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2. Change

This flow of video, information, searches, communication, transactions and intra-company traffic now greatly outpaces the movement of people and traded goods. There are some indicators that Open Knowledge Institutions (OKIs) are positioned to gain from these global data flows.

Published onMar 08, 2019
2. Change

2.1 An Open World

In 2016, McKinsey Global Institute released a report on digital globalisation that found that data flows across national borders have increased 45-fold since 2005. This flow of video, information, searches, communication, transactions and intra-company traffic now greatly outpaces the movement of people and traded goods. Data globalisation has not favoured all parts of the globe equally, however, with developing nations lagging significantly behind first-world and emergent nations like China in data flow volume. But there are some indicators that Open Knowledge Institutions (OKIs) are positioned to gain from these global data flows much as they have gained from open collaboration across national borders.

The development of free and open source software, both as a movement and as practical infrastructure, is an example. The collaborative development of highly specific technical resources in the form of code by people who may have never met physically is perhaps the classic example of what is enabled by networked digital communications. The lowered cost of discovery means two (or more) people with a shared interest on opposite sides of the globe can find each other. The massively lowered cost of transferring digital objects means they can contribute to each other's work, and the consequent growth of shared platforms and infrastructures makes that work more widely relevant and usable, reinforcing and growing the network over time.

Technological change is also challenging power relationships between makers and users of knowledge. It is now possible for user communities to create upstream change in knowledge production processes, in order to ensure downstream benefit. One example is Patients Like Me: a global patient network and real-time research platform established entirely outside the university system, with the goal of creating new sources of data for research on ALS (Lou Gerhig's disease), and ultimately speeding the pace of treatment and drug development taking place within the formal research sector. Patients Like Me now has 60,000 members worldwide and has expanded beyond ALS. The platform has supported new clinical trials and established formal relationships with pharmaceutical companies and research institutions.

At the same time, many of these projects are facing crises of discrimination, particularly around such identity-based facets as gender, race and ethnicity. Again, open source software development provides a striking example of this challenge. In Open Source, networks are built based on shared technical needs and interests. This reinforces the connections between a subset of global populations with early access to networks which are predominantly white men in a small subset of geographies. Early work to enhance diversity was not pursued and, as our model predicts, by default there has been a slide to a closed state, in this case of the demographics of contributors and the climate experienced by those not fitting that demographic(as in Gamergate).

Similar stories could be told about Wikipedia and many other projects that stand out as successes in the creation of Open Knowledge Institutions, but which have serious and systemic problems of closed and exclusionary cultures. Learning from these examples, many new projects are expending significant effort to create strong governance structures that address a spectrum of ‘open’ characteristics, wherein participants agree to bind themselves to codes of conduct and other processes. These deliberately impose an ongoing burden of thoughtfulness and labour to ensure that the system is optimised for maximal openness.

2.2 Open Initiatives in Universities

Understanding the future of this trend and what it means for knowledge institutions is not straightforward. Global data on data flows do not equate to or even map onto global knowledge. A specific narrative about successful mediation of knowledge in one setting cannot necessarily be generalised and the growth of open access policy, platform provision and outcomes is only a narrow slice of a broader picture. But there are some indications that universities on the road to being successful Open Knowledge Institutions can be positioned to gain from these changes.

Universities in North America, Europe, Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand have already experienced major changes in knowledge format and accessibility as a result of technologies. Since the 1990s, scholarly resources in many disciplines (though not all) have become increasingly available online, with libraries choosing electronic media as a preference. One outcome has been the widening of access to published scholarly materials beyond the physical structures and hours spent within university libraries. Less welcome outcomes for many include the shift from 'owned' to 'rented' collections, whereby electronic content has largely been subscribed to rather than purchased, limiting its permanence; the paywalls and increased restrictions based on licensing of this content; and the closing and shrinking of library buildings and communities of space. The costs and management of storage space and demand for student technology study facilities are merging and moving physical collections offsite or removing items altogether. Particularly in the humanities and creative arts, losing physical access challenges established research practices.

If properly poised, however, open practices could help to broaden rather than reduce access to electronic content. Work within university libraries, often in partnership with university presses, is demonstrating how to reclaim the modes of scholarly production through the creation of open journals, open monographs, open datasets and new curatorial and exhibitionary practices. Without such activities to counter the increased commodification of knowledge objects, access to publicly-funded library knowledge resources and physical facilities will be much more controlled and restricted than in past decades, thereby limiting openness.

In addition, many universities today produce a wide range of openly available materials and rely on open source software to distribute them. From well-established pathways with large user bases and broad recognition (e.g., arXiv, Sakai, EPrints, Samvera) to newer, still-experimental environments with great promise (e.g., Manifold), many aspects of 'open' are already accepted if not prominent in the university landscape. When universities trust that openness will increase the reach of their scholarship without compromising (or being perceived as compromising) its value, they are more likely to begin moving toward the characteristics of an Open Knowledge Institution.

