Thoughts and proposals

Meeting on Computer Supporting Diaspora Knowledge Networks

Date: 19 septembre 2006 - Imprimer cette page
A UNESCO-Sponsored, invitation only workshop will be held at the "Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers" in Paris on October 3-5, 2006.

This workshop is part of an on-going series of meetings aimed at preparing a book and opening a Web site for computer supporting Diaspora Knowledge Networks. The three day event is organized around the terms which define the content of the DKN project. We will look critically at the "diaspora", "knowledge" and "network" concepts (See Agenda of the Meeting). The following issues will be of particular interest :

1.) From technical to social networks

The evidence shows that migrants are using ICTs - email, forums, blogs, wikis - to get and stay connected with their countries of origin. However, from a sociological point of view, forging a network and consolidating its capacity for collective action over time requires more than just being connected. It requires confidence as well as mechanisms for collective sense-making and social capital construction. A research field in computer science - the field of social informatics - has been developing the conceptual and methodological tools for computer supporting collective efforts to build solid social ties through the use of Internet. The DKN project is firmly anchored in this research tradition.

2.) From managing knowledge to structuring “knowing organizations”

Knowledge is often considered in organizational studies as being embodied in the practical skills of individuals, as corresponding to their formal levels of education or as being reified in the databases serving to register the results of their activity (publication databases, project databases, skill databases, etc.). From this perspective, connecting migrants to their country of origin can be considered as a problem of adequately managing knowledge about human resources abroad. For example, among the questions which have to be asked when building a diaspora project are the following : who is available, what are they doing, where are they working, how can they be contacted ? The DKN project offers an information infrastructure for doing this type of groundwork for network building, however, its goal is much more to computer support the process of network building itself.

How are knowledge and skills mobilized for country of origin development ? The starting point for answering this question lies in the straight forward observation that migrants abroad know how to contact others who share their national identity ; they know how to work out collective procedures for doing things with one another ; and, finally, they know how to use the information infrastructures of Internet in order to accomplish their collective goals for their countries or origin. A “knowing organization” is one that is able to put this know-how into practice smoothly, working out specific problems as they arise through discussion and on-going negotiation of constraints, priorities and resources. Social informatics takes as its goal to computer support the “knowing in practice” dynamics of this type of social organization. The DKN project offers an interaction space for people to initiate, build and consolidate the learning dynamics of a “knowing organization”.

3.) From “brain drain” to “brain gain”

Migrants know how to mobilize the skills and knowledge available to them in their host countries for use by their countries of origin. The DKN project identifies over 150 Diaspora Knowledge Networks and discusses the conditions of their usefulness as instruments for host country - home country cooperation (Meyer-Wattiaux Study). Together with this bottom-up, grassroots activity, many government, NGO and other development agency initiatives are also being taken to engage diaspora in country of origin development projects. That said, one of the major difficulties in evaluating the contribution of diaspora communities to country of origin development lies in the ambiguity of the diaspora concept itself. The definition of this concept oscillates between two poles.

ˇ On one side, diasporas are often defined in substantive terms as being composed of people who live abroad but who share a common attachment to their country of origin, its values, its culture and its development. From this perspective, doing things for the home country is often seen as paying back a debt to the country where one was born, raised and educated, leading to the idea that “brain gain” is in fact the sum of all these individual “pay back” initiatives.

ˇ On the other side, diasporas are defined less by what they are than by what they do and, in principle, this “what they do” consists in building networks over national borders. From this perspective, diasporas contribute to home country development by structuring the conduits through which skills and knowledge flow not only from the host to the home country, but in the opposite direction as well. Their utility lies in enlarging the frame of reference, moving brain gain out of a context defined uniquely in terms of the needs of a Nation-State towards one which focuses on the social dynamics of knowledge production in its own right. Knowledge production knows no borders, however, it requires a space where people can meet, interact and learn how to do things together. Diaspora Networks contribute to brain gain by building these interaction spaces.

The DKN project aims at developing indicators extending from quantitative measures of individual efforts aimed at assisting countries of origin to more qualitative measures of social network solidarity.

(See Agenda of the Meeting)