Desert Knowledge Australia –
Sustainability, Harmony and Wealth Creation
by Debra M. Amidon
are thinking a year ahead, sow seed.
It was the center of
the island – Alice Springs, Australia – that provided the focal point
for the major symposium and exhibition for Desert Knowledge Australia, the
third year of the Alice Springs 10-year initiative, and a seminal event in
Outback 2002. What began as a consortium for knowledge creation and
innovation has become a legal entity designed to establish networks of
people – western culture and aboriginal community together –
undertaking the research, product development and marketing needed for
thriving desert economies.
Leaders of the world
may have been meeting in Johannesburg at the World Earth Summit debating
what might be needed to secure a prosperous future that bridges the
digital and social divides, but in Outback Australia, they were ‘being
it!’ With an intensive conference, workshops and expo featuring the
vibrant picture of culture, programs, technology, art, history and
lifestyle, the events opened with the Lord Mayor of Sydney, Frank Sartor,
and closed with The Honorable John Anderson, Deputy Prime Minister of the
nation. The events were hosted visibly all week by local, regional and
national leaders, such as Fran Kilgariff - mayor of the Alice Springs Town
Council, Bruce Campbell – Chairman of Outback 2002, His Excellency
Governor General Rev. Dr. Peter Hollingsworth and the Honorable Clare
Martin – Chief Minister of the Northern Territory.
Most important was the location of the events – the land that had recently been returned to the indigenous peoples of the region. Throughout the lectures, workshops, exhibitions and panel discussions – even video-conferencing to several remote areas, the visibility of and insights from the aboriginal leadership was impressive. The stories told by Rose Kunoth-Monks (affectionately referred to as ‘Desert Rose’), Arrente Native Titleholder and Deputy Chair of the Bachelor Institute for Indigenous Tertiary Education, set the stage for reflection and purposeful conversation. “Keep our eyes on the stretched horizon…Creating wealth is not a matter of materialism; it is looking after the people of the land…Our most precious assets are our people…each and every one of us. Let’s get there together – caring, sharing and being truthful.”Building the Case
Australia’s land mass is 70% arid desert. In fact, one third of the world’s land surface is desert, including the cold deserts of Mongolia and northern China. About 1 billion people or one sixth of the world’s population inhabit these deserts. There are at least three common issues facing these desert communities and the mandate for eco-systems: the use of water and other resources, the maintenance of biodiversity and the recycling of waste minimizing the physical deterioration of the environment. This has created strong international demand for knowledge about developing the economies and living sustainability in desert regions. International developments such as the UN Convention on Desertification will no doubt lead to many further requirements for management action based on Desert Knowledge (http://www.desertknowledge.com.au) with 3 major foci – each of which was treated with expert panelists and specialized workshops:
Dr. Bruce Walker, Director of the Centre for Appropriate Technology, provided the context. There are 1291 discrete communities with 109, 994 people in 16,093 dwellings of which 33% of housing needs replacement. 943 of the communities have less than 50 people; 149 communities have 200 people or more and 159 outstations had no dwellings at all. There is 35% unemployment, 69% in rental premises, and 29% worry about going without food. Life expectancy is 16-20 years (or less), epidemic levels of some diseases, high levels of mobility and 33% have their power disconnected due to unpaid accounts.
Speaking more broadly,
he suggested that “You cannot close yourself off from the outside world;
equally, you cannot ignore the fact that 50% of the world population can
not compete in the Global economy.” With the backdrop of the world
deserts, he outlined the factors shaping a new international world order:
new alliances that are not dependent upon borders, multinational
corporations and world brands, currency exchange and financial markets and
the role of Information and communication Technology (ICT’s).
He contrasted the
profiles within the arid desert of the non-indigenous population - living
in 4 towns with projected slow growth (0.38%), short stays within the
region - to the indigenous population - living in hundreds of communities
with rapid growth projections (1.5%) and life time stays within the
region. What better opportunity to utilize new networked structures and
collaborative practices to build foundations for a shared sense of the
Foundations for Progress
Dr. Ken Johnson (ken.Johnson@nt.gov.au),
Chair (and now CEO) of Desert Knowledge Australia (DKA), outlined the
vision of “Thriving Desert Knowledge Economies.” He outlined the
challenges, such as the poorly developed manufacturing base,
pastoral/mining principle industries, tourism as a growth industry,
diversity of population, high energy and transport costs – essentially,
the ‘fragile’ economy in a ‘fragile’ environment.
Research Center – in alliance with the Commonwealth Scientific and
Industrial Research Organization CSIRO (http://www.csiro.au)
– will receives federal-funding over 7 years has an evolving research
agenda according to 4 major themes.
- Theme 1 – Resource
Management: Technologies for managing deserts, integrating indigenous and
western perspectives, for more sustainable commercial land uses.
- Theme 2 – Community
Visibility: Demand-responsive approaches to service delivery, applying
cutting edge innovation to meet the special needs of remote desert areas.
- Theme 3 –
Governance: Systems of management and leadership across agencies and
communities which help to use resources equitably and efficiently in
- Theme 4 – Regional
Integration: Understanding how to invest public and private resources in
According to status
reports, there are already at least seven Knowledge Clusters of expertise
– operating as a networked innovation system of interaction - focused as
1. Desert Peoples Centre: This Centre has
a strong focus on capacity building among indigenous peoples. It is a
joint initiative of the Batchelor Institute for Indigenous Tertiary
Education, the Centre for Appropriate Technology, and the Institute for
Aboriginal Development regarding the development of an indigenous
2. Graduate Desert Knowledge University:
Government and non-government agencies in Alice Springs have a high level
of scientific and technical expertise that is based on the high academic
standards of its employees. These organisations already facilitate and
co-supervise a number of graduate students. Agencies also provide
logistical support and work place facilities that are beyond the financial
reach of Universities that are all located a considerable distance from
the central deserts. This project will seek to co-ordinate and further
enhance these programs.
