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A historical parallel

Think about the world at the twilight of the Middle Ages and the dawn of the Renaissance. Recall the devastating religious wars, terrifying epidemics... Bring to mind the iconic image of the scholastics discussing "how many angels can dance on a needle point". And another iconic image, of Galilei in house arrest a century after Copernicus, whispering "and yet it moves" into his beard.

Observe that the problems of the epoch were not resolved by focusing on those problems, but by a slow and steady development of an entirely new approach to knowledge. Several centuries of accelerated and sweeping evolution followed. Could a similar advent be in store for us today?

Our discovery

"If I have seen further," Sir Isaac Newton famously declared, "it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." The point of departure of our initiative was a discovery. We did not discover that the best ideas of our best minds were drowning in an ocean of glut. Vannevar Bush, a giant, diagnosed that nearly three quarters of a century ago. He urged the scientists to focus on that disturbing trend and find a remedy. But needless to say, this too drowned in glut.

What we did find out, when we began to develop and apply knowledge federation as a remedial practice, was that now just as in Newton's time, the insights of giants add up to a novel approach to knowledge. And that just as the case was then, the new approach to knowledge leads to new ways in which core issues are understood and handled.

Our strategy

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality", observed Buckminster Fuller. "To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” So we built knowledge federation as a model (or technically a prototype) of a new way to work with knowledge (or a paradigm); and of a new institution (the transdiscipline) that is capable of developing this new new approach to knowledge as an academic and real-life praxis (informed practice).

By sharing this model we are not proposing a conclusive answer. Our aim is indeed much higher – it is to open up a creative frontier where the ways in which knowledge is created and used, and more generally the ways in which our creative efforts are directed, are brought into focus and continuously recreated and improved.


Making knowledge count

Connecting the dots

What would it take to bring knowledge out of academic books and articles and let it inform our everyday lives? And our handling of society's core issues?

As our logo might suggest, knowledge federation means 'connecting the dots' – combining disparate pieces of information and other knowledge resources together, so that they may make sense, or function, in a new way. We adopted this keyword from political and institutional federation, where smaller entities are united to achieve greater visibility and impact – while preserving, in some suitable degree, their identity and autonomy.

Information for orientation

What could a more responsive and creative approach to knowledge provide, which we don't yet have? Norbert Wiener gave us this hint.

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Knowledge Federation logo

There is only one quality more important than "know how". This is "know what" by which we determine not only how to accomplish our purposes but what our purposes are to be.

Science has given us a colossal know-how. We now need a similarly powerful know-what to be able to use our immense new power beneficially and safely.

With the information we have, we are like people lost in a forest, who can only see the trees. By seeing the trees, we are able to navigate through them. By not seeing the forest, we are unable to find a way out. We choose our way in the only way that's still available – by following the crowd. But crowds too can be lost!

Knowledge federation

Think on the one side of all the knowledge we own, in academic articles and also broader. Include the heritage of the world traditions. Include the insights reached by creative people daily.

Think on the other side of all the questions we need to have answered. Think of all the insights that will give us the understanding we need, of all the principles and rules of thumb that will direct our action. Imagine them occupying distinct levels of generality. The more general an insight is, the more useful it can be.

You may now understand knowledge federation as whatever we the people may need to do to create, organize, synchronize, update and keep up to date various elements of this hierarchy.

Knowledge federation is the creation and use of knowledge as we may need it – to be able to comprehend the increasingly complex world around us; to be able to live and act in it in an informed, sustainable or simply better way.

Our vision is of an informed post-traditional and post-industrial society – where our understanding and handling of the core issues of our lives and times reflect the best available knowledge; where knowledge is created and integrated and applied with that goal in mind; and where information technology is developed and used accordingly.

Our proposal

We are not proposing to replace journalism, or science, but to complement them. And to connect them with one other, and also with technological innovation and governance, and with the arts and other creative fields.

We are submitting a case for a new socio-technical infrastructure, with its own division and organization of creative work, just as the academic disciplines and journalism now have.

We are proposing to put in place an approach to knowledge that is deliberately designed to answer to the contemporary needs of people and society. What issues may require such knowledge? What might the information that carries it be like? By what methods, technical tools and social processes will it be created? Our call to action is for a new academic praxis that will answer such questions.

The purpose of our prototype, which is shown on these pages, is to provide sufficiently rich and solid answers to consolidate a proof of concept; to show that this indeed can be done. And to initiate the doing.


A collective mind

Information technology demands new thinking

Another way to understand knowledge federation is to perceive it as what we must do to draw the kind of benefits from the new information technology that this technology was meant to provide.

Digital technology could help make this a better world. But we've also got to change our way of thinking.

As we shall see in Federation through Stories, these two sentences frame Douglas Engelbart's gift to the world – which is yet to be unpacked.

