Understanding knowledge societies

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Will converting every organization into an e-organization result in the transition of a society to a Knowledge Society (k-society)? This report, by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, comes to the conclusion that this will not be the case. 

By the turn of the century, humanity had learned how to mass-produce knowledge. This new skill had been invented and successfully tested in the environment of private business enterprise and market economy. However, it is generic in nature. It combines the capacities of modern ICT with information and group thinking organized in ‘shared spaces for knowledge creation’.

The report:

  • recognizes the existence of tension between society on one hand and new technology (modern ICT) and techniques for (mass-) development of knowledge (via ‘shared spaces for knowledge creation’) on the other.
  • maintains that any society can successfully cope with this tension by setting up institutions and organizations that enable people and information to develop without limits, and that open opportunities for all kinds of knowledge to be mass-produced and mass-utilized throughout the society as a whole. The Report interprets a society that follows this path as a Knowledge Society.
  • identifies the development of people as citizens and the development of democracy as effective conduits for achieving this transformation.
  • suggests that at its best, the Knowledge Society involves all members of a community in knowledge creation and utilization; it supports the goal of high quality and safety of life for all people everywhere.

The report attempts to establish how governments can lead and how societies can organize for this transformation. While the recipe seems complex, it is based on four key assumptions:

  1. In the process of knowledge development, there are two main assets that can develop ad indefinitum: people (all people everywhere, even “the others” who, like poor people, hitherto have been treated as dangerous deviants) as creative beings and carriers of tacit knowledge; and, information (explicit knowledge) that triggers people’s creative reflection, leading to the appearance of ‘new meaning’.
  2. The skill to mass-produce knowledge is being brought to fruition in a world that is organized predominantly into market democracies. The social institutions of the currently existing democracies and currently existing markets must allow (or be transformed to allow) limitless development and use in the process of knowledge development of people and information. This poses a challenge as the currently existing democracies feature minorities with narrow encompassing interests that are allowed, by lack of genuine participation, to control public power and to channel in a disproportionate way, public resources and developmental opportunities in their own direction. This translates into limited developmental opportunities for many (or most) that happen to be on the other side of the power divide. And, the currently existing markets are addicted to an easy opportunity to split the total cost of the production of many goods and services into two parts. One part (the smaller, the better) is used to calculate the price at which the goods and services are offered on the market. The other one (as large as the producer can get away with) is usually referred to as “negative externalities”. The net negative externalities constitute the loss to society as a whole. They translate into limited development opportunities for people and gradually increasing stress on the biosphere. In the post-modern world, in which mass-produced knowledge ‘to do’ offers investment opportunities in products with high risk content, they add a concern about ‘human safety’ and ‘safety of life’ in general to the traditional development agenda that, until now, has been predominantly focused on achieving ‘high quality’ of life.
  3. To be a smart knowledge society (as distinct from a nominal or warped knowledge society), it is not enough to be rich in main assets and to take care of their development. A new sense of direction in development and a commitment to this new direction must assure high levels of quality and safety of life. Mass production of the knowledge ‘to do’, piling up technological innovations, and converting them into products and services in the framework of the Knowledge Economy managed by the currently existing market does not by itself assure high levels of quality and safety of life for all people everywhere. The new direction in development can be formulated on the basis of using the techniques and means to mass-produce knowledge to turn out and apply the knowledge ‘to be’, ‘to co-exist’ and ‘to maintain developmental equilibrium’.
  4. And finally, deployment of modern ICT in the context of knowledge development allows the addition of the prefix “mass-” to the production, diffusion and utilization of knowledge. However, as illustrated below, in the future, ICT as a means for accelerating production of knowledge is a resource whose impact on this process will diminish and stabilize as a constant. People are the only factor for accelerating the development of knowledge that is not finite and will not become obsolete.

Read the full study [pdf; ~1MB]

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