The Learning Society in the Information Age

Daniel P. Keating

Keating, D. P. (1995). The learning society in the information age. In S. A. Rosell (Ed.), Changing maps: Governing in a world of rapid change (pp. 205-229). Ottawa: Carleton University Press.

This book is available from Carleton University Press, CTTC Suite 1400, Carleton University, 1125 Colonel By Drive, Ottawa, Ontario K1S 5B6. Phone: 1-800-320-4606. ISBN 0-88629-264-6. $21.95.

Note: In this paper, I draw upon an earlier Working Paper of the CIAR Human Development Program entitled "The Learning Society." Robbie Case and I co-ordinated the writing of that document on behalf of a CIAR Task Force. My Introduction to that document is especially relevant for this paper.

The Information Age: Challenges for Contemporary Societies

The rapid social and economic changes we are encountering, as we approach the 21st Century, present complex and unprecedented challenges to contemporary societies. There is a high probability that these changes herald fundamental structural rearrangements. Societies now must cope simultaneously with global economic competition, the demand for new competencies in the population, the provision of opportunities for health and well-being across the population, and the maintenance of the social fabric for nurturing, socializing, and educating the next generation.

As the pace of social change accelerates, it becomes increasingly important that we attend to the basic requirements for healthy human development. There lay the foundations for future economic prosperity and population health. Yet, the pace, magnitude, and complexity of these changes are felt by many as overwhelming and uncontrollable, and that very perception of lack of control may diminish further our ability to respond, and to adapt, to the changes. This underling dynamic, of accelerating change and decreasing control makes it difficult to engage in thoughtful planning, and increases the costs of social divisiveness (Kaplan, 1994).

One way out of this vicious cycle might begin with a deeper understanding of the fundamental processes of human development. Such an understanding starts with a recognition of the fundamentally social nature of the human species, and of the powerful impact that social environments have on human development.

A Framework for Understanding Human Development

Homo sapiens is a social species. Throughout our lives, we play, work, interact, learn, and reproduce in social groups. We develop in social relationships from the earliest period of life, and we remain dependent longer on caretaking for our survival than any other primate. At our core, then, we need social groups to survive. The nature of our early experiences - most of which occur through social interactions - plays a critical role, throughout life, in how we cope, how we learn, and how competent we become. The nature of the social environment in which we develop is thus a key determinant of our quality of life. These influences are powerful throughout the lifespan, but particularly so in early life. Diverse life outcomes (positive and negative) are closely associated with identifiable differences in social experiences.

In turn, the quality of the human social environment is a function of the competence that is available within the society. The nurture, education, and socialization of new members of the group depend on the skills possessed by more mature members, and on social arrangements that facilitate high-quality interactions between generations.

Almost all of this is equally true for our primate cousins. This is perhaps not surprising in light of the genetic similarity between humans and non-human primates - a 95% or higher overlap of the genetic code in most comparisons. Among Rhesus macaques (like us, a social species), for example, the quality of early attachment relationships, the opportunity for broad social interaction within the troop, and the stability of the troop during critical developmental periods, all play a role in eventual competence and coping skills (Suomi, 1991).

But we face additional challenges, unknown to other species, and to our own quite recent ancestors. Although we share much in common with our primate cousins, humans are unique in having developed a capacity for conscious self-reflection, cultural transmission of skills and knowledge through language and other symbolic means, cumulative technological development, and, most recently, civilization. In evolutionary terms, these are quite recent changes in our lives (Keating & Mustard, 1993).