We shall see that Engelbart and his lab created significant parts of the knowledge media technology we have – as stepping stones toward a much larger vision, which remained ignored.

The network-interconnected interactive digital media – which Doug and his team showed for the first time in 1968, and which you now have in your hand or on your desktop – have given the humanity (in Doug’s words) “a super new nervous system to upgrade our collective organisms”.

To see what went wrong, how this development took a different direction than what Doug intended, imagine that your own cells were using your nervous system to only broadcast data to your brain and to each other. Think about the effect this would have on your intelligence! You may now easily see why this technology – which has been conceived to vastly augment our collective intelligence – can serve that most timely end only when knowledge is “developed, integrated and applied” in a way that is entirely different from what the printing press made possible.

Information technology calls for reconfiguring knowledge work

Imagine that you are taking a walk, lost in thoughts, and suddenly stop. As your attention is returning to hear and now, you realize that you are standing at arm's length from a wall.

Imagine what would have happened if your eyes were seeing that, but trying to communicate it to your brain and your muscles by writing academic articles in some specialized field of knowledge!

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To see what we want to set in motion by proposing knowledge federation, imagine our civilization as an organism, which has grown uncommonly or exponentially fast. Imagine that this creature has evolved a finely developed brain and nervous system – but that it has not not yet acquired the necessary cognitive and psychomotoric skills, which would allow it to use its nervous system to make sense of the world, and to control its muscles.

Imagine that this creature's dominant use its "super-new nervous system" is to amplify its most primitive, limbic impulses!

The network-interconnected digital media technology enables, and also requires, an entirely new division, specialization and organization of knowledge work – analogous to what might characterize a healthy human mind.

You may now understand our proposal as the natural way to begin this re-evolutionary development – by first developing the necessary knowledge, or praxis, or paradigm.

Steps toward cultural revival

The future will either be an inspired product of a great cultural revival, or there will be no future

wrote Aurelio Peccei. We shall say more about him and his gift to mankind in Federation through Stories.

It is no secret that, for perhaps a brief yet unforgivingly perilous period of time, we have relegated the creation of culture to commercial and superficial interests.

Before the new media became ubiquitous, it was sufficient to own the physical buildings of the Sorbonne University, the Carnegie Hall and La Scala, to control the quality standards those institutions represented. Today, however, the new instruments of culture creation are largely in the hands of the proverbial "two hackers in a garage".

Caught up in its "objective observer" self-identity, the academia painstakingly records the cultural and social consequences of this trend.

You will see, in Federation through Applications, that a significant part of knowledge federation is to federate the available knowledge all the way into the design of the core systems that define our cultural and social reality. This systemic innovation is perhaps the most game-changing part of our proposal.

The new technology, and our overall condition, call for re-implementing the core functions of human culture in the new technology!

By giving it a name, knowledge federation, we are calling into existence the new paradigm in knowledge work that will empower us to do that.

A tribute to Engelbart

To a number of us in Knowledge Federation, Doug Engelbart is an inspirational figure and a cherished deceased friend. Our initiative grew in part out of a Silicon Valley-based initiative called The Program for the Future, whose purpose is to explain and complete Engelbart's vision. We are making this website public on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Engelbart's Demo – where the revolutionary technology and ideas he and his research lab created were first shown to public.


Reflection

Different thinking

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.

In what ways might our thinking need to be different, if we should understand and develop a new paradigm?

First of all, we need to give it the time it requires. A paradigm being a harmonious yet complex web of relationships, some amount of mental processing is obviously unavoidable if we should form a coherent mental image, see that the things do fit better together and make better sense when rearranged in the new way.

A reward will come instantly – as with a touch of calm insight we come to realize that we don't need to be so busy. That we're just spinning the wheels of a wasteful and dysfunctional social machinery – and being too busy to see that.

Systemic thinking

The second that our thinking must undergo is to become systemic. Systemic thinking is the kind of thinking that grants us the insight just mentioned, and reveals solutions.

We've prepared this very brief and down-to-earth intuitive introduction to systemic thinking to help you slow down and reflect – and already get an inkling of what this initiative may practically mean.


A paradigm

Huge change can be easy

We have come to the side of our proposal that is the most relevant and interesting – and the most challenging to understand.

You will perhaps bear with us, even join us in developing this material further, until it's understandable by everyone – if you realize that what we are really talking about is the core reason why the best insights of our best minds tend to remain ignored.

And why a sweepingly large change can be natural and easy, even when far smaller and obviously necessary changes proved impossible.

Things get ignored when they fail to fit our order of things!

Our point – carefully, methodically, scrupulously... developed in the detailed modules – is that the big paradigm is all ready to be shifted; because we already own all the knowledge needed to set such a change in motion.

