'Knowledge societies’, not just knowledge economies, needed

In an interlinked world, it is as important to create a ‘knowledge society’ – where the benefits of knowledge are shared for the good of society – as it is to create a knowledge economy, Rajesh Tandon, an international expert on participatory research and development, told a regional conference in Malaysia on university-community-industry engagement.

“The future of humanity requires knowledge to be created and mobilised at an unprecedented scale, and higher education institutions are expected to create and contribute to this knowledge,” said Tandon, chair of the Global Alliance for Community Engaged Research.

Ignoring communities and only focusing on the high-tech ‘knowledge economy’ may not be sustainable in an era of global economic crisis and growing social inequality, added Tandon, who will soon also become joint holder of a new UNESCO chair on community-based research and social responsibility in higher education.

He said that in an interconnected world, universities not only needed to reach out to communities to resolve intractable problems – often with knowledge that already exists but that has been pushed aside or marginalised by a high-technology approach – but also to learn from communities.

‘Holistic’ universities that can reach out to communities can help to tackle such problems. “We have to take into account that knowledge is being produced outside these institutions as well,” Tandon said.

“To a large extent the price we pay [for] ecological imbalance, the problems of social and economic inequality, the problems of disconnect in the way our institutions function, are rooted in a narrow understanding and practice of knowledge.

“Therefore, the challenge of universities and higher education institutions engaging in the community…is not merely outreach to the community, it is not merely extending the wisdom that resides in universities to those in the community who never made it to university, but it is also a challenge of learning from those communities,” said Tandon.

He has dubbed this two-way exchange ‘knowledge democracy’.

Tandon was speaking at a regional universities conference in Malaysia titled “Forging Meaningful Partnerships”, aimed at looking at ways to develop mutually beneficial links with communities and industry.

AsiaEngage, a new regional platform umbrella organisation to promote social and community engagement by universities in the ASEAN area, was launched at the conference on 7 May.

Tandon said universities needed to rethink their role in the context of many countries – especially developed and emerging nations – pushing to strengthen their knowledge economies based on higher education, research and innovation, and with the change of knowledge as something of intrinsic value to its use as a ‘private good’ for personal gain and profits.

Many universities were not designed for the knowledge economy and not all could produce world-class knowledge and research. Instead the solutions may be around them – if only they would engage with their communities in an equal and respectful way.

“The knowledge economy may drive the global economy but ‘knowledge society’ is needed for sustainable cohabitation. Universities and other institutions must therefore find ways of working together with communities, industry, civil society, media and others.”

Tandon noted that the global economy is fragile. “We are living in a world where not only economies and technologies are interconnected but, in a somewhat unpredictable way, our futures are also interconnected.

“A small event in one part of the world triggers a chain reaction somewhere else.”

Demonstrating this interconnectedness, he pointed out that the Libyan crisis some months ago resulted in an oil price increase and consequently food riots in Indonesia.

The tsunami in Japan last year “triggered its own tsunami” around the world, as citizens became uncertain about the future of nuclear technology. Fisherfolk in southern India – whose protests against the building of a nuclear plant had previously been ignored – suddenly gained enormous public support.

Recessionary tendencies in Europe and North America are reducing economic growth in economies like China and several thousand Chinese who had migrated to cities are returning to rural areas with adjustment challenges.

Therefore, said Tandon, rather than pouring funds only into high technology it may make sense to rediscover and reorganise knowledge that already exists.