People-powered knowledge production and ‘Transformations 2017’


Last week I was at Transformations 2017, the biennial academic conference on transformations towards sustainability, hosted by Centre for Environmental Change and Human Resilience (CECHR), University of Dundee. I had an excellent time, including presenting my paper on industrial strategy (rough cut here). In this post, I reflect on the importance of people power in knowledge production that is in the service of transformation to a just and sustainable world.


Why does ‘knowledge production and use’ matter?

OK, so this sounds obscure but, the way in which knowledge is created – and which sorts of knowledge are seen as legitimate – is very important.

In his blockbuster ‘Sapiens’, Harari talks about the ‘discovery of ignorance’ as vital to human development. Instead of believing the ancients, from around 1500 we realised we didn’t know everthing already and invented the scientific process to fill in the gaps. Shakespeare’s contemporary, Francis Bacon encompassed the mood by writing “Nature must be take by the forelock. It is necessary to subdue her, to shake her to her foundations.”

The knowledge production and use we’ve had over the last 500 years has been tremendous and terrifying. We have invented technologies and techniques that have vastly improved our lives; and that selfsame progress puts the “the long-term viability of a global civilisation” at risk.

In today’s economies, one of the sources of income differences is whether you are actively involved in knowledge production or not. Also, it is difficult to get involved in decisions that affect your life if you have no involvement in the ‘evidence-base’ that drives whether to close your local hospital.

Today’s knowledge production and use is often exclusive and specialist, and so privileges some over others. It is one source of elite power (and may explain a little why lefty professionals aren’t financially wealthy but are still lumped in with the elite by anyway). So, it is part of our current political upheavals. In UK university towns voted Remain, but their hinterlands voted to Leave, to give but one example.

If you’re interested in people taking back control then you need to work through how people can have more ways of creating the knowledge they needed to live their lives.

The Transformations 2017 conference as site of experiment

The conference was designed to engage with different sorts of knowledge, not just the typical abstract theories of academia but emotional experiences and practical understandings. Each morning started with some music (including the astonishing folk of Lizabett Russo). The opening keynotes were not a deluge of text-heavy slides and intellectual analysis. Instead, there were reflections and poems, some to accompanying visuals. There was a light-touch ritual, where we were asked to write the things we need to leave behind ourselves in order to transform. These were collected into a egg, which was burnt in front of us all (see photo).

All this was entered into with good spirit. People were pretty game, though there were some embarrassments and laughs as the effigy burnt.

Tripping over the positivist legacy

Even so, my experience of the conference I kept tripping over elitist forms of knowledge production, like baggage that hadn’t been unpacked. (Note: others will have gone to different sessions, brought different starting points and so will have had a different experience.)

One session can illustrate. Two academics wanted to use life principles in the practice of design. Their approach: read what people across different fields had written on the topic and aggregate it together into a set of principles. They, as two experts, were making sense on our behalf, but at at least one step remove from the actual practice of designing with life principles.

As a contrast, the thought-provoking Towards a Theory of Systemic Action proposes 12 axioms for design based on the direct experience of the author (friend of the blog, Zaid Hassan). That link starts with a quote from Taleb “The biggest myth I’ve encountered in my life is as follows: that… theoretical knowledge can lead to practical applications just as practical applications can lead to theoretical knowledge… it is very hard to realise that knowledge cannot travel equally in both directions. It flows better from practice to theory…” [emphasis added].

In AntiFragile (I think…), Taleb gives the example of chemistry and the industrial revolution. They made progress on the practice of chemicals for industry before they had a good theory of chemistry. The implication: in young fields on the edge of knowledge, focus on having a diversity of practice from which you can then derive new theories, rather than trying to derive what you should do from the inadequate theories you are starting with.

Back to the session at Transformations 2017. Imagine if the two academics had approached many practitioners who were using life principles in their design work. Imagine if they had asked for the theories they were using, and then observed what actually happened. imagine if they had made sense of all of that with the practitioners, to come up with principles based on real world experience.

