Caring About Ignorance and Its Mobilization / S’Intéresser à la question de l’ignorance et de sa mobilisation

Joanne Gaudet
We welcome you to 2013 and welcome guest blogger Joanne Gaudet (University of Ottawa, Joanne’s work explores a concept new to many knowledge brokers: ignorance mobilization. In this first of two posts, she looks at ignorance and describes its role and mobilization in science and innovation. Let go of your preconceived negative connotations of ignorance and appreciate that ignorance is just that which we know we do not (yet) know.
Nous vous souhaitons la bienvenue en 2013 et souhaitons aussi la bienvenue à Joanne Gaudet, blogueuse invitée (Université d’Ottawa,  Le travail de Joanne explore un concept nouveau pour plusieurs courtiers de connaissances : la mobilisation de l’ignorance.  Dans la première de deux contributions, elle examine l’ignorance en décrivant son rôle et sa mobilisation dans la science et l’innovation.  Débarrassez-vous de votre préconception négative de l’ignorance et estimez l’ignorance à sa juste valeur : ce que nous savons que nous ne connaissons pas (encore).

Joanne Gaudet
Joanne Gaudet

Is ignorance more valuable than knowledge in science and innovation? If so, why do we concentrate downstream on knowledge mobilization, instead of looking upstream at ignorance mobilization? In this first installment of a two-part blog, I explore my proposed concept of ‘ignorance mobilization’ as complementary to the better known ‘knowledge mobilization’ concept in research and innovation. In the second part, I will explore the link between ignorance mobilization and Laurens Klerkx and Peter Gildemacher’s 2012 article on innovation brokers.
Blog posts on the term ‘Innovation Brokers’ caught my eye and lively exchanges with David Phipps have led to this blog. What struck me about the term innovation brokers is how it captures some of the complex dynamics I observed while involved with a knowledge mobilization research project in a large science research network. I wholeheartedly agree with David Phipps’ assessment that the term innovation broker “…stretches the traditional role of knowledge brokers and places it in a more holistic innovation framework”. First things first, I tend to ignorance and ignorance mobilization.
At this point you are probably thinking – what do I mean by ignorance and ignorance mobilization? Isn’t ignorance a bad thing? Ignorance often gets a bad rap when used outside of the science and innovation context – inside science and innovation however, ignorance is valuable and is understood as a driver. For starters, look at Stuart Firestein’s 2012 book, Ignorance: How it Drives Science or David Gray’s 2003 “Wanted: Chief Ignorance Officer” (Harvard Business Review).
Ignorance for Stuart Firestein and David Gray, and for science and innovation more generally, is extremely valuable. The value lies in its potential to produce new and innovative knowledge, to drive its production. Used in this way, ignorance is the limits and the borders of knowing – or, what we know that we don’t know – questions and problems. Robert Root-Bernstein argued that the step of defining the questions and problems in innovation is one of the most critical. Why? Because asking the wrong questions after having poorly identified, structured and evaluated a problem not only does not lead to solutions (aka knowledge), it also diverts precious energy and resources.
Asking the wrong questions (aka, ill-defined ignorance) is like using the wrong key – it might fit in the lock barrel, but it does not unlock the door. To make matters worse, complex problems can have multiple keyholes. Social innovations for “wicked” problems (i.e., poverty, climate change, security, and social determinants of health), for example, can generate new ignorance in the process of attempting to mobilize knowledge to deal with complex and sometimes interwoven physical and social phenomena (see example in Phipps et al., 2012a:167). Researchers and Innovators = expert locksmiths!
An example of the value of ignorance lies in Edwin Gale’s potential explanations as to why forty years of research on the link between virus infection and human type 1 diabetes have yielded few insights. Edwin Gale proposed that researchers “…are asking the wrong question”. How could mobilizing knowledge for the wrong question be valuable? Viewed this way, caring about ignorance and mobilizing ignorance becomes worthwhile.
Why then, are we not paying attention to ignorance and ignorance mobilization? There are no easy answers, but contributing factors include an undue focus on the knowledge society
ignorance mobilization logo
Ignorance mobilization

and the bad rap ignorance gets outside of science and innovation. Stuart Firestein (page 44) supports this view when he suggests that “[i]f ignorance, even more than data, is what propels science, then it requires the same degree of care and thought that one accords data”. Scrutinizing ignorance mobilization, that I define as the use of the borders and the limits of knowing towards the achievement of goals (i.e., professional, social, cultural, political, and economic goals), is one of the strategies we can use to care about ignorance. Mobilization is the activation and application of individual or organizational resources (i.e., economic, social, human) towards achieving these goals (such as through collaboration, research, evaluation, propriety considerations, and communication).
Examples of ignorance mobilization are plentiful and insightful – but we have generally not been paying attention. In the absence of knowledge, policy makers for example, regularly mobilize scientific ignorance to develop science and R&D policy with the ultimate goal of producing and mobilizing knowledge (see William Davies 2012 article “Knowing the Unknowable: The Epistemological Authority of Innovation Policy Experts” or John Irvine and Ben Martin’s 1984 book Foresight in Science: Picking the Winners).
Science and innovation researchers for their part systematically mobilize co-produced ignorance, sometimes in competition with other ignorance claims (such as competing ignorance claims about cancer, neurodegenerative disease, climate change, social participation, or crime). The goals are also of ultimately producing knowledge. Understood this way ignorance mobilization is complementary to, and dynamically linked with, knowledge mobilization in science and business research and innovation. Brokers therefore not only mobilize knowledge, but when they reach the borders of knowledge, they also help explicitly mobilize ignorance.
To conclude, caring about ignorance and ignorance mobilization is a starting point to better understanding science and innovation. By looking upstream at ignorance and ignorance mobilization, we can hopefully better understand downstream knowledge and knowledge mobilization dynamics… and improve our locksmith skills. Further discussion is welcome!