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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 do not aim at conclusive answers. 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.

Introducing knowledge federation

Connecting the dots

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 some suitable degree of their identity and autonomy.

Knowledge Federation logo

Already what we normally do with ideas and pieces of information to turn them into knowledge may rightly be considered knowledge federation. You may have an idea in mind – but can you say that you really know it before you have checked if it's consistent with your other ideas? And with the ideas of others? And even then – can you say that your idea is known before other people have integrated it with their ideas?

Science too federates knowledge. But science does that in an idiosyncratic way – by modeling the mechanisms of nature; and by explaining observable phenomena as their consequences.

A natural approach to knowledge

What we have undertaken to put in place is what one might call the natural approach to knowledge. 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 could inform our lives, the rules of thumb that could 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 the various elements of this hierarchy.

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

You may think of knowledge federation as a way to liberate science from disciplinary constraints, combine it with what we've learn about knowledge and knowledge work from journalism, art and communication design, and apply the result to illuminate any question or issue where prejudices and illusions still need to be dispelled.

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.

Big picture science

If the word "paradigm" may not mean much to you, think of knowledge federation simply as big picture science.

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.

This Norbert Wiener's observation is the key to understanding what practical difference a suitable big picture science can make. Science has given us a colossal know-how. We now need a similarly powerful know-what to direct the power of that know-how beneficially and safely.

We also need the big picture science, the know-what, to be able to understand what the academic results mean, why they are relevant to us. The know-what knowledge is needed to give the disciplinary academic results the real-life impact they merit.

Contemporary media informing does not give us a usable big picture either. The journalists alone cannot possibly synthesize the knowledge we own into a big picture.

With the information we have, we are like people lost in a forest, who can only see the trees but not the forest. By seeing the trees, we are capable of navigating through them. By not seeing the forest, we remain incapable of choosing a direction. We choose our way in the only way that's still available – by finding a well-frequented trail and following the crowd. But the crowd too can be lost!

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 the arts and the technological innovation 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 science and journalism now have. We need the praxis of producing big-picture knowledge, guiding principles, rules of thumb – to inform us about the core issues of our personal and social lives. What issues may require such knowledge? What might the information that carries it be like? In what way will it be created? We need a new academic praxis to answer such questions. Our purpose 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.

And yet it's a paradigm

"But we cannot just create a new academic field out of nothing", we imagine might be your complaint. Our ideas of what constitutes good knowledge have been evolving since antiquity – and now find their foremost expression in science and philosophy. In the four detailed modules we show that the insights reached in science and philosophy now enable, and that the new information technology and our civilization's condition demand that we – that is, those of us who are academic professionals or otherwise professionally in charge of giving good knowledge to people – develop an entirely new set of fundamental principles and practices that will orient our handling of knowledge; and our innovation and other creative work in general.

While we (in the spirit of knowledge federation) do our best to maintain a manner of speaking accessible to a general audience, an academic reader will have no difficulty recognizing that what we are describing, or submitting a case for, is a new paradigm in knowledge work. Thomas Kuhn characterized a paradigm as (1) a new way to conceive a domain of interest which (2) resolves the reported anomalies and (3) opens up a new frontier to research. We shall see in Federation through Images that fundamental anomalies in our handling of knowledge have been reported – and how those anomalies can be resolved by developing knowledge work on an entirely different foundation. We shall see in Federation through Stories that core parts of the new media technology were created (by Douglas Engelbart and his SRI-based "Laboratory for Augmenting Human Intellect") as part of an effort to give our society the socio-technical light bulb – and how we ended up using this technology to create fancy candles. We shall see in Federation through Conversations that also the reported core pragmatic anomaly (that our civilization is on a self-destructive course) may be reversed within the proposed paradigm. And we shall see in Federation through Applications a mature portfolio of examples or prototypes, which together provide recognizable contours of a vibrant and multifaceted creative frontier.

A related part of our purpose is to prime the further development and practical deployment of this new paradigm – by offering knowledge federation as an initial prototype.


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 together a lot better and do 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 way in which our thinking will need to change is that it will 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 the key insight.

Knowledge federation introduces itself

Knowledge federation as a language

Science taught us to think in terms of velocities and masses and experiments and natural causes. Knowledge federation too introduces a way to think and speak.

