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.