Tomorrow’s Power of Knowledge

March 14, 2012 | LND | Learning Elsewhere |


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Manuel EtterKnowledge is Power In today’s blog post Manuel Etter follows the historical traces of this saying emphasizing an action-oriented quality of knowledge rather than its power maintaining virtue. In a second step he links this historical meaning of knowledge with the future of development cooperation. He questions the conditions and determinants that permit to find adequate answers to the issues of the future. He asks how development cooperation and above all knowledge management and exchange should be organized in order to meet increasingly global challenges.

By Manuel Etter

Recently, I came across an inspiring blog post by management expert Frank Arnold in which he invites the reader to reflect on the dictum “knowledge is power”. In fact, we commonly use or hear the saying with the underlying connotation: knowledge that I have, but others do not, gives me personal power over them or at least a decisive advantage in a competitive environment. However, Arnold states that the original meaning is probably quite different. When the saying got popular in the 16th / 17th century, its core message was meant to be: knowledge that we have, gives us the power to act in an adequate way to meet challenges and to progress. The (supposed) author of the saying, politician and philosopher Francis Bacon (1561 -1626) lived in troubled times; old day believes were questioned and out ruled by new modern science, mankind strived to increasingly dominate nature, while wars were at the order of the day. Huge challenges all around.

But let me take you back to our times. Many of you should be familiar with SDC headquarters’ Brown Bag Lunches (joint sandwich lunches once a month offering an opportunity to discuss “out of the box” a topic prepared by a staff member).  This month the colleagues of the Global Cooperation discussed a visionary article prepared by a member of SDC’s Analysis and Politics division, titled “International Cooperation of Switzerland 2025”. Starting from today’s trends the paper suggests that the world will further experience global integration by 2025 and struggle desperately for global sustainability, and the local paths towards it. We basically all agreed that finding adequate answers to the big global challenges, such as climate change, poverty, water issues etc. will be an increasingly complex task. We also discussed, if the Swiss development agenda would in 2025 be more dominated by altruism or by self-interest, and we concluded that these two aspects will be hard to separate from one another in 2025 (as global challenges are obviously not geographically limited phenomena). We all will be aware more than today, that the world is facing huge challenges all around.

What will it take for us as development actors to contribute to adequate answers to the key challenges of tomorrow?  We will have to be good at what we do – no doubt about this – thematically, methodologically, strategically. But this will not be sufficient. We will increasingly have to draw on all relevant available knowledge, from within the organisation we work for, but even more from outside (from other federal departments, from NGO partners, multilateral organizations, and private actors). With establishing thematic networks  and Global Programmes, SDC has made important steps towards the end of being networked and in finding answers to global challenges. Moreover, the message on Switzerland’s International Cooperation 2013 – 2016 outlines consistently how Swiss Cooperation is expected to tackle global development challenges in the coming four years.

But in order to be ready for 2025 there needs to be done more. Successful knowledge management in the future will mean – even more that today – being connected, cooperate systematically with multiple relevant partners, and join forces to achieve common goals. Knowledge in Francis Bacon’s interpretation of the power to act in an adequate way to meet challenges and to progress will depend much on being networked and being able to establish successful cooperation systems.

Are we as an institution on track in regard to being networked and to cooperate? What can each one of us do within our fields of responsibility to increase our joint knowledge as the power to act and find adequate answers to the future challenges?


Comments to“Tomorrow’s Power of Knowledge”

  1. Ernst Bolliger says:

    Dear Manuel, dear readers
    In the context of SDC’s 50th anniversary the ETH Zurich invited recently 24 students for a vision workshop with the core question how international coopeartion would look like in 20 years. Networking and access to knowledge to cope with the global challenges were two key words to be found in the students’ visions. Knowledge as power for change.
    Looking around for helpful concepts to tackle the challenge of using knowledge and acting in a responsible way I remember the butterfly model of capacity development including the four aspects of (1) personal competence, (2) organisational development, (3) networking, and (4) influencing policy decisions. When I am confronted with putting priorities in how to use knowledge and how to act, this model is always of great help to me. I guess it might get increasingly important in future discussions and decisions.

  2. Manuel Flury says:

    Dear Manuel,
    thank you very much for pointing at the two different and conflicting meanings behind the shortened phrase of “knowledge is power”. I for myself would understand it in the way of “knowledge is power to act …” and it is in this direction I comprehend the role of the networks, to keep “SDC knowledgeable” for meeting the challenges that are ahead of us.
    We need to critically ask the question whether the networks already are in a position and are capacitated to meet this expectation. And second: Has SDC – as an organisation – understood to integrate in its basic logics, rules and procedures the particularities of “working in a net”. Many SDC networks are on a promising way to be “caretakers” of the knowledge for SDC to act. The organisation, however, needs still fundamental changes in order to make best use of the networks as caretakers in its way to operate and its “incentive system”. In this sense: Knowledge provides power.
    Best regards, Manuel

  3. Dear Manuel,
    thank you for sharing your thoughts about knowledge, and what it means to really turn it into power. In context of our SDC-supported Municipal Governance and Sustainable Development Programme we have been trying to introduce different knowledge management tools, real time reporting, citizens engagement models etc. From our experience I must say that it not only helps us to be connected, cooperate systematically with our partners, and join forces to achieve common goals, but also makes us much stronger as those people whom we target are able to give us advice on how to improve our work, what kind of tools we can use and how they think our support to them can become even more efficient.


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