Challenges in Sustainability | 2013 | Volume 1 | Issue 2 | Pages 82–93
DOI: 10.12924/cis2013.01020082
Knowledge Governance for Sustainable Development:
A Review
Lorrae van Kerkhoff
Fenner School of Environment and Society, The Australian National University, Building 48 Linnaeus Way,
Canberra ACT 0200, Australia; E-Mail:[email protected]; Tel. +61 261252748
Submitted: 5 September 2013 | In revised form: 7 January 2014 | Accepted: 26 February 2014 |
Published: 12 March 2014
Abstract: Sustainable development is a knowledge intensive process, but plagued by
persistent concerns over our apparent inability to connect what we know with more sustainable
practices and outcomes. While considerable attention has been given to ways we may better
understand and enhance the knowledge-based processes that support the governance of
social-ecological systems, relatively few have examined the governance of knowledge itself. The
institutions—rules and norms—that govern knowledge may shed light on the persistence of
'gaps' between knowledge and action. In this review I seek to answer the question: can
interdisciplinary knowledge governance literature contribute to understanding and analysing the
institutional knowledge-based dimensions of sustainable development? I present and analyse
the concept of knowledge governance as it is emerging in a range of disciplines and practice
areas, including private sector management literature and public regulation theory and practice.
I then integrate the findings from this review into a model of sustainable development
proposed by Nilsson et al. [1]. I show that knowledge governance (as a scale above knowledge
management) can inform Nilsson et al.'s three "nested" dimensions of sustainability: human
wellbeing (through access to knowledge and freedom to exercise informed choice); resource-
base management (though enhancing regulation and innovation and transitions from exclusive
to inclusive knowledge systems); and global public goods (by balancing public and private
interests and fostering global innovation systems). This review concludes by presenting a
framework that places sustainable development in the context of broader socio-political
struggles towards more open, inclusive knowledge systems.
Keywords: global public goods; innovation; knowledge governance; knowledge systems;
sustainable development
© 2014 by the authors; licensee Librello, Switzerland. This open access article was published
under a Creative Commons Attribution License (
1. Introduction
Public debates and political struggles over how to
achieve sustainability, from climate change and
biodiversity conservation to genetically modified
organisms and food security, have been characterised
by clashes and controversies over knowledge [2,3]—
what do we need to know to meet sustainability
challenges? Who should know it? Where should that
knowledge come from? Who has authority or should
be believed? How can different forms of knowledge be
harnessed more effectively for action towards sus-
tainability? Yet despite substantial work in these areas
[3–10] there remains a view that efforts to improve
the application of knowledge to inform sustainable de-
velopment have fallen short of the urgent and
compelling need. This is particularly so in relation to
science; for example, a United Nations Environment
Program Foresight report released in 2012 ranked
"Reconnecting Science and Policy" as the fourth
highest priority of 21 top challenges for sustainability
in the 21st century. They stated that "…our society
needs strategies and policies that are underpinned by
a strong science and evidence base. But many believe
the linkage between the policy and science com-
munities is inadequate or even deteriorating, and that
this 'broken bridge' is hindering the development of
solutions to global environmental change. This problem
requires a new look at the way science is organized
and how the science-policy interface can be improved"
[11]. Similarly, a report by the International Council for
Science wrote "there appears to be a serious discon-
nect between scientific knowledge and the way that
policy is formulated, leading to calls for improvements
in the science-policy interface" [12]. A recent review of
the usability of climate science for policy, including
processes and techniques for enhancing the role of
scientific knowledge in decision-making, concluded
that: "in spite of these efforts to rethink and restruc-
ture science production, current approaches have not
been able to surmount the usability gap" [9]. Beyond
the science domain, arguments for more fully incor-
porating traditional ecological and indigenous know-
ledge into sustainability-related decision-making have
long standing [13,14] with arguably increasing rele-
vance in the context of global environmental change
[15]. Other authors have highlighted the need for a
range of knowledges to be brought together to
address complex sustainability challenges, including
contributions from local stakeholders (for a review,
see Reed [16]), and dynamic and 'polycentric'
governance arrangements to support adaptive man-
agement of "socio-ecological systems" [17,18]. Yet the
difficulties of operationalising effective participation
and adaptive governance arrangements have also
been noted, suggesting that knowledge-oriented,
learning-based approaches face substantial challenges
in practice [16,19,20]. Taken together, the overall
picture is that better understanding and enhancing
the role of knowledge in sustainable development
decision-making is widely held to be important, but
there is a need for fresh insights and new ideas to
'bridge the gaps' between knowledge and action [21].
