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A Tribute to Dr. Elinor Ostrom: Integrative Leader Extraordinaire

Elinor Ostrom.jpgCIL would like to add a tribute of our own to the many other honorable ones posted online on the life of Elinor Ostrom, a political scientist by training who holds the distinction of being the only woman to win a Nobel Prize in Economics. One need only look to her life pursuits to find the meaning of integrative leadership. Not only did she boldly venture across institutional boundaries as a woman working in academic disciplines dominated by men, but she ventured across disciplines in her questions, her methodologies, her academic collaborations, and the theories she shared with the world.

As a political scientist using methods from anthropology to develop economic theory, she truly lived at the intersection of disciplines. As came up in our February Friday Research Forum, this type of cross-disciplinary work is not supported by the structures and incentives of most academic institutions. However, as Journalist Catherine Rampell of the NY Times points out in her article on Dr. Ostrom, "the outsider perspective Professor Ostrom brought to the field contributed to what made her work so groundbreaking."

Most famously, Ostrom countered the "tragedy of the commons" posed by Garrett Hardin in his December 1968 article in the Journal Science. In attempting a response to the population crisis, Hardin uses the analogy of ancient herding practices to suggest that communities need government regulation to keep from destroying public resources - things like air, water, fisheries, and forests.

Elinor Ostrom spent her lifetime helping us reimagine the capacity of communities to self-manage common pool resources - those resources subject to social dilemmas they attempt to be shared. She also applied her theory to help us think beyond natural resources to knowledge and health care as "commons."

Her work on knowledge commons informed the work CIL has been doing over the past couple years as a partner with InCommons - an initiative that connects Minnesotans through in-person gatherings, engagement and online networking so they can find and share credible tools, knowledge and resources to solve community problems. Both the name and the concept for this initiative were informed by Ostrom's theories. Since InCommons.org launched in January 2011, we've been seeking to get UMN research out into the "knowledge commons," summarizing and posting research relevant to community leaders across Minnesota, such as bullying, food insecurity, water sustainability, andobesity, among many others. By continuing to bridge knowledge created both in the University and communities across Minnesota, we hope to further Ostrom's theory that with resources and knowledge, communities can self-manage and self-sustain.

In closing, we commend Dr. Ostrom for both her lifelong exploration of a theory that provides rich soil for integrative leadership and for living out integrative leadership through her words and actions. May we all be inspired to create and contribute to the commons we share.

Photo courtesy of Augsburg College. Dr. Ostrom spoke in October 2011 at their Festival of the Commons.

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