Knowledge Federation seen through the metaphor of bridge building

Is it true that problems such as war, unemployment, poverty, economic and environmental non-sustainability – and a vast amount of injustice that affects you and me and all of us directly – are built into the very mechanism of the global monetary system?

This is what the Zeitgeist movement is claiming. “Money must go!” they conclude in their latest documentary, Zeitgeist: Moving Forward,  which I watched online several days ago (in what follows, I call their claim ‘Claim M’). I here share a few remarks – as prelude to a summary of recent developments in Knowledge Federation:

  • Claim M splits the world into two: In the conventional scheme of things, we do not think about the possibility of changing the foundations of our economy; rather, we take the economy for granted and seek solutions within its limits. In the light of Claim M, however, we might be able to see that there are no solutions in the existing scheme of things — that this scheme of things is in fact causing the problems; and that systemic change is called for also for a variety of other reasons (the view offered in the mentioned film).
  • Observe that Claim M is yet another example of a wave of change – from reactive focus on problems, to proactive focus on systemic causes. Watch this wave as it rises slowly, like a benign tsunami; it will wash away our messy ‘global problems’ and leave us with only a handful of clear-cut systemic ones.
  • We (as society) do not, and probably under present circumstances cannot know whether Claim M is true or not: We do not even have a social mechanism that would organize relevant documents and opinions together; not to speak about bringing them to a consensus. All we have is contradicting views, and awareness that each of us has seen only a small fraction of them;  how can we ever develop a shared understanding of this issue? Or see the above situation through a legal metaphor: Claim M is presently only an accusation; but – especially considering that the defendant is the most powerful one – nothing save a jury trial would be needed to warrant legal action. We presently have no court where this sort of trial might be arranged. We may be unable to reach shared understanding of any critical issue before it is too late.
  • Even if  Claim M were a socially sanctioned fact, we might still question  whether the course of action advocated by Zeitgeist (changing the economy to a scientifically controlled ‘resource-based economy’) would be the best way to direct our efforts. There are groups who advocate the spiritual outlook on life as the key to solution; but what if the spiritual outlook contradicts the worldview that the biology department is teaching? All too often a proposed solution reminds of putting into an existing machinery a piece that just has no place in it; and proposing systemic change is not any better if the proposal is to replace the whole machinery by a different one – while this machinery is still in operation! (An economy can hardly be stopped and replaced, even if we knew what to replace it with.)  Strategy – how to make a systemic change realistically – is the pivotal piece in our puzzle; and the choice of this piece too needs to be informed by systemic thinking.

I am reminded of an event about a decade ago, on the last day of a three-day dialogue about contemporary themes in a nature resort near Oslo: Stephan Harding told us that some country should break the ice and create a zero-growth economy, which to Stephan the environmentalist may have been an obvious fact; and that this country should probably be Norway, because both our economy and our culture would allow that. Our group received the idea that solutions might come from our part of the world with enthusiasm; but on my way home I was imagining the faces of Norwegian business leaders and politicians when we have told them that Norway was going to have a zero-growth economy; so the following day I wrote an email to our group, titled “Let’s Build a Bridge Together,” saying that our focus must be on building a bridge across the chasm that divides our present condition from a condition where things like zero-growth economy, or whatever else might be necessary to live sustainably, or to live better or to continue evolving socially and culturally, are also possible.

Bridge building naturally begins from one of the banks; interestingly, the default choice of environmentalist and futurologists seems to be the other bank: “If we are to live sustainably, then this and that needs to happen.”  While this might be useful information about how our bridge needs to be attached to the other side, when it comes to actually building this bridge, we realize that we have a problem – we are not there! We are here, on this side of the chasm, and therefore we can only watch a construction that begins on the other side, and perhaps regret that we cannot be there and help [1].

I have good news to share — in Knowledge Federation the bridge building has started on our side; and it is already well underway!

The bridge we have undertaken to build attaches snuggly to our side of the chasm, and brings us closer to the other. For a moment I leave this as an unproven claim; I will come back to it in a moment.

I first want to show you what has been done.

Knowledge Federation is a community committed to re-creating the way knowledge work works (in media informing, science, education, governance…). As our name might suggest, we stand for knowledge work that is not divided by application areas or professional interests, but organized together or federated across domains. Also the specific approach to knowledge work we want to develop is called ‘knowledge federation.’

In a political federation, states come together to empower a shared purpose, while preserving their identity and to a chosen degree also their autonomy; in a knowledge federation, distinct knowledge resources might be organized together to empower a consensus opinion – which may be a population-wide direction changing insight. You may also think of knowledge federation as an organization of human, technological, material and other resources that enables those resources to augment quality (w.r.t. trustworthiness, presentation, organization, ability to deliver insight…) rather than quantity of knowledge artifacts.

A motive for Knowledge Federation: While a spectrum of technologies have been developed that enable radical changes of knowledge work, contemporary conditions invite such a change. Our first meeting in 2008 in Dubrovnik was a convention of technical researcher, with an agenda to map the available approaches to collaborative knowledge work and begin a community [2]. Our second meeting, last October in Dubrovnik, was a meeting of a transdisciplinary group of researchers, professionals, developers, entrepreneurs and stake holders, with a purpose to begin creating new knowledge-work practices in journalism/informing, science and education; our plan was to perceive ourselves not as individuals pursuing a career in a profession, but as members of a collective and at the limit  global mind, and to begin to self-organize as it suits this centrally important role [3].

