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Transforming knowledge systems for the future

A recent paper in Energy Research and Science co-authored by over 170 transformations researchers and practitioners calls for a shift in our current knowledge systems so that they can better support society to address future challenges. Read More

In 2017, over 300 transformations academics and practitioners gathered at the biannual Transformations Conference in Dundee, Scotland. (The first conference in this series, Transformation in a Changing Climate, was organized by cCHANGE back in 2013 in Oslo.)

In Dundee, among other issues, the participants discussed current knowledge systems and how they need to urgently evolve to support and generate transformations to sustainability at the rate and scale called for by science.

Through a futures-oriented and participatory approach called the Three Horizons, workshop participants explored how transformations in knowledge systems might be stewarded.

They specifically asked themselves: What are the challenges inhibiting the ability of current knowledge systems to help society navigate global transformations, how future transformed knowledge systems might need to look, and how might we get there?

The outcomes of this workshop were written up and the participants were invited to participate in several rounds of reviews and ultimately stand as co-authors of the article, as testament to the participatory nature of the conference, workshop, and writing process.

Their innovative paper “Transforming knowledge systems for life on Earth: Visions of future systems and how to get there”, is a clear call for a radical evolution in how knowledge is currently produced.

While the authors acknowledge the benefit and importance of formalized knowledge systems from established universities and research institutes, they argue that present methods of producing knowledge may be reinforcing current patterns of thinking and action and limiting our ability to develop capacities to respond adequately to climate change and energy transitions.

Going beyond just creating knowledge about the world
The authors identified a range of challenges that inhibit the ability of current knowledge systems to help navigate transformations. Their findings suggest that future knowledge systems will need to be much more collaborative, open, diverse, egalitarian, and able to work with values and systemic issues. Importantly, the need to develop wisdom about how to act rather than knowledge for understanding’s sake emerged as a key theme:

“Importantly, the two systems [the current and envisioned knowledge systems] have different goal orientations. Rather than producing ever more knowledge about bio-physical and social phenomena, new systems need to be oriented towards developing wisdom about how to act appropriately in the world. While there are many interpretations, wisdom tends to be viewed as including more than knowledge. Wisdom involves being intellectually careful but also requires discernment, perceptiveness, imagination, and social and emotional intelligence. While knowledge helps achieve a particular desired outcome it does not on its own take into account whether that outcome is right for a particular time, set of challenges, or needs of diverse people. A shift towards producing wisdom would require deep and fundamental changes in how knowledge systems are structured and supported and in how they operate within society.”

Identifying actions needed to stimulate the shift from current to desired knowledge systems
Importantly the authors do not just critique current systems and identify what is needed, they also examine how changes in knowledge systems could be facilitated to support societal transformations through eleven action domains. They go on to provide five main messages about how transformations of knowledge systems might be stimulated:
1. There is already a lot of important innovation to be found which current transdisciplinary and post-disciplinary methodologies can build upon.
2. Considerable efforts are needed to scale innovation so that the pockets of the envisioned future already in the present become the new system.
3. This will require new ‘infrastructure’ (institutions, support, and governance) specifically with transformational intent in mind.
4. Ingenuity and bold and strategic action are needed to overcome resistance to change and strong path dependencies.
5. Finally, deep assumptions underpinning knowledge systems will also need to be challenged.

This last point includes the prevalent assumption that researchers should and can be independent to what they observe and that knowledge creation is not an intervention. This assumption is something the authors of this paper reject through their modelling of the “second order approach” to research in creating this paper. This approach acknowledges that researchers are not independent observers and includes reflexively examining one’s own role in the way a system is reproduced.

Fazey, I. et al. “Transforming knowledge systems for life on Earth: Visions of future systems and how to get there.” Energy Research & Social Science. 70: December 2020. 101724. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214629620302991

Max van den Oetelaar, Unsplash

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