Equitable Networks: Freeing and Connecting Knowledge and People

March 22, 2016 3 Comments

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Not long ago, at a gathering of the Food Solutions New England Network Team, one member, Dorn Cox, told the story of a farmer who has become renowned for the health of his soil. Remarkably, the soil health consistently increases, due to on-farm practices created over years of close observation and experimentation. This is significant as it has boosted the quality of the farm’s produce, reduced the need for and cost of inputs (helping to increase revenues), increased the soil’s ability to handle extreme precipitation and dry conditions brought on by climate change, and mitigates carbon release.

This accomplished practitioner has subsequently been sought out by academics and has served as lead author on numerous peer reviewed academic articles about his soil health practices. Dorn then relayed that the farmer recently reported that because of academic protocols he cannot get access to the very articles he has co-authored. Dorn punctuated his story with the lesson that:

To support learning, equity and resilience, knowledge wants and needs to be free and accessible.

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This is a key principle for leveraging networks to make change. In the old world, knowledge was owned and proprietary. But in this increasingly volatile world, to help people be adaptive to change, there is need for robust flows of information that are equitably generated and accessible. This was a lesson learned by professor Anil K. Gupta, before he started the Honey Bee Network in India.

By his own admission, Dr. Gupta had been engaged in the practice of extracting information from people that served his own or purely academic purposes, without ensuring that the information made it back into the hands and minds of practitioners. He realized that “on efficiency and ethical grounds,” this could not continue.

“Minds on the margin are not marginal minds.” 

– Anil K. Gupta

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Dr. Gupta co-founded the Honey Bee Network on the core principle that in order for a knowledge system to become sustainable and create more widespread value, it must be authentic, accountable and fair. That meant that it was important to acknowledge the sources of knowledge. Furthermore, it was important to connect both knowledge and knowledge providers. Over the last 25 years or so, the Network has created a database of traditional knowledge and grassroots innovations, in seven different Indian languages, documenting and documenting more than 1 million ideas and practices.

Despite exciting innovations like the Honey Bee Network, in many places, knowledge and other valuable resources are held up and denied by existing structures. So how do we unlock this potential? A key step is to see human societies as living systems, as “ecosystems” held together by flows of information through communication and education.

Robust and distributed flows of information are critical for the creativity, resilience and development of human communities.

As Sally J. Goerner of the Capital Institute writes, human systems “are the most intelligent [and healthy] when they are integrative, inclusive and egalitarian.” A constant threat to social health is rigidity, hoarding, disconnection and exclusion.

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Furthermore, it is important to understand that sometimes certain forms of knowledge may be held unknowingly by knowledge holders. Identification and transfer of “tacit knowledge” generally requires personal contact, interaction and trust for people to codify what they know from experience. Formal and informal communities of practice in networks are important in this regard.

In other cases, people may not see themselves as being resource-full, either because what is typically framed as a resource does not allow for certain kinds of valuation, or because they do not see in their own niche what might be excess capacity for another. To identify and free up resources, a few steps might help:

  • Think more broadly about what constitutes a valuable resource. Permaculturalist Ethan Roland and others are working to expand how “wealth” is understood. For example, Roland names eight different forms of capital: intellectual, spiritual, material, cultural, material, social, living, and experiential. Write Looby MacNamara adds health and well-being capital to these. The point is to see wealth and assets from a whole systems perspective and to help people see their own resource-full-ness in a different light, not defined by others and more narrow understandings.
  • Spread understanding of the concept of “excess capacity.” The sharing economy is helping people to see abundance around them that might be repurposed or shared with others. Examples abound (see Robin Chase’s book Peers, Inc. as a helpful primer): knowledge, creativity, passive sunlight, bandwidth, underutilized spaces such as parking lots, items that might be converted to other uses (old sweaters), etc.
  • Encourage a culture of making requests and offers. In certain places, people may be reluctant to articulate needs or put forth offers. This can stem the flow of valuable resources. In order to nurture a culture of abundance Lawrence CommunityWorks has cultivated what they call “The Marketplace,” whereby community members identify and exchange assets as a part of daily operations.
  • Create venues and platforms for people to connect and share. Value continues to be latent until it is actually exchanged. Whether in-person or virtual, it is important that there be places for people to find one another with relative ease and make exchanges of one kind or another.
  • Constantly pay attention to and work on power, access and equity. A lot has been and is being written about how networks can exacerbate inequality and inequity if left unchecked. The antidote is awareness (and self-awareness) and a commitment to equitable network building. What this means exactly is very much a work in progress, but educating ourselves about the dynamics of power, privilege and injustice and committing to work for broader systemic health is certainly fundamental. See also the following:

Got Bias? (on implicit bias and de-biasing strategies)

Blinded by Privilege

Empathy + Equity –> Justice

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3 Comments

  • June Holley says:

    I want to see funders supporting their grantees to capture what they are learning and share it with the field. This would mean additional funds for someone’s time to take notes from reflection sessions, write them up well, including activities ad practices that were used, graphically enhance all this then share pdfs widely on the Internet.

    I’d love to see everyone committing to trying this learning capture out on one project.

    We all need to realize that if we spent more time doing this we would ALSO cut down our to do lists as we would be able to focus our energy more strategically on what works.

    • Curtis Ogden says:

      Thanks, June. And agreed! As Sally Goerner says, it’s all about social learning. We need more flow, more intricacy, more diverse inputs and throughputs. We just talked as a Core Team for Food Solutions New England about feeding texts and videos into a central platform to capture learning at our upcoming Food Summit. Forgetting the name of the platform right now, but will loop back.

      Curtis

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