Transferable Ideas

ransferable ideas as a form of Intellectual Capital for Sustainable Development
Nathan W. Dyck

Innovation is never cheap. It is often the embodiment of hard-won information, gathered over a long period of time, that is put into practice in a particular situation. The innovators have often developed their strategies in a context that is historically, geographically, and ecologically specific. The development of useful theory or knowledge can take time. If historical necessity is the mother of invention, the father is still a lot of difficult exploration over design landscapes.

It is fortunate that humanity is able to learn from others experiences and experiments. An adaptation, developed in one area for one reason, may be used by another group in a similar situation. We have been doing this, sharing ideas across cultural and community boundaries, forever. Superstition and learned practices are a form of technology. Mythology too can be seen as a form of adaptation to specific environmental needs1

This paper examines not the specific information contained in transferred ideas, but the utility of transferable adaptive ideas and adaptive folk-ways themselves. Essentially, we can learn not only from our own past but from others peoples struggles with their own past and contemporary situations.

Knowledge acquisition of complex systems is an ongoing, dynamic learning process, and such knowledge often emerges with people’s institutions and organizations. It seems to require institutional frameworks and social networks nested across scales to be effective.2

According to Kai N. Lee, writing of the value of adaptive management, knowledge is a public good: once discovered, knowledge can be transferred at much lower cost than was necessary to make the initial discovery.”3

I will begin by laying out a few examples of easily transferable, “viral” ideas in Sustainable Development. Then, I will look at intellectual capital in a general sense, including traditional knowledge. Subsequently, I will touch on more “theoretical” modes of organization and organizational templates that are being experimented with. Finally we will summarize by addressing the sustainable development characteristics of transferable ideas, “knowledge capital”.

Some “viral” transferable ideas

As mentioned, we will briefly touch on some ideas, useful to Sustainable Development, that have spread in a “viral” fashion. The purpose is to show that Intellectual Capital4 is innovation, and the free spread and adoption of these ideas aids the development of Sustainable Development.

Community gardens

There is a long history of the use of community gardens to improve psychological well being and social relations, to facilitate healing and to increase supplies of fresh foods (Francis et al. 1994, Hynes 1996, Murphy 1991, Boston Urban Gardeners 1982). During and after both World Wars, community gardens provided increased food supplies which required minimal transporting. During the Great Depression, city lands were made available to the unemployed and impoverished by the Work Projects Administration (WPA); nearly 5,000 gardens on 700 acres were cultivated in New York City through this program (Hynes 1996). During WWII, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that national health as well as personal well-being were dependent on the consumption of fresh vegetables, which led to the Victory Gardens Program and the production of approximately 40% of the fresh vegetables consumed in the U.S. from an estimated 20 million gardens (Murphy 1991). 5

However, this idea has been sporadic in its application. New York City Parks and Gardens projects, as an example, from the viewpoint of community has been on again and off again. The current interest in this, and its widespread uptake in North America today is largely a continuation of “hippie ideals”.

However, most urban gardening efforts were abandoned as precipitating crises passed. Sustained community gardening in New York City grew from the activism of the 1960s, spurred by burgeoning environmental movements and the fiscal woes of the mid-1970s – laying deep roots that endure to the present. 6

We can see here the role that government has to play as a vector for the spread of new organizational structures. The community garden is a type of organizational structure that can be quickly transplanted to new locations, and depending on local buy-in, can immediately begin building additional Social Capital7. A review of Social Capital produced by community gardens concludes that,

First, community gardeners acquired resources through strong social ties. Members of the

gardens naturally looked within their own garden networks to access resources such as

ideas, water, and tools. The provision of “talents and supplies” contributed positively

toward the collective goals of the garden network, making possible the achievement of

certain aims that would have otherwise been more difficult to realize by the group in their


This transferable idea is now found, and is being utilized to greater and greater lengths, in many municipalities around the world.

Locavore movement – eating sustainably is hip.

In a more general sense the idea of eating locally9, linked to the community garden movement, has been gaining ground. The “locavore”10 movement is described as a collaborative effort to build more locally based, self-reliant food economies – one in which sustainable food production, processing, distribution, and consumption is integrated to enhance the economic, environmental and social health of a particular place”. It is a movement that has, like many other ‘green’ ideas, gained a certain cultural cache. From its spread as a reaction, a counter-cultural idea, it is now adopted at least in name by upper-class demographics. According to the New York Times:

Even couples planning a wedding at The Plaza Hotel in New York City can jump on the local food train. For as little as $72 a person, they can offer guests a “100-mile menu” of food from the caterer’s farm and neighboring fields in upstate New York.11

Once developed and propagated, this transferable idea can be imported into many different local situations. It is a perfect example of “Global thinking, local action.”

