From mule trails to the electronic highway

A revolutionary decade for south-south knowledge sharing

Sharing implies having something to share and not being afraid to share it, a give and take.
Often the word “sharing” is substituted by “management”, becoming knowledge management and which implies a power relationship. This relationship is usually just another step on the continuum of north-south power.

By Kathryn Pozak

De caminos de mulas a la autopista de la información

 

The EcoSouth Network seeks something else. It is a South-South knowledge sharing effort initiated around a particular technology and on a particular continent, but that has evolved  far beyond. The process has led to EcoSouth becoming a quite independent and sustainable entity.

While there has been project financing that allowed some of the developments, it has been the thirst to share information among people in Latin America, and a growing thirst of people on other continents, that has contributed to EcoSouth being on the waves today.

The impact of modern media upon the way that information is transmitted cannot be ignored, and for  EcoSouth the last decade of the twentieth century brought about revolutionary changes in the way it deals with information. It has learned to ride the electronic waves without neglecting the bumpy roads that still abound. This delicate balancing act is what guides knowledge sharing.

Perhaps there is no “best” way in which knowledge can be shared. But, there are paths that lead to a continuous process of sharing, among people, countries, organizations, etc. Our path is called “networking”. It has to do with communication, and communication has several faces among which are attitudes, media and information itself, even language plays its role.

ATTITUDES
Sharing has much to do with attitudes. All the financial, human and technical resources in the world do not guarantee sharing. There must be a desire and interest in sharing, in communication. When this is lacking, forget it.

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Examples abound where people hinder the process through their own inefficiency or laziness, or an inability to set priorities or see the forest for the trees.

Although a civil war may be over in a country, often the citizens and organizations continue the guerrilla warfare in a “non-sharing” of information. They limit their own possibilities of growth. This “non-sharing” has an economic face called competition, where some people tend to hide things from the perceived competition.
Time and again in the dissemination of MCR (MicroConcrete Roofing) throughout Latin America, some producers immediately sought a monopoly, others “spied” on their competition to enhance their own position, and others tried to copy or reinvent what they saw, but in a manner that does not lead to success.

Nonetheless, throughout the years the great majority have wanted to know what others do and how they do it, and letting others know how they themselves do things. They are open to a give and take. Where there is an opening, that is the place in which the various media of communication come into play.
Different target groups require different media of communication. One cannot expect tile producers in outlying villages of Guatemala or Zambia to access a website, but they can read periodicals written in an understandable language. Sometimes scientific language must be modified into words understood by the “masses”. EcoSouth engages its talents and interest to communicate the essence in an understandable and human manner, taking advantage of the entire spectrum of modern media.


MEANS AND MEDIA
There are different means for different situations, target groups and types of  knowledge. In this realm EcoSouth includes the face-to-face contacts of onsite visits, courses and seminars, as well as published material and internet connections. In the southern hemisphere direct personal contact has been the predominant means of communication, but requires tremendous investments of time, energy and resources. At one point in the process of sharing knowledge it is essential, but other or accompanying means must be sought. Right at the beginning EcoSouth recognized this and published a newsletter that it sent to all tile producers. At that time it was a few dozen, but as the number grew to hundreds in Latin America, circulation also grew.

 

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Over the years, a compact group of experts has emerged that has become the key unit or focus of sharing knowledge. These experts can manage the gamut of means of communication, or as the  EcoSouth caricaturist conveys, they must be able to mount mules with a computer in their hands.
The story of knowledge sharing in the EcoSouth Network cannot be separated from the story of modern communication. For the Network, the decade of the nineties was revolutionary.

Postal services, telephones, typewriters  and the fax
The first experience in knowledge sharing reflected the state of communication at that time (1991), a typewritten newsletter that was simply copied and sent to all tile producers, reliant upon traditional postal services that were not always reliable. As courier services emerged, it was possible to send the newsletter in bulk to a particular country and the local associates would ensure that it arrived at the outlying producers. Not all had postal services, forget about telephones, and direct delivery was often carried out through field representatives of  friendly organizations. Gathering, publishing and delivery of information was indeed a cumbersome task
Among those with telephones and later on fax machines, faster contact was possible. While international communication among Network associates became possible through these services, costs could be substantial.

Transportation
Transportation is important for the activities that involve face-to-face contact, be it four-wheel drive vehicles to conquer the rough roads, or mules to walks the trails, even airplanes where international travel is required, and these can be expensive. Such means of sharing knowledge can only be sporadic and have a limited life expectancy as they are usually dependent upon outside financing. Thus, the EcoSouth approach to use a variety of means to “keep in touch” is a way of circumventing this difficulty over the long term.

Computers
In the early nineties computers entered the field and everybody could “type” so to speak, then came laptops and notebooks. Acquisition of this important tool was an apparently costly endeavor. However, as one EcoSouth associate notes: “Is it a cost or is it an investment?” EcoSouth viewed it as an investment in the future and found the means to ensure that the key people had this empowering tool. New possibilities opened up and  with the introduction of e-mail and a website, and computers became indispensable for sharing knowledge.