In this article I review the contribution one specific
concept, "knowledge governance", may make to this
broader task of understanding and enhancing the role
of knowledge in sustainability decision-making. The
origins of this review came about from a sustainability
science project that ran in 2004–2006, titled "Know-
ledge systems for sustainable development". This
project was made up of 9 case studies from around the
world, where my colleagues and I sought to develop a
systemic, actor-based understanding of knowledge
processes in sustainable development projects [5,22
27]. While we developed a range of theoretical and
practical insights from these projects, it became clear
that the 'knowledge systems' we were identifying and
describing emerged from complex governance ar-
rangements that either supported or undermined
efforts to build knowledge processes that could
effectively support transitions towards more sustain-
able practices [23]. In other words, while we could
describe the knowledge systems of our case studies, it
was only by looking at the governance of these
knowledge systems that we could start to explain how
they actually came about or why they worked in the
ways that they did. There seemed to be a middle layer,
in between project-based knowledge management
recommendations for improving communication and
learning [28] or organisational recommendations re-
garding the importance of boundary organisations [27];
and analyses that address broader social, cultural and
political aspects of knowledge [6,29], that was
relatively un-developed. This middle layer was
concerned with the institutional 'rules of the game' [30]
that shaped the possibilities and choices available to
decision-makers at organisational and project scales.
Within that project, we had limited scope to develop
these ideas further. In the intervening years, however,
the term "knowledge governance" has emerged in a
range of contexts and academic literatures to address
this institutional layer—but not, by and large, in sus-
tainable development (although other similar concepts
have been used, which I will discuss shortly). Perhaps
concepts that are gaining traction outside the sustain-
ability domain can help to shed light on the persistence
of the knowledge-action gaps identified earlier.
In this review I aim to see whether work conducted
under the auspices of the term knowledge governance
can offer new insights into the institutional and
organisational challenges of sustainability, with regard
to strengthening relationships between knowledge
and action. I seek to answer the question: can inter-
disciplinary literature on knowledge governance con-
tribute to understanding and analysing the insti-
tutional knowledge-based dimensions of sustainable
development? I will first outline what is meant by
knowledge governance, and how it relates to other
knowledge-based concepts that have currency in
sustainable development literature. I will then present
a model of sustainability that highlights the foun-
dational role of knowledge as proposed by Nilsson et
al. [1], as a framework for analysing the literature. I
will then review literature that discusses and develops
the concept of knowledge governance in relation to
private sector management and public sector reg-
ulation and legal frameworks. From this review I will
return to Nilsson et al.'s model and suggest ways in
which the knowledge governance literature may con-
tribute to understanding and analysing the relationships
between governance and knowledge for sustainable
2. What is Knowledge Governance?
Knowledge and governance are both contested terms
with various definitions. Here, following our original
project, I define knowledge simply as justifiable belief
(where different forms of knowledge reflect different
justifications) [8], and governance as a "system of
formal and informal rules, rule-making systems, and
actor-networks at all levels of human society (from
local to global) that are set up to steer societies…"
[31]. The essential proposition of knowledge gover-
nance is that the ways we conduct or engage in
knowledge processes (such as creating, sharing, ac-
cessing, and using) are subject to formal and informal
rules and conventions that shape our decisions and
actions, and that these can be manipulated towards
defined goals [32].
The different disciplinary contexts in which the
specific concept of knowledge governance has been
developed offer various definitions or interpretations
of this broad idea. In the context of organisational
economics, Foss [33] defines his "knowledge gover-
nance approach" as seeking to match knowledge
transactions (or processes) with governance mech-
anisms, with a view to maximising economic effi-
ciency. In relation to public problem-solving, Gerritsen
([34] p. 605) defines knowledge governance as "…the
intentional achievement of societal and policy change
through the purposeful production and dissemination
of knowledge." Similarly, Burlamaqui describes know-
ledge governance as an approach that seeks "…to
understand the interaction among knowledge pro-
duction, appropriation and diffusion and, from a public
policy/public interest point of view, to open up the
space for a set of rules, regulatory redesign and
institutional coordination which would favor the
commitment to distribute (disseminate) over the right
to exclude" ([35] pp. 4–5). These definitions point to
two distinct sets of concerns that sit rather uncom-
fortably under the banner of "knowledge governance"—
from the economic view, a means to improving efficiency
and maximising return through understanding, designing
and deploying knowledge governance mechanisms and
tools; and from the public policy point of view, as a base
for re-conceptualising the public interest and promoting
societal transformations.
