The origin story of the GCA

Eighteen months ago I started a process within the Global Commons Alliance (GCA) that would effectively close our start-up chapter (1.0) and enable us to step confidently into the next one. GCA 2.0 will be based on strong governance and leadership; a robust integration plan between the component parts, and the right teams with the necessary resources in place to deliver the innovative products we’re bringing into the world.

We are now on the cusp of GCA 2.0 becoming reality with the appointment of Jane Madgwick as our first ever Executive Director: Jane will take the lead with us in May. As we enter this new phase, I wanted to express my deep gratitude to everyone who has helped us get so far in such a short time, and to honor the seed from which so much has already grown by telling GCA’s origin story.


We all share something in common


The original idea for creating an Alliance for the Global Commons was conceived in 2016 during the Global Commons Dialogue, a 3-day gathering at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC. My team and I had been brought in to help the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to host a conversation about the state of our planet outlined in this paper: The Global Commons in the Anthropocene: World Development on a Stable and Resilient Planet.

The paper showed in clear and scientific terms that whoever we are, wherever we are, we all share something in common: the interconnected systems that maintain a stable and resilient planet – and keep us alive. It argued that we need to recognise these interconnected systems as ‘global commons’, that they are in trouble, and that we, humans, are called to their urgent stewardship.

When I heard from the scientists what we were up against I was shaken to the core: the sheer scale of the challenge felt absolutely daunting. At the same time, I couldn’t deny the need to do something about it, and I wasn’t the only one. Together with my colleagues Andor Gregorics, Mike Fleisch and Hilde Rydning, we decided to answer the call to help by forming a ‘coalition for change’ and we set-up a ‘Global Commons Situation Room’ hosted by the Global Environment Facility in Washington DC. We based all this on the first element of systems leadership: ‘enabling learning, trust-building and empowering action among stakeholders who share a common goal’. We invested our own start-up capital and brought people together to rally around the cause.


Safeguarding the global commons requires a totally different kind of global effort


We’ve since convened leaders from business, science, advocacy, the media and policy to co-create an action plan that would answer the challenge. Along the way, we’ve been supported by countless individuals who’ve stepped in to contribute in their own ways too.

Early on in this venture, it became very clear that safeguarding the global commons would require a totally different kind of global effort, and a different kind of thinking, being and behaving – a different culture. Our existing institutions and societies aren’t designed to tackle a universal challenge like this: the scale is too vast, and, for a variety of practical reasons, including bad incentive structures, they aren’t able to offer joined-up solutions.

We instinctively knew then that the one thing we did not need in order to succeed was a new institution. Instead, we needed to find a way to work in between the existing structures.

Based on the second element of systems leadership: ‘the tactics of coalition building and advocacy to develop alignment and mobilize action among stakeholders in the system, both within and between organizations’, we wanted to create some kind of magic, we wanted to bring different groups together in a coalition of the willing.

It was about an ecosystem (not egosystem) approach: about pooling resources and finding ways to work together for the greater good. We needed to show how everyone could become active guardians of the global commons.


A mindset that defies competition


There seemed to be no more urgent collaboration opportunity than finding new ways to manage and govern what we all share – the global commons.

What we’ve grown together since then is a testament to the power of what is too often hidden and neglected – the spaces in-between, and connecting across them.

With careful, intentional convening, expert facilitation and an abundance of safe space for co-creation, we’ve been able to build an extraordinary network of networks, working across sectors and issues in a mindset that defies competition. It’s one in which each actor empowers the others. Crucially we all share the vision of a time when we have moved safely to a rebalanced and restored planet.

We’ve incubated five independent but interconnected components, each of them convenors in their own right, tasked with empowering change-makers in different spaces: science, targets, accountability, systems change and stories. Overall more than 100 partner organizations, including more than 20 funders have leaned in to co-create the innovative products that these components are delivering.

We got this far because we’ve questioned the status quo, and worked creatively to find ways to break out of it.

We’ve collaborated to support others at major multilateral events and invested in building trusted relationships. We’ve invited a growing community of people to understand their relationship with the world – and each other – differently.

The very first idea of the Alliance was the operationalization of the planetary boundaries, a challenge we chose because of the teachings of Nobel Prize winning economist Elinor Ostrom. She found out that the first step towards managing the commons is to define their boundaries. And we are now getting close to that at a global level.

The Earth Commission has defined a holistic set of safe and just Earth System Boundaries, and we are now beginning to translate them into clear guidance for action in the form of science-based targets. These are just a couple of the tools the GCA will share with the world over the coming months, all of which have been co-created by brilliant people who care deeply about the cause.

This story of origin is proof that we are hard-wired to collaborate despite all the forces that constantly pull us apart. We can engage in collective endeavor that enables collective action. The GCA 1.0 is therefore also a seed of hope. After successfully completing the start-up chapter, I am convinced that we can also stand together when it comes to finding out how we put into practice the last and third element of systems change: ’gaining an understanding of the complex systems shaping the challenge to be addressed and finding ways to change them’.

Ensuring a safe and just future for our living planet and its people will depend on it.


Systems Leadership involves learning to think and act in ways that are substantially different from traditional hierarchies and change models. Systems Leaders must inspire in both themselves and others a comfort level with inquiry, learning, and collaboration with new partners”. Dreier, Nabarro + Nelson


The Origin Image

Scribed by Mike Fleisch