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Dave Snowden

Knowledge economy?

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I promised to summarise my contribution to the Kuwait event on the Knowledge Economy. The subject has been around for a long time but it has increased in importance for countries such as Kuwait where the drop in oil price and long term issues with carbon fuels means that there is a need to diversify. As several speakers pointed out oil is not a curse, it should be an advantage. One of the reasons that came up was the frequent references to Singapore who (one person said) had been enabled by the absence of oil or other natural resource. The argument was that this absence meant a different focus and energy. I’m less sure about that one. Singapore had a natural harbour and were able to make themselves a centre for trade that expanded beyond the physical location, to a sense of being a safe place to locate for region. They still started with an asset that could be exploited and grown, then exapted, repurposing to give it another name.

So let me summarise what I said as a series of bullet points:

  1. Most people at the event were talking about an information economy not a knowledge economy; not only that they were talking about a digital information base which is a further restriction.   
  2. Making information freely available is a hygiene factor these days for a state or a city.  It enables rapid growth of services using the information and generally is a good thing.
  3. No country (or company) has succeeded by copying a prior success story.  They learn from those, but then create something unique to their context.  There are no recipes here and words like best practice should be banned from strategy.   The opportunity during a period of change is to be the small thing that stabilises a new situation and thus thrives in unexpected ways.   I have previously written about that under dominant predator theory.
  4. Scaling in a complex system is achieved through decomposition and recombination not by imitation or aggregation.  I’ve written a whole series of posts on scaling of which this is the last.  A lot more to be done there, but this is one of the key issues in creating a knowledge economy.
  5. Neo-liberalism (chaos) and state planning (order) both fail, we need a new way of thinking for a complex era with increasing strain on natural resources.  That means an interweaving of SMEs within a government and governance framework.  Large companies are as bureaucratic as government with less accountability so simplistic outsourcing is almost always a bad idea.  However using smaller networks or entrepreneurial companies within a wider support framework represents a better way of dealing with things.  It also better handles the unintended consequences of any intervention in a complex system.
  6. We need to think about nudging culture not engineering it, or yanking people towards an idealistic goal.  Manage the evolutionary potential of present, stop setting five year plans (Stalin popularised those didn’t he?) with KPIs which focus people on the KPI regardless of the consequence.  It also means you miss opportunities that will present themselves in the near future (not in the plan) but which could not have been anticipated at the time.  I am currently working on an exciting new offer within Bangor University on Nudge Economics that will work with the current dispositions of the system.  The underlying idea is outlined here, but expect more in the near future. 
  7. There is a need for an elite group, one thing to learn from Singapore here.  Their education is meritocratic on entry, elitist in terms of funding down stream.  The new elites will be generalists able to synthesis the humanise, science and technology NOT technocrats.  Here Kuwait has a tremendous opportunity to build on an arabic tradition of knowledge and not follow the technocratic, information focused approach that dominates the west.  Lots of ideas on how to do that in the short and medium term and I will post more on that in the future.
  8. Populations are sensor network not recipients of largesse or direction.  The work we are doing with SenseMaker® allows a country to engage in real time with its citizens without the mediation of polling and market research.  That allows engagement, better and dynamic reallocation of resources and also democratises evidence based policy.  Big subject so I headline it here only.
  9. Intrinsic motivation is key to innovation and KPIs (on all the available scientific evidence) destroy it.
  10. Innovation needs to be repurposing of existing capability for novel purpose as much as developing against known or anticipated needs.   I outlined a few projects we have done on this and the idea of an Exaptive Incubator.  A lot of discussions about that with people after I finished and it will be part of CfAC once the web site is up.

So ten points, all of which need expansion and I could add more. What is exciting is that small states with cash can lede here, but not if they follow …..

Oh and the Chaplain picture? Don’t make knowledge into information with engineering is the lesson.

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