The implications and limitations of these perspec-
tives will be examined in the next sections. For now,
however, there are two key points to be made. First,
importantly for the purposes of this review, know-
ledge governance relates to the 'institutional layer'
mentioned earlier. It is broader in scope than know-
ledge management [32], which sits within the domain
of projects and organisations, and is concerned with
the institutional structures, rules and norms that enable
or constrain knowledge management decisions. As
Gerritson et al. ([34] p. 605) have written, "whereas
knowledge management focuses on the management
of the specific processes of knowledge production, like
making knowledge questions explicit, organizing
funding or sharing knowledge in workshops, knowledge
governance is about engaging actors in innovative
ways of solving societal issues". An illustration of the
distinction is the often-heard tension between re-
searchers understanding the importance of collab-
orative research agenda-setting with communities and
co-production of knowledge (a way of organising and
managing knowledge processes); but sitting within
academic institutions that reward disciplinary focus
and publication in academic journals (institutional
rules and norms that devalue and divert effort from
collaboration and co-production) (see, for example,
Wiek et al. [36]). Knowledge governance as concep-
tualised here is concerned primarily with the broader
scale of institutional rules and norms. Second, know-
ledge governance is regarded here as both a noun and
a verb. As a noun, it is a description of existing phe-
nomena, seeking to shine an analytical spotlight on the
range of governance structures that already shape our
knowledge processes in relation to sustainability, but
are often obscured or subsumed by more tangible
concerns. As a verb, knowledge governance is a suite
of actions that may re-design or re-formulate these
processes, towards sustainability-related goals.
Knowledge governance as a specific concept has
not be widely used in sustainability-related domains,
but has strong resonance with a number of areas
such as post-normal science [37], sustainability
science [10,4] Mode-2 knowledge production [38,39],
adaptive governance [18,20] and social-ecological
systems analysis [17]. Each of these areas emphasises
the importance of collaborative knowledge construction
for addressing complex problems, the crucial role of
reflexivity and learning in the face of uncertainty, and
the need for transdisciplinary, problem-focused know-
ledge strategies. The origins of this work, as outlined
in the introduction, came from a study that was
situated in the domain of sustainability science. A
central concern of sustainability science has been to
overcome the perceived 'gap' between knowledge and
action [4]. The apparent intractability of shifting
knowledge-based processes to models and practices
that are better suited to tackling complex sustain-
ability problems [9,12,40] is the area this review is
intending to inform. The key point here is that this
review focuses solely on the governance of knowledge
processes, not on the role of knowledge in the gover-
nance of other issues related to sustainability (such as
water, forests, energy etc). By drawing on literatures
outside the more common sustainability parameters, I
hope to complement the work that addresses
knowledge processes related to sustainability science.
3. Sustainable Development: Knowledge
The potential connection between knowledge gover-
nance and sustainability can be framed in many ways.
There are many definitions and constructs of sustainable
development that have emerged since the popularisation
of the term in 1987, and it is not possible to outline them
here (but see, for example, Hopwood et al. [41]). In this
review I draw on a model of sustainability proposed by
Nilsson et al. [1] that was presented as a framework for
sustainable development goals. It is particularly well
suited to the purposes of this review as it specifically
places both knowledge and governance as foun-
dations for sustainable development. In the 'layer
cake' diagram developed by Nilsson et al. (see Figure
1), they present three nested "tiers" of the sustain-
ability agenda—human wellbeing, resource base
management, and global public goods—that represent
the ultimate goals of sustainable development. These
tiers are applied across multiple "enabling goals", of
which capacity and knowledge form the base layer, and
institutions and governance form the layer above (see
Figure 1). Analysis can then be conducted for a range of
sectors ("slices"), relating each of the three nested tiers,
across all four layers, in relation to the specific sector (in
their paper they illustrate with the energy sector).
I will use this framework to analyse the knowledge
governance literature presented in the next sections.
Specifically, I will draw out whether and how the
perspectives covered offer insights relevant to the tiers
of human well-being, resource-base management; and
global public goods. Nilsson et al.'s conceptualisation
offers a clear role for analysing the governance
dimensions of capacity and knowledge—essentially, the
interplay between the two base layers, indicated by the
dashed line in Figure 1. I do not argue that knowledge
governance is the only resource needed for such a task
—a full understanding of the capacity and knowledge
dimensions of sustainable development and their
relations to governance will require a broader scope
than this. It is, however, a useful way to structure the
following review that makes a ready connection to a
relevant sustainability framework.
Figure 1. Sustainable development framework: three tiers of ultimate goals and four layers of enabling goals.
Knowledge governance sits at the dashed line between the two base layers. Adapted from Nilsson et al. [1].
