Networked and Nested Knowledges

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Valerie Brown
Australian National University

Disconnected and dysfunctional decisions are being made on all major environmental issues, from climate change to protection of endangered species (1,2). World-wide, we can't seem to reach long term, viable, decisions on environmental futures at either the personal, the local, or the global scale. Individuals are no longer sure who to believe, and global environmental conditions are subject to decisions made by a wide range of international bodies such as the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation. Thre is no environmental regulator.


For some centuries now Western culture has relied on specialists to provide what has been regarded as the only "proper" knowledge, that is, reliable information referred to the appropriate specialised framework, ecology if it was environment, sociology if it was community, and economics if it was resoruces. In the last half-century, both community and government have become disenchanted with relying solely on specialised solutions. The results include single factor solutions to complex issues; distortion of the issue to fit the specialist framework; and lack of relevance to community interests and government goals.


At a superficial level, it is often assumed that the issue of connecting different parties in environmental decision-making is one of scale: the difficulty of building agreements between personal decisions, local community priorities, national interests, and globalised industries. Or else it is considered to be a problem of conflicting values. However, tymptoms, not causes of the lack of progress towards solutions.

A far more fundamental issue and one that is common to both the local and the global scale, is the differing knowledge constructions applied to the same set of issues by community interests, expert advisors and the responsible government applied to the one place. These differences can be shown to be significant enough to represent different constructions of reality, with different sources of evidence, different languages and different frameworks for interpreting information.
To resolve the confrontational and dysfunctional decision-making which currently exists, there is need to first acknowledge the validity of each of the constructions of knowledge, and then to proceed to derive patterns which are built from connections not divisions; from parts of a system in dialogue with each other, not in a random scatter; and from a holarchy of equivalents parts, not a single hierarchical rule,

It is normal practice to accept the compartmentalising and stratifying of community, expert and political ways of constructing knowledge. It is equally possible to think of them as nested, that is, each one building on the knowledge of the others. Or they can be networked, each reinforcing the others. The constructions of knowledge involved in environmental governance can be thought of as having permeable walls. Each has its own practitioners and areas of influence, basis for collecting evidence, and language, each of which can contribute to the others. Leaving responsibility for decision-making entirely in the hands of any one leaves them inside an existing system whose pattern of operation is determined by pre-existing agendas.


The solution is for all five sub-cultures to (a) be linked in decision-making networks in which the different knowledge bases are transparent and shared, and (b) recognise that each is derived from the other within a holistic, not a hierarchical system, forming a single nested system (Figures 2 and 3).

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