Climate knowledge exchange: An antidote to "death by power point"

4 March 2013

Recently, Oxfam’s Duncan Green wrote a very engaging blog on what he termed ‘conflirting’ – that is, notionally going to an academic conference, but ducking out for most of it and finding other things to do. The reason why ‘conflirting’ is becoming more common, he suggested, was because most conferences are just too boring to hold our attention for any length of time. We watch unmoved as “‘keynote speakers’, bleary with jetlag, stumble through their papers”. Then we fall into sleep-inducing panel discussions in which there is not enough time for questions, because the presenters have not been kept to time. How, he asks quite pointedly, would we ever learn anything from a format which revolves around “death by powerpoint”? Something, he concludes, needs to change.

Knowledge Exchange

Here in the Climate Change Team at IDS we have been organising our own event, which kicked off on the 5th of March. At first we were going to call it a conference, but we had increasing misgivings about the conference format. Indeed, in the planning of the event, Duncan’s blog was circulated as an argument in favour of doing something different. So, with help from some creative folks at the Climate Change and Social Learning and Communication initiative (CCSL), we have organised a knowledge exchange. This will examine what and how we are learning for climate policy (or not), and how we might better act upon that learning.

To date, efforts to translate what we do and do not know about climate change into effective, legitimate policy and action have had mixed results. As it happens, an increasing number of organisations and actors are reflecting upon this issue. We’ve discussed this with the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), the Global Environment Facility’s Evaluation Office (GEF EO), the Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security initiative (CCAFS, who fund the CCSL) and International Development Research Canada (IDRC). Together, we’re using this event as an opportunity to share our reflections on learning for climate policy and practice, and we’re doing that through an experimental format.

How we'll learn about climate change

We have four learning themes, each of which will try to address our central question through the experiences of the organisations convening those themes, and the people they have invited to share their own experiences. Built into the programme is a commitment to learning on three different levels, sometimes known as ‘triple loop’ learning:

  1. Instrumental learning: acquiring new knowledge
  2. Communicative: understanding/reinterpreting knowledge through communication with others
  3. Transformative: examining underlying assumptions leading to change in attitudes and social norms and collective action, ideally

By narrowing the focus and getting the right people in the room to discuss particular problems the knowledge exchange should produce tangible solutions. Very different, then, from the conference idea we first started with; and we’re very excited about what’s going to happen at our event.

So, does that mean we should, or have, dismissed the idea of organising conferences altogether? In my view, at any rate, not quite. There are many downsides to the wide-ranging, often seemingly directionless outcomes of the conference; and we are still not really at a point where research, government or civil society know how to train people to share information compellingly, and to organise events in ways which help this happen. Perhaps that’s the biggest issue. But what you can’t avoid, ultimately, is the trade-off between efficiency in decision-making and inclusivity.

End of the road for the traditional conference?

A more focussed event is more closed to widespread participation because making decisions tends to be easier through smaller groups of people. This was what we need for what we want to do. However, defining the agenda narrowly can risk empowering some but overlooking others. The open character of large conferences allows a greater variety of speakers, and is likelier to offer something for everyone. So, perhaps it is ‘horses for courses’, and depends on what the priorities are for the event. Which raises perhaps the most important question of all: whose horses for whose courses? 

To find out more about what's going on at our knowledge exchange follow the twitter hashtag # climatelearn. If you are attending use that hashtag to share your thoughts.

Andy Newsham is a Resarch Fellow at IDS.