4. Review Methodology
The methodology for the review was to conduct a
keyword text search for the string "knowledge
governance" in the academic database SCOPUS, and
the book catalogues of the National Library of Australia
and the Australian National University, cross checked
against the US Library of Congress. Titles, keywords
and abstracts were included. The review focused
exclusively on the use of knowledge governance as a
single phrase, so all returns that were revealed as
"knowledge, governance" or similar were rejected.
Computer science literature, where knowledge gover-
nance has a technical meaning, was also rejected. For
academic publications, only peer-reviewed material was
included. Where keywords indicated knowledge gover-
nance but the phrase was not used in the title or the
abstract of an article, it was rejected. Books with
"knowledge governance" in the title were included,
those without were examined for relevance in descrip-
tions provided and/or table of contents.
This search strategy generated 47 articles and 3
books. They were grouped into private sector
perspectives (31 articles and 1 book); public sector
perspectives, including legal, policy and socio-political
areas (15 articles and 3 books). Articles appear to
demonstrate a growing interest and use of the term
knowledge governance, from 1 article in 2001 and
2002, to 13 articles in 2013. Interestingly, for all the
overlaps between well-established sustainability-related
areas of inquiry described in the previous section, only
two articles from this sample specifically related the
term "knowledge governance" to sustainability. One of
these [23] was developed from the original knowledge
systems project mentioned in the introduction.
Each of these articles and books were analysed
with a view to how they may inform the three nested
sustainability goals of human well-being, resource
base management, and global public goods. They
were grouped into private and public sector per-
spectives; as indicted in the section outlining definitions
of knowledge governance, these two literatures were
quite distinct in their fundamental approach to know-
ledge governance, and so were best addressed
5. Private Sector Perspectives
As indicated in the previous section, knowledge
governance has received considerable academic
attention in the private sector context. Early work by
Grandori [42] drew linkages between knowledge and
governance, with a particular emphasis on mech-
anisms for governing (setting institutional rules, incen-
tives and processes) knowledge management activ-
ities. This was followed up by Foss and colleagues in
the organisational economics context [32,33,43].
Foss's development of the concept [33] is tied to the
private sector context, most clearly by using economic
efficiency as the criterion by which to examine and
assess knowledge governance. Foss presents an
analytical approach that articulates how to go about
investigating and analysing knowledge governance.
He writes that knowledge governance "starts from the
hypothesis that knowledge processes (i.e. the creation,
retention and sharing of knowledge…) can be
influenced and directed through the deployment of
governance mechanisms, in particular the formal
aspects of organization that can be manipulated by
management, such as organization structure, job
design, reward systems, information systems, standard
operating procedures, accounting systems and other
coordination mechanisms" [33]. These are described
as critical antecedents to the conduct of knowledge
management processes. However, the primary concern
of the knowledge governance approach proposed by
Foss is to examine these organizational or institutional
characteristics in relation to their effects on individuals'
behaviour and choices. In Foss's words: "governance
mechanisms are, of course, deployed in the belief that
influencing the conditions of actions…in a certain
manner will lead employees to take those decisions…
that, when aggregated…lead to favourable organi-
zational outcomes" ([33] p. 36). Important to note
here is that these governance mechanisms are seen
as the product of deliberate "deployment", in other
words, they are not taken as given features of an
institutional environment, but as structures and rules
put in place to achieve certain goals.
Michailova and Foss's work [32], combined with
that of Grandori [42], laid the foundations for a range
of cases that developed the concept of "knowledge
governance mechanisms (KGMs)". This work applied
the knowledge governance concept to learn how
different approaches to knowledge-based processes
and relationships enhanced (or didn't enhance) firm
creativity, innovation and ultimately, profitability. One
case showed that mechanisms to enhance knowledge
sharing based on a concept of transactions can
actually increase individuals' hostility towards know-
ledge sharing, while those based on commitment
were more successful [44]. Another [45] highlighted
how knowledge governance can help firms organise to
identify 'valuable' problems and search efficiently for
their solutions. They argued that complex, ill-
structured problems require very different governance
arrangements than comparatively simple problems,
where authority-based hierarchies become less efficient
at finding solutions, the more complex the problems
become. Similarly, a case study of a large, complex
aerospace R&D collaboration [46] concluded that in
complex cases knowledge governance may be more
effective the more flexible it is. Rather than seeking the
'best' knowledge governance mechanisms, the authors
suggest knowledge governance should adapt as the
innovation process proceeds. This resonates strongly
with adaptive governance approaches to complex
social-ecological systems.
