Tackling global problems by pooling knowledge – highlights of the first international conference on the knowledge commons

September 14, 2012 in Freedom to innovate, Freedom to learn by Balthas

Source: A. Diez Herrero | Flickr | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 siehe http://www.flickr.com/photos/21572939@N03/2090542246/sizes/m/in/photostream/

Source: A. Diez Herrero | Flickr | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 siehe http://www.flickr.com/photos/21572939@N03/2090542246/sizes/m/in/photostream/

What do the problems of climate change, global access to affordable medicine and software, food security, and crop availability for poor farmers have in common?

In all of these fields, more and more people are looking at how a collective building and owning of key knowledge can help solve protracted global problems. A global core of these people just met in a tiny Belgium university town at the at the „First International Thematic Conference on the Knowledge commons“. (for more on the term, see wikipedias Knowlegde commons entry”).

It is quite tough for me to sum up such an endeavor. I will still try and do so by picking some issues related to my own main interests, mainly „global knowledge cooperation“ and „harnessing the knowledge commons for open innovation“. I will complement that with a totally non-exhaustive and personal „list of quick links“ on how to save the climate, solve the food crisis, fight pandemics and increase food security with commons approaches.

1) „Global knowlege cooperation“ meets knowledge commons

So what was in it for the issue of global knowledge cooperation, e.i. the phenomenon, that global communities of practice increasingly come together to exchange knowledge, learn from each other and jointly advance in fields such as energy, economy, education, IT etc.? For a description of global knowledge cooperation see the article on “global knowledge sharing – the wisdom of crowds”, see also the communities present as groups on the Alumniportal Germany)? [This is a link to content within the Alumniportal Germany (register or login first to access the link)]

Six recommendations by the commons experts:

  1. Frame knowledge cooperation as commons-based peer production, recommends Mélanie Dulong de Rosnay of the Institute for Communication Sciences of CNRS, France
  2. Look at the self-governing mechanisms and infrastructure governance of established Online Creation Communities like Wikipedia to optimize participation and complexity of interatiction – argues Myao Fuster Morell of the Berkman center of Internet and Society, Harvard
  3. But: don’t forget, that the most important rules for openness, recognition or interaction practices may be embedded in the underlying collaborative technology, adds Charles Schweik of the University of Massachusetts, USA
  4. Don’t fall into the trap of closed cloud services as platforms, caution Primavera de Filippi and Miguel Said Vieira of the University of São Paulo, Brazil.
  5. Do some further research on the recognition systems, social capital, norms within social network, related mechanisms and their applicability across cultures, I agree with Tom Dedeurwaerdere, organizer of the conference and Research Director at the Biodiversity Governance Unit of the Centre for the Philosophy of Law at UC Louvain, Belgium
  6. Keep in mind the eight design principles of stable common pool resource management of Elior Ostrom, particularly the participation of appropriators in decision making – says everyone.

But then the toughest challenge was probable posed by keynote speaker Robin Mansell of LSE. She pointed us to the fact, that we are having an internal competition right now between two groups of „commoners“, both engaged in collective action towards joint knowledge creation, often in parallel or even at odds: First  the „structured“ ones, like researchers and their institutions who pool a knowledge resource, she calls them the „constituted authorities“, often top-down, striving for (joint) control, quality and long-term preservation of knowledge.- Secondly more and more emerging „loosely organized online groups“, that are engaged in bottom up, chaotic commons-based peer production, often ad hoc and with a time-bound purpose („adaptive authority“).

Mansells studied the case study of the UN data crowdsourcing platform “global pulse” aiming to use digital information to protect the vulnerable populations and strengthen resilience to global shocks. Now Mansell found on that the platform, brings together a heterogeneous mix: UN, governments, NGOs with engaged “citizen data hackers”. This leads to all sorts of conflicts between these two groups of „commoners“, mostly around privacy, ethics, data access, rivalries and reputation – and we don’t know who, if anyone will win the competition. This issue resonates a lot with me, and I think that a key point to achieve „global knowledge cooperation“ for  GIZ will be to successfully merge the interaction of the „constituted authorities“ and the „adaptive authorities“ for the common good. Any ideas on how to do that are highly welcome 🙂

2) Harnessing the knowledge commons for open innovation

Here, things seem to get complicated, because the terms of use of a lot of now contractually established global non-digital commons (such as the crops commons, the commons of other plant genetic resources) seem to be so complicated that both innovation, open innovation, or even non commercial use seem quite improbable to me, at least if there is not a clear „ex ante commons“, as Paul David explained in his keynote on commons and climate change.

Some notable exceptions, which clearly hold the potential for open (freedom-to-innovate-centered) open innovation include (in the sessions, which I attended): The „Open Source Drug Discovery“ programme of CSIR India presented by its head, Prof. Samir K Brahmachari (and analyzed by Scaria Arul), and the idea of a massive push for Open Licensing of Plant Genetic Resources by Eric Deibel. And its no coincidence, that both models here build on the idea of an „open source commons“, which is automatically protected against misappropriation and against the „draining“ of the innovation through “share-alike-terms”. In my view, this model is perhaps the only one which secures both the „freedom to innovate“ and the „automatic expansion of the knowledge commons“ for all, who participate – and for the rest of the world as well.

As promised, let me almost end this blog post with the promised:

3) Totally non-exhaustive and personal „list of quick links“ to saving the climate, solving the food crisis, fighting pandemics and increas food security through the knowledge commons:

  • Affordable healthcare for all: Check the „Open Source drug discovery model“ of Prof. Samir K Brahmachari (see Scaria Arul)
  • Fighting pandemics: Check the work of Rosa Castro and Dana Beldiman.
  • Save biodiversity, increase food security: Check Emile Frisons work on a global crop commons, and Michael Halewoods classification of plant genetic resources.
  • Mine traditional knowlegdge for innovation: Check the case study of India presented by Tom Dedeurwaerdere and Arul Scaria.
  • Climate change: Check the work of Prof. Paul David, Stanford and Prof. William Steinmueller

4) Contribute: Enlarge the Wikipedia article on the “knowledge commons”.

A while ago, I started editing the Wikipedia article on “knowledge commons” together with first co-author Philipp Winter. Now if you have ideas on how to enlarge the article, please feel free to contribute to the Knowlegde commons! Cheers, Balthas

Note: This text was first published on the blog of Balthas Seibold at the Alumniportal Germany (www.alumniportal-deutschland.org/en/). Check the blog ( register or login first). All blog entries represent the personal views and ideas of Balthas Seibold.