The complexity of global knowledge networks

This post relates to the presentation of this paper: Rennkamp, B and Boulle, M. 2015. Novel shapes of South-South collaboration: Emerging knowledge networks on co-benefits of climate and development policies. MAPS Working Paper No.30. Cape Town: MAPS Programme

At the core of knowledge networks are people working together to create and generate knowledge, share and spark new ideas. Knowledge networks entail a commitment to collaborative effort; bringing different groups of people together to achieve cross-sectoral knowledge exchange and learning for the betterment of research, practice and policy. In today’s interconnected world, knowledge creation and exchange, can be seen not as produced in one place, but as generated through the interaction between many actors who are both sources and users of knowledge.

Recently, the Energy Research Centre (ERC) at UCT hosted a seminar on ‘emerging knowledge networks on co-benefits of climate and development policies’. The researchers, Michael Boulle and Britta Rennkamp, focused on the role of knowledge networks in the creation of knowledge; how knowledge creation works and which knowledge holders created what specific knowledge. Particular attention was paid to knowledge networks on co-benefits of climate action. In short, analyses revealed that there is a considerable network of knowledge holders involved in the knowledge production on unifying co-benefits in climate and development. A strong argument was made that knowledge production on co-benefits can profit from strengthening the connection between actors in knowledge networks, which got me pondering about the complexity of formal global climate change networks, the challenges they face and how this affects their ability to communicate, create knowledge and work together. Moreover, how can closer connections be built when there are vast geographical and cultural differences involved?

How can global knowledge networks help to address climate change?

A primary mechanism for the spread of knowledge on climate change has been through global and regional networks. Through globalisation, technology and interconnectedness, ideas are spreading more rapidly and knowledge partners can work closer together. Global knowledge networks promote collaboration across geographic and organizational borders making them effective outsourcing tools. These knowledge networks allow for communication between disciplines, cultures, agencies, languages and territories. All users and producers of knowledge are enabled to communicate more quickly, allowing knowledge to be exchanged more effectively and actors in the network to harness the power derived from the ready availability of information. Generators of local, regional and global climate knowledge are connected and local knowledge can be linked with global science. Global knowledge networks also have greater ability to attract media attention, political and donor support than an individual or organisation. Another way in which knowledge networks can be beneficial (in conjunction with technology) is through utilising these networks where access to real-time information is needed, such as during extreme weather events, to enhance the capabilities of the decision-makers.

What are some of the challenges of complex global knowledge networks?

International networks such as the Climate Change Knowledge Network (CCKN) rely on virtual teams who work across space, time and organizational boundaries for the development of joint projects and communication. Member organizations of international climate change knowledge networks often lack critical factors which influence successful participation in global virtual teams. Many of these organisations have not invested in human resources, training and communication and collaboration technology. What’s more, cross-cultural issues can be heightened in international knowledge networks affecting the ability of the collective to work harmoniously due to possible competing values and assumptions.

Despite commitment to participation and commitment, the structure of climate change global networks has been hierarchical. Thus, broadening a network does not necessarily result in inclusiveness. Exclusiveness can be an issue in climate change global knowledge networks, especially when they cross the North-South border. For example, there may be no genuine partnership and the knowledge network could remain within the North. There is also the question of power and domination- who dominates the global climate change knowledge community and what does this mean for the character of the knowledge that is produced and exchanged? Verkoren 2006 asserts that global knowledge networks can be viewed as ‘hegemonic projects’ that naturalise specific ways of thinking and doing things and that their discourses shape the way that society conceptualises the climate change crisis. Knowledge created in global networks can then be perceived as a tool of power used to further dominant interests.

What can be done?

Greater investment must be made towards the critical factors for successful collaboration of actors in knowledge networks, including greater investment in training and development, human resources and those technologies that enable actors to work together more efficiently and effectively. A balance must be struck between respecting differences based on culture and values and making decisions on a course of action that is most beneficial. The quality of engagement with participants not in dominant positions in the network must also be improved to increase inclusiveness. While greater interconnectedness and rapid exchange of information is important, it is also necessary to critically examine how conceptualisations of the climate change crisis in global knowledge networks come about and how these are maintained through the network and ultimately how they influence the solutions that are regarded as necessary. Critical engagement will not result in immediate solutions, but it can offer improved understanding of the complexity of knowledge creation and the complexity of relations in global knowledge networks.

By Yoliswa Molefe, ACDI Master’s student, class of 2016
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