3. Sustainable Communities - Living
Together in Arid Lands: By integrating economic, social and environmental
issues this Project will ensure good effective regional outcomes that will
improve quality of life. The project will focus on how local and remote
communities together with the diversity of industries -including tourism
and art - can achieve productive outcomes.
4. Technical Services Project: Deserts
are challenging environments that require innovative solutions to
infrastructure development, efficient energy use and achieving a high
quality of life. The physical infrastructure and technical services for
desert communities will be improved through the use of expertise in
materials testing, building and construction, water and energy use, waste
disposal, transport and communications.
5. Natural Resource Management Project:
More than 45% of the lands in the central deserts are owned or managed by
Aboriginal people. Most of the remainder is held in pastoral, agricultural
and national park tenures. A high level of expertise has developed in
ecologically sustainable production from all of these lands. This project
will focus on environmental management and resource development issues –
looking after desert landscapes and creating productive opportunities from
6. Health, Education and Social Services
Project: Central Australia comprises small highly dispersed communities
that involve a specialised remote delivery of health, education and social
services. This project focuses on delivering better social outcomes for
people living in deserts; developing methods to use the local expertise in
broader related fields.
7. International Desert Innovation Centre:
This key strategy will provide the capacity for a desert knowledge economy
in inland Australia by providing a range of services and network
co-ordination through activities such as promotion and concept
integration; marketing; packaging and managing desert knowledge; business
incubation and networking. The Centre will investigate and develop
innovative solutions to issues and problems in the management of arid
lands at a global level. It will seek partnerships and alliances with key
The symposium concluded with an optional
session of workshops facilitated by Mike Crow, DK Project Manager, which
filled the auditorium. I provided a presentation on “Networking across
Boundaries” featuring the leadership agenda and the ten dimensions of
innovation. Ifor Ffowcs-Williams, Cluster Navigators Ltd (New Zealand)
defined the value of Networks with illustrations from various remote areas
in the world that have positioned themselves as international leaders.
Intensive group discussion ensued on: The DK Network Opportunities and
Expectations, Telecommunications, Bush Produce, Access to Housing, and
Renewable Energy. Issues were converted into a ‘real-time’ action
Bridging International Linkages
During the course of
the week and on behalf of the Northern Territory, Minister Clare Martin
signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the IC2 - Institute for Capital,
Creativity and Innovation - based in Austin, Texas (http://www.ic2.org/index.html).
The intent is to develop a greater understanding of how to use indigenous
knowledge or arid lands (e.g., water, use, plans and animals) to foster
wealth and job creation for marginalized people and regions worldwide.
This links the networked efforts in Australia with similar initiatives and
some 200+ Fellows – several of whom are ENTOVATION catalysts and notable
leaders in other parts of the world.
For example, CBIRD –
the Cross-Border Institute for Regional Development – is one project
with direct applications for water conservation and arid land agriculture.
Readers may want to click to some of the relevant presentations from their
recent conference - http://www.cbirdconference.com/video.aspn.
A couple of papers were
distributed that might be of interest: Contact Dr. David V. Gibson (email@example.com)
and Pedro Conceicao for a coauthored a paper “Incubating and Networking
Technology Commercialization Centers among Emerging, Developing and mature
Technopoleis Worldwide.” For a copy of the article that appeared in the
June issue of Knowledge Management entitled “Toward the Innovation
SuperHighway,” contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org).
In keeping with tapping
into the insights and aspirations of youth, the events included a national
muster with a combination of electronic conferencing, face-to-face
meetings and an array of musical and cultural entertainment – even a
recycled material fashion show! There was even a voting system developed
to solicit comment from regional and rural youth as to what they consider
important to their community. This on-line youth muster – in conjunction
with the National Museum of Australia - opened a channel of communication
and the results of which were passed to the leadership in a local
government association conference. This is not dissimilar to what we have
previously outlined in articles referencing the Knowledge Millennium
Generation, such as was outlined at the Austrian Alpbach conference, the
OFW Conference (Cologne, Germany) and what appears on-line for the New
Zealand KnowledgeWave initiative.
What seems different
about Desert Knowledge Australia?
Given the content
addressed, the true diversity of the expertise sought and the process
utilized, it seems that the leaders in this remote corner of the world may
have some answers for how we can capitalize upon the opportunities
afforded a knowledge economy…together. Indeed, the Alice Springs
initiatives have the potential of being the ‘skunk-works’ for some
With a vision full of confidence, a strategy that is coherent, dynamic communities bridging the inherent heritage and commitments that are more than words - more even than financial resources, we all may want to keep our eyes on the progress that is imminent. I am impressed with their attention to create an aggressive agenda with ‘living’ documents. Their approach is one of inclusion – more listening and ‘hearing’ than advocacy. They’ve balanced the local, regional and national connections and now reach internationally. They have operated with an open code of ethics and have assessed opportunities such as Darwin being the gateway to the Ausralasia. They are intent on controlling their destiny by creating the future. And it seems the beginning of promising things to come.
All shared genuine words of expectations and hope for renewal, ways for ideas to become reality and to see the world differently…with a new set of eyes. The possibilities are significant…and for all humanity. As summarized by one prime speaker: “If the Desert Knowledge Symposium fulfills your expectations, your imagination and heart will be captured and we will see you again.” It was; and they will!
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