Email
The advent of e-mail was a breakthrough that allowed rapid communication among Network associates, In 1994 at an EcoSouth MCR seminar in Guatemala a local computer specialist explained the workings of e-mail to representatives from about ten countries. Little by little e-mail became THE means of communication, cheaper than telephone calls, but there remained the hinderness of unreliable telephone connections. While it was still some time before documents could be attached and transmitted in seconds, EcoSouth was on its way to becoming an electronic Network. Toward the end of the nineties EcoSouth was sharing information at decision-making level and documents were being transmitted throughout Latin America, Asia and Africa.

World Wide Web
Then came the World Wide Web. EcoSouth recognized its potential for sharing knowledge and embraced it with gusto. In 1997 it launched a simple website that has constantly improved in march with technological advances.  Since 2001 the bilingual EcoSouth website is the Network´s center of information, the source from which all published material would flow. In this respect, EcoSouth continues to be a trailblazer. As many other organizations simply hang already printed material into their sites, the lively EcoSur website reverses the process. It keeps people throughout the world up to date about events, news and information concerning the ecologically and economically sustainable habitat, something of a monthly magazine. Some of the material on the website may later be published in print form, such as the periodical bulletins in Spanish and English. But the website remains THE source of information. Recent redesign of the website to manage the existing information and future inputs in a more efficient and organized manner continues the process of improvement. This fountain of knowledge is shared with whoever can and cares to access it. Sharing does not have a price!


INFORMATION
As mentioned earlier, sharing implies having something to share and not being afraid to share it. The people associated with EcoSouth not only take pleasure in sharing information, contributing to the expansion of knowledge in the southern hemisphere (we prefer that designation to  “third world”, “developing countries”, etc,), they also create information.

Knowing what information exists, where to get it, and where it should be transmitted are essential to sharing knowledge, and implies some selection. While selection can be a somewhat delicate matter, in the case of EcoSouth it is highly reliant upon who participates, back to attitudes. One becomes part of the process or not. Through the years certain people and/or organizations have been more active participants and through qualification that has been more of a self-elimination of the disinterested (attitude again), a core group of experts has emerged who guide the flow of information.

 

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Research and development
Information and therefore knowledge can also be created. We place research and development in this category. Thus, small projects that focus upon specific themes, be it investigation into lime burning possibilities in Namibia, or investigation into types of plasters for clay walls in Ecuador and Guatemala, or even embodied energy in Costa Rica, contribute to the accumulation of knowledge that EcoSouth shares. These small projects are one of the ways toward sustainability as they involve key experts who in turn share the knowledge with those who access the website.
Keeping eyes and ears open to what is happening and then sharing it with others, inviting people to participate in local and international events, responding to questions, are some of the ways in which sharing occurs. As well, EcoSouth consultants maintain a fresh flow of inputs through feedback about their onsite missions throughout the world.

Questions and answers
Answering questions has always been essential to EcoSouth networking. Early on it was letters, sometimes hand written on scraps of  paper, that were answered with letters typed on manual typewriters.  Since the advent of electronic communication, this has expanded to include e-mails. With the newly designed website there has been an inundation of questions to the Site. Depending upon the theme,  questions are answered by appropriate experts in a variety of countries. At the moment, our Web designer is working on more efficient ways to respond and organize the Question and Answer Service.
This is part of our future, and a sustainable manner in which EcoSouth can continue to share knowledge. The hardware is in place. The right attitude exists among the participants.

Students, professors and researchers
Information gathering, organization, and sharing does require human resources. In recent years students have become involved in small research projects such as those investigating plasters, or client surveys, while ohers have focused upon aspects of Ecomaterials for their own research papers and theses. This creation of knowledge finds its way into the sharing process. Tune into the website www.ecosur.org. Read the EcoSouth e-Magazine.

Face to face contact
Face to face contacts at conferences and seminars allow direct interchange, but are dependent upon great organizational efforts and some outside financing. Through engagement of its partners and sponsors, EcoSouth has held two international Ecomaterials Conferences (1998 & 2001). Such events not only intensify the sharing of knowledge but also elevate the degree of commitment of participants to further engage themselves along the bumpy roads in their own countries.
In the early nineties most communication was face-to-face and relied upon visits from people who were mobile, or who had the means to mobilize and bring people together. This often took place within the framework of projects and required time and financial resources in order to reach one another, either vehicles, telephones, even accommodation where distances were involved. Followup and continuity was inevitably dependent upon transportation.

Feedback
On the one hand, EcoSouth is a transmitter of knowledge and on the other hand it is a recipient of questions and information that is further transmitted. This feedback is the process of sharing among many people connected to one another in various places throughout the globe. Sometimes those on the fast track of the information highway can be the same people who have no means of vehicular transport on the bumpy roads of their daily reality.


KNOWLEDGE IN THE HANDS OF THE PEOPLE
The EcoSouth Network uses various media in order to share knowledge, from published material to conferences, from e-mails and websites to onsite consulting. There is an attempt to “keep in touch” in one way or another.
While the electronic age has opened up many new opportunities, it has also presented new challenges as only those with access to the new technologies can be part of the game.

Those having the means or access to this world are even more reliant upon attitudes. Having access does not imply communication, nor does not having access imply lack of communication. EcoSouth encourages those with the means to engage at the grassroots level in their own environments.

Only by placing knowledge in the hands of the people can sharing have a sustainable impact.

 

EL CONOCIMIENTO EN MANOS DE LA GENTE

 

 

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