Working paper: knowledge politics and political economy in open and collaborative methods for development

Wool STEPS SS 17

Photo: Nathan Oxley, STEPS Centre

Experimentation with radically open and collaborative ways of producing knowledge and material artefacts can be found everywhere, from the free/libre and open-source software movement to citizen science initiatives, and from community-based fabrication laboratories and makerspaces to the production of open-source scientific hardware. Spurred on by the widespread availability of networked digital infrastructure, what such initiatives share in common is the (re)creation of knowledge commons, and an attempt to redistribute innovative agency across a broad array of actors.

In this working paper, Patrick van Zwanenberg, Mariano Fressoli, Valeria Arza, Adrian Smith and Anabel Marin reflect on what these emerging practices might mean for helping to cultivate more equitable and sustainable patterns of global development. For many commentators and activists such initiatives promise to radically alter the ways in which we produce knowledge and material artefacts – in ways that are far more efficient, creative, distributed, decentralised, and democratic. Such possibilities are intriguing, but also not without critical challenges.

We argue that key to appreciating if and how collaborative, commons-based production can fulfil such promises and contribute to more equitable and sustainable patterns of development, are a series of challenges concerning the knowledge politics and political economy of the new practices. We ask: what depths and forms of participation are being enabled through the new practices? In what sense does openness translate into the ability to use knowledge? Who is able to influence and control open and collaborative production? Who is able to allocate resources to, and to capture benefits from, the new initiatives? And will open and collaborative forms of production create new relations with, or even transform, markets, states, and civil society, or will they be captured by sectional interests?