How speedy will we be in the race for knowledge?

If there is a new fissure in society, there is also an opportunity for the laggards to catch up
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The Independent Online
We seem to have have had a plethora of summits: Euro-summits, the G7 Plus 1 (Russia) economic summit, the United Nations earth summit, and so on. But the chances are that you haven't heard of the knowledge summit. It is taking place at the moment in Toronto: a gathering of 1,500 people, organised by the Canadian government and the World Bank. Luminaries include Kofi Annan, secretary general of the UN, a couple of presidents, the odd Nobel laureate and a number of academics and writers on the interaction between technology, knowledge and social change.

However sceptical you are about the value of summits (and to judge by the recent crop, a certain scepticism is in order) this one does raise a new and vital issue: the growing division in the world between countries, and people, who have access to knowledge, and those who don't. But if there is a new fissure in society, there is also an opportunity for laggards to catch up.

The most obvious example of the extraordinarily rapid changes taking place in the transfer of knowledge is the Internet. Its development means that the volume of information that is potentially available to anyone in the world with access to a computer and a phone has soared on a scale that has never occurred before in history. This may turn out to be as important as the invention of the printing press. At the moment it is in its infancy and, as with any new technology, it is hard to grasp the social implications. But it is absolutely clear that it can create a new divide, rather like the division a generation or two ago between people who could drive and had access to a car, and the rest: those with a computer and the skill to use it, and those without.

But that is just the newest example of the ways in which knowledge is being transferred. Another is international investment: when a multinational builds a factory in another country, it is transferring not just the production, but also the knowledge associated with it. Companies have to train people to work the new plant, and countries have to improve their level of general education so that workers can be more easily trained. It is no accident that the fast-growing economies of East Asia place enormous importance on education.

This raises a tough question for any developed country such as our own. In a world where information is almost infinitely available and where knowledge can cross national boundaries at ever-greater speed, how do we sustain a comparative advantage?

There are, of course, some things which governments can do, such as putting computers into schools and, now, hooking them up to the Internet. But this cannot just be a job for government. The business community has an enormous part to play. In the US it is increasingly being recognised that the principal asset of a company is the brains of its people. Capital is not scarce: you can borrow it, or raise it from shareholders. Manufacturing capacity is easily available: you can get anything made, anywhere in the world. The scarce resource is knowledge. The more you can foster that, the more likely you are to succeed.

US-based business, in particular, recognises this, and some organisations have established in-house universities to help lift the knowledge base of their staff. I happen to be in the US at the moment because I am working with two such organisations, Arthur Andersen and Motorola, on education programmes. Some UK companies - Rover is a good example - have also worked extremely hard to offer a wide range of educational opportunities for their people. As we will all need to be "retrofitted" with uprated skills to cope with the new technologies, there is a strong incentive for employers to carry on pushing up educational levels. The wisest of them will recognise that knowledge is such a complex, subtle thing that they should support a wide variety of education, and not just restrict their activities to job-related training.

All this, though, is concentrating on the supply side: the supply of information,the supply of knowledge, the supply of education. There is a completely different way of looking at the process, which is to look at the demand side. Why do some countries, some people, for that matter, want more and better education? Part of the reason - maybe most of it - for the high educational standards in many East Asian countries, is the demand for knowledge. Supply has risen to meet demand, as much as the other way round.

This matters enormously now that information is becoming infinitely available through the Internet. Sure, information is not the same as knowledge, but as the Internet and associated technologies become more sophisticated, they will become an increasingly important teaching tool. To an extent unique in history, anyone with access to the Internet, wherever he or she is in the world, will have access to the vast pool of global knowledge which has suddenly become available for the price of a local phone call. What will distinguish us will, more and more, be not the supply of knowledge, but our demand for it.

This is why the issues being debated in Toronto matter. A world of infinite information puts a premium on judgement, to sort out the nuggets from the rubble. It also puts a premium on an eagerness to learn. So competition in education will lie more and more in fostering judgement and enthusiasm. This is an opportunity for developed and developing world alike.

But it is also a threat for those parts of the world, and those people, who can't be bothered. How do you create a knowledge culture? Well, you start by talking and thinking about it.