Polycentricity on the Moon

I’m going to wade into a religious debate here by way of my favorite scholar. We often talk about exploration policy and governance as though the only option for making progress is consensus-based multilateralism: advancing norms and policies at the international level means, implicitly, going to the UN. Pursuing national laws is seen as unilateral, partnership frameworks as exclusionary, and operator agreements as childish.

I think this is an overly reductionist approach. These approaches can and must work together to strengthen and inform one another. Polycentricity is a way of thinking about this.

International relations often fall into the realm of social dilemmas, where individual actors (States) pursue their own self interest over that of humanity or the international community as a whole. Treaties are a traditional solution to this problem - they offer an external accountability mechanism to enforce prosocial behavior. As one of the principle Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (ABNJ), governance of outer space adds another dimension to this challenge (no pun intended) because, like climate or the high seas, the behavior of individual States is not self-contained, but affects all actors. These ABNJ are one of many domains often informally referred to as “commons,” although there is no legal definition of a commons as such. Through this lens, the US Executive Order on Space Resources and pursuit of the Artemis Accords could be seen as undermining the development of external institutions necessary to address collective action problems.

Based on a “contemporary presumption... that only the global scale is relevant for policies related to global public goods,” it makes sense that we would look to the UN as the place to seek this external authority. Writing about climate change in 2010, Elinor Ostrom further noted that, “the conventional theory of collective action... predicts that actions taken to reduce a joint risk are unlikely to occur without an externally enforced set of rules. As a result, many analysts have presumed that an enforceable global agreement is the only way to address the threat of climate change.”[1]

The Ostroms’ work over many decades served to complicate this assumption. They introduced the concept of polycentricity as a way to describe arrangements with multiple independent centers of decision making. Recently, I raised the idea that we could use the lens of polycentricity to help us think about good governance design for the Moon.

Polycentricity is not a new concept-- it's actually quite pervasive. What the theory of polycentricity does is to offer a framework for understanding when complex regimes are functioning as a healthy system, versus when they are the result of pathological duplication or lack of coordination. Vincent Ostrom noted that, "a political system with a single dominant center for making decisions is viewed as the ideal model," whereas a "multiplicity of political units… is essentially [viewed as] a pathological phenomenon.” But “whether they actually function independently, or instead constitute an interdependent system of relations, is an empirical question... To the extent that they take each other into account in competitive relationships, enter into various contractual and cooperative undertakings or have recourse to central mechanisms to resolve conflicts" they may well function in a “coherent manner.” [2]

Polycentricity emphasizes human scale stakeholder groups who make rules together. By binding governance to a domain of concern that is as specific as possible, agency can be created for different groups while keeping scope bounded. Multilateralism does not always have to mean consensus. A capable process of governance design will involve working with stakeholders to understand their domains of concern and facilitate their aggregation into self-organized groups. Naming different domains of concern can help to address power imbalances between these stakeholder groups if done effectively.

Seen through this lens, UN COPUOS is but one of numerous tools at our disposal. It’s an historic and incredibly important forum— but it’s not the only place to make progress on issues of coordination, norms or shared agreements. The pace of technological development, and diversity of new State and private actors, practically demands that we cultivate models of decision making that do not sit exclusively within a consensus-based, States-only framework.

A polycentric order might also serve as an alternative to territorial sovereignty (prohibited under the OST) for constructing area-based jurisdictions. Modalities for power and authority based in overlapping jurisdictions of different stakeholder groups, whether State-, interest-, or capability-based, could be a way to avoid claims of appropriation.

Additionally, polycentricity does not necessarily mean no central authority. Indeed one of the “centers” of a polycentric system is likely to be a body for conflict resolution. The courts of most countries often adjudicate disputes between different vertical or horizontal jurisdictions.

Positive qualities of polycentric systems include modularity, adaptability, diversity, specificity, accountability, and agency. But it is also worth highlighting some of the common failure modes of polycentric governance: the overhead of information sharing and coordination, unclear boundaries and associated accountability, the effort required to balance interests of different groups (not limited to polycentricity of course), and “scale-shopping” where “groups dissatisfied with politics at one scale simply approach a more favourable political venue.” [3]

Polycentricity, for its part, is not a value judgement, but a structural condition. Whether such a system is positive or “pathological” depends on the associated norms, agreements and institutions developed. But using this lens can help to analyze behavior and incentives, design effective frameworks, broaden the scope of solutions on the table, and increase policy innovation in a field that has been frozen in time for half a century.

In a future post, I hope to explore examples of polycentricity and what we need for it to be healthy.


[1] Elinor Ostrom, “Polycentric Systems for Coping with Collective Action and Global Environmental Change,” 2010.

[2] Charles M. Tiebout and Robert Warren, “The Organization of Government in Metropolitan Areas: A Theoretical Inquiry,” Vincent Ostrom, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 55, No. 4 (Dec., 1961), pp. 831-842. Online at (for example) https://www.jstor.org/stable/1952530.

[3] “Promote polycentric governance,” https://applyingresilience.org/en/principle-7/.