Knowledge Networks

by on Tuesday, 06 February 2007 Comments
“Network”, it can be said, is a loosely used word that refers to loosely structured ways of exchanging information, supporting each other and/or leading common actions. It links people and groups at various levels, local or global, sometimes for their own mutual benefit, sometimes in the interest of a cause that transcends and unites the members of the network.

The reach and efficiency of networks has been greatly enhanced by the Internet. This might be partly because the Internet allows for horizontal relationships, and that horizontal relationships are very much at the core of networking, distinguishing networks from other organizational structures.

Exchange of knowledge is another characteristic of networks. This is already true of “social networks”, exemplified by the Old Boys associations. For sure, social networks primarily provide emotional and cultural support, but they constitute also the port through which information that might help one to change one’s career path or get valuable tips on the stock market are exchanged. Information becomes even more central when we come to what can be labeled as “knowledge networks”: this kind of networks is basically a space for discussion that helps to determine research directions (for an academic community) or action strategies (for an association of people and groups committed to a social or environmental cause for instance.) For putting it another way, it is only within knowledge networks that “information” truly becomes “knowledge”, i.e. is crystallized into a body of consistent and mutually reinforcing assumptions. It is also within knowledge networks that knowledge receives a meaning that leads a group to enact value judgments and maybe to decide on a course of action.

The need to connect together scientific assessments, policymaking and grassroots activism explains the spread of knowledge networks. Also, the globalization of issues such as environment, violence, international trade and workers’ rights induces people to connect to groups that share similar concerns in various cultural and political contexts. International networks are partly a product of the eroding power of the Nation-State, and partly a response to the increased influence of other players, such as multinational companies.

Willemijn Verkoren has identified a few conditions under which knowledge networks can function correctly (International Journal of Peace Studies, 11-2, 2006). I rephrase here in my own way those that seem to me more important:
1) The network does not exist in isolation; exchanges going through the network and real life activities are linked in a sustainable way.
2) The purpose of networking is clear, as are the possibilities offered by the network and the limits of what it can achieve.
3) Capacity for learning, room for discussion, and openness in membership, discussion and sharing are requisites for the efficacy of the network.
4) While being able to operate autonomously, the network must be linked to a wider environment, to enable it to give and to receive.
5) Results of the interaction have to be visible at some stage.
6) To facilitate and moderate a network requires time and expertise.
7) Finally, the flexibility of the network helps it to facilitate exchanges, action and empowerment without trespassing over its boundaries, rather than aiming to become an all-encompassing knowledge system.

In the field of social action, there might be not stronger incentive to the spreading of the knowledge network model than the concerns raised around the sustainability of our economies and the current world governance system. The debate on climatic change shows that scientific conclusions are themselves reached through the nurturing of a permanent network of information and debate. The policy debate is nurtured by different (and often diverging) networks of citizens, experts and companies. Interconnection between these groups helps to go from traditional lobbying to innovative networking, and the growing debate on facts and values is conducive of such interconnections. Technical expertise is not sufficient for tackling such a broadly-shaped issue, and groups of citizens will continue to debate on consumption models, the resurgence of values such as frugality and solidarity, hopefully advancing towards formulations and insights that will develop a cultural model in line with the technical imperatives linked to the issue at stake. The mobilization of cultural resources for nurturing sustainable development - a mobilization achieved through a dialogue on core values, sharing of success stories and exchange of strategic analyses - is exactly what a knowledge network might want to achieve.

Maybe it would be useful for all of us to reflect on the following questions:
- What are the knowledge networks that I am presently engaged into?
- Are these networks akin to my real interests and current concerns, or should I try to engage into new ones?
- May I possibly be active in a web of relationships that could happily develop into a real knowledge network, sharing information among its members and with other networks, provided that I encourage the group to take the necessary steps for becoming more reflexive and participatory?
- What kind of knowledge networks does my environment need, and may I be instrumental in fostering such alliances?

May our online interactions and our real life activities follow more and more the model sketched here, so as to overcome the feeling of impotence that often overwhelms all of us. Our participation in some kind of knowledge networks should encourage us to become active citizens of a world whose destiny will finally be determined by the quality of the networking we enter into and the course of actions that naturally follows.
International Institute for Sustainable Development: about knowledge networks

Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander lives in Shanghai. He teaches philosophy and religious anthropology at the University of Fudan.

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