This short paper has been written in response to the theme of UNESCO’s conference Towards Knowledge Societies for Peace and Sustainable Development, which is being held in Paris from 25 to 27 February 2013. The conference is the first of a number of events, within and beyond the United Nations calendar, which mark the tenth anniversary of the World Summit on the Information Society.
That anniversary is a useful time to take stock, not just of the impact of information and communication technologies on world society since WSIS, but also to look forward – anticipating the opportunities and risks posed by the ongoing information revolution. This paper draws on work that members of the Global Connectivity Group have undertaken since 2010 for the International Institute for Sustainable Development and other clients. Its three main sections explore in turn:
- the impact of ICTs and the internet on economy and society, politics and culture during the past decade;
- the relationship between ICTs and conflict; and
- the risks posed and opportunities arising for sustainable development from constantly evolving information and communication technologies.
- 1. Towards Knowledge Societies
Information technologies have been responsible for the most remarkable and fast-moving changes in global development over the past thirty years. Wherever we look around us, we see the evidence. People whose parents, thirty years ago, had never used a telephone now walk the streets clutching and consulting mobile phones that have become indispensible multipurpose aids to life and livelihood. The shops, factories and offices in which many of them work are automated beyond recognition from their parents’ time, thanks to computers, wireless networks and business applications. The Internet and online social networks have transformed the availability of information and opportunities for social interaction for those that have ready access to them.
The outcome of this information revolution – today or in the future – has been described for more than twenty years now as an Information Society: a society in which information and access to information have become (or will become) the principal drivers of economic prosperity, social welfare and individual opportunity. UNESCO has always carefully distinguished between the concept of an Information Society and deeper Knowledge Societies, in which understanding derived from comprehensively available information is used by governments, businesses and citizens to enable dynamic and inclusive economic and social gains.
The Global Connectivity Group has explored the evolution of the information and knowledge revolutions in a series of reports for the International Institute for Sustainable Development and other international agencies. Three important messages emerge from that work for governments, international agencies and others as they seek to maximise the potential of the information revolution.
The first is the comprehensive nature of its impact on economy and society, politics and culture. As they become ubiquitous, replacing old ways of doing things with new, ICTs change the ways in which societies work. As general purpose technologies, enabling changes in almost every aspect of society, they do so more profoundly than technologies with more specific applications. Societies with pervasive ICTs are experiencing dramatic changes, for example:
- in the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services – from fertilisers to foods, from books to bank accounts;
- in the nature of work and leisure, the destruction and creation of different jobs, the enabling of new types of entertainment;
- in the nature and quality of social interactions – from contacts that depended on proximity to those that can be conducted virtually, even across the globe;
- in the relationships between governments, businesses and citizens – including increased participation and enhancements to expression, but also threats to privacy and from surveillance;
- even in the pattern of human settlements, as ICTs change the economic and social balance of advantage between urban and rural regions.
At the heart of all these changes lies an unprecedented change in the availability of information/content – from what could be made physically available in one particular location to what can be made digitally available in any. That information can be aggregated, analysed and built into knowledge in new and much more complex ways. It is the comprehensive nature of this information revolution that enables us to talk about emerging ‘knowledge societies’.
The second message that emerges from GCG’s research is the diversity of experience within the information society. The pace of change in ICTs that we have seen over the past thirty years, particularly where mobile phones and the Internet are concerned, is faster than that of any economic sector in our history. That has been the case in all societies. We should regard this as immensely positive. Although substantially driven by technological factors, it implies that we have got much right where governance, business development and regulation are concerned.
Rapid adoption of new technology in wealthier societies, however, is always likely to leave other societies behind; and the same is likely to be true of individuals within societies. As a number of UN agencies have noted in recent years, the ‘digital divide’ between rich and poor has been shifting from access per se to the quality of access and of what that access enables people and communities to do. The great imbalance in the density of telephony which the Maitland Commission described in the mid-1980s, which lasted until the explosion of mass market mobile telephony in the early years of this century and is still by no means entirely resolved, is now being succeeded by an imbalance in the quality of telecommunications. This new imbalance – in particular between countries in the lowest quartile for GDP p.c. and those above that threshold – can easily become a major handicap to economic and social transition, inhibiting the emergence of knowledge societies in countries where the need for it is arguably greatest.
