Lara Mitra: How did it feel to be told you had won the Nobel Prize?
Dr. Ostrom: I was very surprised to find out I had been awarded the Nobel Prize. I was not expecting it. It
was a great honor and a great surprise.
Lara Mitra: What are the implications of your research for community service or volunteerism?
Can communities be relied upon to look after the less privileged among them?
Dr. Ostrom: There are no automatic processes that lead groups to engage in community service. What we
know is that when there are individuals who take some of the responsibility for getting people together and
discussing their needs then communities can, and do organize, for that purpose. It is not an automatic
process. Once they get started and begin to get one activity undertaken, they usually can involve other
groups and move on to still others. What is key is getting the trust established that they are actually doing
something and that others will contribute and that together people will make a difference.
Lara Mitra: How can the power of the "commons" be harnessed to address social (not just
environmental) problems? Can you give an example?
Dr. Ostrom: We are looking at the commons as they may relate to healthcare at the initiative of some
scholars who are working on better ways of coping with our healthcare system. While the relationship
between a doctor and a patient is usually "private," if doctors find ways of networking more effectively
with local hospitals, e.g., if doctors have access to patient information across hospitals, etc., they can
reduce the costs of healthcare in a community while at the same time increasing the quality of the service.
This is a recent development, and we will have some further work on this in another 2-3 months.
Lara Mitra: Your work shows that people are capable of acting in the common interest rather than
just their own personal interest. Are there any steps governments or the private sector can take to
ensure that they will?
Dr. Ostrom: No, there are no definite steps. However, if a local government starts taking a real interest
and backs the efforts of neighborhoods and voluntary groups then that can make a big difference. In
Indianapolis, for example, the local government engaged in a rather major tree planting effort. The city
planted the trees at the city's cost. Then the problem was how to get them watered so that they would
survive. Different neighborhoods took this on in different ways, but those groups that decided to meet
regularly every Saturday and water the trees in their neighborhood found this to be the most satisfactory
way. That got them together and talking and learning about other neighborhood activities that needed to be
taken on. In this instance, the city's effort to add more trees to the city started a process that in some
neighborhoods has led to still other voluntary activities.