Now, that would not have the positivist, universal truth-claim of science. As a qualified physicist I believe the physical world has unchanging laws we can investigate through objective observation. As a qualified action researcher, I believe that society is a different sort of beast, and needs a different sort of method to find more local, more contextual results.

Generating knowledge through practice gives you a different truth-claim: the insights accord with our experiences in this situation, now let’s extend and improve them carefully together. (In Cosmopolis, Toulmin argues that this is the direction the Enlightenment would have taken if Montaigne, rather than Descartes, had been taken as a starting point. Perhaps our growth over the last centuries would have been less spectacular, but also the danger we are in now would be very different.)

That’s my baggage too!

As you might be able to tell, I got a little annoyed by this session. My further reflection: my annoyance was masking that I have been going about things in the same way. My conclusions on industrial strategy for a sustainable footing (watch here) use the same, flawed method. And so they are subject to the same challenge. Yes, I can draw together from a wide number of sources a framework for the economic transition to a sustainable world that I find useful. But that’s not necessarily useful for others, nor is it ‘true’.

It turns out the baggage I was tripping over was also, in part, my own.

Well, of course it was. I’m planning a series of events in the autumn (finger crossed) to have a method that matches the truth-claim that is useful.

The multiple levels of change

My further reflection is that the conference was an experience of the messy effort – two steps forward, one step back – of change.

In the terms of the multi-level perspective (‘MLP’), one could say there is a regime of reinforcing dominant practices, rules and techniques on how knowledge is created and which knowledge counts (mostly: quantitative, objective, expert-led). The conference and its practitioners are a niche, with space for radical innovation. In fact is it is one of a number of distinct-but-connected niches, which are trying out other modes and methods of knowledge production.

In MLP, change comes when the regime is struggling, which opens a window of opportunity for the niches to jump in. Usually this takes the form of pressure from the ‘landscape’, the overall setting for the regime.

Today I think we can say that our Western society is struggling. We’ve spent decades acting as if markets are always best, but the performance, even in the narrowly economic terms of productivity and income growth, say otherwise. The rise of China means the end of the US as sole superpower. Climate change and the renewables revolution are ending the reliance on fossil fuel, with an amazing backlash. We’re realising nature cannot take everything we through at her. We’re frightened about being replaced by robots that can think cheaper than us.

All of which opens up  knowledge production and use for change. Perhaps we have the opportunity to move from a science of quantities to a science of qualities, to quote Brian Goodwin. Such a shift would seem to be necessary, to find a way for billions of people to choose how they live in ways that are compatible with our natural world.

Within that, what is the role of academics? One person spoke of becoming practitioners and activists. I wonder. That takes particular skills and temperament. As a rough rule, academics are drawn to thinking, reading and writing; activists to doing, and connecting. Plus the incentives on academics are to publish and teach.

It is far from clear to me that extending is a good strategy. Instead, why not support the activists, help draw out the insights from their experiences that they don’t have time or skill to describe? Use what you’re good at, and what your institutional context supports.

A multi-decade effort to ‘include and transcend’

Last year I had a weekend in the Kent countryside Encountering Nature, Considering Intention. My reflection then was that we are on the cusp – in the middle? – of a many-decades, perhaps even century-long profound transition in knowledge production and use. That transition will need to ‘include and transcend’ our current approach (to use Ken Wilber’s formulation of successive ’stages’ of development).

  • ‘Include’ because I want engineers designing bridges I travel on, thank you very much. A science of quantities will continue to make tremendous contributions.
  • ‘Transcend’ as we need knowledge production and use activities- looser than a ’system’ – which respect different types of insights, more context-driven truth-claims, and that happens more with (rather than on) people.

As such, we need knowledge production and use activities which are ‘people powered’, and so are in the service of the transformation to a sustainable world.

The conference was breaking ground in that direction. The organisers are to be appreciated for their courage and skill. And now to build, and experiment, further, faster and with others


2 thoughts on “People-powered knowledge production and ‘Transformations 2017’

  1. Pingback: DRAFT CHAPTER: A path to sustainable 2050: positioned to thrive, and unprepared to struggle (a work-in-progress) | David Bent

  2. Pingback: #Weeknotes w/c Mon 13 June 2019 | David Bent

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