Whyte Lecture 2020 – Learning from Country centred knowledge systems

Whyte Lecture 2020 – Learning from Country centred knowledge systems

Firstly, we acknowledge the traditional custodians of the many lands across Australia, and all that that have and continue to contribute to the land and world. We thank Aunty Zeta for her Welcome to Country for this virtual lecture, and for sharing her stories and knowledge with us. And we thank all those from the many lands across Australia and New Zealand Aotearoa for joining us for this discussion.

Knowledge takes many forms, different across cultures, practices, disciplines and communities. We all see and experience the world through different values, rituals, value systems and cognitive frameworks, and there is great value in learning about different knowledge systems so as to understand, reflect, evolve and engage with the rich tapestry of human knowledge.

The 2020 Whyte Lecture presented a compelling and insightful yarn about the characteristics and modern application of Australian Aboriginal knowledge systems and what we can all learn from the world’s oldest continuous culture. The yarn covered the critical importance of connecting to Country, the inherent benefits and characteristics of embodied and relational knowledge systems, the concept of framing humans in context rather than in a human centred view, and includes practical examples of Country Centred Design applied to anything from Artificial Intelligence to urban planning.

The yarn was held between Angie Abdilla and Pia Andrews. Angie is a Palawa woman who has been living and working in Sydney for over 15 years. Angie founded Old Ways, New in 2016, where she applies Indigenous cultural knowledges to inform placemaking, strategic design and deep technologies for both the public and private sectors, with a strong focus on R&D. Pia is a technologist and internet culture specialist who works in public sectors around the world to drive digital transformation of government, and tries to establish better and more equitable partnerships and understanding between public sectors and Indigenous cultures and communities.

Please enjoy some reflections from the yarn below, and we encourage you to get in touch with the University for a full copy of the video, and to engage with the people, cultures and context of your Country, so you too can connect, respect, reflect and direct your every day efforts in a way that reflects the history, context, present and future of your place.

Part 1: Country Centred Design

Old Ways, New have developed our working methodology over a number of years with our Elders, Advisors, partners and associates. Country Centered Design will always be an Indigenous led process, keeping with the intent that our old ways are to be shared, but in the right way, with care and stewardship by Indigenous peoples leading the design process.

Here’s a summary of our process. The creation of a genuine, meaningful connection to Country is pivotal to the successful resolving the diverse and complex problems states we work with. We choose to work with project partners who value the role and voices of Indigenous peoples and their Traditional Knowledges. Brokering these working relationships enable us to establish the right conditions for Inidgenous knowledge holders to share and shape the ways in which their deep cultural knowledges can appropriately be woven into the fabric of the project as it evolves, through to success criteria and deliverables.

Indigenous peoples involvement is rarely positioned in a way that enables a formative role in establishing the foundations of cultural experiences at scale, including defining purpose, intent and project direction. The intrinsic value of this methodology lies in our capacity to reveal the heart of Country and its cultural foundations; understanding the story of Country, caring for Country, and - in turn - enabling stakeholders and or users of the project to be cared for through this two-way working and learning relationship. This works by facilitating the development of key design concepts, research and the development of Traditional Knowledge Matrix with Traditional Custodians and knowledge specialists.

A key element of Country Centered Design is our commitment to dismantling the power dynamics complicit within the ‘engagement consultant – consulted/engaged’ paradigm. Our approach prioritises equitable, remunerated working relationships which foster social, cultural and economic empowerment of local communities. International best practice approaches to Indigenous community engagement validate the principles of co-design, participatory engagement, partnerships and working relationships. Our process entails repeat engagements, cross-referencing of cultural knowledge and validation.

Moving beyond a reductionist approach and implicit power dynamics within Indigenous Engagement requires Indigenous leadership and specialist expertise to recontextualise Traditional Knowledges from various engagement sessions into strategic design opportunities.

These ideas are then reformulated, tested and interrogated to ensure Traditional Knowledges are not taken out of context, misused and to leverage the best impact. We then craft the core deliverables, ensuring our core concepts and or themes which have been established with knowledge holders to represent the project are central to the solution. The core concepts are foundational in the design methodology and strategic decisions to create implementable outcomes.