As we celebrate the pace of technological change, therefore, we are also right to focus attention on the nature for greater international inclusiveness. With technology changing so rapidly, there will inevitably continue to be a substantial gap between countries which are best equipped to take advantage of innovations and those which are less well-equipped to do so. The issue – for policymakers, practitioners and for researchers and analysts such as the GCG – is one of minimising the gap itself, its impacts on the developmental prospects of lower-income countries and communities, and the time it takes for them to take advantage of the innovations from which others have already benefited. Inclusion in increasingly globalised markets is increasingly dependent on advanced communications, and it is ultimately to the advantage of all nations that all nations should be included.
The third message that GCG would emphasise from its analysis of evolving knowledge societies is that what matters most in them is human rather than technological development. We are talking about Information or Knowledge Societies, rather than about information technology.
Technology makes things possible, but it does not simply act upon societies irrespective of other factors that influence their development. It is human action, endeavour and achievement that turn the possibilities of new technology into outcomes that have social or economic value and political or cultural significance. Society influences technology as much as technology influences society.
If we want to measure progress towards knowledge societies, therefore, we have to do more than merely count the number of networks or devices or subscribers that we find in them. We also have to measure what people do with, or as a result of, new technology; we have to explore and understand the shifts in patterns of behaviour and social organisation that result from it. If we are to understand the development of knowledge societies, we also have to understand the interactions between ICTs/innovation and other large-scale changes in society, from the economic downturn which has affected many countries over the past five years to long-term changes in investment patterns; from the impact of natural disasters to that of population growth and climate change. If we are to understand how best to advance the gains that can be achieved through knowledge societies, we need to explore the new capabilities which are developing through the use of networks, services and applications, and their drivers for adoption. Members of the Global Connectivity Group have particular expertise in exploring these critical intersections between technology, society and governance.
- 2. ICTs, conflict, peace and post-conflict reconstruction
Dramatic changes in economy and society, such as those resulting from the information revolution, are never likely to be entirely benign. However positive and optimistic we are about the potential of ICTs, we should recognise that their capacity to improve efficiency, coordination and information access is of value to all who can make use of it – to criminals as well as entrepreneurs, to those who wish to harm society as well as to philanthropists.
The history of conflict is not just one of human interaction; it is also one of technology. From the clubs and arrowheads of prehistory, through the cannons and muskets of early modern times, to today’s weapons of mass destruction, the technology of warfare has evolved as a result of increased information and knowledge. Computers are critical to modern military hardware, from flying drone aircraft to targeting precision weaponry. Mobile telephony and the Internet are as essential to terrorists and rebel armies today as radio communications have been to conventional military forces during past decades.
As well as enabling conflict, ICTs and the Internet can be directly targeted in conflict. Radio and television stations have long been primary targets in military coups d’étât, offering control over the means of propaganda. As government and business have become increasingly dependent on ICT-enabled systems, they too have become loci of conflict – hacked for military or commercial espionage, to defraud or deceive, or to disrupt military equipment, public services or business activity. Even the Internet as a whole, within a country, can be targeted in conflict: (so far occasional) distributed denial of service attacks on national networks have shown that they are hard to prepare against and can do serious economic damage. The potential role of the Internet in conflict is an increasing priority in intergovernmental discussions over cybersecurity.
At the same time, ICTs and the Internet can contribute significantly to post-conflict reconstruction. Most wars today occur within rather than between nations. Many, particularly in low-income countries, recur within ten years of peace agreements.
Stabilisation and transition from recurrent violence to lasting peace are complex and difficult processes. There is, however, evidence that ICTs and the Internet can contribute positively to the restoration of normality. The first infrastructural investments after an armistice are usually in mobile communications, as international companies seek to capitalise on a communications vacuum. People who have lived through conflict – or who are returning to regions emerging from conflict – place high value on mobile telephony to enhance personal security in dangerous environments. Early warning systems deployed by international peacekeepers make increasing use of crowdsourcing over mobile networks to monitor risks of a return to violence. For all these reasons, early roll-out of telecommunications networks is now seen as an important contributory factor in stabilisation.