Universities are expending significant resources and work in grappling with these changes. Normally this happens within a background of existing power, prestige, resources and existing practice. While much of the impetus has been driven by outside forces, including funders, national and regional policy, we do see specific universities and other research organisations choosing to take a leadership position on these issues, particularly when that openness demonstrates an increase in the return on investment on research or a pathway to lowering the overall costs of scholarly communications. While policy statements and submissions to external assessments do not provide direct evidence of action or outcomes, they have been the catalyst for significant progress. This can be seen in the case of open access, but also in larger diversity issues, such as the Athena Swan initiative in the UK.

There is increasing evidence that engaging with an open agenda is good for universities. Wagner and Jonker (2017) have presented evidence that countries with greater openness have stronger science. They say there is 'a clear correlation between a nation's scientific influence and the links it fosters with foreign researchers'. In complementary work, Sugimoto et al. (2017) showed that mobile researchers have greater research impact. These studies both show the potential benefits to universities of greater openness on traditionally valued measures of performance but also illustrate the risks of a focus on those traditional measures, derived from limited sets of publications and limited metrics with known and serious biases.

Open institutions bring 'data shadows' into the light, thus creating more data and potentially more knowledge. However, the exponential increase in the flow of data is not uniform: it is dominated by transatlantic, European and Asian streams with much lower rates of flow among African and South American streams and countries of the Global South. This demonstrates the ways in which this flow is globalised but not at all global, and it highlights the question of missing and unavailable data as well as the unequal distribution of both data and knowledge around the world. Redressing these asymmetries is clearly part of the agenda of future-facing Open Knowledge Institutions, not least because doing so would expand the overall knowledge universe enormously and further diversify its forms, agents and uses, to the benefit of all.

We can see at least the beginning of institutions looking to gain advantage, not by exclusive access to information but by the strategic engagement of their data and researchers with others. Open Knowledge Institutions will have the capacity to take the available data in massive global data flows and translate it into knowledge. Those flows may travel without regard to local conditions, but open institutions can take transmitted data and translate it into useable and meaningful knowledge and share it among groups who might otherwise resist the external incursion of ideas. The potential for global knowledge growth with networked open institutions is great, but networks cannot be uniform across all demographic and national borders: data must adapt to the given cultural environment, as organisations and people do, and information must be made meaningful if it is to be used for transforming knowledge.

2.3 Open Knowledge and Conflict

Open Knowledge Institutions cultivate cross-border exchange. Diversity of perspectives and experiences is critical for increasing the value of a knowledge-producing network. This requires work and these efforts are often challenging with increasing difference inevitably leading to conflict. Our world feels increasingly hemmed in by resurgent cross-border conflict among nations, faith groups, class, gender and ethnic groups, extremism of right or left, all the way across to differences of identity, affiliation, and taste that divide people even as they connect. We can be confident that the current era of globalisation in trade, technology, and media – not to mention a few supra-national languages (led by Mandarin, Spanish, English, Arabic) – will not lead to cultural or knowledge uniformity.

The friction created by cross-border conflict can be a driver and catalyst for knowledge. These borderlands provide the most intensive zones of knowledge exchange and competition, bringing previously separate ideas into contact to provide innovative solutions to previously unimagined threats and opportunities. An Open Knowledge Institution will be an environment where difference and conflict are always visible; where untranslatable, incommensurable, and incomprehensible knowledge will be a deliberately cultivated part of the landscape. The institutional imperative is to maintain contact across such borders rather than closing them down or seeking to incorporate them into some larger, smoother entity.

Conflict is already woven into the mechanisms and core cultural practices of the university. Peer review is perhaps the most obvious example; a stage in which authors and referees engage in conflict to test the claims of a scholarly output in a defined arena with highly specified rules imposed by an editor. The method of producing new academics also engages in a discourse of conflict: NB the tradition of a dissertation 'defence' wherein external examiners are engaged as 'opponents' to bring different perspectives to challenge doctoral work.

Extending conflict and diversity in an Open Knowledge Institution is not without challenges. Look for example at the 'creative destruction' of the once mighty empires of the press, print-publishing and journalism. Already, many great mastheads have disappeared. There are survivors and stand-outs, but upheaval in the publishing sector already has led to transformed business plans, content, workforce, and demographics of attention. There are very few outlets left online or offline that reach for population-wide undifferentiated readerships as did the old 'mass media', speaking equally to political leaders, business interests and working families. Now, online communication is either driven by advertising (in which case content is free), or by subscription (in which case audiences are niched). Knowledge-making in this sphere is an entirely new game, driven primarily by the tech giants rather than by the journalists and media moguls of the past.

A successful Open Knowledge Institution will be modular in its external and internal networks. All nodes will not be equal and open to all others. Some will be closed internally, even while connected externally to other nodes and to the rest of the system. The chances of getting it wrong are high; and doing so can be catastrophic, not simply for an individual organisation but for an entire sector. It is quite possible that getting the open knowledge institutional settings wrong for long enough, across a sufficiently significant proportion of the sector, will lead the entire species towards an extinction event: universities will be out-competed and rendered unfit for purpose. The work required to maintain a dynamic equilibrium, a poised institutional state, requires continuous challenge and work.

