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OPINION: Drowning in information at COP – what’s the solution?


Geoff Barnard, CDKN’s Knowledge Management Strategy Advisor and chair of the Steering Committee of the Climate Knowledge Brokers (CKB) Group, discusses the bewildering deluge of climate knowledge at COP20 and the importance of knowledge curators to organise and provide access to this information.

“We are drowning in an information ocean of our own creation, and we need to do something about it if we’re ever to get on top of the dual challenges of tackling climate change and ending poverty.”

This was my opening line at a “Zero Zero” Development and Climate Days panel discussion during the middle weekend of COP20 in Lima. I think people recognised the problem, with COP itself bringing an annual deluge of new information, pumped at us from all directions.

If you picked up every policy briefing, brochure and research report being handed out you would need a truck to get to the airport. Online the situation is just as confusing, with dozens of new websites and knowledge platforms being launched in the run up to COP. Much of this output is probably excellent in it’s own terms. But how could you possibly look at all, let alone make sense of it? It’s bad enough being a researcher or knowledge worker who’s paid to read and analyse. Spare a thought for the climate negotiator or policy advisor who dashing from meeting to meeting with zero time to pause for thought.

With everyone competing to get their message heard it is no wonder people are feeling overwhelmed. It is not like we have any more time these days to read and absorb information; in fact our smartphones and touch screens are adding to the deluge by streaming tasters for yet more information that is now at our fingertips 24/7.

Back home after a fascinating but at times bewildering week in Lima, I’m struck by a paradox: the more we shout the less we are being heard.

So what’s the answer? I don’t think research organisations, pressure groups, and other climate policy actors are going form an orderly line and take turns at the microphone – like in the negotiations themselves. So we badly need other solutions.

I am drawn back to the crucial part for climate knowledge brokers in all of this. After the side event earlier in the week co-sponsored by IDS and REEEP on turning knowledge into climate action, I wrote about the vital and influential role of knowledge curators in organising and providing access to information.

Good curation is only part of the solution, however. We need help in processing information, not just accessing it. So the knowledge broker cast list includes important complementary roles for:

  • Interpreters: who can help in translating expert knowledge to make it understandable in language and terms that make sense to non-specialists – whether they be farmers, city planners, or climate negotiators.
  • Synthesisers: who can bring diverse information together, put it in context, and show how it adds up.
  • Convenors: who can bring people together and provide spaces for dialogue and debate, both face-to-face and online.

My closing comment at the Zero Zero event was that we need to invest in knowledge brokers in a much more active and systematic way. It takes time to establish trust, to build up an audience who will start to rely on you, and to learn the tricks of the trade. Yet most information initiatives are treated as short-term projects, and run out of funds after a year or two.

To get on top of the Zero Zero challenge we have to start thinking and planning long term. Investing in knowledge broker can be seen as part of laying down the “knowledge infrastructure” we need to move forward in an informed and rational way. If we fail to recognise this, we’ll still be drowning at future COPs as the tide of information rises every higher, shouting at the tops of our voices, waving our hands, and wondering why we’re not being heard.

Geoff Barnard is CDKN’s Knowledge Management Strategy Advisor, and chairs the Steering Committee of the Climate Knowledge Brokers (CKB) Group, an alliance of around 60 online initiatives that are working together to improve access to climate information.

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