Research in China has examined knowledge gover-
nance in relation to the guanxi effect, the complex
networks of interpersonal obligations and commitments
that characterise Chinese business relations [47]. The
authors found that guanxi partly mediated the relations
between knowledge governance strategies and know-
ledge sharing actions. This highlights that cultural norms
can play an important role in knowledge governance.
The private sector literature shows that active
knowledge governance is relatively new, with only a
small amount of empirical testing and theory devel-
opment. It does, however, highlight some key features
of knowledge governance in relation to the 3 tiers of
sustainability goals. First, even at the scale of firms
and businesses, knowledge governance operates
within socially and culturally shaped contexts. The role
of interpersonal networks and individual agency
remains important, but embedded within broader
institutional norms. Second, the private sector interest
in knowledge governance stems from seeking ways to
enhance knowledge creation and to best capitalise on
it. In the organisational economics context, this is
driven by enhancing efficiency and comparative ad-
vantage; in the sustainability context, it can help to
foster new solutions to natural resource-base chal-
lenges. The private sector literature suggests that
actively deploying knowledge governance mechanisms
can help foster knowledge creation and innovation.
Third, the private sector knowledge governance
perspective has started to make inroads on frame-
works and analysis to help practitioners choose
between different knowledge-based processes, based
on different kinds of problems. More complex problems
of sustainability may require quite different knowledge
governance from simple problems.
6. Public Sector Perspectives
The public sector, legal and socio-political perspectives
take a more critical approach to understanding and
influencing knowledge governance than the private
sector. While the private sector emphasis was largely
on "mechanisms" to enhance knowledge processes
and practices, the public sector perspective more
commonly examines existing legal and socio-political
knowledge governance through a critical lens. The
public sector approach looks predominantly at the
public regulation of private sector activity, from a
perspective of protecting the public interest.
Knowledge governance in this context examines
the tensions inherent in the need to protect 'private'
knowledge as an asset to encourage innovation,
alongside the public interest in accessible knowledge
and the benefits from such innovations. In a major
study of patent law, Drahos demonstrates the ine-
quality of the 'global' knowledge system that is
dominated by a small number of large patent offices
[48]. He argues that their ability to create a knowledge
governance system that favours the interests of
transnational corporations is extended through 'tech-
nocratic trust', assisting developing countries to
establish rules and procedures that favour the same
In another major contribution drawing from evo-
lutionary economics, patent law and other intellectual
property regulation, the edited volume by Burlamaqui
et al., Burlamaqui [35] places knowledge governance
as an approach for re-thinking innovation and
creativity, and how it may best be fostered in societies
increasingly characterised by open source, inclusive
knowledge practices. They are concerned with the
question "how should government-issued intellectual
property rules and regulations interact with com-
petition policies, publicly funded R&D and other forms
of technology policy in order to help craft and govern
socially inclusive development strategies?" ([35] p. 6).
They highlight the "tension and potential trade-off
between private interests and the conception of
knowledge as a global public good" ([35] p. 10). This
trade-off relates directly to the sustainability frame-
work and will be returned to later. In a later chapter in
the same volume, Wilbanks and Rossini [49] use
knowledge governance to shed light on why academia
has been relatively slow to embrace distributed
innovation such as open source publishing and wiki-
style communications: "rewards, incentives and
metrics for academic professionals are deeply tied to
print-based metrics like citations, references and
impact factors. The existing systems of knowledge
governance and credit allocation are not well aligned
with a distributed knowledge creation environment,
and the kind of authority rewarded in academia
(typically resulting from award of advanced degrees)
is not always the same kind of authority rewarded in a
distributed knowledge system". These studies point to
the direct interplay between knowledge governance
and creativity, innovation, access and sharing.
Lemmens [50] works through these issues in a
critical analysis of how regulatory and legal structures
shape the knowledge governance landscape in
development and provision of new pharmaceutical
drugs. She argues that the current knowledge
governance arrangements favour industry to the
detriment of populations who are excluded from the
benefits of pharmaceutical discoveries due to pro-
prietary law and regulation. She goes on to suggest
that human rights obligations may be leveraged to
challenge the existing governance of pharmaceutical
knowledge, drawing particularly on the formalised
human right to benefit from scientific progress. In an
argument highly relevant to the sustainability
framework, she contends that pharmaceutical know-
ledge should be regarded as akin to a public good,
but that the global nature of knowledge production
limits national capacities to regulate how that
knowledge is shared or applied. Taking a human
rights perspective highlights the rights of individuals
to be able to exercise informed choice in relation to
their health, and the role of knowledge governance in
allowing or preventing such informed choice.