2.4 Open by Design

The important policy implication for Open Knowledge Institutions is that dystopia looms at both extremes: too open leads to chaos; too closed leads to rigidity. The possibility space for achieving a poised system is quite narrow. We have presented what is in many ways a utopian vision, and contrasted it with the dystopia of top-down control or, worse, the failure of the university as a societal institution. In much contemporary literature, that dystopia is presented as total corporate control of the academy or, if not that, then the loss of the university's qualities to the pursuit of metricised rankings of excellence (Readings, 1997). But there is equally a dystopia in which there is too much freedom; a data deluge or information overload in which anything goes and no knowledge is more valid than any other.

All institutions are arrayed on a spectrum between order and chaos, between the costs of disorder and the costs of dictatorship. Somewhere on that gradient is a dynamic optimum, a complex state poised between total control (rigidity) and chaos (collapse), where the system displays desirable qualities of resilience, adaptability, and dynamic efficiency because it has enough flexibility to change and enough structure to remain stable.

Figure 1a. Openness as a poised system

The space for policy is not at the extremes, but in the narrow zone of uncertainty where the pressures of order and disorder can be 'poised' (Kauffmann, 1991).

Networks on the boundary between order and chaos may have the flexibility to adapt rapidly and successfully through the accumulation of useful variations. … Poised systems will … typically adapt to a changing environment gradually, but if necessary, they can occasionally change rapidly. These properties are observed in organisms."(Kauffman, 1991).

Figure 1b. Institutional Possibility Frontier for Open Knowledge

All institutions can be arrayed about the Institutional Possibility Frontier (IPF) as a trade-off between social costs of disorder and of dictatorship (see Djankov et al., 2003).  

The optimal institutional zone is not something that can be defined in advance but must be iteratively discovered. A successful system manages this process and tension continuously. Some degree of organisation is required, but flexibility is also necessary for the system to thrive. In the same way, open markets, open competition and personal freedom still require regulation, both formal via rule of law and social via informal sanctions, to keep the playing field level for cooperating players, to discourage free-riders, to assist disadvantaged or developing groups and to train new entrants into the system. But over-regulation, prohibitions, private deals (corruption) and the arbitrary or capricious exercise of power all damage the workings of the system as a whole.

A good example of this is Creative Commons licenses. These licenses use the existing copyright framework (the environment) to allow the selection of an optimal position between retaining complete control over content (all rights reserved or in the extreme form secrecy) and completely giving up control. A user selects a limited set of restrictions, some rights reserved, that they feel are appropriate to their circumstances. Yet the use of and indeed the legal text of the licenses has changed over time in a continuous response to newly discovered issues and challenges. The institution of Creative Commons is as much that process of improvement and testing as it is a set of licenses.

Productivity requires balance among alternative and often contending pressures. Different systems, phases and regimes experience (or are subject to) different settings at the same time. For example, in countries where markets are opening up, rigid control over family relations (private life – gender roles etc.) may increase (i.e., where inequality is social rather than economic). Political and commercial discourses routinely cite fear of disorder or chaos to justify authoritarian control, but that supposed ‘solution’ (command and control) is just as dangerous. Political disputation is properly about whether more control or more openness is required in any given setting. The trick for policymakers and leaders is to find the optimum point of poise (which is self-finding in natural systems), without knowing it in advance; and then to keep the actual situation for any given example as close to that point as possible.

Digitally mediated shifts in the underlying economics of knowledge production have given rise to new business models and institutions. Newly empowered groups working beyond the bounds of formal institutions are challenging the roles of traditional knowledge brokers, from Wikipedia to the Kahn Academy, to hyper-local community news and affinity groups. In the face of this challenge, particularly where seen as a threat, the risk is that universities will default to closed. Focusing on traditional networks of knowledge exchange and production is likely to reify these closed structures. In a changing and increasingly uncertain world, universities risk failure or at least a dystopian future if they follow the default path.

This model of knowledge production poised on a boundary between order and chaos implies a need for a dynamic process in which work is required to maintain complex balance. The trick for analysts is not to argue for one extreme or the other, but to gather and sift the evidence to work towards this point of dynamic stability that maximises flexibility and resilience but also creativity and knowledge creation. Our role is to argue for moving technical, political and commercial control practices nearer to that poised point and to marshal the evidence on the best route(s) forwards.

Nate Angell:

missing comma?

Nate Angell:

missing space

Daniel S. Katz:

These are not mutually exclusive - we currently have examples of advertising-driven communication providers with niche audiences

Katie Wilson:
, the social media sexual harassment campaign.
Anita de Waard:

Is it possible to add links to some of these references? I don’t know many of them, and doing a search from them pulls me out of reading. THanks!