Academy Commons: The Pragmatic Imagination and the Streetlight Effect

Part one: building on the pragmatic imagination. 


“If we imagine up one more level of abstraction, then we can imagine design unbound…, set free to work on designing contexts as complex systems/ecologies… contexts that can be shaped to achieve tangible and substantial change.”

2016. Ann Pendleton-Jullian and John Seely Brown. Pragmatic Imagination: Single from Design Unbound. Blurb.

Nobody said it was easy.

The Commons Patterns effort looks to capture enough solutions to the academy’s multiple problems and enough of the collective pragmatic intelligence of its contributors to build a set of design patterns that can illuminate a wide range of future academy commons on a planetary scale.

Nobody said it would be this hard.

Nobody except all the funders we asked (Josh is nodding right now), and anyone who has worked on open science in the past decade (John can show you the scars). Nobody but all the people in the room at the academy commons patterns charrette last month. Nobody but everyone.

One real, durable problem is this: The academy is refractory to change

[refractory synonyms: “obstinatestubbornmulishpigheadedobdurateheadstrongself-willedwaywardwillfulperversecontraryrecalcitrantobstreperousdisobedient,

informal balky;
contumaciousfroward] Google online dictionary.

I suspect that there are various aspects of the academy—such as the continued existence of for-profit publishers and thousands of learned societies (in their current forms)—which are robustly froward.

The Commons Patterns effort to move past “open” science to envision the academy as places for commoning is so ambitious that academics tend to either throw up their hands and go back to their research, or they focus on short-term incremental short-cuts around the non-froward bits.  Both moves are counterproductive.

The time is right to think bigger. The obdurate aspects of the academy are more a feature of convenience and convention than a willful strategy. Institutionalized inertia. Academics know the academy is broken. They work among the shards. They worry about their grad students, their data, and about the declining reputation of science.

In the past decade (and still in the past week), I’ve had meetings, telecons, twitter-threads, and other conversations where people have proposed short-cut tactics that would assemble all of the current attempts to build open science services, gather all the open-science manifestos, all the data standards and the research work flows, and simply forge a solution from whatever floats to the top or from whatever golem can be made to walk away from this assembled ground.

Looking seriously at such tactics, one can see that they try to do the following: start from the idea that scientists know best what they need; mine the current open science effort for its best parts; corral current organizations into the mix; illuminate the start of a roadmap for change. This all sounds good, but it will not actually work to refactor the academy. These tactics are based on shaky assumptions.

What if scientists do not know best what they might collectively need, even though they are immensely clever in procuring what they require for their own research? And what if current open science organizations each have their own work and agendas and were not designed to be conjoined? After all, they are not open-science LEGOs.

Rather than hoping these independent efforts will spontaneously assemble the future academy we are looking toward, it is more likely that the whole of all of the current open science efforts will not be greater than the sum of its parts (those bits not yet sold to Elsevier), and probably a good deal less.

In short, the ground we are standing on in the current academy will not support the future we need to envision so that this future can inform our present. In truth, we can’t get there from now. At least not from the now of the current academy.

We will need a more synthetic and systems-thinking approach, and a fine-grained conception of optimal possible futures, before we can contemplate a roadmap to anywhere.

But we can get there.

We can imagine up one more level of abstraction and consider that our future academy need not remain refractory to change, but rather quite open to emergence. The emerging forms for the academy as commons will necessarily be based on engines of change inside and outside of the academy—out in the open web where our learning potential is already growing faster than inside universities, and where organizations (tech start-ups, flattened corporations, urban commons, platform-cooperatives, etc.) are building new cultural practices that will inform their—and our—future.

From a nuanced, fine-grained imagination of this future we can reinvent our present as a now upon which the Commons Patterns effort will build roadmaps to some very important new where.

