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This is a reworking over the question of a knowledge commons, originally written for Théra and their potential investors.

Establishing an applied research knowledge commons wiki for a bioregion

Problems inherent in current research and development work

Investing in research and development (R&D) projects can be a risky business. Inside experience of R&D projects reveals several significant potential compromising factors.

1. Many if not most people engaged with externally funded R&D projects are working to contracts bound to the R&D grant, rather than being part either of a long-term organisational establishment, or of an active community of practice. There is a culture of scarcity around R&D funding, which maintains low rewards for research workers. The problem of job insecurity (or “precarity”) for research assistants has been common knowledge for decades.

2. Because of short-term contracts, those actually doing the R&D have no incentive to follow up. Though many research projects include some kind of required sustainability plan, this is typically only assessed during the lifetime of the project, and there is no assessment of the actual sustainability of the project work. A sustainability plan may, for instance, include setting up some kind of web-based platform or forum. Many of us have experienced several such places that lose attention and die shortly after the project finishes, through lack of sustained interest and engagement. It is very easy to set up a forum or platform, but hard to make a success of long-term impact. Issues around project sustainability are written about extensively. 1)

3. Even if there is no sustainability plan, there has often been a requirement for a dissemination plan. Measurable “dissemination” of results usually includes some final conference, free to attend so that there are minimal barriers to bringing people in. But it is very difficult to assess, let alone ensure, that any dissemination actually takes root and bears fruit anywhere else. It seems more likely that any positive follow-up is more due to chance and luck than design. Dissemination plans may also include forums, web sites or platforms, with the difficulties mentioned above.

4. To be accountable, projects usually set specific goals, which is fine, but these goals are most often focused in one specific area. This means they are likely failing to benefit from the possibilities of trans-disciplinary work. People working in research areas tend to be based in academic departments, or in businesses with specific objectives, and there is rarely any effective attempt to recruit or involve those people who can effectively bridge between disciplines. When taking on a highly complex task such as bioregional regeneration, interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary approaches are vital, alongside detailed systems thinking, addressing the multitude of connections, relationships and interactions between the different issues to be addressed, and the different people and perspectives involved.

All of these factors combine to increase the risk that R&D investment has a temporary effect at best, and may have little long-term impact. I am passionate about long-term impact, so I'm trying to set out to counter these problems in carefully thought-through ways.

Proposed solutions

1. R&D effort needs to be managed by a lean team of long-term staff, whose role is not to conduct the research itself, but rather: to gather and the curate the information and knowledge that is already present in the region and further afield; to lead the process of identifying important gaps in this knowledge; and to stimulate and enable applied research by the people themselves on the ground. The principles of Action Research are highly relevant here.2)

2. Because those actually doing the R&D work are the people already engaged and committed, they will have a natural incentive to follow through and use the research that they have been involved both in planning and carrying out. The supporting technology needs to be usable and accessible to them, to help rather than get in the way of their work.

3. Effective dissemination is a long-term challenge. Wikipedia has consistently been well up in the top 10 websites in the world because it is by far the best at its limited job. This knowledge commons approach learns from and transcends Wikipedia methodology – more below – and aims to be a leading nexus of knowledge relevant to regeneration. We anticipate that, as bioregional cross-links are enriched, the knowledge commons will itself provide an ongoing dissemination of knowledge relevant at the moment of reading.

4. The applied research knowledge commons will interconnect knowledge from the many different areas of life relevant to the bioregion. No one perspective will predominate, which opens the space widely for interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary work across sectors of agriculture, industry, commerce, well-being, education, and life as a whole. We envisage that it will be a whole lot easier to develop the necessary trans-disciplinary knowledge when supported by a knowledge resource that embodies this interconnected nature.

Applied research knowledge commons

My synthesis of the knowledge commons concept draws on Elinor Ostrom's work on the Commons, and Étienne Wenger's work on communities of practice, and to me the most helpful definition of a knowledge commons is “the information, communication and knowledge aspects of a community of practice”. A useful, multi-purpose knowledge commons must:

  1. be reliable and of high quality;
  2. be openly and freely shared;
  3. be able to be found by those who need it;
  4. have a strong culture of being kept relevant and up to date.

A most effective approach, wherever possible, is to partner with other interested projects and initiatives, which will extend the “critical mass” of the project and progressively draw in yet more people into collaboration.

However, it should not be a structureless free-for-all. Wikipedia works only because there are very many contributors following the pages they have contributed to, and ready to revert vandalism at a moment's notice. This effect is similar to Linus's law which asserts that for software, “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”. The intention with this knowledge commons is to establish named collective stewardship for every page apart from pages of individual people, which are owned by their subjects. Individual good conduct generally implies joining with diverse others to enhance collective intelligence and wisdom.

Because the knowledge commons will make finding existing knowledge easy, it will:

  • prevent wasted time finding what is needed for practical regenerative purposes;
  • enable further enrichment by all participants, with special technical knowledge needed;
  • encourage specialisation of research effort, while strengthening cross-sector and cross-disciplinary work, learning from and relying on the knowledge of others in other sectors.