Recycling – a reusable idea

Similar to Community Gardens, Recycling in the modern sense emerges from humanities struggle with the basic problems of scarcity which are fundamental to all economics. This is a problem exacerbated during times of war. In the United States,

Recycling was born with the government’s encouragement. Saving aluminum cans meant more ammunition for the soldiers. Economizing initiatives seemed endless as Americans were urged to conserve and recycle metal, paper and rubber“.12

In another similarity to the history of Community Gardens, Recycling was largely dropped over a period of time following the Second World War. “Afterward, 1950s middle class life unapologetically adopted the ethics of expansion and newness. 13

The idea however, once developed and proven, could be quickly picked up, in response to new needs and changing circumstances. “As more and more middle-class Americans began to express environmental attitudes, the wastefulness of modern consumption became obvious to more and more consumers. More Americans than ever before became willing to integrate such practices into their lives as part of a commitment to the environment.9

While there may be linger questions of the ultimate efficiency of recycling14, there is little question that the idea has spread globally and has in fact become a major driver of global economic development and trade.15 16Any community may use this idea, adopt the basic principles and make local adaptations regardless of copyright or intellectual property laws. Individual innovation is only necessary to adapt the idea to local circumstances and contingencies.

Sustainable Development – the idea

It has been pointed out that sustainable development is itself an idea, one that grew out of a certain historical context.17 I developed the idea in my previous paper that defining Sustainable Development was itself a process of DOING Sustainable Development; it is a verb not a cohesive noun. Its historical development was a development of free Intellectual Capital.

The idea of sustainable development grew from numerous environmental movements in earlier decades and was defined in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission 1987) The 1992 Rio Earth Summit was attended by 152 world leaders, and sustainability was enshrined in Agenda 21, a plan of action, and a recommendation that all countries should produce national sustainable development strategies.In March 2005, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) was released. This 2,500-page report was four years in the making, drawn up by 1,300 researchers from 95 nations over four years, and funded by the Global Environment Facility, the United Nations Foundation, the World Bank and various others.18

All of these frameworks were basically trying to capture what is happening “on the ground.” They are attempts to systematize what is at least partially a bottom up process. UNESCO, for example, is attempting to use top-down techniques to spread awareness and initiate local bottom up activity. According to their website, “Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) seeks to integrate the tenets, values and practices of sustainable development into all aspects of education and learning.19

“The Green Revolution” is another example of a technological idea-set that was developed as a response to certain needs, but spread and ended up serving many. It began in Mexico when:

The Rockefeller foundation and the Mexican government established a plant-breeding station in NW Mexico, with a goal of boosting grain yields in a world that was already in trouble with food supplies and rapid population growth.20 It spread, “This wheat was also successful when grown in some areas of Asia and Africa. In India, wheat production increased four times in 20 years (from 12 million tons in 1966 to 47 million tons in 1986). At present, over 3/4 of the wheat acreage in India is planted to these new high-yielding varieties.”

Although the Green Revolution relies partially on restricted knowledge, copyrighted information which is problematic for this thesis, other countries have seen what is possible and pursued their own programs.21

Traditional knowledge

There is some conceit on the part of Western thinkers, and the public in general, that all development comes from novel Western science-based innovation. In fact, traditional people have been living with their environment and its needs for many years. In many ways, they already have a practice of Sustainability that we would do well to learn from. According to Wade Davis “if the criteria shifted, for example, to the capacity to thrive in a truly sustainable manner, the Western way of life would come up short.”22 However, it is possible to shift too much emphasis to living in a ‘back-to-the-land’ manner. Traditional knowledge must be supplemented with modern understanding. Speaking to this unresolved need, one editorial asserts:

The benefits and challenges of integrating traditional ecological knowledge and scientific knowledge have led to extensive discussions over the past decades, but much work is still needed to facilitate the articulation and co-application of these two types of knowledge.23

Addressing the values and pitfalls of Knowledge Societies in Africa, and the need to bring in new information to traditional worldviews, Jaques Hamel writes that: “Knowledge may be the chief currency and the essence of modern age. It can also be a strategic resource and a lifeline for Africa’s sustainable developmentThe implementation of this vision requires more efficient development knowledge as an infinitely expansible resource. This knowledge can support more knowledge-intensive sustainable development and needs to be mined, harvested and promoted.