Image: Copyright Old Ways, New Pty Ltd

In Western worldviews, man positions themselves in a hierarchical relationship above all non-human beings. All Western systems are typically based on this world view: social, justice, financial, political, cultural and built environment systems. Indigenous worldviews understand humans are part of the environment in a reciprocal and symbiotic relationship with all that is in it. It is relational in structure and dynamics. Country Centered Design embodies these principles through a design process which enables the development of systems, places, experiences and services.

Part 2: The benefits of embodied knowledge systems

Embodied knowledge systems include those which include people, usually some form of Elders of a group, that are custodians of knowledge and only through whom one is able to gain the knowledge. Aboriginal cultures across Australia are good examples of embodied knowledge systems, where stories, history and lessons are learned through oral traditions, rituals, and strong engagement and relationship building with Elders and lore-holders. On one hand, gaining knowledge from an embodied knowledge system takes a lot of effort and dedication on the part of the knowledge seeker however, this ensures several key benefits:

  • Contextual and values-based - all knowledge is continually being shared through a strong connection to place, history, context and values, such that the understanding and interpretation of new knowledge is strongly grounded, and unlikely to result in extreme or incorrect interpretations or applications. By contrast, disembodied knowledge systems can see dramatically different interpretations and applications of knowledge, with the knowledge seeker having no guard rails, support or framework through which to correctly understand, interpret and apply the knowledge.
  • Accountability - the knowledge seeker is ultimately accountable to the knowledge custodians for how they use the knowledge. This provides a feedback loop to ensure good outcomes that are contextual and aligned to the core values and good of the community.
  • Evolving knowledge - due to the daily application of knowledge and principles around connection to Country, custodianship and responsibility to the past, present and future of the community, embodied knowledge systems evolve daily, grounded in persistent values maintained through stories and rituals. By contrast, disembodied knowledge systems have myriad artefacts created that reflect a snapshot of a point in time, that don’t evolve, and can lead to persistent mythologies that have to be unpacked and debunked years or decades later only to re-emerge when someone stumbles upon a respectable looking paper, such as eugenics or flat earth theory.
  • Relational - embodied knowledge systems naturally maintain key features of human societies such as relationships between people, groups, and in the case of Australian Indigenous knowledge systems, relationship to place, history, future and Dreamtime. Relational knowledge helps again to support the knowledge seeker to apply knowledge whilst naturally contributing to the community, land and ecosystem around them without losing the lessons of history, nor the aspirations of the future.
  • Rituals based - rituals provide a rich and effective way to both prepare a knowledge seeker to receive and appropriately understand new knowledge, whilst also ensuring the knowledge seeker gets the right knowledge for their level of readiness to receive it. We all learn and mature differently, and we all feel the complete saturation of a content heavy 21st century. We all have rituals to help us cope and to prepare us for learning, and a great corollary to Indigenous rituals is our education system, where children get taught different things at different stages of maturity. Martial arts have rituals, religions have rituals. Rituals are a common way of preparing a person for new knowledge, but to also learn through doing to establish and practice certain patterns and behaviours.

Reflections from the audience

Below are some insights and knowledge shared by the participants on the day that we thought would be of value to share in this summary:

  • Australian recordkeeping practices are based on relationships between things, people, systems, organisations. But lots of the potential is nascent. The tech is so resistant to allowing relationships (even from a limited western perspective) to be central. Compromises end up becoming the norm, to the detriment of the relational approach and the huge potential to be so much more creative in this space (as Angie is illustrating).
  • In response to how rituals are critical for sharing knowledge properly: That is beautiful and powerful way to explain embodied knowledge - thank you. It has helped my understanding. I am researching library ethics and practice, and I can see a useful analogy here - the ethics are embodied in the practice.
  • Another practice I have started with granddaughters - at start of meal we acknowledge Country wherever we are.
  • I try to embody the value of respect for others. So as a lecturer, I make sure to embed listening in my practice, for example.