Negotiating openness across science, ICTs and participatory development

Full title: Negotiating openness across science, ICTs and participatory development: Lessons from the AfricaAdapt network

In recent years, emergent forms of decentralized, open collaboration supported by information and communication technologies (ICTs) have given rise to many claims regarding their democratizing potential (Thompson, 2008). However, open knowledge initiatives vary widely with regard to the skills required to participate, the organization of production, ownership of the tools and outputs of collaboration. Some progress has been made in understanding the various dimensions of participation in ICT-supported, open collaborative initiatives, including the opportunities afforded to contributors to become involved in higher levels of decision-making (West and O'Mahony, 2008). Such concerns have also been at the core of debates on the empowering potential of participatory development which champions the engagement of local and indigenous communities in research and international development.

Following this introduction, it is argued that there are significant challenges in realizing the empowering and productive potential of open participation especially when its various dimensions are taken into account. We argue that these challenges are compounded in ICT-supported initiatives that operate across different epistemic cultures (Knorr-Cetina, 1999) where stakeholder conceptions of participation and openness can be widely divergent. To illustrate this point we use as a case study the AfricaAdapt network (http://www.africa-adapt.net), which aims to create an ICT-supported knowledge-sharing network of African climate change adaptation actors that seeks the contributions of both science-based research and of local or traditional ecological knowledge (TEK).

TEK refers to knowledge and insights acquired through extensive observation of an area or a species that is passed down through oral tradition between community members. Although there have been cases where TEK has successfully informed mainstream research and policy, the relationship between indigenous or community informants and scientists and the validity granted to their respective knowledge claims is regarded as highly unequal. Even in cases where scientists recognize the validity of indigenous knowledge, some argue, they often tend to exploit rather than involve local informants as partners and equals in the process of knowledge production (Jennings, 2009). The relationship between TEK and mainstream science is understood by adopting Knorr-Cettina’s (1999) concept of epistemic cultures. The role of ICTs in the context of AfricaAdapt is approached through the notion of mediation (Silverstone, 2005).

We then proceed to analyze the tensions that arise in meaning-making when competing conceptions of, and concerns about, openness and participation intersect from scientific, technological and community-based development disciplines. Emphasis is given on how these tensions are expressed and negotiated in seeking to design and implementing a broad-based, democratic framework of participation that produces the norms, rules and processes that underlie information exchange and collaboration within the network. The need to formulate norms in response to emerging, pressing issues, like the establishment of editorial criteria for participant submissions, calls into question the processes through which these were made and their implications for defining the network’s culture of openness. The paper is concluded with recommendations on how to address the complexity of formulating and sustaining a particular vision of openness across disparate epistemic cultures.

Authors: Evangelia Berdou and Blane Harvey

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