Desert Knowledge heading for desert wisdom?


First story of two.
Desert Knowledge Australia (DKA) is five years old. The idea goes back further, but in 2007 the organisation got ready to move into its part of the $30m complex on the South Stuart Highway, and it got cracking.
The precinct, under DKA’s management, is now the place of work for up to 180 people in six organisations, all with a national profile, including CSIRO, which had been shutting down regional labs elsewhere but now has a staff of about 15 in The Alice, and the home-grown Centre for Appropriate Technology (CAT), the winner of Australia’s highest engineering prize, the 2011 Sir William Hudson Award.
The Batchelor Institute campus is using its campus on the precinct for lectures and workshops although its hostel, which can accommodate 75 students, and other facilities are still at its old campus in Bloomfield Street.
The movement spawned Desert Knowledge CRC which morphed into Ninti One which, amongst other things, is getting millions of Federal dollars for shooting camels from helicopters. But that’s another story.
What has DKA been up to? Should we expect from it Desert Wisdom?
It is frequently touted that Alice Springs has, per head of population, the highest number of university graduates except for Canberra. Has DKA been able to consolidate that pool of talent into a force of good for the region?
Has it applied its knowledge – or wisdom – to the crisis of its home town, Alice Springs, and to what effect?
The jury is still out on the effectiveness of its leadership program but it was a fair call to attempt to do something about the weak level of communication between Alice’s black and white residents and organisations.
DKA got together possible future leaders, but how to make the current ones fire still eludes both DKA, as well as the rest of the community.
CEO John Huigen hastens to make one thing clear, lest there are exaggerated expectations from the grandiosely named organisation: “We are a staff of four.”
In 2011/12 DKA got $890,000 in operating costs from the NT Government. Of that $80,000 goes to running the national board, and over $200,000 to running the precinct.
Over the years, DKA has been successful in attracting money from a variety of sources.
For example, over $10m was spent in the in the past three years on various programs; the Feds kicked in nearly $5m and BHP Billiton $1.8m.
Telstra and Qantas each contributed $375,000 in services.
The Feds and the NT each spent a further $1.25m and CSIRO funded the doubling of the size of its building.
Other donors are NAB, the Centrecorp Foundation, Ross Engineering, Alice Town Council and Yeperenye.
In terms of “bricks and mortar” DKA has attracted nearly $8m. For example DKA attracted $1.25m from the Feds, which was matched by the NT to build the Business and Innovation Centre.  CSIRO subsequently invested an additional $3m to double the size of the building so its Central Australian Laboratory could joint the Precinct.
So, what’s it all for?
DKA has founded a national network of 1330 businesses and individuals, in inland Australia.
Sub-groups meet as required, usually via computer.
Networking and sharing ideas in this way has been good for business, says Mr Huigen.
For example, John Joseland’s Alice-based “in-situ engineering” company has been able to drum up business in several other states. (This example isn’t new – we first reported it in November 2005.)
A more recent initiative is a network of “home stay” rural properties, cattle and sheep stations firstly in South Australia, but now spreading to WA, for tourists keen to experience life on the land.
Mr Huigen says DKA is now considered a “world leader in clustering”, as Silicon Valley is for computer technology, except over a much bigger area, and held together by digital communication. Mining services, tourism, local produce, bush foods are the kind of ventures which benefit from networking courtesy DKA.
The DKA Solar Centre demonstration site with 30 installations is a DKA initiative that has attracted over $3m of investment in Alice Springs. DKA and CAT Projects have worked together on this project for five years.
“It is also a world leader,” says Mr Huigen.
Its website gets 10,000 hits a month and is a source of information for researchers and technologists across the globe.
Similar to the car industry it test-drives equipment here because it is very hot and very cold in The Centre, and the sun shines a lot.
What do we learn? Lots of sometimes little yet vital information.
Q: Is it worth wiping the dust off photo voltaic panels?
A: Not really, the value of the labour doesn’t make up for the very small reduction of generation.
Q: Is it a good idea to have fixed panels, or those which track the sun?
A: Depends where you live. If you’re remote and you have to fly someone in from 1500 kms away if your tracking mechanism breaks down, you’re better off with fixed panels. (The Uterne power station across the road from DKA has 254 “trackers” – flat racks each of which carry 12 high-efficiency PV panels.)
DKA ran Australia’s first intercultural leadership program. It hasn’t been fully evaluated yet, says Mr Huigen, but at least some participants have already put their new knowledge to good use: Ian McAdam was elected chairman of the native title organisation Lhere Artepe. Jade Kudrenko was elected to the Alice Town Council. The administrator of the program, John Rawnsley, just recently was entered into the bar and is a barrister.
What was not mentioned is that participant Barbara Shaw recently took part in the burning of the Australian flag in front of Parliament House.
When asked about this incident Mr Huigen said: “Our aim was that the group reflected the diversity of population, opinion and approach in the town.”
He also said: “We were disappointed at the number of applicants from the business community and we will be especially targeting that sector to further widen the diversity of the group.”
This program has now spawned a desert leadership program for young people one aim is to provide positive role models and opportunities rather than the stereo-type of youth as “problems”.
Mr Huigen says DKA frequently helps to establish projects that then develop a life of their own. Alice Desert Smart is one example: It became the local Solar City group.
“We bring together people with a shared interest,” says Mr Huigen. “But our contribution can quickly be forgotten.”
The DKA-facilitated Indigenous Education and Employment Taskforce over five years increased the number of Aboriginal students passing Year 12.
The Taskforce started the Girls at the Centre in the Centralian Middle School (the former ASHS), with activities for girls – “including some tough cases” – similar to the Clontarf Institute for boys, boosting school attendance to 80%.
This program is run by the Smith Family.
The Taskforce also established an Employers and Schools website as a notice board for work experience opportunities.
A work still in progress, with CAT founder Bruce Walker at the helm, is a national initiative called remoteFOCUS to consider how more effectively remote Australia could be governed and administered.
It could offer the solutions to many of the intractable problems in Central Australia.
So, not a bad scorecard for a young organisation with a big mission, a limited budget and lots of ideas.
SOON: Where to from here? Where will the money come from, and the ideas.
PHOTO: Leadership course participants, front row left to right: Jade Kudrenko, Kellie Tranter, Barbara Shaw, Benedict Stevens, Lynda Lechleitner. Back row left to right: James Nolan, Lyndon Frearson, Mark Lockyer, Kristy Bloomfield, Nichole Kerslake, Donna Lemon, Tom Newsome, Skye Thompson, David Quan, Fionn Muster, Georgina Davison.


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