A couple of weeks ago I took part in a workshop on digital knowledge sharing organized by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), a leading research institute on global development based at the University of Sussex. I did my Master’s degree there when IDS was more or less still working to bridge the world divide between a richer North and a poorer South. The world has changed though, and IDS is now working to navigate complex challenges in ways that reduce inequalities and build more sustainable futures for everyone, everywhere. An interesting reflection on the new meanings of development in a global era can be found here.
The Internet also took off at the time when I was doing my Master’s degree at IDS, changing the way we produce and disseminate knowledge. According to an IDS report, a new scholarly paper is now published online roughly every 20 seconds; more than 800 articles are added daily to the English version of Wikipedia; and the social web has blurred the division between information producers and consumers. We also learned during the workshop that the world is producing enough data to give every human 874 newspapers every day!
The objective of the workshop was to reflect on 20 years of digital knowledge sharing through ELDIS, an online platform that started providing open access to research on international development, long before open access became a buzzword. One of the points discussed was that a hyper-connected, multi-polar, multi-actor world calls for developing a sustained awareness to know how what we are doing fits in to what other people are doing. In other words, there is a need to acknowledge that researchers are part of an ecosystem characterized by diversity, in which knowledge is shared among different actors to create common narratives (or meanings) around a particular issue or problem.
In this context static digital repositories or portals are changing, giving way to social platforms or virtual communities of practice that provide a space in which different actors (researchers, policy makers, NGOs…) can share their knowledge and interact in order to learn and foster change. One such community is Healthcare Information for All (HIFA) a global health network of more than 15,000 members (health workers, librarians, publishers, researchers, policymakers…) that collaborate “for the progressive realisation of a world where every person has access to the healthcare information they need to protect their own health and the health of others”. One of the mayor strengths of such virtual communities is that they catalyse multidisciplinary collaboration and break down silos, which is exactly what is needed to try to solve the wicked problems of our times.
Of course the HIFA example is a success case, but we also need to learn from other cases with mixed results. For instance, in a recent study, Ann Grand, Richard Holliman and their colleagues, found that communities of practice in the university context share a problem of engagement, of how to keep them alive: when something is everyone’s responsibility it can easily become no one’s and in many cases blogs and discussions remained static. Perhaps virtual communities of practice, whether large or a small, need good facilitators to keep the dialogue going, to look after things and take care of them and to create spaces where people find value in sharing knowledge and collaborating…just like in non-virtual ones, but with the added challenge of having to read and write…This is material for a future post.
Participating in the workshop helped me to reflect on the questions that we are dealing with in a project on knowledge communication for territorial development in digital environments. It helped me to make the journey from the concept of “knowledge communication” to that of “knowledge sharing”. The latter suggests dialogue and collaboration, the former not really. It might seem a subtle difference but isn’t language at the heart of change?