Can open and collaborative approaches change the world?

Arduino unit

by Patrick van Zwanenberg, Mariano Fressoli, Valeria Arza and Adrian Smith

Around the world, people are changing how things are made and how knowledge is produced, by involving more people, opening up data, and sharing skills and insights with these activities across communities, countries or continents.

Experimentation with radically open and collaborative ways of producing knowledge and material artefacts can be found everywhere – from the free/libre and open-source software movement to citizen science initiatives, and from community-based fabrication labs and makerspaces to the production of open-source scientific hardware. Networked digital infrastructure – including ever-faster internet access in far flung places – makes these experiments more possible.

Though diverse, these initiatives have important things in common: they create or recreate knowledge commons, and attempt to get a broader array of actors involved as ‘agents’ in innovation.

In a new working paper, ‘Open and Collaborative Developments’, researchers in STEPS America Latina, the STEPS Centre and SPRU reflect on what these emerging practices might mean for helping to cultivate more equitable and sustainable patterns of global development. For many commentators and activists such initiatives promise to radically alter the ways in which we produce knowledge and material artefacts in ways that are far more efficient, creative, distributed, decentralized, and democratic. But can open and collaborative approaches fulfil this promise?

Challenges for open and collaborative practices

The key to answering this question is a set of challenges about the knowledge politics and political economy of the new practices. What depths and forms of participation are being enabled through these new practices, for instance? In what senses does openness translate to the ability to use knowledge? Will open and collaborative forms of production create new relations with, or even transform, markets, states, and civil society, or will they be captured by sectional interests?

Sharing and sticky knowledge

To take one example, a key assumption underpinning many open and collaborative initiatives is that knowledge and information can be shared, then used, modified or further developed, among actors who are far apart from each other (either geographically or institutionally). In effect, this is a promise to radically redistribute access, power and agency over the way that knowledge and materials are produced.

For those in the global South, this is an intriguing prospect. Many developing countries are characterized by acute knowledge dependencies, very narrow production structures, and constrained scope for innovation. In many cases, global firms have control over the frontier of knowledge and technology. So sharing knowledge openly and collaboratively across nations ought to give more options for innovation and participation for people in those countries.

The problem is, though, that knowledge is ‘sticky’: it is immobile, or at least costly or difficult to move from one setting to another. There are several aspects to this; each of which complicates further the challenge of ensuring widespread, equitable internet access and digital information flows.

One aspect to knowledge stickiness is that knowledge possesses important tacit dimensions, particularly in the form of skills and competences. These are most readily shared and learnt in apprentice relationships and through social practice, they often take years to develop, and they are extremely difficult to codify or render explicit, and so are not easily shared through digital networks. Tacit knowledge and the skills to put knowledge to material effect in development are, however, critical to producing and utilizing any and all forms of knowledge. Even successfully using databases of codified information requires skills to select, interpret, and practically use what is relevant.

Some areas of open and collaborative production cope more effectively with knowledge ‘stickiness’. For instance, absolutely central to the success of the open and highly collaborative international Green Revolution in plant breeding (albeit in pre-internet days) were long and intensive international exchanges and field training of thousands of young scientists.

More recently, community-based makerspaces have managed to combine digitally shared, non-proprietary knowledge platforms, with collaborative physical spaces that enable shared learning by doing and using locally. They may, as a consequence, manage to get around many of the problems posed by the immobility of tacit knowledge and the need to re-interpret appropriately and re-embed codified knowledge in local practices.

But other practices, such as citizen science initiatives or the sharing of scientific information via open access repositories may struggle to overcome these kinds of challenges without analogous developments locally. In such circumstances, meaningful access to knowledge and the ability to participate effectively in its (re)production and use are likely to remain very limited.

The obstacles are not necessarily insurmountable, but they do require careful attention to how sharing and collaboration is practiced on the ground, and to the development and distribution more generally of capabilities in knowledge production and use.

Three challenges

Our paper as a whole highlights three sets of challenges in the emerging field of open and collaborative production.

One, as in the example above, concerns the ways in which important attributes of knowledge itself limits aspirations for a more democratic innovation culture.

A second concerns the operation of power internal to the process of producing open and collaborative knowledge. Can open and collaborative production transcend existing hierarchies, asymmetries in the distribution of resources and capabilities between collaborators, and wider patterns of social privilege and structure?

A third concerns the nature of political and economic power within the wider settings and structures in which initiatives in open and collaborative production are situated. Put somewhat crudely, will the new practices constitute ‘novel inputs for existing processes’ or ‘novel inputs for transformed processes’?

None of these three challenges is insurmountable, as we conclude in our paper. But they do imply that any promise in the open and collaborative practices will be realised through accompanying, wider developments. These must be attentive to issues of local capabilities (material and social) in diverse contexts, and include the capability to grapple with issues of relative power and autonomy.


The authors of this blog post are co-authors of the working paper ‘Open and Collaborative Developments’ (STEPS Working Paper 98). You can read the abstract here and download the paper (PDF, 900KB).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *