Is a Knowledge Commons possible without managers?

by Peter Levesque on June 9, 2010 · 6 comments

in KMb Articles

On Wednesday, June 2, 2010, a group of imagineers assembled in several classrooms at L’Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) during the Congress 2010 to discuss how to create a “knowledge commons”.

According to the “An Emerging Strategy” available from the Summit website: “We live in a complex world that calls us to think and act in new ways in order to work together for social change for a healthier, more just and resilient planet and people.”

A “knowledge commons” is meant as the conceptual spaces where it is possible to diminish the boundaries between the wide variety of locations of knowledge creation, forms of knowledge and uses of knowledge.

Examples of how a knowledge commons is being created were drawn from various practices (some of which I have been involved in):

  • social innovation
  • community based research
  • engaged scholarship
  • community service learning
  • recherche parternariat
  • knowledge mobilization/translation/exchange
  • indigenous research approaches
  • open or democratic knowledge sources

The challenge I always have with the concept of a commons is the common behavior that leads to a tragedy of the commons.  According to Hardin’s Commons Theory this is a situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently, and solely and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen.

While in this instance, knowledge is not (or is likely not) a resource that can necessarily be deleted, it is one however, where “privilege” or “credibility” or “truth” are traded, rationed, inflated or deflated based on the particular perspective and goals of a group, discipline, organization, clan, or individual of influence.  The regular tension between community leaders and academics is one example of determining what knowledge counts or is most credible. The ongoing battles between nurture and nature models of human behavior is another. A third is found in the ongoing debate about climate change.

There is also deep misunderstanding about the differences between data, information, knowledge, and wisdom.  They are often confused one for the other.  We are drowning in data, often have no lack of information but often are incapable of moving from access to information to the applied processes that lead to the emergence of knowledge and the longer term emergence of wisdom.

I think the idea of a knowledge commons is a laudable one but I did not hear much clarity as to what it really means to most people in attendance.  One teacher expressed her deep disappointment that the Summit content seemed do focused on academic work – she was looking for how to involve her classroom, students and the education process.  This is a normal reaction because she has her self-interest and the interest of those in her care foremost in her mind.  This is a rational reaction. It is perhaps the concept of emergence that is the most valuable to the entire discussion.

Something will emerge which may (or may not) lead to a knowledge commons.  There is clearly a desire to create the spaces where people can openly share and co-create.  There are places that are already supporting this – YouTube is one electronic example.  The consensus conferences hosted by the Danish government is another. However, one could argue that the cumulative effect of all the processes mentioned above are in fact part of the collective commons process.  Thinking that a “unified theory of common knowledge” is the end of this collective action is to my mind, a false logic.

There are knowledges – plural. There are differences in brightness of knowledges – variances of luminosity that sometimes both blind and illuminate. There are appropriate and inappropriate applications of place and perspective derived knowledge.  There is also deeply personal and private knowledge that is part of both the heart and higher heart of all individuals – precious and subject to harm when shared too willingly.

A knowledge commons may be possible. I suggest that we start with a data commons, an information commons – open the discussion, manage the expectations, leverage the creation of appropriate contextual supports. Identify the barriers – including the Copyright Modernization Act Bill c-32, which Michael Geist describes as the battle between two sets of property rights – those of the intellectual property rights holder and those of the consumer who has purchased the tangible or intangible property – the IP rights holder always wins.

I think Hardin’s theory draws some important conclusions.  A knowledge commons – yes. A knowledge commons manager – perhaps. The key to opening this door is whom. Perhaps just as knowledge is plural, perhaps the facilitator/manager/imagineer role is also plural – a team, collective, or commune?

This idea needs more minds and more energy.  To learn more and to participate, please go to this link and comment below.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

David Phipps June 9, 2010 at 7:54 pm

I was at the opening of Knowledge Commons meeting but had to leave part way through the morning. The comment I made at the meeting echoed Peters. The idea is great but if we start with the big challenges of global intellectual property rights and the ethics of power we won’t get anywhere. Create spaces where these can be discussed but start with baby steps. Thanks to Michael Johnny for his reflections on this:


Peter June 9, 2010 at 8:03 pm

“We have not articulated the paradigm shift at Canadian universities across Canada” – Chad Gadfield, President, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. This rings true but it is not limited to Canada. This shift is happening around the world and in many different sectors. If not articulating, I do think perhaps we are gesticulating the paradigm shift – in how we act, engage, ignore, abandon, and adopt. Millions of little actions everyday make up the shift.


Peter Levesque June 10, 2010 at 7:51 am

Linda Hawkins at the University of Guelph suggested that I post a link to this article on the Summit Ning website.

Here is the link:


Todd Barr June 10, 2010 at 11:01 am

Great article Peter. It is good food for thought in terms of thinking of ways (and reasons) to keep this conversation going.


