Posted April 1st 2010 at 8:30 am by
in CoLab Philosophy

How Communities Learn & Transfer Knowledge

In my earliest memories, I picture my mother constantly working as a volunteer, connecting people and fund rising for scholarships and to fund holiday parties for low-income children in Cali, Colombia. I grew up visiting slums and meeting incredible community leaders with amazing ideas.

Even though these leader’s hard work and creativity brought well-being and smiles to dozens of people, the impact of their work turned out to be small, especially when contrasting their limited capacities to increase scale with the rapid rate of poverty growth.  Today in the South we face an unprecedented expansion of fellow citizens living in the slums.  Poverty is spreading like an epidemic.  One in six inhabitants of the globe survive in the slums today.

Left: During the Cartagena Practicum, Mom-and-Pop store owners from Cartagena, Colombia tell MIT and Universidad Tecnológica de Bolívar students about their role in local food distribution. Right: Colombian University Presidents visiting MIT during the 2006 Renewal of Research Universities conference. Photo by Jorge Barrera


Street Vendor in the Bazurto Market. Photo by Lina Garcia.

Because I grew up as a witness to that rapid expansion of poverty, I first studied Economics, and then worked for about twelve years in leadership positions in Colombia and the US.  I was struck by the disconnect between academia and community needs.  I was disappointed by the limited capacity of the academy to stimulate community learning. Since then I have been asking myself how communities learn and transfer their new knowledge into actions for collective opportunities? How can higher education institutions in the global south play a stronger role in tackling local challenges?

During the last five years, I have been studying how higher education institutions in the U.S. bridge knowledge production with local needs.  I have seen this bridge lead to the discovery of new medical treatments, or the creation of new entrepreneurial ventures.

I am searching for examples of how universities are identifying innovation in the margins and build on these with research?

What can higher education institutions in the global south do to facilitate community learning and knowledge transfer for progress?


Martha Bonilla is the CoLab Global Program Coordinator.  She deigned and led the Cartagena Practicum, and organized the first dialogue with Colombian University Presidents at MIT.

9 responses to “How Communities Learn & Transfer Knowledge”

  1. Amy Stitely says:

    Martha, thank you for showing me how your work relates to your personal experience. Your professional transition from economics to academics is fascinating. I now feel I better understand the underlying values of the Cartegena Practicum – where you forced the MIT students to work closely with the local university students in Colombia to work on a local challenge.

    I think all American universities should follow this example when working in the global south. In Cartegena you’ve built bridges:

    Bridges between academies in the “north” and “south”,

    Bridges between the local academy and the local communities, and

    Bridges between the local community and the local government.

  2. Alexa Mills says:

    Because I do not know very much about universities in the global south, I am sure there will be more informed people to have reflections on this post.

    However, I would like to share two things.

    1. I think U.S. Universities are facing some of these challenges also. For example, the job market for U.S. PhD’s is terrible. Many of them have to teach classes at several universities at once, with very low pay and no benefits. Shouldn’t we have a better way to use our brightest and most educated people in the U.S.?

    2. The role that the Universidad Tecnologica de Bolivar played in the Cartagena Practicum was absolutely invaluable. I think that students everywhere are absolutely eager to engage with real problems as part of their education.

    Martha, do you have any ideas for what Universities could do?

  3. Martha says:

    Amy, yes you are right! I really believe that today;s incredible technology for communications makes sense when we use it to build bridges and create a better world. I strongly believe on the power of knowledge creation across cultures and among different interest. I think these two are key ingredients for sustainable development.

    As you described my professional work as a bridges builder among groups, I guess I am in this sense a sort of engineering than anything else! I like that! 🙂


  4. Martha says:

    Alexa, thank you for your comment!

    You are totally right! I agree on the need to start thinking on creating stronger bridges for collaboration between PhDs in the US and the development of better knowledge capacities in Universities in the South. In the US we meet everyday brilliant PhDs eager to bring change and work with no room in US higher education institutions. And there is not connection between these well educated people with other higher educations institutions in the South. In the other hand, in the south, universities and government are expending huge amount of resources and time on funding students for their train overseas with the challenge for the students to pay their living expenses with a high cost currency and with the risk for the country of loosing many of them as they most likely find better opportunities in the North.

    I also believe there is a need to develop new academic tools, new concept of classrooms that will open opportunities for interaction of students – future leaders – with stakeholders. I believe on hands on education and am convinced on the power of leaning in the action.

    I am looking forward to learn with this post about ideas of how can we strength community learning and progress!

  5. Camilo Penalosa says:

    It is a very interesting topic. We need to bring closer the academic world with the real world. Governments need to hire more schools on long term projects and leave financiation set for years to come regardless of who is in power. If a project is set is because there is consensus in its benefit. Politicians dont like to link with educators as this only brings long term benefits and they need short term results for the up coming elections. So I beleive that any long term project is a must between these two institutions.

  6. Hi Martha,

    The idea of the British Enlightenment in the 18th century was to bridge the gap between existing useful knowledge (some fragments of scientific and empiric tables) and innovative people in emerging factories. That bridge became the driver of the industrial revolution (Mokyr, 2009). I wonder if that experience can be seen as an analogy for your effort of bridging north and south academies, local universities and local communities, and between local communities and local government. I guess that the reflection of Alexa about the situation of some PhD in developed countries goes in the same direction.

    My feeling is that here in CoLab we are exploring innovative ways creating theses bridges, and can have a deep impact in solving the problems of less developed countries. What is particular of our approach are the concepts of knowledge co-creation and collaborative innovation, instead of knowledge transfer and technology diffusion.

  7. Alberto Ospina says:

    Dear Martha:

    We must congratulate Universidad Tecnológica de Bolivar, the city of Cartagena and Colombia for the excellent job you are doing, bridging MIT with us through the Cartagena Practicum. I am a witness of your effort and enthusiasm designing and overseeing the success of this project; we should be working now in the designing of a second phase of it.

    It could be the beginning of a more ambitious project: the MIT-Colombia Program, a collaborative effort of MIT and Colombian institutions for the development of the Country. Community learning and knowledge at the local level is fine to help social progress; and we must continue this line of action. But we also can address the poverty problem of our whole population through higher education improvement, the transfer of technology and building our research capacity.

    Let us continue working on these ideas. With my best regards, alberto.

  8. Liliana Bonilla says:


    I feel a very, very fortunate woman to be able to eat, study, smile, love, work, think and dream for a better future in my city, my country and the world…

    Not many people in the world can feel this way, and I completely agree with you.

    It is unfortunate and sad to see how poverty grows around and so much disparity of wealth is present in the world…I am not a socialist nor a comunist person. I think I am a democratic one. However, is there a way that the world finds a way to avoid children to die of hunger?? is there a way to balance politics and academic efforts to become effective? I REALLY HOPE SO!

    I think that what you and your group at MIT CoLab are doing is fantastic! The world needs many more efforts like that, so we all share good experiences and tough situations in order to bring solutions.

    hug and kisses,


  9. Ben Hyman says:


    I envy what you’re doing. I think one interesting way to link macro to community is through cluster initiatives– like the Medellin Cluster. There are of course, microfinance and microenterprise initiatives like FINCA International which also have training programs in low-income communities to increase the probability that micro-initiatives succeed, but when it comes to city & regional initiatives to reduce poverty, I find one major hole to be the matching of big industry (job opportunities) and local human resources. I think cluster initiatives– conversations between government, businesses, training institutes, and academia– go a long way toward this, and would be a great way for you to continue your involvement while in Colombia.

    I should have my new blog post on FDI up in thet next two days– stay tuned!

    Un abrazo fuerte,