As stability transitions into reconstruction, there is scope for ICTs to play a more conventional developmental role in societies emerging from violent conflict. The return of economic opportunity is an important part of this transition, increasing the stake which people have in the peaceful development of their societies. Evidence of the role which ICTs can play in fostering economic opportunity is increasingly well-known, from enabling peasant farmers to reduce costs and maximise returns in their supply chains to the development of ICT and ICT-enabled sectors serving domestic and (sometimes) global markets. Judicious use of ICTs can also make significant contributions in addressing the educational and health deficits experienced in post-conflict countries. None of these gains is simple or straightforward to achieve, but the potential for ICTs to facilitate peacebuilding and thereby the development of lasting, peaceful knowledge societies is real.
Political normalisation is another area in which ICTs can make a positive contribution to peacebuilding. UNESCO has placed great emphasis in its work on the development of participation and engagement, free expression and free media.
Societies in conflict are characterised by fear and repression rather than participation and expression. Alongside the restoration of mainstream media, platforms such as mobile phones, the Internet and online social networks – the building blocks of knowledge societies – provide new opportunities for public participation and accountability as countries move from violence to reconstruction. There are significant risks as well as opportunities in the transition to a more participative environment during a period of stabilisation: communications platforms can be used to spread rumour and foster hostility as well as to keep people informed, enhance security or build confidence and reconciliation. As countries move from stabilisation to reconstruction and development, however, public participation and engagement facilitated by these platforms are likely to contribute towards more lasting peace and democracy.
- 3. Knowledge societies and sustainable development
Sustainable development came to prominence in international discourse around the same time as the Internet became a public resource, thanks to the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland Commission), published as Our Common Future in 1987, and to the first Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.
The concept of sustainable development that emerged from these sought to establish three interlinked objectives – economic prosperity, inclusive social welfare, and environmental protection or lasting viability. Development which did not integrate these three objectives would not be sustainable. Environmental viability, in this context, was defined largely in terms of two core principles: that development should be based on consumption of resources that lay ‘within the bounds of the ecological possible and to which all can reasonably aspire,’ and, as importantly, that development should ‘meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ Together, these can be said to define the meaning of sustainable development.
The Global Connectivity Group has analysed the impact of knowledge societies on the meaning and practice of sustainability in a series of reports for the International Institute for Sustainable Development. It is clear that ICTs and the knowledge societies which they enable can contribute greatly to economic prosperity and inclusive social welfare – creating jobs and new opportunities for entrepreneurship, enhancing education, supporting healthcare, building stronger social relationships and enabling citizens to play more active roles in their communities. The impact of ICTs and knowledge societies on environmental viability, however, is more controversial.
On the one hand, the ICT sector poses a number of major environmental challenges. It is today the most rapidly growing contributor to waste generation around the world, thanks to the growing range and short lifespan of digital devices such as computers and mobile phones. Current arrangements for the disposal of electronic waste, some of which is toxic, are unsatisfactory and insufficient. The ICT sector is also the fastest growing contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, currently contributing around 2.5% of global emissions, with these increasing at a rate of 6% p.a. This growth is attributable to the energy used as a result of the spread of ICT networks and devices, the growing number of devices used by individuals, businesses and organisations, and the increasing length of time each day during which devices are in use. These direct impacts on greenhouse gas emissions are, therefore, the result of beneficial use of ICTs to access information, enable social and business interactions and, ultimately, develop knowledge societies.
There are also, however, environmental gains that can result from increased use of ICTs. Big companies, particularly utilities, have begun to use information technology to manage energy production and distribution, transport and other large-scale systems, with greater energy efficiency. This has the potential to achieve significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, though these cannot be directly offset against the spread of networks and devices. The impact of ‘dematerialisation’ – the virtualisation of some goods such as books and music, and shifts in behavioural patterns towards home-working and home-shopping – is less clear. The energy costs of travel that are saved by videoconferencing and homeworking, for example, may well be lost through increased heating costs at home and increased leisure travel.
Much more evidence is needed before we will know sufficient about the long-term environmental outcomes of ICTs and Internet. Nevertheless there is a good deal that can be done now to mitigate some of the negative environmental impacts which are associated with developing knowledge societies. In its latest report on this, the GCG has emphasised two approaches which might be considered by ICT and sustainability businesses, policymakers and regulators.