We'll now let knowledge federation introduce itself in its own manner of speaking.

Before we do that, this brief historical note will help you see why that manner of speaking is just a straight-forward adaptation of conventional science.

Science as a language

The rediscovery of Aristotle (whose works had been preserved by the Arabs) was a milestone in medieval history. But the scholastics used his rational method to only argue the truths of the Scriptures.

Aristotle's natural philosophy was common-sense: Objects tend to fall down; the heavier objects tend to fall faster than the lighter ones. Galilei saw a flaw in this theory and proved it wrong experimentally, by throwing stones from the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Galilei – undoubtedly one of Newton's "giants" – also brought mathematics into this affaire: v = gt. The constant g can be measured by an experiment. We can then use the formula to predict precisely what speed v an object will have after t seconds of falling.

This approach to knowledge proved to be so superior to what existed, and so fertile, that it naturally became the standard of excellence that all knowledge was expected to emulate.

A curious-looking mathematical formula

But why use only maths?


Modernity ideogram

Ideograms can be understood as a straight-forward generalization of the language of mathematics. Think of the above exemplar as a curious-looking mathematical formula. Just as Galilei's formula did, this ideogram describes a relationship (called pattern) between two things, represented by the bus and its headlights. But while mathematical formulas can express only quantitative relationships, an ideogram can represent virtually any relationship, even an emotional one.

An ideogram can also express the nature of a situation (for which we use the keyword gestalt)! 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 a paradox. In our hither-to modernization we have forgotten to modernize something quite essential – and ended up in peril.

But this situation has a remedy!

Unraveling the paradox

A mathematical formula is just an abstract relationship, which acquires a concrete meaning – becomes "physics" – when we interpret its variables; when we say that v is the velocity of a falling object and t is the elapsed time. The formula then tells us how those entities are to be adjusted to each other.

Notice that even when interpreted in this way, the relationship remains an ideal one. "Free fall" is only an abstraction; Galilei's formula will not explain the falling of a parachutist or a feather.

In an analogous way, the Modernity ideogram expresses an abstract relationship between two entities, the bus and its headlights. It tells us how those entities are to be adjusted to one another. We can now make this abstract relationship concrete, and also useful, by assigning concrete interpretations to those two entities – just as we do in science.

We take advantage of the Modernity ideogram and define four new concepts. They will help us explain precisely what may need to be done to resolve the disquieting situation the ideogram is pointing to. They will also allow us to point precisely to four ways in which our creation and use of knowledge, our creative work in general, and societal evolution (or ride into the future) at large may need to be different.

Notice that what we are talking about is still just an abstract theory. Its relevance and accuracy will need to be confirmed by resorting to experience. That is what the remainder of this website, its four main modules, will provide.

Design epistemology

The larger issue here is epistemology – by which we mean the assumptions and values that determine what knowledge is considered worth creating and relying on.

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. The design epistemology means considering knowledge and knowledge work as man-made things; and as essential building blocks in a much larger thing, or things, or systems. This new epistemology empowers us to develop knowledge and knowledge work and to apply them and to assess their value based on how well they serve their core roles within larger systems – such as 'showing the way'.

Notice how thoroughly this epistemology reconfigures the value matrix that orients our knowledge work today. When knowledge is considered to be pieces in a reality puzzle, then every piece might seem equally relevant. The media can then select whatever its audiences may be interested in. But when knowledge is conceived of as the light that needs to show us the next curve on the road, then the priorities are entirely different. Relevance, and the nature and the quality of information that provides the right insight and guidance, become core issues.

Furthermore those core issues become research issues. The research that tends to be most valued and considered academically fundamental or "basic" is the one whose aim is to discover the details of the puzzle of nature. In the order of things pointed to by the design epistemology, it is the research whose goal is to construct the core elements of an entirely different puzzle – of the socio-technical system or systems by which knowledge is created and disseminated – that becomes fundamental or basic. The most honored product of conventional science is an academic article in a reputed publication. In this new order of things the honor belongs just as much to the most impactful creative act, of any kind – that may bring the process of dissolving the core anomaly a step further.

