35Created by MRKfrom the Noun Project
35Created by MRKfrom the Noun Project
35Created by MRKfrom the Noun Project
Does polycentricity always emerge from the bottom up?
Can polycentric governance facilitate learning?
What happens to polycentric governance systems over time?
How can we evaluate the performance of polycentric governance systems?
Is polycentricity practiced in different ways across the Global North and the Global South?


May 17-19, 2021






January 2, 2021

March 19, 2021

April 9, 2021

May 5, 2021

Add to Calendar 05/17/2021 08:00 AM 05/19/2021 05:00 PM America/Phoenix IASC 2021 Polycentricity Virtual Conference Online, Worldwide


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Welcome to the

IASC 2021 Polycentricity Virtual Conference

Aim & Scope

We are pleased to announce our call for individual presentations, full webinar panel discussions, and special sessions on topics related to polycentricity. This virtual event on polycentricity aims to bring together scholars and practitioners from various sectors, disciplines, and epistemological traditions to help advance our understanding of how polycentric governance works in practice and how we can share knowledge as a diverse research community.

Our committee members share an interest in learning about whether and how polycentric governance structures and processes — that is, those that tend to exhibit overlapping authority that crosses jurisdictions, sectors, and governance levels — can help improve democratic decision-making and resolution of social problems. Besides, we are increasingly interested in exploring whether and why polycentric governance systems can help policy actors respond to social, political, and environmental change and understand how polycentric systems create (or fail to create) feedback that allows for effective and sustainable adaptation to changing conditions.

This conceptual focus could not be more timely: from climate change to the global pandemic to Brexit, hyper-connectivity through technology, and the rise of nationalist leaders, the world’s governance systems need to adapt to changing conditions. Theory development and rigorous, interdisciplinary empirical social science focused on polycentricity and related concepts can provide critical knowledge to help governance systems adapt to these changes.

As a web conference within the broader International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC), we provide opportunities a) for scholars to share their research and practitioners to share their experiences; b) for members of the research community to engage in sharing and building theory and methods for studying polycentric governance, and c) for members of the community to engage in networking and develop collaborative relationships. In doing so, we recognize that polycentricity is a theme that cuts across many of the IASC’s focal areas and allows for reflections across these areas. This session is intended to complement these other research areas with a specific focus on complex governance structures and processes.

We invite proposals that fit one or more of the tracks listed below. We especially welcome submissions from countries in the Global South and under-represented sectors within the polycentricity scholarship. We are also especially interested in emerging ideas that can potentially be workshopped within a track or a session. For applicants submitting a full panel, diverse submissions (gender, ethnic composition, level of scholarly achievement and career stage, methodological approach, institutional setting, the inclusion of practitioners) are encouraged.



Polycentricity can be perceived as an emerging property of a governance system (bottom-up) or as a strategic tool to improve how resources are managed and governed (top-down). How scale becomes a factor in the emergence and consolidation of polycentric governance systems is an issue that remains unexplored in much detail. There is an inherent assumption that because polycentricity includes (but is not limited to) multilevel networked interactions in a system, governance scales can be simply assumed to exist within the network, but these linkages are rarely if ever made explicit and explored in terms of timing, sequencing and system impacts. Does polycentricity emerge from the bottom-up or is it used as a normative tool to implement networked, power-distributed strategies of governance? In this track, we welcome papers and presentations that explore the different levels and scales of analysis and modes of implementation of polycentricity in resource (or other sectors’) governance systems.

Polycentric governance has largely been researched against the background of a structuralist understanding. Predominant research questions often focused on whether a particular configuration of governance was polycentric, to what degree, and how this shaped performance at a single point in time. Few empirical studies to date have taken more dynamic perspectives – for example, those that consider adaptiveness and resilience of governance over time. Understanding the dynamic qualities of polycentric governance poses multiple challenges which we want to discuss in detail in this session. In this session we thus invite submissions that examine how structures underpinning (polycentric) governance and processes and dynamics of governance relate to each other, and how we can evaluate the performance of polycentric governance over extended periods of time. Submissions might address questions about how to identify particular moments in governance that provide clues about performance; whether and what conditions underpinning polycentric governance may lead to desirable or undesirable pathways from a societal perspective; and other studies that assess dynamic change over time in polycentric governance systems.

Polycentric governance is frequently touted in the literature as being more democratic, inclusive, and empowering. Because two of the most relevant properties of polycentricity (networked interactions and power sharing) are also often associated with democratic inclusion, citizen participation and collective action problem-solving (Ostrom 2008), there has been a tendency in the scholarly literature on polycentricity lately to promote it as a tool to improve governance. But is it? How can we best harness the inherent properties of polycentricity to make systems more robust, more democratic, more inclusive and better designed? In this session, we welcome submissions that address one or more of the following questions:

  • Does timing and sequencing affect the way in which a polycentric governance system emerges?
  • How can we best use polycentricity to improve governance systems?
  • Is the way in which polycentricity is understood in countries of the Global North useful for specific applications in the Global South and vice-versa?
  • What are the potential drawbacks of attempting implementation of a polycentric approach to governance?

Complexity defines modern life. Even people living lives of relative isolation are impacted by complex social, economic and ecological processes that govern their living environment. Many positive changes, such as global improvement in standard of living, thanks to ever-advancing technologies, have benefited from, and added to, the complexity of our daily lives. More negatively, this complexity can exclude and distance people from the processes that shape their lives.

