Development knowledge ecology: another visit to the KM kitchen?

We’ve been talking recently with colleagues about the development knowledge ecology – with an implicit understanding that we all know what it means – but we’ve never really tried to define it so I’m going to have a go here.  Or in any event to outline some key influences, key ingredients. In fact, given that we are in the process of developing it as one of IKM’s core arguments, it’s probably time to get cooking….

There are a number of key ingredients to the development knowledge ecology as we see it:

Firstly, there are many different disconnects in development knowledge. One key element of this is the fact that many organisations are concerned with their own internal survival and less concerned with how they share critical information about what they do with the people it effects. I’m not talking about businesses here but rather development organisations funded by public money. There are many examples of this but my favourite example comes from the ‘Where are the ripples?’ process during which Steve Kirimi and Eliud Wakwabubi in their 2009 paper,Learning from, promoting and using participation: The case of international development organizations in Kenya, noted that knowledge about what NGOs are doing in Kenya ‘is not only inaccessible to most people but … it is also stored in formats that are not user-friendly.’ I’m sorry to mix metaphors but this always reminds me of the Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy where the earth gets destroyed to make way for an inter-galactic superhighway because nobody on earth objected to the plans which were displayed somewhere in another part of the milky way. I hope it’s clear that this is a comment on what is horribly called downward accountability.  Another disconnect is that between practitioner and academic knowledge but also the low status of local knowledge.

A second key ingredient is the concept of the knowledge commons and here we are very much affected by the thinking of Sebastiao Ferreira and some resources he has shared with us. What is the knowledge commons?

a new way of looking at knowledge as a shared resource, a complex ecosystem that is a commons – a resource shared by a group of people that is subject to social dilemmas (Hess and Orstrom 2006 in Understanding knowledge as commons: from theory to practice)

A third ingredient – and the reason we have chosen to call this developing idea the knowledge ecology and not the knowledge ecosystem which Hess and Oorstrom obviously did – is a paper by Andrés Bucio of the University of East Anglia on The ‘knowledge ecology’ we need: are the core assumptions of the knowledge economy sustainable? In this 2009 paper, Bucio argues that:

A comprehensive reframing of the core assumptions and values of the knowledge economy is in order, away from monopoly in knowledge and perhaps more in line with the values of competition and cooperation observable in the ‘knowledge ecology’ of the natural world. For a governance of knowledge to happen society must use its institutions, governance capacity and creativity to replace its knowledge economy with a ‘knowledge ecology’.<

Fourth, another basic ingredient comes from an IKM Working Paper, Power and interests in developing knowledge societies: exogenous and endogenous discourses in contention by Robin Mansell and what she writes about the endogenous approach to ICT4D which is concerned with ‘human beings, decision-making processes, and encouraging the poor to make their own society through participatory and inclusive processes of development.’  This is opposed to the mainstream of ICT4D which generally follows an exogenous (or externally generated) path.

So the developing recipe of the development knowledge ecology puts muliple knowledges, the knowledge commons, the knowledge ecology and endogenous approaches into the mix. There will be a lot of other ingredients before we have any sort of recipe but it will be interesting cooking…

Although we are only beginning to chart the dimensions of the development knowledge, it does have the potential to pull all the elements on which IKM has been working over the past 4 years together, as well as a lot of different strands within knowledge management for development. IKM’s work to date has been focused on bringing different development knowledge components together – for example, multiple knowledges and knowledge domains –  but the concept of the development knowledge ecology places more emphasis on the more holistic view which may be necessary to bring about more fundamental change.

Maybe the reason that I particularly like it as a potential framework is that it gives an expression to what has been implicitly been motivating members of IKM Emergent for a long time, often even before IKM was in existence, as well as for example other ‘positive deviants’ such as many members of KM4Dev.  This shared vision had never been expressed explicitly but has been present behind the scenes all along.

5 Responses

  1. Hi Sarah,
    Brilliant invitations to lots of KM / KS practice to the development knowledge ecology. I like it you develop knowledge on development knowledge and propose an ecology. It opens dimensions to make sense of all which is labelled knowledge for development avoiding right and wrong. Today I attended a DEVCO K-day in Brussels. Clearly big hierarchies friendly impose their own KM / KS / knowledge-glasses. They are in search of ‘evidence’ and to knowledge sharing attributable change outside their sphere of control and influence. Example: ‘where does the WB K-sharing improve poor peoples lives?’ And ‘what are the metrics?’. So, I think ‘organisation size’ must be a dimension in the ecology.
    Best, Jaap

  2. Hi Jaap, thanks for your reaction. This is what I was hoping for to be honest because I felt this was something new. But I’m not so sure that it doesn’t have a right or a wrong because although it observes what is happening without value, I do think there is implicit call for more coordination, cooperation, sharing, and certainly more recognition that we are all part of an., in some ways, integrated system that isn’t integrated enough. I’ve never done this before – shared a blog post – but would like to share with KM4Dev. Do you think people would find it interesting (or would I fall on my face?) Thanks for your advice. Groetjes, Sarah

  3. Ola Sarah, I think part of the KM4Dev discourse space is exactly on this shift away from silver bullets. KM4Dev started as WB & UNICEF & UNDP etc KM people talking to each other. To me, especially IKMergent has opened doors to think KM4Dev beyond the big hierarchies having an ‘internal KM problem’. KM4Dev should be about the ecology the members room about and in :-).
    Perhaps an idea is to start a wiki-page on the KM4Dev on ‘knowledge ecology’ and then point members form the list to it. I am sure Nancy White will react as author of ‘Digital habitats’; ‘habitat’ and ‘ecology’ are neighbours. Perhaps it is wise / handy to structure the discussion a bit like:
    – Kecology and global dev institutions
    – Kecology and local knowledge
    – Kecology and money flows
    – Kecology: what not to do
    I will support where I can. Best, Jaap

  4. I’m glad you shared the post w/ KM4Dev, Sarah, not the least because it floated across my radar screen. Here is what I wrote on the KM4Dev email list:

    Interesting to see this concept resurface in the development context. George Por convened a group back in the late 90s around knowledge ecology (see and ) – we held an online knowledge ecology fair ( ), and really spent a lot of time reframing KM into something that wasn’t about capture and structure, but about seeing knowledge from what I’d know call a something more like a complexity view. George has some papers here:

    The site where I had my paper seems to have vanished (I’m consulting the Internet archives!)


  5. […] Sarah Cummings from IKM-Emergent around the indeed emergent topic of ‘knowledge ecology’. Sarah blogged about this topic on the Giraffe, the blog of IKM’s working group 3 (which focuses on organisational practices of knowledge […]

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