Georgina Aboud: The unravelling

Development Policy31 Aug 2009Georgina Aboud
This week The Broker is blogging from the Towards Knowledge Democracy conference in Leiden, The Netherlands. Conference Blogger Georgina Aboud will report back from the event which invites participants to share visions and experiences on how to deal with the challenges and possibilities that occur on the interface between science, politics, society and the media.

We live with uncomfortable truths and we live in uncertain times, ‘towards knowledge democracy’ asked us to examine different knowledge processes, pathways of governance and visions for the future. It wanted us to consider how many different actors working under different pressures can be more effective and how everyone gets an opportunity to feed into policy? What part does knowledge plays in this? And as one participant asked ‘how do we keep this going after its all finished?’As a blogger, I have attended quite a few conferences and normally I go to more sessions than required because sometimes it can be difficult to capture interesting material in a readable format. It is testament to this conference that I have come away with surplus material and with ideas that stay with me long after the flight home.

I suppose the first point is, that as I wrote the just do it blog, it occurred to me, that I was both writing about the need for governments to be proactive about change whilst quoting a 1980s sitcom to demonstrate my point. This shows more than anything the historic failure of our democratic systems. We are discussing in a 2009 conference issues that was being referenced in 1980s!

Indeed Miranda Schreurs spoke of the need to examine our system processes to enhance change. However others would argue that it is these structures which protect democracy. So like most of this conference, solutions are to be found in balance; enough alteration in structures to create an environment for change without developing opportunities for dangerous elements to succeed.

This idea of balance again came up when Miranda and Elie Faroult spoke of the importance of an environment for experimentation and those who are working on ‘risky’ projects should not be victimised as a result. Still in the final plenary someone mentioned that the recent building of an astronomy tunnel had been criticised by the public because it was perceived as a waste of money. The key to this tension seems communication: don’t make knowledge and projects esoteric and explain to citizens the reason why such projects are necessary.

The study of futures also contain certain problems; not least because, it was shown that the public find it difficult to visualise more than 10 years into the future and visions have different players with different timescales. Business move quickly to keep their competitive edge, politics as previous blogs have suggested leave little time for thinking things over, whilst academia is built on the idea of debate and prolonged decision making.

Transdiscipline was a key new term for me and seemed to suggest a brand new approach. I like the cross appeal, it reminded me of multi-stakeholder analysis and clever transdisciplinary personalities, as renaissance (wo)men, who can switch between science, technology and art in order to unlock secrets and begin finding solutions. The key advocates were evangelical about it potential and their desire for it to be taken seriously as a lens for resolutions.

Perhaps my issue with transdisciplinary approaches is my issue with the conference. Panels and keynote speakers were predominantly led by white male academics or extremely well educated men. There were some women leading panels or giving keynote addresses but no ethnic minorities and, for international conference, none from the sessions I went to, from outside Europe and the US. This is not to say that they weren’t informative and incredibly interesting, I really liked Chris Patterson, but they didn’t provide a diverse spread. Equally for a conference concerning itself with citizens there was a frightening lack of NGOs and citizen organisations on the panels which I believe could have enhanced discussion and given the conference a far more rounded perspective. As a worker in international development the conference was also very top down and even something like transdiscipline was quite multi-lateral rather than bottom up and this would surely create power issues.

Input from countries like Brazil with a healthy NGO sector were absent and would have brought interesting dialogue on areas like citizens budgeting where citizens set budgets and monitor the government, and where citizens knowledge on important issues is deemed as important if not more than politicians. Equally missing from discussion was the place that protest might have in a citizen democracy.

So where to go from here? The conference suggested some recommendations including ‘controversial’ ideas that the agenda should be set by direct democracy in the areas of academia, political and public domains; and politicians should devote more attention and time to how they handle knowledge in order to restore their legitimacy and authority in the eyes of citizens. More practical suggestions included joining the transdisciplinary network to encourage creative and practical partnerships between different groups.

The conference ended on a rather unusual note, with a British (trust the British) consultant, demonstrating the extent of networks formed by getting us all to throw balls of wool at each other. The key speakers of final plenary left in rather a hurry and it was the most participatory action of the whole event. It showed the spider web of knowledge we had in that room, plus the only way for participants to extricate themselves from the tangle was to work together. Indeed the wool exercise demonstrated a lot not least Join forces. Contribute. Take ownership.