10. Action

The pathways to an open knowledge society must navigate between two extremes of chaos or anarchy, order and control. But these dystopic extremes have different characteristic forms. In other words there is not just one dystopia; the two extremes are dystopic, each in its own way.
Mar 08, 2019chevron-down
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10. Action

10.1 Ways Forward: Technical, Political, or Both?

The pathways to an open knowledge society must navigate between two extremes of chaos or anarchy, order and control. But these dystopic extremes have different characteristic forms: the end of the spectrum that embodies chaos veers toward the phenomenon of the 'global techno-fix', which is the Silicon Valley model. The control end of the spectrum heads towards the political fix, embodied in the Brussels/Washington/Canberra model. In other words, there is not just one dystopia; the two extremes are dystopic, each in its own way.


One way to ensure open knowledge is the techno-fix, which is to leave it to Silicon Valley and its venture capitalist-driven entrepreneurial endeavours in protocol making, company start-ups, infrastructure building and app development enthusiasts. This method does work, and has populated and nourished the global commercial internet since the 1990s. The next generation of the internet will arrive when it moves from a primary distribution model (the internet of shopping) to a new driver, the distributed ledger or Blockchain, which promises to be fast, instantly global, and is free of central control at a structural level. Early indications are that this is indeed the direction in which we are heading.

There is certainly cause for optimism here, as the latter is also the model of Wikipedia and open source software (OSS), in both of which a globally distributed group of people has been able to organise and techno-fix production around a protocol for developing a common pool resource. But in many ways, Wikipedia and OSS, while mostly well-governed organisational forms, can also illustrate the deeper problems of anarchy and the lurking dystopia endemic to the techno-fix model.  

The problem with the techno-fix to the open knowledge problem is that while conforming to the 'better-faster-cheaper' model of tech progress, on some of the margins the techno-fix tends toward the anarchy end of the spectrum, risking problems of loss of control. Without public oversight and control, therefore, issues of access injustice, privacy violations, and arbitrary and dangerous interventions become inevitable. Open knowledge constructed in institutions such as these risks disappearing into the 'dark web' beyond moderators and oversight and becoming uncensorable and uncontrollable.

The private provision of public infrastructure also comes with costs imposed on the disruption, as a result of these developments, to established business models. This potentially applies also to the accrued benefits of settled ways of doing things, for institutions such as for libraries, publishers, and funders that have thus far adapted to a settled regime of public funding of closed knowledge production.  

Political Fix

The other way to solve the problem of open knowledge is through politics, which can tend towards dystopia in a different way. Proposed solutions tend to use political mechanisms to force collective action, adding oversight and enforcement to aspects of the business process such as funding shares, IP transfer agreements, access and censorship prospects. This is the control end of the spectrum. The dystopic aspects here include the use of political power and force (rather than voluntary action) to create an outcome. And, because this is a negotiated process whose outcome depends upon who is at the table, some will be left out, creating new divides and the potential exclusion of those who are not part of the political process. This tendency is already visible in various attempts made and measures taken by a variety of national governments in order to enforce national control and borders on the internet, resulting in reduced access by national research communities to open information.

The political process inevitably draws in the same actors and will tend towards replicating and reinforcing the patterns of past decisions, as it works through the same channels and mechanisms of power. Even with the best intentions and the brightest political agents, the process will be slow and conservative.

Towards an Inclusive Institutionalisation of Open Knowledge

Eutopia in the space of open knowledge institutions is not a negation of the techno-fix nor the political control agenda, but an attempt to find and embed the best aspects of both, and to shed the worst aspects of the existing systems.    

We seek a good solution that will put structure into our technical undertakings, and which recognises the critical need for inclusive and participatory governance systems. So, we need negotiated protocols. The techno-fix is needed for the efficiencies and new affordances it brings. But political control is also needed to create a fair and representative system.

An open knowledge system, in the 'narrow range for eutopia' vision, has complex institutional characteristics and practical outcomes that mix the best aspects of the techno-fix and the negotiated political settlement. We will recognise it by its characteristics and properties.

An open knowledge system will bring more knowledge for more people than a closed knowledge system. That offers a powerful productive potential, as well as a highly desirable outcome in relation to diversity and inclusion that are baked into the open approach.  An open knowledge system naturally produces different forms and sources of knowledge. These qualities of abundance and social justice need to be set against the other key aspect of an open knowledge system as a complex institutional space and a site for staged conflict.

To build such a knowledge institution with complex dynamic properties requires the mixing of technology and protocol-driven infrastructure with consensus-driven negotiations. The end result, ideally, will be poised in tension between the opposing poles of too much chaos and too much order.

