How can open and collaborative knowledge help to build communities?

Open Science discussion

by Adrian Smith, STEPS Centre and Patrick van Zwanenberg, STEPS America Latina

Experimentation with open and collaborative ways of creating knowledge is flourishing. How might the increasing interest in initiatives such as open science, open hardware and open data lead to a transformation in knowledge production? And could this enable more inclusive and sustainable approaches to development in regions like Latin America?

These were amongst a variety of questions addressed at a workshop organised by STEPS America Latina on 27-28 April in Buenos Aires.

Why open science?

Open science activities, for example, make it easier for anyone to access and share results, data and research tools. Contemporary practice in this area was introduced at the workshop by Erin McKiernan from Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. She described some of the online platforms and repositories supporting open science, and discussed policy initiatives in Peru, Argentina, México and Europe requiring scientists to adopt open practices. Public initiatives to date have amounted to little more than publishing results in accessible archives, though incentives and mechanisms for sharing data are also emerging.

A lot of policy motivation for opening science seems to be driven by an interest in increasing the efficiency, efficacy, creativity, and impact of investments in research. Similar motivations underpin policy interest in practices of openness and collaboration in other fields. The US Agency for International Department (USAID) now describes itself as experimenting with ‘open source development’ – seeking, for example, to crowdsource ideas from anyone and anywhere, so as to improve the effectiveness of development assistance. And interest in supporting maker spaces by many city governments is often prompted by the hope that they will be a new site for entrepreneurship, leading to business spin-offs.

Going deeper: how can knowledge production serve transformation?

The critical question is whether these institutions have the policy appetite for going further, and thinking more deeply about how knowledge production can be reconfigured within and for a more transformational agenda. Such an agenda challenges the residual power relations controlling more limited moves towards openness and transparency, and demands a deeper democratisation of the institutions that influence the kinds of knowledge that count, and for whom and how.

In contrast, participants at the workshop were hungry for radically more open, collaborative and democratic forms of knowledge production. Voluntary initiatives are emerging that bring trained researchers and citizens into collaborative practices with those aims.

For example, at the workshop were participants from the Co-sensores initiative, who take community development issues and problem definitions and bring in monitoring expertise from Universidad de Buenos Aires to address contamination. Meanwhile, Minka provides a knowledge production platform dedicated specifically to the creation of solidarity economies.

Co-sensores and Minka, like many other projects, would not have happened without aspirations for transformation, and knowledge neglected by patchy institutions. Representatives from these and other such initiatives in Argentina were gathered at the workshop. There were palaeontologists, biologists, sociologists, environmentalists, hackers, free software coders, collaborative economy organisations, government technology institutes, engineers, makers, cartographers, and more.

Intriguingly, and perhaps unsurprisingly given the motivations present, relatively little was discussed about open and collaborative knowledge production methods and techniques. Participants talked instead about the affective elements and community development required for a more situated, committed, critical and reflexive knowledge production practice. As the debate showed, there are many possible views of what kinds of social relations and developments are anticipated, or desired, in these practices.

Key debates at the workshop

The breadth of issues covered was remarkable. It ranged from letting go of institutional forms of professional esteem and opening up to new modes of production, and the limits and tyranny of participation without end, to the affordances between online and offline collaboration.

The way social bridges had to be constructed carefully and dynamically recurred frequently as a topic of discussion, and seemed to be central in weaving together the diverse positions and contributions that make collaboration worthwhile in the first place. Such ambitions open up a host of complex challenges, but also possibilities, way beyond technical matters of archiving openly and sharing research data.

Listening, reflexivity, community

A common thread was the need for listening, reflexivity, community building, as was dissatisfaction with resource and incentive models that undermined these characteristics and values of openness and collaboration.

Antonio Lafuente talked vividly about his experiences pursuing these values in collaboration with MediaLab Prado and Innovación Ciudadana. MediaLab Prado had been transformed by embracing a hacker ethic committed to always opening activities and knowledge-making, and never closing it down instrumentally. The practices of knowledge production are facilitated so that participants simultaneously cultivate community organisational capabilities pertinent to transformed development processes. The capacity to act collaboratively is built into the ability to think collectively.

From producing knowledge to growing communities

There are clear affinities here with traditions in participatory action research and participatory design, which modern tools for communication and collaboration enable in more distributed forms than ever. There is an exciting flourishing of organisations and initiatives trying to transform knowledge production into the incubation of communities that are wider and more diverse than those that are traditionally bounded by formal knowledge-making institutions. Many share the normative goals of nurturing more inclusive and sustainable forms of development. MediaLab-Prado are a particularly inspiring and clear-sighted example.

Here at the STEPS Centre we are trying different approaches – such as our transformative pathways project – but with a similar aspiration for engaged research exploring and supporting the creation of more plural development pathways.

One of our partners (also in Madrid), itdUPM, are reimagining the University and seeing just how far a medieval institution can be transformed into community incubating. The Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) is exploring ways in which policy-makers can be supported in moving between commissioning research to co-producing knowledge for transformative innovation policy. Meanwhile, back at the STEPS America Latina workshop, participants committed to continuing the discussion and activity by creating a network of open and collaborative knowledge practitioners in Argentina.

Read a blog post about this event in Spanish: Nuevas relaciones productivas, sociales y culturales (STEPS America Latina website)