In Federation through Images we will explain how exactly this idea can be extended into a complete paradigm. To see that the epistemology is at the core of every paradigm, and of the general paradigm we call science in particular, notice that 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).

Knowledge federation

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

This definition leaves open the question – Is there 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 show that it indeed does.

The Modernity ideogram also bears a subtler message. What the bus with candle headlights is lacking above all are the high-beam headlights – which can illuminate a large-enough stretch of the road to provide for safe driving. But isn't that exactly what "the big picture science" will produce?

The Modernity ideogram is an example of a suitable big-picture result – which reveals the nature our situation, and shows what needs to be done.

No sequence of improvements of the candle will produce the lightbulb. 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 that model. Why waste time trying to improve 'the candle' – if it's really 'the lightbulb' we should be talking about and creating?

Systemic innovation

If you consider the movement of the bus to be the result of our creative efforts or of "innovation", then systemic innovation is what resolves the paradox that the Modernity ideogram is pointing to. You may understand systemic innovation as informed innovation, as the way we'll innovate when a strong-enough light's been turned on.

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.

There are two complementary ways to say what systemic innovation is. One is to (focus on the bus and) say that systemic innovation is innovation on the scale of the large and basic socio-technical systems, such as education, public informing, and knowledge work at large. The other one is to (focus on the headlights and) say that systemic innovation is innovation whose primary aim and responsibility is the good condition or functioning or wholeness of the system or systems in which what we are creating has a role. But of course those two definitions are just two ways of saying the same thing.

Here too there's a subtle message. 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 bus (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 dollar 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. The dramatic message of our image is that systemic innovation is what can make the difference between "the whole thing" turning into a mass suicide machine – and a well-functioning vehicle, capable of taking us anywhere we may reasonably want to be.

To see that the change this is pointing to reaches well beyond industrial innovation, to see why we indeed propose systemic innovation as the signature theme of an impending Renaissance-like change, notice that the dollar value is just one of our characteristic oversimplifications, which has enabled us to reduce a complex issue (value) in a complex reality to a single parameter – and then apply rational or 'scientific' thinking to optimize our behavior accordingly.

Guided evolution of society

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 what resolves the paradox. Our ride into the future, posits the Modernity ideogram, must be illuminated by suitable information. We must both create and use information accordingly.

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.

Completing Engelbart's unfinished revolution

A contemporary iconic story

Of the many potentially iconic stories you will find of these pages, there is one that we feel compelled to highlight already here – the story of Douglas Engelbart and his "unfinished revolution". Engelbart and his lab created significant parts of the knowledge media technology we have today. And they did that by pursuing a much larger vision, whose essence has remained ignored – and to whose completion we have endeavored to contribute.

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 were intended to frame Engelbart's message to the world. We shall see that the required new thinking is precisely what we've been pointing to.

Engelbart, as we shall show, envisioned and initiated knowledge federation and systemic innovation – although he never used these keywords.

To a number of us in Knowledge Federation Doug has been both an inspirational figure and an admired 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.

Summary and highlights

A socio-technical lightbulb

Consider what's presented on these pages as a complete prototype of a socio-technical lightbulb – which includes everything from the principles of operation and the technical design and prototype on the one side, to the examples of application and the marketing strategy on the other. Our purpose is to show that such a lightbulb can and needs to be created and put to use. And to initiate the praxis of using lightbulbs as headlights, instead of candles.

In the four more detailed views by which this presentation is completed, we shall use knowledge federation to explain, showcase and already begin to put into general use knowledge federation.

Each of the four main modules of this website will apply and demonstrate a specific set of techniques – and focus on a specific side of our design.

Federation through Images

The focus here is, metaphorically, on the principle of operation; electricity, and not fire, can give us the strong light we need. That part of our knowledge work whose purpose is to orient the people in the complex reality we now live in can and needs to be developed on an entirely new foundation.

We show, further, that this fundamental work is not a deviation from the academic tradition, but a natural continuation of it. We show that the insights of giants not only enable – but indeed enjoin such a step.

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 refreshingly novel approach to knowledge.

