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Knowledge brokers for a changing climate

In this interview, four SEI researchers discuss the state of climate change-related “knowledge brokering”, the philosophy that underpins SEI’s signature climate change adptation platform and network, weADAPT.

weADAPT uses the term to mean targeting, curating, and packaging relevant climate information so that decision-makers can understand and apply the information in crafting policy.

Published on 22 March 2018


Sukaina Bharwani

Senior Research Fellow and weADAPT Director

SEI Oxford

Profile picture of Julia Barrott
Julia Barrott

Impact and Learning Officer

Global Operations

SEI Oxford

How has knowledge brokering on climate change adaptation research and practices have changed since the founding of weADAPT?

Sukaina Bharwani: Technical advances and related changes in the way people produce and consume information make knowledge brokering a completely different ballgame than it was a decade ago. Turnaround times are so much faster. Ideas about how to convey information have changed, too. The mantra in the past was every new climate change project needed a new website/platform. However, networks such as the Climate Knowledge Brokers group have raised awareness about the negative effects of this in terms of confusing users with overwhelming amounts of information that is not shared systematically or in a standardised format. People recognise that to learn lessons, we need to be able to synthesise and generalise from examples.Misinterpretation or loss in translation can impeded adaptation. We need to move from creating “useful” information to “usable” information that people can truly act upon.

Julia Barrott: At the same time, the digital divide does still exist, so we need to think very carefully about who our target users are, where they are, and how they access and interact with data. Accessing information and knowledge in developing countries where Internet access can be limited still presents a challenge.

Throughout the world, climate change is causing more severe weather, such as flooding in Thailand. Photo: gdagys / Getty Images.

What kinds of changes have occurred beyond the technological ones?

Anna Taylor: The political and policy landscape has shifted considerably in the last 10 years, internationally, nationally and locally. This has a bearing on public debates and sentiments, and on what climate change content the media pick up. In many respects climate change is far more mainstream, and the levels of scepticism have declined. But recent shifts to the political right and the rise of conservatism have called into question the extent to which some governments are prioritising climate change action, as well as research. This is worrying.

Ben Smith: Over time, we’ve seen other changes, such as greater willingness to share information with a greater appreciation of the visibility that can be achieved in return. The technical capacity to link experiences and data in intelligent ways has led to increased recognition about the importance of learning from adaptation activities, so that people can build on one another’s experiences. As adaptation in practice has grown, we accrue a lot more actual experience to share and to learn from. This is good news. Instead of just having frameworks and theory, we have many more cases that we can learn from.

In Africa, which is likely to suffer from more frequent and longer periods of drought as the climate changes, women and children walk long distances to collect water. Photo: Bartosz Hadyniak / Getty Images.

In what ways do you think climate change adaptation knowledge brokering work is succeeding?

AT: More focus is being put on finding ways of ensuring that information is packaged and shared directly with  ̶̶  and understood by  ̶  those affected by climate change, and those tasked with directly serving or servicing climate-impacted communities rather than just those academics who are part of the broader research community. A greater focus is emerging regarding the ethics of adaptation practice and access to knowledge generated.

JB: The integration of knowledge bases is helping users make sense of and use climate information in their decision making. At the same time, these efforts need to be scaled up. Much of the more technical information available from future climate change scenarios remains inaccessible to many who would benefit from using it.

SB: Brokering has helped and is helping to increase the role of stakeholders in generating research that is relevant to them through co-creation and co-production techniques. This is being recognised as a valuable process in creating ownership and agency, which then supports more uptake and increases the potential sustainability of adaptation efforts.

A changing climate is affecting growing conditions for many staple crops, including rice. Photo: jes2ufoto / Getty Images.

What changes still need to take place?

JB: Honest self-reflection and sharing of stories of failures and lessons learned are key to learning and doing better, but these are seldom put forward due to issues of reputation and donor satisfaction.

SB: A shift in mindset is also still required in terms of who holds and hosts information. To avoid reinventing the wheel, reuse of existing online communities and networks such as weADAPT is key. In the burgeoning field of climate change, people share information in a rather ad-hoc, sporadic, supply-driven way. This often means knowledge is fragmented and inaccessible to those who need it, and that key messages aren’t presented in a way that allows people to easily learn from them. There is still confusion and variation in how language is used, which in turn affects how and whether people find what they need.

BS: Knowledge brokering is improving, but there’s still a certain naivety about how knowledge is generated and, then, how it is used. How does brokering influence and change decisions?

Just because we have the video, the podcast, or the policy brief, change doesn’t necessarily ensue. At the same time, we are still struggling to bridge the different realities in the global North and global South in terms of so many issues  ̶  cultural practices, world views, resources, capacities, data availability, levels of education, service delivery, infrastructure, inequality, and employment.

AT: And, we still have a “missing middle”, in the sense that knowledge brokers tend to target national and international stakeholders, or very local stakeholders, people such as farmers, agricultural extension officers or local NGO representatives. Not so much information targets the sub-national or supra-local scales, such as river catchment authorities, urban utilities (including the private sector), and municipal governments. These need to be included.

The lack of basic infrastructure has made sprawling informal settlements in rapidly growing African cities particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Photo: ranplett / Getty Images.

What do you see on the horizon for climate change adaptation knowledge brokering? Where is the field moving?

SB: The urgency of addressing climate change issues mean that people are beginning to recognise that building yet another platform is not the answer. The key is exchanging good practice in a timely and efficient manner and format specifically tailored for particular users. You are already seeing an increased focus on effective communication, and ethics around knowledge generation and sharing is starting to be discussed more regularly and integrated into project thinking.

JB: The technological advances that allow for linked, open data and the sharing of information in open, standardised formats will allow for huge strides in learning. Moving towards linked open data would allow users to pull relevant information from multiple sources in one step, and so could prove transformative in increasing access to, and co-production of knowledge.

AT: Finding ways of accelerating the sharing of “good practices” and lessons learned, and “scaling up” our successes are more important than ever. This is particularly true in the light of the commitments made in the Paris Agreement, and parallel activities in the Sendai Framework and the Sustainable Development Goals. A challenge will be to find ways to accomplish these goals without compromising quality, all the while tackling issues of justice and equity. It is essential that knowledge and experiences shared also contain critical reflection, so that others can directly learn from and build on the experiences of others, and can avoid making some of the same mistakes.

BS: I would hope (and expect) knowledge brokering to engage more with business, as adaptation increasingly becomes a mainstream business practice. This, too, needs a particular form of communication and understanding of business language and objectives, and will require us to bring on people with different backgrounds than those that are standard in the field. Some of this transdisciplinary science-society dialogue is taking root in project activities but there is still a lot to learn.

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