At the less legalistic end of the socio-political
spectrum knowledge governance is related to the
concept of "knowledge politics" described by Stehr as
"strategic efforts to move new scientific and technical
knowledge, and thereby the future, into the centre of
the cultural, economic and political matrix of society"
([51] p. X). This edited volume analyses knowledge-
related legal and policy processes from the per-
spective of broader social, political and philosophical
agendas. For example, Fuller argues that the thrust of
the concept of knowledge governance (as opposed to
knowledge management or government) indicates a
collective and conscious endeavour that has autonomy
from management and government, and hence that
'knowledge-bearing institutions' such as universities
play a special role in self-regulating the governance of
knowledge [52]. This has indeed played out in
controversies over science, such as the so-called
"climategate" scandal, where universities and related
academic institutions sought to both defend and
reform the governance of academic knowledge in
response to external challenges [53].
Taking a less regulatory approach, Gerritsen et al.
propose knowledge governance can be regarded as a
form of governance, like 'network governance' or
'adaptive governance', rather than the governance
knowledge [34]. These authors see knowledge gover-
nance as an avenue for social change (see definition
earlier). This leads them to identify a set of principles
for knowledge governance such as self-organisation,
transdisciplinary knowledge production, social learning,
reflexivity and boundary management. Interestingly,
these principles share many characteristics with
approaches to sustainability science [54–56], although
this connection is not made explicitly by Gerritsen et al.
Their approach highlights the importance of learning as
a fundamental 'knowledge process', a point that was
rare in the previous studies that favoured terms like
'knowledge creation and sharing', but relates to the
substantial sustainability literature on social learning
[57]. In their application of their conception of know-
ledge governance to a case study of Dutch farmers, they
highlight the importance of a collaborative approach to
innovation and change, but also that they encountered
resistance to social change based on entrenched views
and habits of the communities involved.
In the first of the two studies in this review to
directly relate knowledge governance to sustainability,
Manuel-Navarette and Gallopìn [23] apply the concept
analytically to agricultural research in Argentina. They
document how a particular research agency trans-
formed its knowledge-based processes from a simple,
linear model of technology transfer to more complex
knowledge governance arrangements that drew on a
network of public and private actors, including
universities and farmers' organisations. This network
supported a highly effective strategy to promote no-till
agricultural practices, and contributed to the rapid
adoption of this method, from 2% to 66% of
cultivated area between 1984 and 2006 (in 2006 the
world average area of no-till cultivation was 6%).
They highlight the ways in which a shift from a
'vertical' knowledge governance structure to a more
'horizontal' network arrangement increased the know-
ledge flows around no-till agriculture, and suggest
that the development of effective public-private
partnerships to facilitate these knowledge flows were
crucial. The second sustainability-related study [58]
examined how collaborative sustainability research
approaches sought to include local knowledge on
water management, but prevailing academic conven-
tions led to that knowledge being aggregated and
standardised to conform to conventional standards of
"epistemic authority", thereby losing its complexity
and nuance.
The variety of perspectives, theoretical devel-
opments and applications shows that knowledge
governance as a concept reflects its multiple origins,
but also indicates a core set of ideas that remain
reasonably consistent—enthusiasm for opportunities
to design and manipulate knowledge processes for
desired outcomes, coupled with an understanding of
the broader constraints of the socio-political know-
ledge governance landscape. Both public and private
sector perspectives demonstrate that existing know-
ledge governance arrangements, which are often
embedded in broader institutional frameworks such as
performance reward systems, economic imperatives,
commercial law, or scientific norms, can impede or
hinder the achievement of those goals. Understanding
existing constraints imposed on knowledge processes,
as well as strategies and institutional interventions for
improving them, may hold considerable promise for
addressing the "persistent gap" between knowledge
and action for sustainability. This is where we now
7. Implications of Knowledge Governance for
Sustainable Development
In this section I will analyse the points that emerged
from the previous review in relation to the three tiers
proposed by Nilsson et al.: human well-being, re-
source-base management and global public goods.
7.1. Human Wellbeing
How might knowledge governance contribute to
human wellbeing? In presenting well-being in their
framework, Nilsson et al. express the importance of
wellbeing as an individual, rather than an aggregate
pursuit: "opportunity for each individual to pursue
wellbeing and freedom". Dasgupta, cited in Nilsson et
al. [1], included 'knowledge' as one of the deter-
minants of wellbeing. The role of knowledge gover-
nance with regard to human well-being can therefore
be regarded as facilitating opportunity and access to
the knowledge-based processes that enable wellbeing.