Our capacity to learn about these complex processes has not developed in step with the systemic and substantive complexity of modern life. The resulting alienation and disengagement are obstacles to public participation, undermining democratic decision-making.

The capacity to learn is a pre-condition to successful polycentric governance (van Zeben, 2019) but the complexity of, especially but not only, large polycentric systems is making this increasingly difficult. How can we create governance systems that allow for meaningful learning, even under conditions of complexity? Is complexity undermining the effectiveness and/or feasibility of polycentricity? What about the complexity that polycentricity itself creates through its state of constant change? What happens when the learning in polycentric systems is a result of not just humans learning, but machines?

The recent momentum of polycentricity studies in the environmental field has come along with an interest in exploring and testing new approaches such as historical and cross-sectional analyses, as well as techniques such as network analysis, qualitative comparative analysis or simulations. These new methods now coexist with and potentially complement longer-standing approaches like qualitative case studies and allow to address new research questions. The expanded breath of methods has also come along with an emphasis on hypothesis testing and an effort to systematize the characterization of different polycentric systems.
This track welcomes contributions that reflect on the opportunities and challenges of expanding the portfolio of methods to study polycentricity, whether from a qualitative or quantitative perspective, or with descriptive or explanatory purposes.

This track is dedicated to cross-cutting themes in applying polycentricity in practice, or working within parts of polycentric systems, across different types of commons. We welcome submissions from practitioners as well as scholars across disciplines, who work closely with communities to realize polycentric governance and overcome potential barriers on the ground. Some example topics include but are not limited to mobilizing cross-level or landscape level collective action, collaboration across professional sectors, multi-stakeholder dialogues and conflict solving, inclusion and empowerment, inequality, the intersections of traditional and state authorities, intersection of formal and informal rules, and designing flexible legal frameworks to fit diverse historical contexts. 


Submission Process

To take full advantage of the virtual format, the committee invites submissions of a) research or case study presentations; b) roundtables; c) special sessions. When submitting your proposal, please indicate which track above you are submitting to.

Much of the virtual event will take place via webinars organized around four-five 10-minute pre-recorded presentations, with opportunities for synchronous and asynchronous engagement between audience and presenters. The committee invites a) individual submissions of 10-minute research talks or case studies; or b) fully-formed panels of four-five webinar presenters. To the degree possible, the committee will organize individual submissions into webinars that share common themes.

We invite the submission of proposals for roundtables – e.g., moderated discussions with a set of 4-5 speakers organized around a given topic. Roundtables will be held live with opportunities for the audience to ask questions and participate. Asynchronous participation will also be encouraged through the use of discussion forums, and the session will be recorded and posted for asynchronous participants.

Special sessions could include methods workshops; stakeholder workshops; networking events; early career sessions; etc. The committee invites proposals for special events that would work well in online formats (e.g., a combination of pre-recorded talks, interactions via Zoom, and asynchronous discussion boards). If you are interested in a special session, please specify how you aim to run the session.


Online Conference

No hassle, costs, or carbon emissions from traveling. Attend the entire conference safely from home.


Three Days

Three days packed with prerecorded sessions and live events.


Meetup and Network

Interact with your peers during networking events.


Important Dates

March 19, 2021

Deadline for abstract submission

March 19, 2021
April 9, 2021

Notification on acceptance/rejection

April 9, 2021
May 5, 2021

Deadline for pre-recorded video submission

May 5, 2021
May 17-19, 2021

Event dates

May 17-19, 2021



This virtual conference is accessible for small fees to cover the costs of the implementation of the meetings. All presenters will have to be or become IASC members. IASC members pay 10 dollars to attend the virtual conference live. All conference material will be available to IASC members after the conference. If you are not an IASC member, you can easily register here. Non-IASC members can attend the conference for a fee of 50 dollars. Dependent on sponsoring, waivers are available for early-career scholars and practitioners from the global south.

IASC Members
$ 10
$ 50

Meet The Team


Elizabeth Baldwin

Assistant Professor in the School of Government & Public Policy at the University of Arizona, Tucson, USA

Steering Committee

Kimberlee Chang

Ph.D. Candidate in Public Policy and Methodology, University of Colorado Boulder, USA

Katherine Daniell

Associate Professor at the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia

Elke Kellner

Postdoctoral researcher, Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL, Switzerland.

Raul Pacheco-Vega

Associate Professor in the Methods Lab at the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO) Sede Mexico

Andreas Thiel

Professor for International Agricultural Policy and Environmental Governance at the Faculty of Organic Agricultural Science, University of Kassel, Germany

Josephine van Zeben

Professor and Chair, LAW Group, Wageningen University, the Netherlands

Sergio Villamayor-Tomas

Research fellow at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology, Autonomous University of Barcelona, Spain


Event Sponsors

Become our


We are seeking sponsors to cover the costs of organizing the conference and fund IASC memberships for students and colleagues in the global south. We consider the following level of Sponsorships:

Platinum Sponsor: $5,000

Gold Sponsor: $2,000

Silver Sponsor: $1,000

Bronze sponsor: $120, which covers a membership for one participant for four years.

Platinum, Gold, and Silver sponsors will have their logo on the conference website, the size depending on the level of Sponsorship. If you have inquiries about sponsorships, please contact Marco.Janssen@asu.edu.

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