Representation matters, but it's knowledge input that really matters

Do we need representation or knowledge input from under-represented groups?

Do we need representation or knowledge input from under-represented groups? Image: Unsplash/Mario Purisic

Alice Bell
Integrity Director, Deloitte
Professor Deen Sanders OAM
Integrity Lead and Indigenous Leader, Deloitte
David Sangokoya
Head of Civil Society Impact, World Economic Forum Geneva
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  • The standard view of good governance and representation is that there should be representation of different voices and perspectives within and that can influence an organization.
  • Indigenous approaches to representation place more emphasis on giving voice to the knowledge held by particular communities and to scalability through knowledge sharing.
  • Indigenous approaches of knowledge holding and 'fractal scalability' can be applied to good governance by learning from and investing in those holding the knowledge and amplifying their voices to achieve systems change.

Governments, institutions and professional organizations have been trained to think good decisions flow from good governance and that good governance is a product of good representation.

The notion that good representation encompasses diverse perspectives and identities has also gained ground over recent decades, leading to increased participation in positions of authority, including on boards and committees, from among marginalized and minority populations.

But these efforts have not been entirely successful for several reasons:

  • Organizations and institutions have struggled to fill roles.
  • Incumbents don’t feel comfortable to freely or safely express their opinions.
  • Appointed individuals are accused of being selected for their protected characteristics rather than their knowledge, undermining the individual.
  • It’s not simplistic representation that’s needed but knowledge input by under-represented groups.
  • It can be tiring to continuously speak on behalf of a group, especially if someone is not authorized to speak for the knowledge or group they represent.

While it’s important to understand and address biases and discriminations behind some of the above, solving these challenges won’t necessarily resolve the questions of good decision-making and governance.

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The current model of representational politics is framed by an assumption that “representation” is the central stakeholder question to overcome. We thus lock ourselves into the question of, “Who is here?” But we also need to ask:

  • What do those who are here know?
  • What knowledge is missing?
  • How can we ensure the right voices are listened to, not just heard?

Indigenous forms of governance and decision-making developed and refined over millennia look different from Western representation models. Looking at two interrelated Indigenous concepts – 'knowledge holding' and 'fractal scalability' – can shed light on the deficiencies in mainstream approaches and provide a pathway to re-imagining problems and solutions.

Indigenous concepts of representation

Knowledge holding

In Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures, everyone’s voice is considered important. Differences emerge, though, around the way voice is authorized, supported and purposed.

In Western democracies, there’s an implicit assumption that voice is only effective at scale when it magnifies the voices it represents. The authority for any voice comes from how many people it’s delegated to represent and is usually attached to those with positional power.

In Indigenous culture, voice empowers the knowledge of a specific subject, so knowledge holders (elders, chiefs and cultural leaders) might not speak on behalf of their community but on behalf of their knowledge. Obviously, in some instances, this knowledge holding will be about community representation, including governance or law (or lore) but that’s a status earned through knowledge holding not through position alone.

Rather than just exercising positional power, cultural leadership accepts responsibility and authority gifted by the community. Rather than only being an opportunity to exercise hierarchical power, the knowledge holder holds a carefully curated status of learning, teaching and engaging the field of knowledge for others.

Fractal scalability

Western representation models rely on voice scalability, traditionally building either vertically or horizontally to represent larger groups.

Using a common computer concept, vertical scalability means adding more power to a single machine, while horizontal scalability means adding more machines to the resource pool. Scaling voices within organizations and institutions has meant bringing more people inside (more machines) and expanding the reach and influence of those people within (more power).

Indigenous models of scalability typically take a more complex and nuanced, 'fractal' approach.

This concept of fractal scalability is explored in the recent World Economic Forum report, Embedding Indigenous Knowledge in the Conservation and Restoration of Landscapes. To take Australia’s vast and biodiverse continent as an example, hundreds of separate nation groups practice similar but distinct land care responsibilities in their respective regions. The collective effect has been magnified, even though it was not directly coordinated outside the shared cycles of nature and cultural knowledge exchange.

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Applying Indigenous approaches to good governance

What could such a model of knowledge holding and fractal scalability look like if we applied it to the challenge of representing voice in organizations and institutions?

Extending the computer example, consider a financial organization appointing an internal committee to assess the ethical use of their artificial intelligence (AI) systems. Traditional approaches may see them appoint someone from communities that encounter bias or discrimination from AI, such as women and people of colour. A company-wide email might be sent to staff looking for volunteers of those who belong to these identity groups. The committee will end up with "representative identities" but not necessarily "vulnerability knowledge holders."

Applying a knowledge holding model, what if, instead of an internal committee assessing the ethics of the product, its remit was to build relationships with the communities subject to AI bias and discrimination and who have expertise in AI and ethics?

This internal committee could not only learn from and invest in these experts but help amplify their voices to bring about systemic change. That is, ensuring their voices are heard at the regulatory and legislative level and not contained within a single organization, thus helping to move an industry forward, not limiting their knowledge to a source of competitive advantage.

Fractal scalability demonstrates that when everyone shares a common understanding of the ecosystem – the collective governance principles that sustain it and individuals within it are empowered to maintain it – the health of the combined system can be assured. The principle of knowledge holding ensures individuals are encouraged to have agency over a process while there is a shared obligation.

Instead of seeing diversity and representational success as a measure of how big or wide an organization can grow, such institutions could allocate more time and investment into enabling community-led bodies already owned and staffed by marginalized and minority populations.

Following the models of fractal scalability and knowledge holding, a common understanding of the ecosystem and collective governance principles could be applied to creating a more equitable, fair and just society for every government, organization and institution to accept individual responsibility for contributing to a shared solution, without risk or limit to their success.

In an unequal world, representational politics that relies on bringing in different voices remains critical but has limits. It may even have harmful (even if only assimilationist pressure) consequences for the genuinely oppressed and divergent voices for whom mere presence is insufficient to overcome the power imbalance.

Instead, by stepping back and looking outside their system to different knowledge-holding voices and community-led organizations, organizations could turn up the volume on difference.

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