Already at the end of the first, social day, during the reception in Villa Doda (which, as it is already a tradition, we reserved for our headquarters, guests and late-night conversations) – after Suad Ahmetović’s introduction to the history and ambients of Dubrovnik, walk on Lokrum Island and  private classical concert in Rosary Chapel – it became clear that an excellent and enthusiastic group had come together.

Early Monday morning, John Wilbanks (the Vice President for science of Creative Commons and the President of Science Commons) introduced us to our core task in his opening keynote – creating a science (or better said a knowledge work) without borders, capable of creating insights about any contemporary issue. Paddy Coulter (currently the Director of Oxford Global Media, earlier the Director of Studies at the Reuter’s Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University), introduced us to the task of the day: to develop a public informing that can truly serve us well – in the demanding circumstances of an increasingly complex world; and  to develop a business model that will make good journalism financially sustainable – in the conditions of overabundant free information. During the three working days of the workshop we began the work on federated systems for journalism, science and education.

Following the Dubrovnik workshop we continued working intensively on two tasks. One was what we called ‘article federation’ – instead of automatically resorting to conventional peer reviews, we undertook to federate the contributed articles.

Within this task, physicist Dejan Raković and I developed a prototype federation system for research articles called Tesla and the Nature of Creativity or TNC (we used his contributed article as building material, and Cohere and Acrobat Professional as tools), which can

  • extract from a scientific article ideas that are of general interest
  • present ideas online in a discipline-independent language –  by using visual icons – and relate them with one another and with corresponding knowledge resources by using a (Cohere) graph
  • allow everyone with Internet access to view this information and add ideas and relationships (in a separate view, without altering the provided one)
  • synthesize (based on the network of ideas) reliable key insights or gestalts
  • make those insights available to those communities of interest to which they might be relevant
  •  make publicly relevant and interesting insights available to journalists, together with supporting materials
  • turn a research article into a multimedia object by adding video, navigation, annotation, extraction and graphical presentation of key ideas, and interviews with the author.

Our second task was community development, orchestrated by our Hosting Team, and conducted in part on the Ning community platform that George Pór initiated.

In a Skype meeting of the Hosting Team I was asked to write a proposal — based on our community conversations  — for a way to introduce knowledge federation and organize the work in our community. The resulting  proposal is now being implemented around our new a Drupal-based community platform.

This platform, and the new, project-based Knowledge Federation, will be opened to public at the workshop Silicon Valley Insights: Openness, the Quadruple Helix & Knowledge Federation that our community is organizing at the Triple Helix IX conference at Sanford University this June.

A reason why Knowledge Federation is a bridge that attaches snuggly to our side of the chasm that divides us from a sustainable condition, or  from a possible or a better world, is that the specific steps it offers provide immediate improvements without struggle. Our strategy is conscious systemic evolution, not a revolution. 

To see this concretely, let us look  into some of the details of Knowledge Federation. Consider, for example, the Knowledge Federation Media Channel, which we are developing within the Journalism for the 21st Century project; our  intended result is a knowledge work ecosystem, where academic researchers, and ‘the crowd,’ support the work of the journalists, by preparing insights and accompanying material, and by verifying those insights. Isn’t this exactly what is needed to enable the journalists to be efficient and effective in fulfilling their key social role? An internal nickname for Knowledge Federation Media Channel is ‘Wikileaks for insights.’

Or consider the federated education model we are developing within the Knowledge Federation Course project, where instructors and learners  worldwide team up with creative animators and technology developers and video artists and… (who are also members in the federation) to co-create knowledge resources for a single course to be offered globally; and where education is self-guided, exploratory, social and creative. Isn’t this exactly what is needed so that education can create people capable of creating solutions? And what can give education competitive edge over World of Warcraft?

You may also consider the above developments from the point of view of IT business: If Knowledge Federation succeeds to evolve and deploy in practice new patterns for academic work, public informing and education, that will open some of the largest new markets for enabling technology. Already our Knowledge Federation embryo that gathered last October in Dubrovnik included two ‘corporate stakeholders’:   Cerpus – an innovator in education, and Induct Software – an innovator in  corporate knowledge management.

And finally, consider all this from the point of view of our members. Each of our projects is conceived as a ‘game-changing game’ in its domain, i.e. as a fun and engaging game-like social environment, with clear steps and tasks, and with large, jackpot-like possibilities for contribution and gain. Our intention is to make those projects viral; and to allow them to grow, and become trend setters.

So in whatever way we look, we see that the moves made or planned by Knowledge Federation improve key societal systems, bring career benefits and playful and meaningful engagement to everyone involved, and don’t depend on anyone else to be implemented in practice.


[1] A notable exception is the Corporation – the film federating a systemic view (available from this website) and the corresponding movement, which implements a clear strategy – passing a constitutional amendment that the corporation is not a legal person.

[2] See the Call for Abstracts. for First International Workshop on Knowledge Federation-

[3] See the Call for Abstracts for Second International Workshop on Knowledge Federation.

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