But also this largest of all changes, of the whole order of things, has a natural order in which it must proceed. Just as the construction of a house must begin with the foundations.


Knowledge federation introduces itself

Science taught us to think in terms of velocities and masses and experiments and natural causes. We shall now let knowledge federation introduce itself, and some of the core elements of the emerging larger societal paradigm, in its own manner of speaking.

Be prepared to see an informed approach to knowledge in action. The big picture will come first – pointing to a way. The details will naturally follow – as steps along the way.

A big picture view of our condition

Newton taught us how to unravel the secrets of nature with the help of mathematics. Knowledge federation adapts this approach to produce big picture insights.

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Modernity ideogram

The above ideogram expresses the nature of our situation (for which we use the keyword gestalt) in a nutshell.

Imagine us riding in a bus with candle headlights, through dark and unfamiliar terrain and at an accelerating speed. By depicting modernity as a bus with candle headlights, the Modernity ideogram points to an incongruity and paradox. In our hither-to modernization, we forgot to modernize something essential – and ended up in peril!

But this situation has a remedy.

Reconceiving knowledge work

If you consider the light of the headlights to be information or knowledge, and the headlights to represent the activities by which knowledge is created and applied, then you'll easily understand the interpretation we are pointing at. Our situation can be remedied by reconceiving knowledge and knowledge work as man-made things; and as essential building blocks in a much larger thing, or system, or systems.

Our situation calls for evaluating, handling and recreating knowledge and knowledge work as it might best serve their various roles in this larger system – such as showing the way.

The technical keyword we use for this reconception is design epistemology.

Notice that the epistemology is at the core of every paradigm, and of the paradigm of science in particular. Galilei was not tried for claiming that the Earth was moving; that was just a technical detail. It was his epistemology that got him into trouble – his belief that one may hold and defend an opinion as probable after it has been declared contrary to Holy Scripture. Galilei was required to "abjure, curse and detest" those opinions (Wikipedia).

An informed approach to knowledge

You may now understand knowledge federation as simply suitable 'headlights', the quest for those 'headlights', and as the 'factory' (transdiscipline) capable of creating them. Or in other words, as the knowledge and knowledge work that follow by consistent application of the design epistemology.

This definition leaves open the question – Is there indeed an approach to knowledge that can make the kind of difference in our overall condition that the difference between having proper headlights and driving with a pair of candles might suggest? Does the quest the ideogram is pointing to have a solution? Our purpose when presenting this prototype is to demonstrate that it does.

The lightbulb cannot be produced by improving the candle. The resolution of our quest is in the exact sense of the word a paradigm – a fundamentally and thoroughly new way to conceive of knowledge and to organize its handling. To create the lightbulb, we need to know that this is possible. And we also need a model to guide us. What's being shared here is a description of such a model.

Why waste time trying to improve 'the candle' – if it's really 'the lightbulb' we should be talking about, and creating?

Innovation

The Modernity ideogram bears an even larger and more general insight – it points to a way in which our creative capabilities in general need to be directed and used.

If you consider the movement of the bus to be the result of our creative efforts or of "innovation", then systemic innovation is (the name we've given to) the direction the Modernity ideogram is pointing to.

We practice systemic innovation when our primary goal is to make the whole thing functional or vital or whole. Here "the whole thing" may of course be a whole hierarchy of things, in which what we are doing or creating has a role.

You'll easily understand the reason why a dramatic improvement in the way we use our capacity to create or innovate is possible, if you just compare the principle the Modernity ideogram is pointing at with the way innovation is directed today.

The dollar value of the headlights is course a factor to be considered; but it's insignificant compared to the value of the whole big thing (which in reality may be our civilization and all of us in it; or all our technology taken together; or the results of our daily work, which move the 'bus' forward; or whatever else may be organizing our efforts and driving us toward a future). It is this difference in value – between the market value of the headlights and the real value of this incomparably larger entity and of all of us in it – that you may bear in mind as systemic innovation's value proposition.

So far what we've presented is only an abstract claim. Can systemic innovation indeed make the kind of practical difference that the Modernity ideogram suggests? In the four detailed modules of this website we shall show that it can.

Illuminating the way

If you'll consider the movement of the bus to be our society's travel into the future, or in a word its evolution, then guided evolution of society is a new evolutionary course the ideogram is pointing to. Our ride into the future, posits the Modernity ideogram, must be illuminated by suitable information. We must both create and use information in this new way.