The literature reviewed here offers some insights
into the relations between institutions and governance
and knowledge in the context of individual human
wellbeing. There are clear wellbeing benefits from
ensuring equitable access to the products generated
by knowledge intensive practices such as research.
Lemmens' [50] argument in relation to access to
pharmaceuticals (knowledge-intensive products) is
that access to these products enhances wellbeing
through health. However recognising the right to
knowledge itself, as a direct determinant of wellbeing,
suggests that opportunities to learn and make
informed decisions is a broad concern of sustainability
in its own right. The trade-offs between proprietary
knowledge and public access speak directly to the role
of knowledge governance in ensuring citizens have
the freedom and opportunity to pursue wellbeing
through access to knowledge. The example of no-till
farming uptake demonstrates the specific opportunities
that can be opened up by reforming knowledge
governance institutions to support collaborations and
connections between farmer associations, research
institutions and producers. Evaluating whether and how
access to knowledge contributes to wellbeing may be a
promising area for sustainability research and practice.
7.2. Resource-base Management
As it becomes more urgently recognised that complex
sustainability challenges require creative solutions [59],
it would seem that knowledge governance to facilitate
creativity and innovation in resource-use efficiency and
transitions away from resource-intensive development
is needed [21]. The literature confirms the sustain-
ability science view that knowledge-based approaches
that support collaboration, connections and learning
appear to be better suited to addressing complex
problems. More open, networked, horizontal ap-
proaches to organising knowledge processes facilitate
collaboration and learning across interconnected
groups. Within both public and private sector appli-
cations of knowledge governance, there was a rec-
ognition that protective approaches to knowledge that
are 'hostile' to sharing stifle the development of more
efficient outcomes. The private sector literature
highlighted that knowledge governance can be used at
organisational scales to encourage innovation and
knowledge sharing, although empirical work in this
area is in early stages.
At a broader scale, the public sector analyses
showed knowledge governance shapes incentives or
disincentives for creativity and innovation. Yet it also
placed knowledge governance actions within a broader
social and institutional context that remains largely
hostile to knowledge sharing. Finding the most
productive balance between openness for innovation
and creativity and the privatisation of knowledge for
profit ('inclusive' versus 'exclusive', to use Burlamaqui's
[35] terms) is a core knowledge governance challenge
that flows through legal and socio-cultural avenues to
permeate sustainability. From resistance to collaborative
approaches by communities culturally embedded in
existing knowledge practices to paper-bound academic
reward systems and transnational corporations that
exercise sophisticated strategies to maximise their gain
from intellectual property, the broad context continues to
favour exclusion over inclusion. Sustainability efforts to
foster innovation and creativity through collaboration
and openness should be understood to be struggling
against these larger forces.
7.3. Global Public Goods
Finally, in relation to global public goods, the concept of
knowledge as a global public good appeared in the
literature both directly and indirectly. As noted in the
Public Sector Perspectives section, Burlamaqui described
the tension between knowledge for private gain and
knowledge as a global public good. The overall struggle
to reassert knowledge in the public interest across a
wide range of social issues noted above, places sustain-
ability efforts to support more collaborative approaches
in a context of much broader political tension over what
knowledge governance should be aiming for.
This issue has received attention in relation to
sustainability. In their examination of whether current
intellectual property rights help or hinder the pro-
duction and dissemination of knowledge to address
global sustainability challenges, Claude Henry and
Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz conclude
that "the current global intellectual property regime, as
well as serving the interests of the international
electronic and pharmaceutical companies, is an im-
pediment to the kind of global cooperation necessary in
so many arenas, especially in development, global
health, and even addressing the problems of global
warming. Nor is it good for global science" ([59] p.
245). While they do not use the phrase "knowledge
governance" (and hence were excluded from the
previous sections of this review) their arguments relate
strongly to those of the public sector knowledge
governance perspective outlined earlier. They argue for
a more holistic view of innovation systems that reform
intellectual property laws and open up to other types of
knowledge governance that stimulate and support
innovative solutions to global sustainable development
The findings from this review in relation to the
three tiers of Nilsson et al.'s model of sustainable
development are summarised in Figure 2.
Figure 2. Knowledge governance for sustainable development—a framework for future research.
Analysing the findings of the review in relation to
the layer cake framework demonstrates not only that
knowledge governance is relevant to sustainable
development, but also that it relates across the three
scales of Nilsson et al.'s [1] model. From individual
wellbeing and rights to organisational and institutional
structures, through to global scale innovation systems,
the knowledge governance literature presents a multi-
scalar suite of issues. It helps to explain the
'persistence' of science-policy gaps [9], as efforts to
overcome these gaps at project or organisational
scales come into contact with broader social, cultural
and legal systems that favour exclusion and private
gain over inclusion and collaboration. This framework
offers guidance to further examine this broader context
of knowledge governance in relation to sustainability.