Federation through Stories

We illuminate our theme by telling four iconic real-life stories – about the giants and their insights, whom we consider to be suitable icons for our four main keywords. <p>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 a relevant or complex idea, to bring it down to earth and make it palpable to people – they tell it through a story about a person. A vignette liberates an insight from the language of a discipline and enables a non-expert to 'step into the shoes' of a giant, to 'look through his eye glasses'. By combining vignettes into threads, and threads into higher units of meaning, we take this process of federation all the way to the kind of direction-setting principles we've been talking about.

Federation through Applications

We cover the knowledge federation / systemic innovation creative frontiers by showing examples. What might journalism be like, which would be capable of weaving together insights from relevant areas of knowledge, to provide suitable understanding and orient people's action in the complex world? How can technical scientific result, when they are relevant, be made accessible to non-academic audiences? In what way may education need to be different, to enable social-systemic change? What can we do to change real-life institutions? In what way might our understanding of "democracy" need to change to enable us tackle our new challenges? Those and various other questions about the emerging paradigm are answered by showing concrete practical applications – already embedded in practice.

The "applications" here are prototypes, which in this approach to knowledge serve as (1) models (because they embody systemic solutions which can then be adapted to other situations), (2) interventions (because they are embedded in practice, and acting on practice with the aim to transform it) and (3) experiments (because they show us what works well, and what may need to be improved or changed).

Federation through Conversations

The goal here is to put the new approach to knowledge into actual use – and thereby complete the knowledge federation as a prototype.

The word "conversations" might be misleading. The conversations we have in mind are orchestrated, media-enabled ways to reconfigure the actual 'headlights', or our "public sphere", by (1) fertilizing it with core ideas of giants; (2) invigorating it by engaging everyone's collective intelligence; (3) bringing in a whole new culture of communication, which we point to by the keyword dialog; (4) focusing it on core, transformative themes; (5) using a whole orchestra of new media technology – and letting the technology make a difference.

So imagine you had a flexible searchlight which you could point at any issue or theme. Suppose that your task is to show its value, what it can do and what difference it may make, by pointing it to some chosen handful of themes. Which themes would you choose?

In Federation through Conversations we introduce and offer three such dialogs.

The first one is focusing on the key question – how to handle the contemporary issues; how to change the evolutionary course that our evolution has taken. The title of the conversation is The Paradigm Strategy. which should suggest that we are proposing that there's a natural and perhaps also easy solution – to shift the whole general paradigm. The reason is that the paradigm is ready to be shifted. But to make its point, this conversation zooms in on the way our society has been evolving since the beginning of the civilization. Giants from sociology, cognitive science, anthropology, history... are called to the witness stand. Their insights are combined to produce a basic guiding insight – why this direction has always been far from perfect; and why it now just has to be changed.

A subtler insight that this conversation may bring to our paradigm quest is that what once used to be considered as "the reality picture" and the measure of what's to be considered as true – now becomes perceived as an instrument of our problematic socialization.

While this first conversation is intended to be for informed global change makers, its themes and contents are perhaps well beyond the interest of a general audience. The second conversation we offer is meant to remedy this, by focusing on a theme that so many people are passionate about – religion.

The multimedia document to prime this conversation is the multimedia book in the making titled "Liberation" and subtitled "Religion for the Third Millennium". This is intended to be the very first book in the Knowledge Federation Trilogy.

It is now common to consider "religion" as believing in something without any rational evidence; "religion" is conceived as a worldview. But what if there's a whole other way – which involves a liberation from dogmas and worldviews of any kind?

Science, it is believed, liberated us from an age-old religious worldview, and empowered us to pursue happiness here, in our earthly existence. But what in the process we have understood both religion and happiness? What if both can be conceived in a way that reconciles them – so that they may bring us into a whole new phase of our evolution.

As always, these general ideas are presented through vignettes. The lead giant here is Thailand's enlightened monk Buddhadasa, who discovered that the essence of the Buddha's teaching was not what's been believed; that all religions have the same essence, which is a kind of a natural law; and that all of them suffered similar institutional deformations (which brings in through the back door our core issue, of the nature of our societal evolution, which the first conversation is about.

And finally the third conversation will be about our proposal – to add self-reflection and self-organization to the repertoire of honored and supported academic activities. Or in other words, about knowledge federation as a concrete way of doing that.

The conversing about knowledge federation is hereby offered as a practical way to begin academic self-reflection and initiate academic self-organization.