From the information revolution to a knowledge-based world

Secretary-General of the OECD

To mark the occasion of the 50th anniversary edition of the OECD Observer, we take a brief look at how the information world and the global economy have transformed since the OECD’s first secretary-general, Thorkil Kristensen, launched the magazine in November 1962.  

In the last two decades we have lived through a veritable information revolution that has changed the world forever. Have these changes improved our lives or made our work easier? The answer is: yes, but!  

Take the Internet. Breakthroughs in information and communication technologies (ICT) have enhanced access to markets, spurred innovation and created new business opportunities. Technologies contributed to progress in energy, education, food and health, improving the well-being of a larger number of people worldwide. They have also helped emerging economies to become global powerhouses and locomotives of the world economy.  

The information revolution has changed the way our economies function and laid the foundations of a knowledge-based world. It is on this new landscape that policymakers should focus more of their attention.  

In today’s knowledge-based economy, wealth comes more and more from ideas and innovations embedded in products and services. The assets and competitive advantages of firms or countries are rooted in research and development (R&D), software and brands, organisation and production structures, and many other “intangible” assets.  

Moreover, in this knowledge-based economy production is spread around the world, involving countries of different income levels, research and development networks, design and marketing, assembly lines, and customer support. Without ICT, it would be difficult to integrate all these stages of production to create global value chains.  

Gaining a foothold in global value chains has understandably become a preoccupation of policymakers, given the need to look for new, dynamic sources of growth after the crisis and to build more robust economies. Moreover, competition for investment high up the value chain highlights the importance of education, skills and R&D. And these developments challenge the way we look at trade, invest in education and skills of our citizens, and prevent an erosion of tax revenue, given the ever more complex manner in which tax bases, including profits, can be shifted among countries.  

These are the kinds of fundamental policy issues the OECD is addressing. And as a knowledge hub in which information is currency, our organisation is fit for purpose. The information and technology revolution has brought improvements to every dimension of our work, transforming how data is gathered, managed, analysed, published, and disseminated, not to mention protected. ICT has provided us with the tools for a more constant dialogue and for bringing our member and partner countries closer together. And thanks to ICT, the OECD not only diffuses more knowledge further and wider than ever before, but it also infuses it with fresh and constantly evolving knowledge from people outside the organisation, using interactive tools, wikis and public forums, for instance.  

The information world evolves quickly. The first SMS text message was sent in December 1992. Just 20 years ago! Now mobile communications have permeated every continent. Social media is far younger, yet it is already ushering in a new age of big data. In fact, as this edition points out, more data was produced in 2011 than in the whole of human history.  

The OECD is investing in the knowledge management tools it needs to stay ahead of these trends. But as human beings, we must also stand back from the plethora, ask questions, discuss and make informed judgements.  

The first edition of the OECD Observer opened with an article called “What makes an economy grow?” In light of the worst crisis in our lifetimes, we are still seeking a satisfactory answer to that question. We have never had so much information, yet we failed to anticipate, let alone, prevent the financial crisis from happening.  

On the contrary, critics argue that the information revolution has been a cause of our instability. Its speed leads to volatility–from high frequency trading in financial markets, for instance–while it conceals channels for corruption and illicit financing. Serious concerns about privacy add to a widespread sense of mistrust.  

The OECD takes these challenges seriously and is determined to combat abuse and promote the knowledge and confidence that we believe the information revolution promises.  

Building better policies for a world based on inclusive, sustainable growth is paramount, and through our major New Approaches to Economic Challenges initiative launched in 2012, we have begun to probe and question our growth models, and explore new paradigms that incorporate equity and the environment.  

It is a vast “knowledge” endeavour, which depends on cooperation. By harnessing knowledge and ideas skilfully and openly, we can build a brighter future. The information revolution provides us with an opportunity to get it right.  


©OECD Observer No 293, Q4 2012

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