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Beware of intruders

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The term 'knowledge economy' (see above article) has little to do with describing real developments in the economy and is more an expression of a political and cultural world view. In the same way that the number of patents originated by a given university on either side of the Atlantic says more about its sense of litigiousness and protectionist attitude to knowledge than it does, necessarily, about its dynamic approach to new ideas. The term was born of a combination of exaggerated claims about information technology and the elevation of the 'creative industries' by New Labour. Theorists of the knowledge economy claim that knowledge has a different relationship to the economy today from that it had in the past, but there is no real evidence to support this.

The term 'knowledge economy'expresses a particularly limited world view because it assumes that knowledge is something we foster in the abstract, rather than something that comes as a by-product of concerted effort in a particular field. The consequence of this assumption is that knowledge is often thought of as something that blossoms of its own accord, given favourable conditions, rather than something that individuals have to work hard at attaining.

Responsible architecture Theories of the knowledge economy are particularly flattering to architects because, once it is assumed knowledge flowers of its own accord given the right environment, it becomes the responsibility of architects to create those particular environments that nurture knowledge creation.

Hence the ideas put forward in the new report from FaulknerBrowns Architects, Do you have the knowledge? (The dangerous converse, also beginning to take hold in America before coming here, is the reverse proposition: that architects can also be held liable for environments that create adverse side-effects. ) Their report argues that, in today's knowledge economy, it is no longer sufficient for architects to design research buildings equipped with adequate facilities for research. A grudging acknowledgement that 'the provision of dedicated specialist facilities still remains a critical requirement'aside, the report's main focus is on how to design research buildings that are conducive to the creation of knowledge.

When you stop and think about it, this is a bizarre thing for architects to concern themselves with. Not only is it bizarre, but it is difficult to see how it could work in practice, beyond providing a comfortable and practical workspace.How can architecture possibly assume responsibility for the ideas that people come up with?

Recognising that both private contemplation and group collaboration are important to the development of knowledge, the report strives to set out a balance between 'periods of privacy and autonomy' for academics and opportunities for 'immediate interaction and discussion'.

To this end, the report encourages the building of 'quiet cell space'and 'local interaction zones'. But don't such environments already exist in research buildings, in the form of offices and laboratories?

Apparently not. The report notes how academics in the past would leave their office doors open 'to signal a collaborative intent' (translation: to show that they didn't mind being bothered) and would close the door when they wanted a bit of privacy.But the report suggests that such old-fashioned mechanisms are not enough to guarantee the 'light-bulb moment'that occurs when 'an academic will emerge from their office with the metaphorical light bulb flashing over their heads', eager to discuss a new idea with others.

Courses in engineering The impulse that runs through Do you have the knowledge? - to manage the behaviour of researchers through architecture - really amounts to social engineering. We are warned of the danger that 'academics can lose the ability to safeguard quiet periods for research thought because of interactions from students', but we are also warned of the danger that academics and students might not interact enough. It seems that, left to their own devices in practical working environments, people cannot be trusted to generate knowledge by interacting with one another as they see fit.

Architects should not be aping the coercive use of knowledge economy concepts put forward by government. Just as government initiatives to encourage 'entrepreneurship' in schools are an intrusive distraction from proper study, so initiatives to encourage knowledge creation through the architecture of research buildings are an intrusive distraction from proper research.

Sandy Starr is commissioning editor for spiked. Visit www. spiked-online. com

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