The knowledge network for communal vegetable gardens in Almere consists of fifteen ongoing and start-up initiatives for communal vegetable patches and school gardens. They work together to share knowledge and experiences, with the joint aim of gradually improving and progressing. The knowledge network was launched in 2012.
The knowledge network asked Wageningen UR Science Shop for help:
- devising a step-by-step plan for starting a new communal garden;
- deriving information from their experiences, spreading the lessons learned and identifying the success factors in the network.
For the research, interviews were conducted with the organisers of the knowledge network in Almere, and participants and civil servants involved in the initiative in Dronten.
Details (in Dutch) of the step-by-step plan are given in a separate brochure entitled Buurtmoestuin? Zo gedaan!
The research shows that the involvement of a knowledge network:
- establishes a useful network, which smooths the way to facilities such as the municipal authorities;
- enables participants to learn from each other and from people outside the network;
- provides a place for like-minded people to meet and help each other;
- keeps people motivated.
A knowledge network needs a facilitator at its helm: someone who will organise the meetings, invite people along, fire them up, open doors and guide the processes. The facilitator should come from the town or village concerned and have a large network of his/her own. A lot of the participants are so caught up in realising their own plans that they don’t have time to organise the knowledge network as well. Moreover, most of the participants joined the network because they thought it would help them to realise their own initiatives.
Having said this, it is better not to rely too heavily on just one facilitator as this can make the knowledge network vulnerable to the point of threatening its existence. The different facilitator roles, i.e. networker, process guide and meeting chair, should therefore be given to different people, with responsibilities also being shouldered by the participants. When starting a knowledge network, think about whether funding is needed to pay a facilitator, and if so, where this money will come from. A knowledge network serves as an umbrella Community of Practice, but when does a private initiative become a municipal ambition?
One of the more difficult aspects of the knowledge network meetings is trying to balance the discussions about initiatives against the items on the agenda. The advice is to stick to the agenda (while trying to allow some spontaneous interesting discussions) and discuss initiatives briefly but efficiently, with each meeting perhaps devoting some extra time to one specific initiative. It is up to the facilitator to ensure that discussions do not degenerate into an opportunity for general moaning by, for example, asking specifically about the things that went well or that other people could learn from. People should go home from the meetings feeling inspired. Participants appreciate working with specific themes and contributions from external experts on both ‘major’ and more practical matters. It would be a good idea to involve participants when planning subjects for the agenda. Send them personal invitations to the meetings and arrange regular evaluations.
A knowledge network will only be a success if the participants feel committed to a specific task and/or attending meetings: if your knowledge network has high aspirations, it will also need people willing to accept responsibility. In Almere, the participants attended the three meetings to which they had been invited, and a certain degree of commitment continues to be appreciated.
Diversity among the participants is a good thing, and a regular influx of new members gives the network a boost. Starters often have knowledge and skills that the rest of the group find useful, and more ‘senior’ participants enjoy passing on their experience as they remember what it was like when they first started. This way, the knowledge network is a good reflection of what is going on in the town or village. It is important to find a balance between giving and taking knowledge, so that everyone continues to enjoy meetings, learns from each other and passes on valuable knowledge.
In Almere, a civil servant from the municipality attended every meeting of the knowledge network. This is beneficial to all concerned. The knowledge network functions as a platform for the municipality and a stage for launching municipal viewpoints and helps to realise municipal ambitions. The presence of a civil servant gives the participants