Knowledge Alliances for the Great Transformation
The ongoing Great Transformation will change our societies in a way which can only be compared to the long and conflictive transition from agrarian to industrial societies. What is at stake is not whether huge changes beyond an expansionist modern capitalist civilisation will happen or not. The challenge is to avoid a civilisation backlash, new political strategies based on a “fortress Europe”, a new authoritarianism à la Hungary and a rollback of the welfare state with its impressive innovation of universal social rights as inalienable human rights.
To shape these changes in an inclusive and sustainable way requires new ways of learning to deal with unexpected situations and upcoming problems. The education and research for transformation presupposes curiosity and openness. This emerging culture of learning can best flourish within a democratic governance of knowledge and a twofold dialogue within knowledge institutions and between schools, universities and society. This innovative way of linking theory and practice requires the willingness to experiment with new forms of thought and action, because in the prevalent approach problems normally get pigeonholed according to responsibilities, competences and disciplines. Political-bureaucratically this happens through the division of Ministries: Department of the Environment for Environmental Protection, Ministry for Foreign Affairs for Development Cooperation and the Ministry of Economics for growth. Academically, the discipline-focussed career options prevent inter- and transdisciplinary research. This fragmentation can likewise be observed in civil society: environmental NGOs fight against climate change, developmental NGOs combat poverty and trade unions campaign for growth and employment. This partition of the world into pigeonholes leads to fragmented responsibilities and ends with no one being accountable for the whole, the very development as a coherent process.
The challenge posed by “peak-everything”, an emerging multilateral world order, in which Europe is one and not the leading actor, and ongoing systemic instability caused by the hegemony of finance capital make it an urgent necessity to experiment with innovative forms of organizing joint learning processes to discover new interconnections between allegedly divided aspects of development. This type of reflecting exceeds the horizon of the own, often limited perceptions. It needs specialists who valorise different competences and look beyond their own immediate concerns and disciplines, and it invites practitioners who are eager to search for exchange and alliances with new partners. To take an example: the activities before and during the 4th Conference in 2008 on “Growth, Environment and Development” offered places of dialogue, based on a question-orientated educational approach that problematized simplistic strategies: Often enough economists continue propagating growth strategies, but how much growth can the earth endure? Natural scientists analyze the biosphere as a proper system, but what does this mean in the age of the anthropozen, man-made nature? Climate change, water shortage, harvest and agricultural earnings are topics of some; while others concentrate on competitiveness and industrial growth. What do they have to say to each other? What have they learned from each other? And how does all that match together? Who cares for contradictions?
A culture of learning for shaping the Great Transformation has to produce and share knowledge to enable an integrated perception of development that recognizes the capitalist logic of growth, the dynamics of technological progress, the contradiction of cultural modernisation and the proper logic of the biosphere as different aspects of the same overall dynamic of world development. To view the world as a complex unit has to take its complexity as well as its relatedness seriously. Its investigation requires innovative forms of a democratic and transdisciplinary governance of knowledge. The basis of transdisciplinarity is a twofold dialogue that does not monopolize knowledge within the walls of university, but that wants to harness the same for practical action. A twofold dialogue arbitrates between disciplines of science and between science and everyday life. It is particularly suitable for building bridges between different perspectives and to translate between dissimilar languages of science and to interpret ways of thinking and living. This broad mobilisation of diverse knowledge is essential for dealing with the multidimensionality of the current transformations. Every human productive activity interferes, changes, renews or destroys nature. Nature in turn is not only an eternal cycle, but something lively with dynamics of consumption and the construction of infrastructure. There are scientific approaches that are committed to cross-linked thinking: In economics, for example, approaches that understand economy as embedded in society, like it is happening in Karl Polanyis’ tradition, are particularly interesting. Furthermore, the concept of sustainability, although probably too broad, alludes that to the insight of the interconnectedness of ecological, social and economic development. Interlinked thinking requires the interdisciplinary exchange of natural, social and economic sciences.
However, interlinked thinking alone is not sufficient to solve problems. Therefore a dialogue between knowledge generated by science and such generated by everyday life is important. The capacity to solve problems requires the dialogue between expert and experience knowledge, as development is a complex and complicated process in which people unconsciously and intentionally interfere: (Wo)men make development, intendedly or unintendedly! By collective cogitation of people with diverse experience and different expertise it becomes possible to enhance, support and to facilitate certain processes identified as eligible. Here science can provide valuable assistance, especially if it sharpens and uses its own potentials in the exchange with knowledge of experience. But change cannot stop with knowledge, which is why thinking differently also requires political rethinking: To think cross-linked relating to state bureaucracy, for example, means a stronger cooperation between diverse ministries. It contradicts an integrative understanding of development if the ministry of finance because of its position of power puts the logic of austerity above the interests of climate protection, social cohesion and poverty alleviation.
The preparatory workshop on “Development in Transition” as well as the 6th Austrian Conference on Development (Salzburg, November 14th to 16th 2014) create spaces where both forms of dialogue are practiced. A suitable organisational form are knowledge alliances of theory-practice-partnerships for dealing with key issues of the Great Transformation. Therefore, stakeholders in civil society, e.g. trade unions, environmental or developmental NGOs, are invited to move from single-issue movements – initiatives that pursue only one concern as a lobby-group - to initiatives that consider development holistically and that suggest integrated solutions. Research institutions can support these efforts. This requires learning from each other and building alliances for common aims. Cooperative and sustainable steps of development between the complex contradictory dynamics of power, the economy and the biosphere need broad alliances of reformist and more radical actors – those envisioning the utopia of a good life for all, a sustainable planet and resilient and cooperative civilisations, as well as those implementing piecemeal reforms at the shopfloor, in food cooperatives or university departments.
Andreas Novy is professor for socioeconomics at the Vienna University of Economics and Business and head of the Austrian Green Foundation.
This article is based on “Twofold dialogue”, a text written in 2008 for the 4th Austrian Conference on “Growth, Environment and Development” and translated by Johanna Grillitsch.