For learning, the knowledge commons will be designed and maintained as an open learning resource, available both for all young people, and all older people who are transitioning, changing occupations, or adapting to a new situation. Not only will this itself enhance the quality of life of the people engaging with this knowledge, but also provide a key resource for enabling an economy in which native species, as well as all people, thrive, through having the maximum possible awareness to support their finding the place where they are most creative and willingly productive.

One aspect of the knowledge commons is what has been called “inner development”, 3) including guidance and resources around the skills and practices needed for community, collaboration, diversity, and mutual care and support. This will prepare the ground for effective communication and governance of projects and all their resources, and enable everyone to participate more effectively in the governance and management of the bioregion.

Questions and commentary from diverse perspectives

Central to the design of the knowledge commons wiki is to engage people by representing multiple perspectives and asking questions. Participation will be open to all who show basic good conduct, and all participants will be able to comment and raise questions that they sense are generative. Experience shows that questions draw people together in enquiry much more readily than individuals simply proposing their own answers from their own perspectives. When all the diverse perspectives on a question are able to be seen together – during the time when no obvious answers are yet apparent – that is the time when new and creative ways forward emerge.

Towards the goals

I see three primary kinds of goals which can be labelled as regenerative, or about regeneration.

  1. Regenerating connection and collaboration between people, lost through individualism and fragmentation. This includes the areas of commons and governance: not going back to tribalism and fixed roles, but leading forwards.
  2. Regenerating knowledge of regional natural and human ecosystems. This includes rediscovery of ancient / traditional / indigenous wisdom, while also integrating good science and contemporary local knowledge, also possibly still transmitted orally.
  3. Removing obstacles and enabling regeneration of those ecosystems with the benefit of that knowledge, ancient and modern.

I'll take this forward here by addressing what I envisage as ways in which these goals can be furthered by the kind of knowledge commons I am envisaging.

Regenerating connection

There are several dimensions to regenerating connection through knowledge commons.

  • “Commons” implies collective ownership and responsibility, so that everyone involved will have a stake in the knowledge and therefore motivated to collaborate in its upkeep. The challenge here is to encourage that sense of collective ownership.
  • The wiki design will bring sections for commentary and questions to the foreground. This gives visible encouragement for diverse people to share their different perspectives and issues. This inclusivity doesn't immediately bring people to hold the same opinions, but holding all the perspectives and questions equally visible gives a good chance of stimulating the kind of dialogue 4) that will better enable people to understand each other and thus restore lost connections.

Elsewhere I have called this ontological commoning, by which I mean processes and practices to help people inter-relate their (often unconscious) worldviews to increase mutual understanding and create fertile ground for eventual collaboration.

Regenerating knowledge

Regenerating knowledge doesn't just mean piling up more of it. Knowledge in the abstract is not what we're looking for — it's relevant knowledge accessible to people for their various practical purposes at helpful times. There is no lack of information out there on the web right now; but finding what is helpful, at the appropriate level, is very difficult because of the sheer volume of it. AI tools can help in some ways, but as they are trained on a vast range of information, they tend to serve up just what is common knowledge, or at least what is commonly believed. This may be helpful for beginners in established areas, but much less likely when someone is searching for knowledge finely tuned to their situation, their context, their particular abilities and desires.

Much talked about in recent years is also the progressive loss of traditional knowledge. The knowledge embedded in oral tradition may never have been documented, and even if it has been, the documentation bears a heavy risk of missing much subtle context. Permaculture, for example, points us to local knowledge as a starting point for ecological design. I see a great potential in the integration of ancient and modern knowledge: tradition and science.

A well-managed knowledge commons can help with these challenges.

  • A wiki system enables and can encourage knowledge from different sources and traditions not only to be equally documented, but also to be easily interrelated.
  • Well-engaged contributors not only collectively raise the quality and accuracy of what is documented, but also be quick to point out mistakes. This is particularly likely if the contributors are actually using the knowledge in their own working lives, as communities of practice.
  • There is a connection also here for helping people find the works they are most interested in: see my writing on words in publication.

Regenerating ecosystems

I'm following recent practice around the use of the term “bioregion”, which is most often now defined as including human cultural systems. So, by “ecosystems” I mean: the natural, biological ecosystems independent of humanity; the ecosystems formed from the interaction of people with the rest of the natural world; and purely human systems that can be thought of as “ecosystems”, for example around science and research.

The rationale is not hard to follow. If we are going to regenerate a bioregion, we need to engage with systems thinking on the level these varied ecosystems. We need to understand as much as we can — however, it is immediately obvious that a detailed understanding all the ecosystems in a bioregion is way beyond the capabilities of any individual human. There is far too much complexity. Thus, to engage with bioregional ecosystems in an effective way (some would say, with “impact”) first we need to collaborate effectively, which was pointed to above: we need to be connected. There are many practical experiments underway aimed at helping people develop collective intelligence and wisdom. The knowledge commons is just one aspect of that.

Second, we need to have the appropriate practical applied knowledge at our fingertips. That is the major aim of the knowledge commons itself.

Lastly we need to bring people together who share ability and motivation to carry out the practical actions that are needed to move towards regenerating ecosystems. This goes beyond the knowledge commons, and I have written about this extensively under the headings of ReGenMatch and CHOICE, and I won't repeat myself here!


d/2024-06-29.txt · Last modified: 2024-07-02 12:01 by simongrant