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September 2002    Feature
a free monthly briefing on the knowledge agenda
No. 65

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Managing editor:
David J. Skyrme


Desert Knowledge Australia:
Sustainability, Harmony and Wealth Creation

Debra M. Amidon

"If you are thinking a year ahead, sow seed.
If you are thinking 10 years ahead, plant a tree.
If you are thinking a hundred years ahead, educate the people."

(Chinese poet Kuan Tsu, 500BC)

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 Claire 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 per cent 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 sustainably 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 ( with 3 major foci - each of which was treated with expert panelists and specialize d workshops:

  • Sustainability - developing processes that enable the enjoyment of a quality of life that is in balance with the maintenance and enhancement of the local and global environment.

  • Harmony - developing processes for the effective engagement of western style and indigenous communities that leads to harmonious and successful economic and social advance for all groups.

  • Wealth Creation - developing viable businesses and employment opportunities capable of supporting an internationally competitive lifestyle for the people of the desert.

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 per cent 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 per cent unemployment, 69 per cent live in rental premises, and 29 per cent worry about going without food. Life expectancy is 16-20 years (or less), epidemic levels of some diseases, high levels of mobility and 33 per cent have their power disconnected due to unpaid bills.

Speaking more broadly, he suggested that "You cannot close yourself off from the outside world; equally, you cannot ignore the fact that 50 per cent of the world population cannot compete in the global economy". With the backdrop of the world's 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 Communications Technology (ICT).

He contrasted the profiles within the arid desert of the non-indigenous population - living in 4 towns with projected slow growth (0.38 per cent), short stays within the region - to the indigenous population - living in hundreds of communities with rapid growth projections (1.5 per cent) 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 future!

Foundations for Progress

Dr. Ken Johnson, 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.

The Cooperative Research Center - in alliance with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) - will receive federal funding over 7 years towards an evolving research agenda comprising four major themes:

  1. Resource Management - technologies for managing deserts, integrating indigenous and western perspectives, for more sustainable commercial land uses.

  2. Community Visibility - demand-responsive approaches to service delivery, applying cutting edge innovation to meet the special needs of remote desert areas.

  3. Governance - systems of management and leadership across agencies and communities which help to use resources equitably and efficiently in desert areas.

  4. Regional Integration - understanding how to invest public and private resources in regional economies.

According to status reports, there are already at least seven Knowledge Clusters of expertise - operating as a networked innovation system of interaction - focused as follows:

  • 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 education provider.
  • 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 organizations 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Natural Resource Management Project - more than 45 per cent 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 them.
  • Health, Education and Social Services Project - central Australia comprises small highly dispersed communities that involve a specialized 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.
  • 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 international agencies.

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 agenda.

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 (IC2- based in Austin, Texas. 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 -

A couple of papers were distributed that might be of interest: Contact Dr. David V. Gibson at IC2 for a paper co-authored with Pedro Conceicao: "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 (

Youth Muster

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.

In Summary

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 international innovation.

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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