A Toolbox of Toolboxes: Has “Knowledge Sharing” Gone Too Far?

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By Nathaniel Heller — August 19, 2014. 

Today via Twitter (thanks, Dan Swislow), I stumbled across The Toolbox, singer (and WITNESS founder) Peter Gabriel’s new project to provide an online repository of social change knowledge and techniques to allow anyone, anywhere, “To discover the tools that can change your life and change the world.” This comes on the heels of the seemingly never-ending proliferation of portals, toolkits, toolboxes, and other “knowledge-in-a-box” projects designed to serve up some of the best thinking to help improve… everything. The Toolbox is so meta I almost cried when I first visited its homepage.

The danger here is that many of us continue to implicitly or even explicitly advocate for social change solutions based on the digital equivalents of airdropped leaflets. I think we’ve reached peak toolbox and may now be at a point where the fad is hurting and not helping us, at least within the transparency and accountability community. While this also deserves a more thoughtful discussion, I’d propose a few questions for organizations and donors to ask when considering whether the world (or your “community of practice”) needs another collection of tagged case studies to spread the proverbial gospel.

(A confession: I’ve worked on toolkits and knowledge portals myself. Global Integrity was a partner in creating the Tech for Transparency online portal of case studies, for example, and also published a “Liberia Local Governance Toolkit” as our first foray into sub-national governance work several years ago. So I’m no purer than others on this.)

1) Has anyone built/published this before? You’d think that a survey to assess the knowledge gaps that need filling would be the first step for evaluating whether to proceed. Not always. Here are four examples of existing websites that catalogue various governance datasets and assessment methodologies that show heavy redundancy and duplication: site 1 (Inter-American Development Bank), site 2 (World Bank), site 3 (Transparency International), site 4 (UNDP). I don’t even want to think how much money went into their collective creation.

2) Has anyone asked for this information? Most theories of change behind these sites/toolkits/portals go something like, “There is a need for…” rather than, “Here are three examples of potential users of this information telling us they need something better.” We are often portal hammers in search of nails rather than carpenters ready to build something novel that actually fixes a problem. Businesses do market research. The web developer community has come around to the notion of “user-driven design.” Are world-changers too busy changing the world to ask if it needs changing first?

3) Are tools the right solution? Following on Question 2, there’s an often overlooked but important debate that needs to be had about the utility of one-size-fits-all “tools” to address complex social problems where one solution may not necessarily “travel” or “scale” well across borders or social issues. This “tool bias” often traces back to a deeply-rooted counterculture ideology that grew out of the 1960s and 1970s (e.g., Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth catalogue) emphasizing tool-driven individual empowerment at the grassroots level. That philosophy had a number of really nice byproducts — the personal computer among them — but has more than once skewed contemporary public policy in a way that’s been less than helpful. I highly recommend Evgeny Morozov’s recent critique of the “Maker” movement, for example, as a wonderful primer. Peter Gabriel himself acknowledges these intellectual roots on The Toolbox’s website:

Growing up in the sixties and seventies I was very attracted to the counterculture that emerged at that time. That was the first time when we could see what our planet looked like from space and the first time that young people around the world felt they were part of a global movement that was more important and more theirs, than their own nations. The movement spawned many visionaries but it was the Whole Earth team under the guidance of Stewart Brand and later Kevin Kelly (still curating his CoolTools site) that really emphasized the importance of “ Access to Tools.” This, along with an obvious need, provided the inspiration for this project. 

I’d love to see the summary of Gabriel’s “obvious need.”

4) Do we understand how our audience/users actually learn? Most of these knowledge repositories, and most of the tools they point to (and, frankly, a huge amount of policy and international development material) are based on an implicit assumption that when you show people written information they will understand it and then know when and where to use it correctly. Setting aside all of the challenges of trying to effectively contextualize toolbox solutions to particular problems in the world, I’m skeptical that reading a case study often correlates with behavioral change. Our own “community of practice” needs to have a much better understanding of how and why our audiences learn and thus what the ideal delivery vehicles are for that knowledge. Maybe it’s a PDF, maybe it’s an in-person training, or maybe it’s watching a YouTube video. Right now we just don’t know.

I’d welcome thoughts and critiques in response to this post; I think this is an important discussion worth having. In the meantime, my friend Jed Miller has just registered two great URLs that you should keep an eye on: portalofportals.org and toolboxoftoolboxes.org. No, we’re not kidding.

(Thanks to Jed for edits to this original draft.)

Nathaniel Heller

Nathaniel is a founder of Global Integrity and previously served as Executive Director

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