Lin and Vincent Ostrom spent a half century in a unique intellectual partnership, grappling with complex questions about how people and societies organize themselves to solve problems and spreading their ideas through an extended family of students and colleagues.
Soon their remarkable story will be shared with a broader audience through a documentary film suitable for venues ranging from film festivals to classrooms to village council meetings.
The filmmaker is the Ostroms’ longtime friend and former student Barbara Allen, a distinguished professor of political science at Carleton College and a senior research fellow at the Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at IU Bloomington.
The project, “Actual World, Possible Future,” is a labor of love in every sense. Allen began recording conversations with the Ostroms on a 2005 visit to their summer cabin on Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron. At Lin’s suggestion, she began working in earnest on the film in late 2011.
“Lin was the one who, in a sense, commissioned the film,” Allen said. “I feel truly honored that she wanted to give me the opportunity to make this film about her, about Vincent and about the Workshop.”
Allen is relying on a crowd-funding project to help raise money for editing, production and post-production costs. She hopes to show selections this June at the fifth Workshop on the Workshop in Bloomington and to complete the project over the next 18 months.
Lin and Vincent Ostrom met at UCLA, where he was a professor and she was a graduate student. In 1965 they moved to IU, where they were faculty members in political science and where they established the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis in 1973.
Elinor Ostrom, known as Lin, was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for her work on understanding how people and communities develop successful strategies for managing common-pool resources without resorting to private ownership or top-down government regulation. Vincent Ostrom did pioneering work in public administration and political philosophy focused on polycentric governance, the idea that overlapping systems of decision-making may produce the best results. He led the drafting of the natural resources article of the Alaska Constitution. Both died in June 2012.
Allen met the Ostroms as an IU undergraduate student and completed her Ph.D. under Lin’s supervision. She edited volumes of Vincent’s essays and papers and worked with him to produce new editions of two books. She was one of a few colleagues who accompanied Lin Ostrom for 2009 Nobel Week in Stockholm.
As a filmmaker, Allen directed “Signing On: Stories of Deaf Breast Cancer Survivors, Their Families and Community,” which received the 2011 Best Documentary Audience Award at the Twin Cities Film Fest and has shown at many other film festivals internationally.
“Actual World, Possible Future” will include extensive interviews with the Ostroms and many colleagues who have learned from and used their work, such as Julia Duany and the late Wal Duany, who helped establish the nation of South Sudan, and Amos Sawyer, former interim president of Liberia.
The film will be organized around five lessons that draw from the couple’s work and writings, concluding with “Lin’s oft-repeated mantra, ‘We Can, We Must,'” a call for people to solve problems by working from experience, testing ideas, adjusting and trying again and again.
Allen describes the Ostroms’ lives and work as “a love story that became a global gift.” She said working on the film has given her an even greater appreciation for their far-reaching influence.
“You can see it from Vincent’s work on the Alaska Constitution to Lin’s co-authored writing about a polycentric approach to restoring lakes in Bangalore, some of the last work she did,” she said. “It’s truly staggering, the worldwide effect of their work.”