Concept of the Day: The Tragedy of the Commons

I like concepts that have a history and this one dates back to 1833 and an economist called William Forster Lloyd.

The concept refers to a hypothetical situation where unregulated grazing on common land could create a situation where an individual herder, acting in their own interest and within their rights, could result in overgrazing. The overgrazing would then result in a tragedy for the group of people who use that common.

(In the UK Common Land, the commons, is land that is available for use by the Commoners for a particular activity. Livestock grazing was, and still is, a regular use for common land. The origins of common land go back to medieval time and thus some land has been grazed by Commoners for hundreds of years.)

Over the years the commons has become a metaphor for many situations where a resource is shared.

A great technology example of the tragedy of the commons is email SPAM. The actions of a few people significantly degrades the value of the email utility for the majority and results in a cost to everyone who uses it.

In the UK there’s been a lot of news coverage recently about the overuse of antibiotics, particularly people going in to their doctors and demanding medication even though they are of no value to their condition. The actions of these individuals has contributed to the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria which is highly likely to result in the common value of antibiotics being destroyed for the majority.

There are so many business situations where the tragedy applies. I’ve seen many teams fail to be effective because an individual was optimising their activities to the detriment of the group.

Put simply, the tragedy of the commons applies to those situations where people’s personal short term interests are at odds with the longer-term interests of the group. I’m sure you can think of many, many more examples?

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