We took this keyword from Bela H. Banathy, who considered the guided evolution of society to be the second great revolution in our civilization's history – the first one being the agricultural revolution. While in this first revolution we learned to cultivate our bio-physical environment, in the next one we'll learn to cultivate our socio-cultural environment. Here is how Banathy formulated this vision:

We are the first generation of our species that has the privilege, the opportunity, and the burden of responsibility to engage in the process of our own evolution. We are indeed chosen people. We now have the knowledge available to us and we have the power of human and social potential that is required to initiate a new and historical social function: conscious evolution. But we can fulfill this function only if we develop evolutionary competence by evolutionary learning and acquire the will and determination to engage in conscious evolution. These are core requirements, because what evolution did for us up to now we have to learn to do for ourselves by guiding our own evolution.


Synopsis and highlights

Making knowledge useful

The idea we are talking about – to make knowledge radically more useful by deliberately creating (rather than only inheriting) the way it is handled – might be the simplest and most natural idea ever proposed to the academic community.

Our response may mean the difference between civilizational success and failure.

Why were the giants who proposed it so consistently ignored?

Changing course

We shall focus on this question in Federation through Conversations. We shall see that our pre-rational obedience to our society's order of things is part of the way in which our culture and society have been evolving. We shall see that this obedience is deep in our cultural DNA. And that the challenge we are facing is a reevolutionary one!

In that last module we shall use knowledge federation to illuminate our present evolutionary course – the very 'road' our metaphorical bus has been following. We shall see why our way of evolving now needs to change. We shall draw attention to the social-psychological forces that are keeping us from engaging in that change – and already orchestrate our liberation.

Rebuilding the foundations

While you may, of course, browse through the modules in any way you choose, we have chosen to order them from the foundations up.

What constitutes "good" knowledge? Our academic culture has not evolved as a quest for useful knowledge – but as an answer to this fundamental question.

In Federation through Images we show that the proposal we are submitting is not a deviation from this evolutionary course, but its natural continuation. We shall see why the insights reached in 20th century science and philosophy not only enable – but indeed enjoin that we take that next step.

What might information need to be like to give us the knowledge we need, in this age? By what methods can it be created? Even if you are not interested in such "philosophical" questions but only in technology, you will recognize in them the way to avoid using the technology to only 'reproduce the candle'.

Hearing the giants

Who were the giants we needed to hear, but didn't? What were they trying to tell us?

In Federation through Stories we begin to answer this question, by sharing the insights of four giants, and weaving them together. This will inform our quest for

  • right fundamental assumptions (what "good knowledge" is or should be)
  • right use of information technology (or the right social processes by which this technology is used)
  • right use of our creative capabilities (the one that will lead us toward the kind of condition or future we might justifiably desire)
  • right use of knowledge

and in that way give substance to our four main keywords.

Prospecting a creative frontier

It is in the nature of every paradigm to open up a large space for contribution and achievement. In Federation through Applications we shall see that the paradigm we are talking about is not an exception.

Much of our mission has been to prospect and chart that frontier, and make large-scale development possible.

In what way can we define concepts so that they empower change – instead of reifying what exists? What might our public informing n3eed to be like, to be capable of combining insights from relevant fields of knowledge, and telling us how to direct our efforts? How can we change real-life institutions? Those and a variety of other questions that delineate knowledge federation as a creative frontier are answered to by showing examples, a majority of which are real life-embedded applications.

A socio-technical lightbulb

Consider what's presented on these pages as a complete prototype of a socio-technical lightbulb. It includes answers to a spectrum of questions, ranging from the principle of operation on the one end, to the deployment strategy on the other.

In the four detailed modules by which this presentation is completed, we shall use knowledge federation to explain, showcase and already put to use knowledge federation. Each module will apply and demonstrate a specific set of techniques – and focus on a specific aspect of our design.

In Federation through Images we use ideograms – metaphorical and often paradoxical images to sum up the findings of giants. The result is a cartoon-like introduction to the philosophical underpinnings of a novel approach to knowledge.

In Federation through Stories we use vignettes – short, lively, catchy, sticky... real-life people and situation stories – to explain and empower the core ideas of daring thinkers. Vignettes are in essence what the journalists do to introduce complex ideas – they tell them through a story. The vignettes liberate the insights from the language of a discipline and enables non-experts to 'step into the shoes' of giants, 'see through their eyes'. By combining vignettes into threads, and threads into higher units of meaning, we reach the direction-setting insights we've been talking about.

The applications discussed in Federation through Applications are technically called prototypes. They serve as

  • models – because they embody systemic solutions which can then be adapted to other situations
  • interventions – because they are embedded in practice and act on practice, with the aim to transform it
  • experiments – because they show what works well, and what needs to be improved

In Federation through Conversations, we begin to develop or bootstrap a suitable new 'collective mind' or our society's 'headlights', by

  • focusing our conversation on a core, transformative theme
  • illuminating it with core ideas of giants
  • engaging our collective intelligence to weave those ideas together and develop them further
  • bringing in a whole new culture of communication, which we point to by the keyword dialog
  • applying new media technology – and enabling the technology to make a difference