The Knowledge Biased Economy

The Knowledge Biased Economy

Aesthetics is for the artist as ornithology is for the birds.

Barnett Newman

The colour field painter Barnett Newman was a skeptic when it came to the received wisdom about the link between theory and practice in art. Newman saw academic knowledge as external to experience, with no conventional cause and effect route from the discourse of aesthetics to the practice of painting. When activities such as painting are in the process of taking place, academic knowledge is like searching for a swimming manual while drowning. The possibilities and products of action, have a habit of exceeding the models that tend to explain them after the event, just as Art History frames the activity of painting in terms of a context and category for the finished product, but adds nothing to the work itself. The academic postscript becomes a ‘discipline’ as a second order commentary on events, and no matter how convincing the analysis it remains the by-product of description, the ‘experts’ air of authority, which grows into knowledge about things, but seldom makes them happen.

In Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile: How to Live in a World We Don’t Understand this bias toward rationalistic knowledge, as opposed to the heuristic (based on direct learning through experience), is treated as a problem of Modernity, where the specialisation of labour takes the expert out of the game, but confers on him the intellectual right to influence events from the sidelines. Chapter 13, Lecturing Birds on How to Fly, questions an uncritical approach to investment based on the linear model of ‘knowledge derived wealth’; economic growth perceived as the direct result of an expansion in higher education, applied scientific research and technological innovation in society. Taleb cites Terence Kealey’s The Economic Laws of Scientific Research, Lant Pritchett’s Where Has All the Education Gone?, and Alison Wolf’s Does Education Matter?, in a counter-intuitive argument for a grass-roots ecology of value; the ‘open source’ heuristics of distributed practices, the devolved know-how exchange between hobbyists and enthusiasts, and its relation to the skill and ingenuity of amateurs and entrepreneurs, who historically have driven wealth creation. Small research offsets the influence of the knowledge bias, and the ‘evidence based’ fixation of ‘experts with no skin in the game’; a welcome antidote to the over valued, centralised and very expensive institutions of academic knowledge, whom Taleb designates ‘The Soviet-Harvard Department of Ornithology’.

The side-effects of the knowledge bias has a negative impact on the relationship between learning and innovation, because first and foremost universities are administrative centres for dealing with large numbers of fee paying students, their ‘course’ pre-set in terms of content and behaviour, but their expectations raised by the promise of improved career prospects. The modern pro-forma of the campus environment certainly imparts the ‘facts and figures’ as certifiable knowledge, but its rationale will tend to limit the possibility of a negotiated, authentic learning experience, by prescribing a modular content, governed not by creative but institutional practices, which make independent thought and action problematic. As Ronald Day shows in The Modern Invention of Information ‘knowledge’ and ‘the individual’ are conceived within the same infrastructure of control that is the modern state, and have more in common with the evolution of European documentation and its convergence with the ‘information society’. The ‘well informed’ student consumes a knowledge package that lacks the dynamism of everyday life, which is typified by trial and error, the ‘happy accident’, problems, anomalies and negotiation.

The challenge is to offset the knowledge bias by making innovative changes to the process and environment of education, which evolve rather than evaluate the creative potential of students in open-ended practices. Cranbrook Academy of Art, for example, has no faculty but only artists in residence who are current practitioners in their field, which insures that student needs remain the priority when teaching staff have ‘skin in the game’. The curriculum, although conducted within a conventional bricks and mortar campus, is embedded in an interdisciplinary, studio based, community of practice. Students are encouraged to design their own programme from a flexible set of options, enabling an architect to traverse the terrain of painting, photography, sculpture and design, as they evolve a practical sense of their discipline’s potential by connecting with its outside. The critical studies component is taken by all students as a staple ingredient for intelligent praxis, its purpose to shape a dynamic attitude towards one’s work, its immediate community and the wider social fabric. Cranbrook develops a ‘leveraged independence’ at the interface between practices by supporting the student’s experience base through a wider network of critical collaboration.

In leveraging the potential of community enterprise, The Complete Streets Initiative based at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs, fosters a network of civic collaboration, through the collection and re-distribution of an experience base in its Parklets Toolkit. A parklet is pop-up civic space that emerges from the direct action of reclaiming public rights of way, and may exist for one day or six months, depending on a number of constraints in a particular neighbourhood: the needs of residents and local business, the availability of residual parking space, the cost of installation and maintenance, and the type of use (bicycle hubs, extended seating for restaurants and cafés, outdoor gyms, urban gardens, meeting places for local action groups). The Parklet Toolkit is a compendium of case studies, past and present, which acts as a guide for consultation, design, planning submission, installation, and management. UCLA edits the practice base derived from North American cities with a history of embedding parklets within their urban ecologies, which results in a user-friendly application for local partnerships to seed their own versions in keeping with the infrastructure constraints of the neighbourhood. The Parklet Toolkit is an affordable, open source approach to urban planning, which bypasses the bureaucratic red tape involved in proposals for larger scale, permanent developments. The social capital of local know-how is put to work by tinkering with current practices and connecting them to new ones that emerge from a small set of initial constraints. It requires only a small leap of the imagination to work creatively between constraint and possibility, where dynamic innovation connects flows of critical practice to forms of contingent design; and if we are serious about correcting the knowledge bias in favour of birds that want to fly, it’s time to replace the faculty of academic office with the factory of social enterprise.