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…