Peter June 13, 2010 at 6:35 pm

Budd Hall just sent these remarks from the Knowledge Commons meeting:

Knowledge and Democracy: Indigenous, Historical and Engaged Thoughts on a Knowledge Commons

Remarks to the Canadian Knowledge Commons Initiative

June 12, 2010

Budd Hall, University of Victoria

My name is Budd Hall; I am of English Settler heritage and have the privilege of living and working on Coast and Straits Salish traditional territory in what we call Victoria, British Columbia. I work at the University of Victoria in support of strengthening the use of knowledge in making our community, our land and all of our peoples more just, sustainable and inclusive.

I would like to acknowledge and give thanks to the Mohawk First Nations of the Haudanosaunee Peoples on whose traditional territory we are meeting and working today.

In 1813, Thomas Jefferson, wrote the following:

“If nature has made one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as one keeps it to oneself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of everyone, and the received cannot dispossess themselves of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less because every other possesses the whole of it…That ideas should freely spread from on to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of humanity…seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature…like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening its density at any point, and like the air in which we breath, move and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation”

In 1908, Henry Marshall Tory, founder of three Canadian Universities, wrote,

“The modern state university is a people’s institution. The people demand that knowledge shall not be the concern of scholar’s alone. The uplifting of the whole people shall be its final goal”

So what do I mean by a knowledge commons?

I draw from Hess and Osrom who have written Understanding Knowledge as a Commons. They describe a commons as ” a general term that refers to a resource shared by a group of people”.

They define knowledge as “…. all intelligible ideas, information, and data in whatever form in which it is expressed or obtained”

A Knowledge Commons, following their reflections refers to “a shared resource that contains ideas that result from perception, experience and/or study/reflection/vision”

Peter Levine encourages us to include knowledge from academic and non-academic settings:

“…The process of creating public knowledge as an additional good, because such work builds social capital, strengthens communities and gives people skills that they need for effective citizenship. If this is correct than we should aim to include as many people (and ways of knowing) in the collaborative creation of “free” or open access knowledge…ordinary people should be recognized as knowledge creators.”

From a study of a biocultural approach to a Traditional Knowledge Commons established by 80 traditional healers living in the Mpumalanga province in South Africa we have the following:

“Knowledge is an outcome of virtuous relationships with the land, the plants and the animals. It is not property to be bought and sold. It is simultaneously cultural and spiritual and its movement and application promotes a kind of virtuous cohesiveness”

The Honey Bee Network that originated in India and designed to document and share indigenous theory and practice has spread to 75 countries. This knowledge commons builds on the metaphor of the honeybee that collects pollen without impoverishing the flowers, and it connect flower to flower through pollination. The idea is that when we collect knowledge of people we should ensure that people don’t become poorer after sharing their insights with us.

The gift giving cultures of the Western indigenous peoples demonstrate that we grow and benefit an economy where wealth moves through our communities as a continuously flowing gift. Just as the objective of a gift economy is to increase value through the movement of wealth, the objective of a knowledge society is the to increase value and well being through the continuous gifting of knowledge.

In our background documents for this conference we say:

“A knowledge commons refers to conceptual spaces where the boundaries between diverse locations of knowledge creation, forms of knowledge uses of knowledge are diminished. In such a commons, we are better able to address complex economic, social and environmental issues that confront us locally, nationally and around the world. Our proposition is that lowering the barriers that separate knowledge is desirable and necessary”

Some of the questions that we might ask about a Canadian Knowledge Commons include:

1. Whose knowledge counts?

2. How can we recognize and strengthen the systemization of knowledge creation outside academic circles?

3. Can indigenous and western ways of knowing work together in solving some of the world’s problems without losing their special values and differences?

4. What changes in the academic knowledge structures including their funding are needed to give full and energetic life to a knowledge strategy for the solution of some of the complex issues that we face today?


Hess, Charlotte and Elinor Ostrom (2007), eds. Understanding knowledge as a commons: From theory to practice. MIT Press, Cambridge MA

Abrell, Elan et al (2009) A Community Approach to Sharing Traditional Knowledge for Non-Commercial Research. International Development Law Organization. Rome

Joranson, Kate (2008) “Indigenous Knowledge and the Knowledge Commons” in The International Information and Library Review vol 40 no 1 March 2008 pp 64-72

Indigenous Knowledge Commons (web site accessed June 12, 2010)

Waters, Donald (2007) “Preserving the Knowledge Commons” in Hess and Osrom (eds) Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice. MIT Press, Cambridge MA

Levine, Peter (2007) “Collective Action, Civic Engagement, and the Knowledge Commons” in Hess and Osrom (eds) Understanding Knowledge as a Commons. MIT Press, Cambridge MA


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