Common knowledge and UCL Culture

I was at the AHRC Common Ground at York University last year that explored how ‘common’ knowledge works in the same way that say, common land does.

This is any bit of land where there is a communal responsibility to maintain and manage the space so that it remains useful and accessible to all commoners. A green where people might once have collectively grazed the livestock they owned, might now be a children’s adventure park. It therefore can be just as easy to accept that we have a collective responsibility to nurture and share knowledge as a communal resource. This is something that empowers us, builds a greater understanding of the world and helps us to tackle issues of mutual benefit and concern and arguably form on of the pillars of civil society.

One of my favourite stalls at the event was run by a group who collected and reproduced manifestos. They also produced button badges carrying various slogans from these manifestos and I picked up one of these which read:

‘Knowledge cannot check power by being true, but only by being converted into agency’

In my previous blog I wrote about how those engaged with research and the creation of knowledge needed to step up their game in our post-truth, alternative fact society, to break open the echo chambers of social media and reconfirm the value and relevance of knowledge. But as my badge suggests it simply isn’t enough for knowledge to be ‘true’, for it to be really effective we must give that knowledge agency. Our UCL Culture Manifesto embraces this concept through one of our three aims to Mobilise people. UCL Culture works with academics and students to enable them to mobilise people to engage with their research. This action converts knowledge into agency.

We believe that good quality engagements between universities and publics should be the norm and that agency should sit as much with publics and communities as it sits with universities. This goes beyond the traditional broadcast and receive model of the public lecture or video, and can be seen instead as a two-way engagement. We recognise and celebrate those people at UCL who mobilise people and give them agency through our annual Provosts Awards for Public Engagement.

For example Hephzi Angela Tagoe delivered a Wellcome-funded project engaging 116 pupils from 16 public high schools in Accra, Ghana. Hepzhi challenged these pupils to find innovative solutions to addressing health conditions with environmental triggers in their community, not through a traditional pedagogical approach but by teaming them up with undergraduate students and professional science mentors who empowered them to identify challenges and build solutions. The aim was to show that all kids could excel if given the opportunity, regardless of their background and to also create an avenue for scientists to engage with the public.

© 2017 Virginia Mantouvalou

Virginia Mantouvalou, Reader in Human Rights and Labour Law and Co-Director of the UCL Institute for Human Rights engaged with Kalayaan. Kalayaan is an NGO formed to campaign for the formal recognition of migrant domestic workers in the UK, to challenge their mistreatment, and to enforce their human and labour rights. Virginia developed a project that actively engaged and involved those suffering abuse enabling them to better challenge and respond to their treatment through law. She gave a agency to this largely unheard and hard to reach group through listening and reporting their plight in key law journals from which government and legislation is influenced and informed.

These are just two brief examples of projects that were either shortlisted or winners of the Provost’s Awards for Public Engagement. We’ve just launched a new ‘Spotlight’ series in which these exemplars of engagement talk about their work in more detail. (You can read the first one here)

Their work is inspiring and demonstrates how knowledge and understanding might be converted to agency. This kind of action can challenge negative assumptions about ‘research’ and demonstrate that experts can and do improve people’s lives through the mutual generation and sharing of knowledge. This in turn empowers people to make informed choices and inspires them to achieve their goals. These are not just laudable values, they are values that are recognised at UCL through for example the UCL Grand Challenges and that are lived and delivered by UCL academics and students through their outstanding work.

We at UCL Culture also live these values and engage with academics, students, communities and publics using our assets, knowledge and understanding to Open Up the institution, Light Sparks and create connections between academics, students and publics to Mobilise People to convert knowledge and understanding into agency.

You will find the Spotlight articles on our website. Our first Spotlight featured Rafael Prieto Curiel, a mathematician from Mexico. Alongside his studies, Rafael has created Chalkdust — a magazine “for the mathematically curious”. In the August next month’s will be Virginia’s. You can keep up to date with all of them and other news from UCL Culture by signing up to one of our newsletters.