Nobody said it was easy…  a song to end with…

NEXT: the streetlight effect…

When it comes to scholarly work, open is not nearly enough


In the new game of scholarship, open is just the pitch

Over the past two decades a lot of talk, effort, and anguish; new services and platforms, and multiple proclamations (and principles, declarations, manifestos) have promoted the notion that scholarly content should be open. The Creative Commons endeavor got things rolling by providing licenses for open content. Open source software provided models for collaboration. Faced with a for-profit publishing marketplace that is deeply entrenched in the careers of academics, “open” is still an uphill climb, a goal instead of a reality. And it’s still a good goal. But it’s nowhere near where the academy needs to be in, say 25 years. Open is just a start.

If everything else (universities, academic careers, learned societies, publishers, etc.) were to stay the same tomorrow but all the academic outcomes were open, certainly a lot of time and (assuming a universal green open model) money would be saved. Nothing wrong with that. But the academy would still be broken in most of the ways it is today.

The symptoms of this disfunction show up across the academic workplace and across the planet: from faculties with a majority of underclass workers (adjuncts and soft-money researchers), publishers looking for “sexy science,” career decisions based on journal impact factors instead of integral value of the research, a fixation on “excellence” instead of competence, important primary-research intellectual property being pulled away from future reuse through patents that never pay a penny, research funding warped to favor the already funded, funding programs that consume all most as much gross effort in the proposal process than gets finally funded. OK. I’m going to stop here. You can add your own “Academy is Broken” stories HERE.

Nearly everything that is broken in the academy is broken because the current academy assumes a logic of scarcity; a false logic it has acquired from other markets. One of the promises of open academic outcomes is that these resources are non-rivalrous. As digital objects, they can be discovered and used by everyone, and their value actually increases the more they get reused. Open academic outcomes lets the academy dip its big toe into the logic of abundance. The point is not to stop here, but to dive in and allow this new logic to refactor the academy.


Abundance is a new ball game for the academy

Think of open academic outcomes like the pitch in baseball (or the delivery in cricket). The player winds up and throws the ball. A pitch happens more than 700,000 times in the course of a major league baseball season and hundreds of millions of times across the planet in any year. Importantly, however, pitching is not the whole game. An afternoon watching only pitches would be a whole different experience than watching a game where the pitch starts a chain of open-ended events. The pitch is necessary. So too is open content for the academy.

Thinking about a new logic of practice takes a lot of imagination, and crafting this to fit real-world outcomes takes a lot of information and collective intelligence. The first argument against a “logic of abundance” is that we live in a world of finite resources. That’s just the surrounding field for this logic. There is an infinity between zero and one. The task here is to arrive at an understanding of how the academy can aspire to become generative, generous, and general (thanks Cameron) within its constraints, just like a ball game occurs within the limits of its field. Yes, the new academy is both aspirational and pragmatic, and we need to combine our imaginations to envision this and build the scaffold that can help it grow and re-place the academy we find ourselves bemoaning today.

This is why a small group (good things start with small groups) is meeting this month at the Ostrom Workshop in Indiana to begin a process to craft design patterns that can capture solutions for the next academy.

Images: from Wikimedia

[Coming soon: designing academy commons: what’s in it for the academy?]

Why a Beach?

Welcome to the Commons Patterns Blog! We are just getting started here. This is an open group with multiple connections, and a variety of web spaces (for a range of purposes). If you are interested in blogging here, send us a comment about that. You might notice we use photos of beaches sometimes. The first reason for this is that Bruce lives in California and gets to the beach a lot (with his camera). The second reason is that all beaches in California are held in common for public use. Public access to these public lands is often a local issue of some importance. You see, people with a lot of money tend to buy land on the edges of the public beach, and sometimes want to restrict access. They paid a lot for their property; why should others just enjoy their beach for free?

We need to return the purpose of the academy to its public good status. The academy is a beach that supports a vast range of knowledge and an even bigger horizon of unknowns. The more people that can play in this field, the better. And the more we can share what we find, the sooner we’ll find out what’s ahead.

So grab your intellectual bucket and shovel and make your way to the commons! Everyone is welcome to play here.