Last week I participated in the ‘launch’ event of STEPS América Latina, as part of ongoing work with researchers in the region. There, as elsewhere, we are exploring the politics of technology and science in society that support pathways to sustainable development. The event was by turns a fantastically rich, stimulating, humbling, troubling, and inspiring encounter.
I was asked to provide some closing remarks to the first day, whose focus was inclusive innovation and open science: two of four topics central to the work of STEPS América Latina.
An invitation to make closing remarks is always a privilege, but also daunting and, on this occasion, contradictory. Daunting, because the wealth of experience and insight evident in the presentations and shared in discussion activities could not be summarised in a way that does it justice. Contradictory, because one message from the day was not about closing things down into distilled, take away messages for diffusion as packages of ‘knowledge’ (I am aware of the ironies in writing this message in a blog). Rather, it was about the importance of opening up collective engagements in doing and thinking for ongoing sustainable developments.
More than knowledge production
Examples discussed during the day were about much more than the production of pieces of knowledge or innovative artefacts.
What we are doing when engaging in open science or inclusive innovation processes is also working differently to normal, whether ‘we’ are researchers, neighbours, civil servants, activists, entrepreneurs, workers, or combinations of all these. Indeed, some of the things that get produced through these activities are new identities, new alliances, new networks, and new practices.
One example where this was particularly evident was the presentation by Paula Peyloubet and her team at the CIECS (Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios sobre Cultura y Sociedad) in Córdoba. The Centre’s work is designed in such a way that it reflects very carefully on the purposes, design, and local production of housing.
The aim in Peyloubet’s housing projects is to produce networks that involve collective knowledge production amongst households, wood workers (being a local material), students and staff at nearby technical colleges, funders, and researchers.
Collectively producing knowledge with communities in this way means researchers are involved much more actively than conventional observation, isolation of variables and factors, and reporting a distanced analysis.
Contrary to some normal practices, researchers thus facilitate connections, become involved in making things happen, and help a process of material production to move along. But they do this in an accompanying and decentred kind of way, linked to and dependent upon the expertise of everyone else.
Is ‘opening’ and ‘including’ enough?
Indeed, Peyloubet argued that open science and inclusive innovation do not go far enough in levelling the ground when it comes to identifying problems and solutions for development. In her view, opening for inclusion the institutions for science and innovation does not go far enough, since they remain inextricably linked to existing development models and asymmetric arrangements for participating in knowledge production. Mere openings and inclusions do not permit a more collective approach to knowledge for transformations – where problems, challenges and solutions are developed co-operatively and through relations of solidarity.
Whether one goes so far as calling for an alternative to development, or one works within the confines of open science and inclusive innovation, moves to more ‘collective knowledge’ activity challenge us to think differently about what researchers are for. The formal markers and identifications of researchers – such as conveyors of disembodied knowledge in articles in peer reviewed journals – become much less meaningful compared to participatory research practices with communities in specific situations.
New identities, new relationships
Similarly, the co-producers of knowledge may develop different identities and identifications, or see their prior identities validated in a new light, through these open activities. Participants may become citizen scientists, grassroots innovators, or part of new collectives, as new possibilities (and challenges) are opened by actively engaging in new knowledge production networks.
They may also recognise in a different light that what they already do makes a valuable contribution, thanks to their involvement in new relationships. Indeed, another thing being produced through open science and inclusive innovation (or development alternatives) are new relationships, networks and alliances with other people and with the material world. It is not simply knowledge about the world, or knowing how to act innovatively in the world, but also about creating a different relationship towards it. ‘It’ – the world – is itself a product of countless relations.
Picking up on the work of CIECS again, what endures beyond the project is more than the production of an object (for example, a house). Rather, people have been engaged in the production of new relationships too, and which they may carry through into other areas of ongoing work.
How can institutions help new relationships to flourish?
The possibilities for open science and inclusive innovation depend upon the extent that prior institutions can be opened up to allow such relationships to persist, spread and transform, and permit these new ways of working – including new research practices.
Here, I think international collaboration can help. After all, none of this is especially new. Others have long recognised the reality of collective knowledge production, and have argued for it and practiced it in participatory action research for decades. Its spirit in housing is similarly of long-standing, as residents of Walter’s Way in Lewisham can testify (an example of what Colin Ward used to call anarchy in action).
However, pressures to enclose knowledge, whether for academic prestige or commercial gain, continually troubles open, collaborative networks for addressing practical matters.
International collaboration enables specific instances of collective knowledge production in space and time to become aware that they are part of a bigger movement of ideas and practices. This awareness and visibility is important for the task of reforming institutions whose reproduction increasingly arises internationally. Here the ability of academics to convene encounters, and to make things more evident, more connected, and more self-aware can be put to good use.
What we are doing when we are doing open science and inclusive innovation is forging new identities, new relationships, and new practices through the production of knowledge and artefacts. This was what I tried to point to last Thursday with my poor Spanish, and that is also a work in progress itself!