8. Limitations and Adaptations
In terms of the methodology of the review, there are
immediate limitations in the scope of the material. For
example book chapters that sit within volumes that
did not have 'knowledge governance' in the title were
not revealed through the search strategy. Material
that was conceptually related but did not use the
specific term of knowledge governance was also
excluded, which helped to focus the study but meant
that a wide range of associated topics were not
covered. Grey literature was also excluded.
Conceptually, this review was deliberately limited to
consideration of knowledge governance as a stand-
alone concept. There are, of course, many overlaps
with domains of sustainability-related research that
are close but only summarily alluded to, such as
adaptive governance and science and technology
studies. Similarly, there is a fuzzy line between
knowledge governance and knowledge management,
which was particularly evident in the private sector
literature. Hence one might argue that there are plenty
of equivalent strategies or practices in the sustainability
domain that speak to this fuzzy boundary. This is not
denied here—as a researcher involved in science-
governance connections I am aware of many insti-
tutional and organisational innovations that have been
made to facilitate better relationships between know-
ledge and practice [8,22]. Yet these are typically not
presented as knowledge governance interventions or
strategies. The point of this review was to examine
specifically what knowledge governance as a concept
might add to these areas of scholarship and practice.
There are likewise other related issues that readers
may feel should be incorporated into the model
presented in Figure 2 (education, empowerment and
participation, de-coupling, adaptation come to mind,
and there are no doubt many more). Incorporating
these in any meaningful way would have been counter
to the aim of keeping the governance of knowledge
front and centre. Hopefully, this review may encourage
others to examine more specific connections between
established sustainability concepts and issues and the
governance of knowledge processes.
9. Conclusion
The aim of this review was to answer the question:
"can interdisciplinary knowledge governance literature
contribute to understanding and analysing the insti-
tutional knowledge-based dimensions of sustainable
development?" By analysing the existing knowledge
governance literature through the construct of Nilsson
et al.'s sustainability model [1], I have shown that
knowledge governance offers a conceptual basis from
which to think critically about knowledge processes as
foundational to sustainable development, and to
consider how they are shaped and influenced by
formal and informal institutions. By bringing the gover-
nance of knowledge to the fore (rather than regarding
knowledge as an input to other governance goals), a
range of opportunities and constraints have emerged.
Far from there being a 'gap' between knowledge and
action, this review suggests that this space is thick with
institutional arrangements that have little to do with
sustainability, but still strongly shape the knowledge-
action landscape. This includes current formal and
informal rules that tend to favour exclusion over
inclusion, convention over innovation, and knowledge as
a private asset rather than a human right.
The opportunities for enhancing sustainability out-
comes through the knowledge governance domain are
many [59]. From the deployment of knowledge gover-
nance mechanisms for greater efficiencies, to organi-
sational and institutional reforms for enhanced
innovation, to considerations of access to knowledge as
a human right or a global public good, it brings the
many rules shaping the dynamics of knowledge creation,
sharing, access and use into consideration as a funda-
mental issue in sustainable development. It demon-
strates that researchers may be able to develop
knowledge governance strategies that address persistent
challenges in sustainability, especially around access,
innovation, and the re-conceptualisation of knowledge as
a global public good. But more importantly, it places the
challenges of doing so in a broader governance context.
Ultimately, the usefulness or otherwise of the
concept of knowledge governance will be demonstrated
in its application as guiding theoretical framework for
sustainability research and implementation. Quan-
titative research could design metrics for assessing and
comparing the sustainability impacts of different
knowledge governance arrangements, as has been
done in the private sector [47]. Empirical case studies
could test the effects of new institutional arrange-
ments on knowledge governance, and gather and
compare different strategies for brokering or
designing knowledge processes in the light of existing
governance arrangements. Qualitative research could
identify key constraints and facilitators to the effective
application of knowledge either within or across
organisations or sectors, considering the wide range
of knowledge governance arrangements that affect
practice. Such research would need to emphasise the
practical utility of knowledge governance: has it
helped researchers and practitioners to identify new
interventions towards sustainability? Has it helped to
enhance their functionality or performance? Has it
helped people to navigate the difficult terrain that
connects knowledge and action, and to generate new
options for reconfiguring that landscape? Positive
answers to these questions would support the rationale
for viewing knowledge governance as underpinning
efforts to achieve sustainable development, and start to
build theoretical and practical tools to enhance these
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