Building Knowledge Societies through ICT4D

Within the ICT4D field the concept of ‘knowledge society’ is often used. This blog post wants to delve deeper into what knowledge societies actually are, how ICT4D can help achieving them, and why it matters.

So what do we mean by ‘knowledge society’?

Today, knowledge and information have significant impact on people’s lives. In a ‘knowledge societysharing of knowledge and information is key. There is an emphasis within knowledge societies of the human rights agenda, the importance of knowledge sharing and an inclusive participatory character.  ICTs are key in knowledge societies as they increase the speed of and can facilitate this knowledge sharing. As such, it has the power to transform economies and societies.

According to UNESCO’s definition, knowledge societies must build on the following four pillars:

  • Freedom of expression
  • Universal access to information and knowledge
  • Respect for cultural and linguistic diversity
  • Quality of education for all

UNESCO works extensively to create inclusive knowledge societies and empower local communities by increasing access to preservation and sharing of information and knowledge. For UNESCO, universal access to knowledge and information is key to building peace, to sustainable economic development, and to intercultural dialogue. Particularly pillar two and four are also very relevant to the inclusion of the 1 billion.

What role of ICT4D

ICT4D has a potential role in delivering knowledge societies and can help facilitating the knowledge sharing inherent within them little by little. As the European Commission notes, ICT applications have a profound impact, both directly and indirectly, on the political, economic, social, cultural, and everyday life of a huge number of citizens in the developing world. In areas such as education, governance, job creation and e-commerce.

Having access to ICTs and connectivity, the European Commission argues is not critical to the technologies themselves, but  to the integration of developing economy countries into the global knowledge society.  The objective of creating a global knowledge society is further addressed in MDG 8,  which defines the objective for the international community to “in cooperation with the private sector, make available benefits of new technologies, especially information and communications.” As such, ICT4D have a role to play in facilitating this.

Looking at UNESCO’s definition of knowledge societies, and the four pillars listed above, one can argue that there is still a long way to go for several countries in order to become true knowledge societies, particularly in terms of the first two. Tim Unwin has written extensively on the potential role of ICT4D in delivering knowledge societies. Unwin notes that there is a long way for some developing countries to be true knowledge societies. He argues that among other things there are powerful interests that are determined to ensure, not only that information and knowledge are carefully controlled, but also that they are used by the rich and powerful to maintain their positions of influence and control. Therefore, Unwin argues that there is a fundamental challenge in using ICTs for development since they can both enable global control and profit generation, while also provide the opportunity for the kinds of global knowledge-sharing communities that UNESCO wishes to see. What happens when, for example, information and knowledge is restricted online?

Operationalising the concept of the knowledge society: the capability approach

So why does the concept of knowledge society matter? I think we can find one answer to this in how we plan but also how to measure success of ICT4D initiatives, which depends on how you view development. If you equate development with economic growth, then your indicators will measure this but may fail to take into account other variables.

Amartya Sen puts forward a capability approach, where development is defined as “a process of expanding real freedoms that people enjoy” in order to “lead the lives they have reason to value”. Sen’s understanding of development focuses on development as freedom of choice. It is about freedom of choice in the personal, the social, the economic and the political sphere, where one of the aspect is being able to take part in the life of a community.  A person’s ‘capability’ then, for Sen, is the alternative combinations of functioning that are feasible for a person to achieve empowerment. Development thus focuses on increasing individual’s capability sets and, as such, the substantive freedom to lead the life that each particular person values.

Sen’s capability approach stands in contrast to the growth-focused and economistic conceptualisations of development. Following this logic, ICTs have the potential to give individuals choices, or at least a greater sense of choice. The implications this approach has on the researching and planning of ICT4D is that on a fundamental level, it questions the validity of outcomes that are defined based on theoretical deduction rather than consulting those in the target group. This approach also makes us focus on empowerment rather than economic growth, so on enhancing the individual’s (or group’s) capacity to make effective choices and translate these into desired outcomes and actions. 

Concretely, this signals a need to set development priorities in a participatory way. Although this might make the development planning more complicated, it also means that outcomes agreed are much more likely to be locally and culturally appropriate and may reduce the rate of failure.

What do you think, can ICT4D really help facilitate the creation of knowledge societies? Or does it fail to take certain aspects into account?

written by VM