small, hyper local groups of people by giving them the tools (governance, financial and other) to work together to help themselves. The technical design/architecture employed allows this to be scaled by replication (i.e. to create thousands of community groups across a region or country) thus potentially creating a powerful decentralised network of grassroots change-makers / environmentalists.

Our first step on this journey has been the release of a participatory grantmaking tool currently being trialled throughout NZ and the UK (including by councils) that could be used to allow large numbers of hyper local informal groups of people decide how to spend money together to support nature “commons”. 

Surely New Zealand, with our sparsely populated land, pressure to build new homes and ground breaking natures based legal personhood laws should be leading the way with this type of legislation and innovation?


bottom of page