Transforming knowledge for just and sustainable futures
Sobhi Tawil - 18 November 2022
The year 2022 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the establishment of the UNESCO Chairs and university twinning and networking program (UNITWIN). In the three decades since its establishment in 1992, the global network has grown to comprise over 850 UNESCO Chairs and research networks across more than 110 countries working across key areas of UNESCO’s mandate. The international conference Transforming Knowledge for Just and Sustainable Futures (Paris, 3-4 November 2022) was organized to mark this anniversary, to mobilize the global network, and to look ahead.
A critical juncture in global development
In looking back to see ahead, we must recognize that we are now at a very different moment in global development. If the early 1990s marked a turning point characterized by geopolitics shifts, the triumph of neoliberalism, the intensification of globalization, and the emergence of the Internet, we are now at a critical juncture in human history. Our moment is one of critical insecurity, characterized by the violence of human action on the natural environment – the arrogant domination of our species over the natural world. Our historical moment is marked by the violence of persistent social, economic, cultural and political exclusions, and continued overt conflict. It is a moment in which the accelerating technological and digital transformation of societies is insufficiently steered to ensure it serves our collective goals. The future of humanity and the planet is at risk. We are faced with a critical existential choice – a choice between continuing on an unsustainable path, or radically changing course.1 It is, as highlighted by the UN Secretary-General, a choice between ‘breakdown or breakthrough’.2
shapes our understandings,
and guides our actions.
Renewing the knowledge commons
Knowledge is key to radically changing course toward more just and sustainable futures. Knowledge is what gives meaning to the world around us, shapes our understandings, and guides our actions. Yet, established dominant models of knowledge generation, validation, distribution, and ultimately use, cannot possibly respond adequately to the intersecting multi-dimensional crises we face today. Radically changing course requires a transformation of the ways in which we approach knowledge. It is important, first and foremost, to recall that knowledge is part of the common heritage of humankind – it is part of the global commons. A such, knowledge – like information, education, science and culture – must remain free, open and protected from enclosures. We need to break the stranglehold of dominant models of knowledge that exclude the diversity of knowledge systems, or what Achille Mbembe has referred to as the ‘archives du monde’.3 These dominant models too often reduce knowledge to data points and narrow conceptions of ‘evidence’, disqualifying the possibilities of alternative approaches to what constitutes knowledge, how it can best be generated, with whom, and how to most usefully mobilize it for our shared futures.
Collective intelligence for collective action
We need to ensure that thinking, analysis and research translate into action. The multiple intersecting crises that mark our current historical juncture plead in favour of multidimensional applied research, community-based research, participatory action research and the co-creation of knowledge. Herein resides the potential of the unique expertise represented by the global network of UNESCO Chairs and UNITWIN Networks. The urgency of our moment requires the mobilization of collective intelligence for collective action.
Breaking silos and building bridges
A research agenda for just and sustainable futures is defined by issues that lie at the intersection of disciplines. Reality is increasingly complex and development challenges are interconnected and overlapping. We need to break disciplinary silos, build bridges between different domains of expertise, and ensure greater trans-disciplinarity. There is encouraging evidence of transdisciplinary approaches in the work of the global UNESCO Chairs network to build on.4 As a global network, the UNITWIN/UNESCO Chairs Programme, must continue to break the silos between disciplines and domains of knowledge, between sectors, between the isolation of universities and the communities they serve, and strengthen the bridges between academia, policy, communities, research and action.
A global network of hope
In our privileged positions as researchers, academics, teachers and community leaders, we have a collective responsibility. We must, in these turbulent times, ‘dare to hope’, as urged by the former Director-General of UNESCO, Federico Mayor.5 And there is indeed hope in the spirit of commitment and dynamism that characterizes this unique global network of collective intelligence and action. A commitment rooted in shared principles of respect for life, human dignity, and diversity – commitment based on trust and humility as we contribute, in our individual spaces of action and collectively, to ensuring more just and sustainable futures.
1 UNESCO. 2021. Reimagining our Futures Together: A new social contract for education. Report of the International Commission on the Futures of Education. Paris, UNESCO.
2 UN. 2021. Our Common Agenda. Report of the UN Secretary-General. New York, United Nations.
3 Mbembe, A. 2022. Les chemins de demain : Contribution a une pensée a la mesure de la planète. Public Lecture presented at the UNITWIN/UNESCO Chairs Conference, Transforming Knowledge for Just and Sustainable Futures, 3-4 November 2022, UNESCO, Paris.
4 Tikly, L. 2022. Transforming Knowledge for Just and Sustainable Futures: The role of UNESCO Chairs and UNITWIN Networks. Discussion paper. Paris, UNESCO.
5 Mayor, F. 2022. Presentation at the UNITWIN/UNESCO Chairs Conference, Transforming Knowledge for Just and Sustainable Futures, 3-4 November 2022, UNESCO, Paris.
Sobhi Tawil is the Director of UNESCO's Future of Learning and Innovation Division