Are ordinary people able to self-organize?

Elinor C. Ostrom, Nobel Laureate, 2009


At a glance

Born: 1933, California, USA

Died: 2012, Indiana, USA

Field: Economic governance

Awarded: Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, 2009

Prize-winning work: Analysis of economic governance, especially the commons


Elinor C. Ostrom, the first female Nobel Laureate in Economic Sciences, believed that people are perfectly capable of taking control of decisions that affect their lives, without external authorities imposing rules. Her extensive fieldwork focused on how people interact with ecosystems, such as forests, fisheries and irrigation systems, while maintaining the long-term sustainability of these resources.

Her findings proved how societies develop diverse management systems. Rather than imposing a singular ‘panacea’ to manage these multi-faceted interactions, she identified eight ‘design principles’ for stable, common pool resource management. She outlined these principles in her 1990 book, Governing the Commons : The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, which showed how shared resources can be managed by local people.

What does Ostrom’s work mean for us?


“Elinor Ostrom’s work showed us that over time, human beings can successfully cooperate and draw up sensible rules.”

Wang Tao
Co-Head of Asian Economics of UBS Investment Bank


“A feminine perspective …. being more in touch with people and emotions, is absolutely the vanguard of where economics can improve itself.”

Robert Johnson
President of the Institute of New Economic Thinking

From Elinor C. Ostrom’s personal collection

Main image: Her interest in natural resources was apparent from an early age, as shown in this painting of the Hoover Dam.

Top: Vincent and Elinor C. Ostrom shared many happy times together as a couple and collaborators.

Bottom: The young Elinor C. Ostrom penned an essay about the importance of water.

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