Open knowledge institutions facilitate participation rather than adopting top-down, controlling and exclusive approaches. This coordination process seeks to establish productive and collaborative linkages with a variety of actors and stakeholders, and between the grassroots, and the initiatives and the realm of external regulators.  

Inclusive coordination not only provides platforms for dialogue among participants but imagines permeability among types of knowledge participants. That is, an Open Knowledge Institution imagines the possibility that a knowledge consumer can become a user; that a beneficiary can become a maker. All roles must be valued and the possibilities for the simultaneous and sequential embodiment in various roles must be maintained. Furthermore, it must be recognised that the system of knowledge production has many competing value systems. For example, an institution may be subject to certain regulatory frameworks that a knowledge maker may not be subject to. In turn, the knowledge maker may be responding to disciplinary pressures that are external to the institution. Coordination requires being aware of and attending to these competing priority and value systems.

Sensitive coordination will always maintain a precarious balance between empowerment and control. As noted earlier, actors within the knowledge system are subject to differing pressures and regulation. To attend to these pressures, coordination must ensure maximum flexibility while meeting the needs of accountability bodies and regulatory agencies. Coordination of an open system, furthermore, requires certain sensitivities to potential counter-currents. Given that systems will evolve to a naturally closed state,  effective mechanisms must be in place to incentivise and reward openness.

10.2 Ways to Proceed

Our goal is a university that engages deeply with the mission of an Open Knowledge Institution, by drawing upon the values, structures and activities of open knowledge, and including them into its organisational and community story.  Such an open institution provides a platform for distributed innovation and maximal impact.

Within this broad framework, there is also the possibility of a university deciding how to assess its own progress. Although established frameworks for measuring the effectiveness of universities in traditional terms are a reality, OKIs have the courage and ability to contribute to change in the ways that universities are positioned and understood, internally and externally. 

In turn, this suggests that OKIs will need to be supported by guidance and best practice. This support might take the form of possible models, best practice, and cautionary tales of common mistakes, alongside advice on how other organisations have decided to represent their own progress.

We intend this book to be a first step in the development of a framework to guide action and illustrate pathways forward.

10.3 Leading the Way

In a complex evolutionary pathway towards open knowledge institutions, leadership matters. Some must go first. Leaders can be individuals, groups and organisations. They can emerge in all kinds of contexts:

  1. The Government, apart from being the regulator, can support the transition in many ways as a leader. Open access can be included systematically as a requirement for government-funded research. Public universities may pay special attention to increasing the inclusiveness of their staff and student body and can be rewarded accordingly. In the polarity between techno-fix and political fix, governments can take an active role in mediating and moderating negotiations between business and universities in creating common knowledge pools.

  2. Professional associations play an essential role in leading the process of overhauling the dominant system of journal rankings, peer review procedures and performance evaluation of academics. They can actively support and honour cross-disciplinary research initiatives via the creation of new venues for publishing innovative research.

  3. Scientific and scholarly publishers can create innovative ways to combine commercial interests with maximising open access, and may actively pursue cooperation with other concerned parties, such as professional associations.

  4. Universities can overhaul their systems of selecting and evaluating faculty and staff, thereby changing the incentives for teachers and researchers. They can reward all kinds of common knowledge pools that transcend the boundaries of established approaches, such as community projects.

  5. Researchers can take the lead as open knowledge entrepreneurs, taking the risk in exploring new common knowledge pools. Senior researchers may actively support new open access journals by redirecting their submissions away from the incumbents.

  6. Teachers can develop new curricula in keeping with the more open nature of knowledge and the growing diversity of university populations.

  7. Students can be presented with real options within and between universities, including those which model open knowledge initiatives; and students can organise activism for openness. 

  8. Funders can include open knowledge criteria in their project selection and evaluation procedures. They can identify emerging common knowledge pools, moving away from narrow criteria of excellence, for example, by widening the peer and expert review system to include other concerned parties.

  9. Professions can actively cooperate with universities in creating programs that integrate knowledge users in their design and implementation. They can support research initiatives that bridge research and application.

  10. Communities can actively support spatial integration between universities and localities. They can approach universities with cultural and other community projects, acting as local knowledge entrepreneurs.

  11. International organisations can develop blueprints for open knowledge initiatives. They can lend active support to developing countries in building new open knowledge institutions and act as mediators across national policies.

  12. Standards setters can actively support increasing openness of standards globally.

Amidst all this opportunity, there is a place for us all. 

Associate Professor
Professor at Curtin University
Education consultant and arts commentator
Senior Research Associate, IP Unit, University of Cape Town
Fellow, Max Weber Centre for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies
Senior Research Fellow, Curtin University
Joan Leach
Academic Course Advisor, Western Sydney University
Executive Director
Research Fellow, Centre for Culture and Technology, Curtin University



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