He goes on to describe the different knowledge hurdles which face the West as opposed to the south: “Furthermore, sustainable development applies quite differently to the ‘developed’ North, which is struggling with the unwanted consequences of overdevelopment or misdevelopment, and to ‘developing’24 Africa, which is struggling with the unwanted effects of slow or non-development. Knowledge- sustained development is not on course on a global scale.”25 Recognition of the need for better ‘knowledge sustained development’ is the first step.

Critical Success Factors and Sustainable Development Characteristics

Transferable ideas, as we have seen, are widely useful. In fact, fundamental to sustainability is the individual and cultural adoption of certain values and ideas. These ideas come in the form of education, cultural transmission, or organizational structures. Equally fundamental is the successful integration of modern and global ideas with traditional and location-specific knowledge. The success of transferable ideas will lie in the following factors:

  1. Versatility – the more applicable a solution is to a wider range of problems, the more likely it will be to achieve “critical mass”, having been picked up by early adopters and propagated widely enough to be generally accessible.
  2. Efficacy – Ideas which, no matter their apparent strengths or ‘ideological soundness’, simply don’t work (or work marginally), are clearly less likely to spread. Related to this is the need to disentangle false information and maladaptive structures from facts and useful applications.
  3. Democratization – The more freedom to experiment that people have, the more likely they are to a) have access to b) pick up and c) improvise and adapt, new ideas to their unique historical and geopolitical situation.
  4. Perceived necessity – Normally, people tend not to look for new ideas when they have or perceive themselves as having few economic struggles. Education (below) can have an impact on this. As one writer states, “Dissatisfaction with existing conditions seems to be a prerequisite for intentional change.”26
  5. Education, access to information – Programs such as UNESCOs discussed above, help to spread new ideas into otherwise uninformed societies. The internet is a fantastic source of intellectual capital, when properly used. In fact, the Internets role in Sustainable Development would be a highly interesting study in and of itself.

Sustainable Development Characteristics

The characteristics which make transferable ideas, (mobile Intellectual Capital) such a fruitful tool for the process of Sustainable Development are as follows:

      1. Idea adoption saves on experimental design work. This is the essential thesis of the paper. Many false roads have already been explored, and many correct and useful answers have been found to a variety of design problems, organizational types, and technical hurdles. A political example might serve here: After the debacle of the Soviet Unions collapse, few nations or people are very interested in experimenting with a Hard-Line Central Planning economic model. Jared Diamond, in his book “Collapse”27, explains various environmental pitfalls that past civilizations have fallen into. ‘Don’t do as the Mayans did.’ Diamond explains how degradation of the soil, caused by a parasitic hierarchy helped to destroy Mayan Landscape and consequently their civilization. It is my hope that on small and large scales, we can learn from past mistakes.
      2. Draws people together (Building Social Capital globally) – On a wider scale, the more communities on the globe are able to learn from each other, the more integrated they will be. Globally, this aligns with Robert Wrights “pull” hypothesis of social integration, laid out in “Nonzero”.28 Wright argues that greater interaction inevitably leads to greater understanding, and eventually to cohesion. Societies are build by mutual interdependence, which is built by high levels of trade and information exchange.
      3. Participatory (building local Social Capital) – instituting a new program for Sustainable Development can bring a community together. The Social Capital produced will have a compounding effect. Getting people in communities or organizations to begin thinking about “green” issues opens to door for further mindset changes.29


The primary lesson here is that ideas have value. Ideas are also amenable to later innovation and experimentation. As the old adage goes: “Information wants to be free.” It seems in our own best interest, globally and personally, to encourage the free exchange of ideas. We would also be well served to explore the utility of new or traditional knowledge. In the modern age, change is the rule. Our society is in a state of continuous transformation. According to Schon, “We must learn to understand, guide, influence, and manage these transformations. We must make the capacity for undertaking them integral to ourselves and our institutions.” In short, we must intentionally (as opposed to by default) make our society into a “learning organization”. Schon continues, “We must become able not only to transform our institutions, in response to changing situations and requirements; we must invent and develop institutions which are ‘learning systems’, that is to say, systems capable of bringing about their own continuing transformation.”30 By recognizing consciously and deliberately that continuous adaptation is necessary, (that is, that we must continuously explore new concepts and methods) we will be in a better position to institute change purposefully.

