In 2016, I undertook a study of how knowledge and knowledge societies are considered in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with colleagues at the Athena Institute of the VU University Amsterdam. We have written it up and submitted the finished article to an academic journal in July 2016 but still have no news from peer review. However, I think it is such an important issue that I have decided to blog about our findings because I think it is a key piece of evidence for why the new Agenda Knowledge for Development, designed to complement the SDGs from the perspective of knowledge, is so very necessary. This was also the subject of my presentation at the Knowledge Cities World Summit in Vienna on 13 October 2016 which can be seen here:
The position of knowledge in the SDGs is an important issue for at least three reasons. First, the SDGs set the framework for international cooperation and development up to 2030, and will probably have an impact on shaping all aspects of human life including the development of knowledge societies. Second, in the words of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), ‘reflection upon knowledge societies and how to build them makes it possible to rethink development itself’ (2005: 19). Third, there is the possibility that the current way knowledge is included in the SDGs, and within the paradigm of sustainable development more generally, might place too much emphasis on Western approaches, concepts and researchers. For instance, Malunga and Holcombe consider that by ‘trying to create, or perhaps better said, “clone” development in developing countries in the image of Western “development”, development efforts defeat their own purpose through undermining their own relevance, legitimacy, and sustainability’ (2014, 615).
The way in which knowledge is perceived in the SDGs has not yet received concerted attention. To date, criticisms relating to knowledge have been rather fragmented. They focus on the model of knowledge transfer (Ramalingam, 2015), the lack of reference to local knowledge (ICSU/ISSC, 2015) and the failure to recognise that development needs to be based on developing countries’ experiences and realities (Leach, 2013). Ben Ramalingam, for example, argues that ‘the overriding mentality [in the SDGs] is still that developing countries are vessels to be filled with knowledge and ideas’ (2015, no pagination). At the same time, there appears to be increasing recognition that knowledge needs to receive more attention within the SDG process. In November 2015, for example, 60 global health policy think tanks from around the world met in Geneva to explore the role that think tanks and academic institutions could have in implementing the SDGs related, in particular, to health.
When we started the study we found to our surprise an unexpected problem: this was a difficult area to study because the word ‘knowledge’ hardly appears in the whole of the 40 page document Transforming our world: the 2030 agenda for sustainable development’ (UN, 2015) the final text of the SDGs ratified by the UN in September 2015. In fact, there are only 11 references to knowledge, despite the fact that the preamble emphasises the vision of knowledge societies:
The spread of information and communications technology and global interconnectedness has great potential to accelerate human progress, to bridge the digital divide and to develop knowledge societies, as does scientific and technological innovation across areas as diverse as medicine and energy. (UN, 2015: 9)
Given the paucity of references to knowledge, we had to think about how we could better understand the small number of clues about knowledge within the SDGs. We abandoned our first idea to do a simple textual analysis and instead decided to use Fairclough’s transdisciplinary Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA), employing a genealogical approach which locates discourses on knowledge and knowledge societies within the field of previously-existing discourses. According to Fairclough (2012) who has written about the knowledge society as well as designing CDA, knowledge society (although he refers specifically to knowledge-based economy and the information society) is both a strategy and a discourse. We therefore used an adapted version of the methodology to answer the following research question:
Which discourses of knowledge and knowledge society are evident in the SDGs at the level of vision, strategy, implementation and goals, and to what extent would approaches to knowledge, enshrined within these discourses, be in a position to address the complex problems facing the global community?
From the literature, we identified two past discourses on the knowledge society, namely the techno-scientific-economic discourse which has generally been promoted by national governments and an alternative discourse, namely the pluralist-participatory discourse of the knowledge society, which has been championed by UNESCO and a number of academics. After having described these discourses in more detail, we then looked at whether these discourses were evident in the SDGs – closely examining the text – to reach the following conclusions:
- As mentioned above, the SDGs make very few references to knowledge. Despite the widespread recognition that knowledge is very important to development, there are only 11 references to knowledge within the 40-page document.
- Although knowledge and knowledge societies appear therefore to be very marginal to the SDGs, there is evidence of the techno-scientific-economic discourse at the level of implementation and goals, while there is some evidence of the pluralist-participatory discourse at the level of vision and strategy. In this way, there appears to be a mismatch between vision and strategy, and implementation and goals. The vision and strategy are, on the whole, transformational while the implementation and goals and targets appear to represent business as usual.
- Consistent with the technical-scientific-economic discourse and at the level of means of implementation and goals and targets, the SDGs do not appear to recognise the fact that development is an local process, comprising ‘synergy among millions of innovative initiatives people take every day in their local societies, generating new and more effective ways of producing, trading, and managing their resources and their institutions’ (Ferreira, 2009: 99). Probably as a consequence of this, the SDGs almost ignore local knowledge with only one reference to ‘traditional knowledge’ but only as it is associated with genetic resources. Local knowledge and local realities, as the starting point of all development, appear to have disappeared from view.
- By refraining from translating the pluralist-participatory discourse, that can be recognised in the vision and strategy, into goals and targets, the SDGs miss out on the transformational potential of knowledge.
- Following Hornidge who has argued that ‘the vision of a self-emerging knowledge society therefore acted as basis for legitimising government programmes and activities (2011: 4), it is possible that the inspirational vision of the knowledge society and of the SDG agenda as a whole is being used to gain support for a strategy which will not be able to address the complex problems facing the global community but which will rather preserve the status quo.
Given the paucity of references to knowledge in the SDGs and the ‘business as usual’ approach to knowledge within the goals and targets, the Agenda Knowledge for Development is an important complement to the SDGs if the transformational role of knowledge is to harnessed by the SDG process. The new Agenda Knowledge for Development has been specifically designed to complement the SDGs by providing an integrated approach to knowledge-related challenges that directly influence the achievement of the SDGs, presenting a vision of inclusive, pluralistic knowledge societies and emphasising both the societal and economic value of knowledge.
Fairclough, N. (2012) ‘Critical Discourse Analysis’, in J.P. Gee and M. Handford (eds), The Routledge Handbook of Discourse Analysis. Abingdon; New York: Routledge.
Ferreira, S.M. (2009) ‘The new enlightenment: a potential objective for the KM4Dev community’, Knowledge Management for Development Journal 5(2): 94-107.
Hornidge, A.K. (2011) ‘”Knowledge Society” as academic concept and stage of development: a conceptual and historical review’, in T. Menkhoff, H.D. Evers, C.Y, Wah and E.F. Pang (eds), Beyond the Knowledge Trap: Developing Asia’s Knowledge-Based Economies. New Jersey; London; Singapore; Beijing: World Scientific.
ICSU/ISSC (2015) Review of targets for the Sustainable Development Goals: The Science Perspective. Paris: ICSU.
Malunga, C., and Holcombe, S.H. (2014) ‘Endogenous development: naïve romanticism or practice route to sustainable African development?’, Development in Practice 24(5/6): 615-622.
UNESCO (2005) Towards knowledge societies. Paris: UNESCO.
UN (2015) Transforming our world: the 2030 agenda for sustainable development. New York, NY: UN.