Firstly, the GCG believes that they should act to mitigate the negative environmental impacts of information technology. One approach would be to include environmental factors (such as waste management and greenhouse gas emissions) in the development of standards for ICT equipment and services, in the configuration of communications networks, and in the design of data centres such as those enabling cloud computing. Desirable changes in user behaviour, extending the lifetime of devices and reducing the advantage of leaving devices on constant standby, could also have a significant impact on waste and carbon outcomes. Both businesses and regulators could play a part in bringing these about.
Secondly, businesses and policymakers should seek to maximise environmentally positive impacts of ICTs and knowledge societies, such as carbon-saving ‘smart systems’ for energy production and supply. A first step would be to raise awareness among policymakers, business and utility managers of the potential scope for environmental savings to be achieved this way. It would be more valuable still for policy-makers to gain a more sophisticated grasp of the ways in which ICT technology and markets are influencing large-scale characteristics of societies, such as patterns of production and consumption, employment and human settlement. UNESCO and other international agencies concerned with the human development of knowledge societies can play an important part in this.
Last year saw the third Earth Summit take place in Rio de Janeiro, twenty years after the first such event helped to define sustainable development in 1992. There is little doubt that, in the twenty years between those summits, the information revolution has had a more dramatic impact on economy and society throughout the world – including critical factors affecting the sustainability of planetary resources and human activity – than any other single factor. Disappointingly, Rio+20 had very little to say about the impact of ICTs and knowledge societies on sustainability. IISD and the Global Connectivity Group believe that the WSIS review which begins with UNESCO’s conference Towards Knowledge Societies for Peace and Sustainable Development provides an important opportunity to remedy that omission.
- 4. A new approach to knowledge societies for peace and sustainable development
It is now almost twenty years since international conferences began seriously to discuss the Information Society and Knowledge Societies, and ten years since the first session of the World Summit on the Information Society. The nature of information technology and markets has changed enormously over that period. The years since WSIS alone have seen the very rapid development of mass market mobile telephony, now approaching ubiquity, of smartphones, mobile apps and mobile Internet; very rapid growth in Internet more generally; the introduction and widespread use of online social networks; the development of cloud computing and deployment of broadband infrastructure; the widespread adoption of data mining by government agencies, Internet and Online Service Providers. These technological and market innovations have had marked effects on economic and social behaviour, on political power in some countries and cultural diversity in others. The focus of international discussion, policymaking and investment concerned with information and communications has also varied considerably during the past twenty years, becoming much more sophisticated over time as experience and understanding have grown.
The impact of information and communication technologies on development, including sustainable development, has therefore been profound, and will continue to be so. The pace of change in the ten years since WSIS is sufficient for us to anticipate how rapid and unpredictable change is likely to be over the next ten years. In its work for IISD and other clients, members of the GCG have emphasised the importance of governments and international agencies building approaches to policy and practice which are adaptive, capable of responding rapidly to changes in technology and markets as they happen rather than locking them into approaches that rapidly become outdated.
Although the experience of Information Society development that we have seen over the past two decades has been strongly positive, we should recognise that no technology has ever been entirely benign. New information and communication technology enables and empowers people in many ways, but it also threatens privacy and enables the surveillance state. Automation speeds up processes and lowers costs, but it also makes financial systems more vulnerable to meltdown and destroys some kinds of jobs. The Internet enhances public services and encourages political engagement, but also facilitates new forms of crime. ICTs can help to mitigate climate change, but are also the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions. We need to understand and address these downsides of the Information Society as well as leveraging the opportunities it brings.
Perhaps the biggest challenges facing those who work on the development of knowledge societies are the needs continually to re-evaluate the opportunities and risks before them, to re-assess how they can maximise the former and minimise the latter, and to establish principles and enable policies and programmes that can accelerate knowledge societies which are inclusive and contribute to peace and sustainable development. There will be a continuing need for research, policy analysis, evaluation and impact assessment where knowledge societies are concerned. The Global Connectivity Group for Sustainable Development is committed to working with international agencies, governments, business and civil society to take forward this critical development agenda.
David Souter, Don MacLean, Heather Creech – 25 February 2013