Further Questions

This seems like a very fruitful area of exploration. Some further questions I would have, and would like to explore but for lack of space, are:

  1. What role can the internet play in sustainable development?
  2. What are the characteristics of a community that lead it to quick adoption of new but proven ideas? How can those characteristics be fostered?
  3. How could Sustainable Development best be “packaged” for wider acceptance?
  4. What methods can we use to correctly integrate modern ideas into traditional knowledge societies without damaging those societies?
  5. What is the role of disinformation in distributing new ideas?

1“The Ecology of Myth” , Eslinger, L. University of Calgary Retrieved July 9/ 2010

2 Folke, C. 2004. Traditional knowledge in social–ecological systems. Ecology and Society 9(3): 7. [online] URL:

3Lee, K. N. 1999. Appraising adaptive management. Conservation Ecology 3(2): 3. [online] URL:

4 Stewart, Thomas A. The Wealth of Knowledge: Intellectual Capital and the Twenty-First Century Organization.New York: Currency, 2001.

7 Grootaert, C. (1998). Social Capital: The Missing Link? (pdf) Social Capital. Initiative Working Paper No. 3. Washington, DC: World Bank. 34 pp. Retrieved April 8, 2010.

8 Glover, T. D., Parry, D. C., & Shinew, K. J. (2005). Building relationships, accessing resources: Mobilizing social capital in community garden contexts. Journal of Leisure Research, 37(4), 450-474.

9 Retrieved July 9 / 2010

10 Spring 2008, Vol. 8, No. 2, Pages 83–85 , DOI 10.1525/gfc.2008.8.2.83

Posted online on May 12, 2008.

12Wars and Battles, The Home Front” Retrieved July 9/ 2010

13 Frank Ackerman (Lead Author); Emily Monosson (Contributing Author); Brian Black (Topic Editor);. 2008. “Recycling.” In: Encyclopedia of Earth. Eds. Cutler J. Cleveland (Washington, D.C.: Environmental Information Coalition, National Council for Science and the Environment). [First published in the Encyclopedia of Earth September 14, 2006; Last revised April 11, 2008; Retrieved July 9, 2010]<>

14Battle in Print: Recycling: Reducing waste or waste of time? Retrieved July 9/ 2010

16 Journal of Industrial Ecology Volume 7 Issue 2, Pages 65 – 78 Published Online: 8 Feb 2008 ©2010, Yale University. Retrieved July 9/ 2010

17  John Robinson, Squaring the circle? Some thoughts on the idea of sustainable development, Ecological Economics, Volume 48, Issue 4, 20 April 2004, Pages 369-384, ISSN 0921-8009, DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolecon.2003.10.017.

18 Shah, Anup. “Sustainable Development Introduction.” Global Issues, Updated: 18 Nov. 2009. Accessed: 09 Jul. 2010. <>

23 Gagnon, C. A., and D. Berteaux. 2009. Integrating traditional ecological knowledge and ecological science: a question of scale. Ecology and Society 14(2): 19. [online] URL: Retrieved July 9 / 2010

24 The ‘developed’, the ‘developed world’ or ‘developed countries’ can be seen as a quite inappropriate terminology. The most ‘developed’ are also underdeveloped in many ways. On the other hand, ‘developing’ or ‘developing countries’ is also a an inappropriate terminology since many developing countries are not developing. (footnote in original; see below)

25Jacques L. Hamel, Knowledge Policies for Sustainable Development in Africa: A Strategic Framework for Good Governance. Draft Working Paper. ECA/SDD, Addis Ababa, October 2004, 54 pages.

27 Diamond, Jared M.  2005 Collapse : how societies choose to fail or survive / Jared Diamond Penguin Group, Camberwell, Victoria :

28 Wright, Robert, Nonzero : the logic of human destiny / Robert Wright Pantheon Books, New York :  2000

29 McDonough, W. (1993). Design, Ecology, Ethics and the Making of Things (pdf). A Centennial Sermon. New York: The Cathedral of St. John the Divine. 9 pp. Retrieved April 8, 2010.

30 Schön, D. A. (1973) Beyond the Stable State. Public and private learning in a changing society, Harmondsworth: Penguin

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