Because large numbers are sometimes hard to grasp in the abstract, we can get a better sense of how recent are all of these changes in human development, by using an analogy to a calendar year. If we were to take 100,000 years as an estimate of the time elapsed since the emergence of fully modern humans, and place it on the scale of a single year, we would note that our species first moved into small urban centres, supported by agriculture, about the end of November and started an industrial revolution on the afternoon of New Year's Eve. Just a few minutes ago, we launched experiments in instantaneous global communication, information technology, and multicultural metropolism.*

The origins and mechanisms of this evolutionary process remain controversial, but several important features have gained fairly broad consensus. First, we might note that not all of our complex social arrangements and behaviors are a function of cultural experiences alone; other primates are also social strategists of the first order (Tomasello, Kruger, & Ratner, 1993). Much of our intuitive understanding of how to function in groups has a lengthy evolutionary history. To this already rich social mix, however, we added new language capabilities (Donald, 1991) that yielded apparently infinite potential for complex communication (Chomsky, 1965). Language enables much more complex social communication, and perhaps arises initially out of a need to maintain cohesion in larger groups (Donald, 1991; Dunbar, 1992).

That larger group size may have contributed economic benefits, by enabling better organization and specialization of work (Schick & Toth, 1993), and permitting more effective exploitation of harsh habitats and a primitive form of shared risk. The teaching and learning of special skills were also enhanced by language, and technological development ensued (first with stones, and then with transformed materials such as iron and bronze). Here we might recognize early versions of continuous improvement and diffusion of best practice, two contemporary hallmarks of successful learning organizations. This unification of instrumental and symbolic functions apparently is unique to Homo sapiens, and has been proposed as the starting point of fully human intelligence (Vygotsky, 1978).

We are different from other primates in another critical way. We drew on our increasing symbolic and instrumental sophistication (that is, on language and tool use) to establish connections between troops and tribes. We can date the origins of this pattern rather precisely to about 40,000 years ago (Stringer & Gamble, 1993). The evidence for this lies in the remarkable explosion of symbolic forms (particularly art) and in the rapid spread of more complex stone technologies, which previously had been unchanged for a million years or more (Schick & Toth, 1993).

The accelerating pace of technological and social change, thus, is based on our unique penchant for collaborative learning across formerly rigid group boundaries. Our ability to encode and enhance this learning through progressively more efficient cultural means - oral histories, writing, and now information technologies - contributes directly to this acceleration. Note, too, that changes in the means of communication have non-trivial consequences for cognitive activity: how we think, what we know, and how we learn.

A well understood example is the connection between the practice of literacy and the development of logic, argument, reflection, and metacognitive understanding (Olson, 1994; Scribner & Cole, 1981). As literacy spreads, so do literate habits of mind. This combination of a new technology with a new set of capabilities in the population, creates a potent new medium for discourse among previously isolated groups and individuals.

In concert with changes in social communication (such as language and literacy), we have continued to discover new means for extracting material subsistence from the earth. The agricultural revolution first made possible the congregation and settled existence of large groups of humans in specific places over a long period of time (that is, cities). Such concentrations appear to enhance the exchange of ideas and techniques, and to lead to more rapid growth in technical innovation and, thus, productivity (Harvey, 1989; Jacobs, 1993).

We know relatively little about forms of governance in prehistoric hominid or human troops (and may never know much), but we do know that large-scale human settlements were accompanied by increasingly formal arrangements for the distribution of work and its resulting wealth, and for the maintenance of social structures. The production demands of agricultural societies were such that a relatively large proportion of the population was needed to contribute physical energy directly into the system. As a result, various forms of strict social domination formed the most frequent pattern, including slave and feudal systems.

The next major revolution in social forms occurred very recently. The industrial revolution removed human labor from the direct energy loop required for material production (Rosenberg & Birdzell, 1986), but created a demand for an ever more complex division of labor. Here, again, we see the ongoing, mutually causal interplay between technological and social innovation. This may be difficult to visualize initially, since we are more accustomed to linear models, in which an isolated cause yields a specific outcome (Keating, in press; Senge, 1990). But as we trace major transformations in our species' history, we can see that changes in technology generated demands and opportunities for changes in societal functioning, and changes in society generated demands and opportunities for technological innovation.

Unique among species, then, we have created what systems theorists call an iterative feedback loop between our ways of using material resources and the ways in which we organize our social lives. This new pattern of cultural and social change continually reshapes the ecological habitats in which we live and work, and in which subsequent generations develop (Keating & Mustard, 1993).

Another such transformational moment seems to be upon us, arising from already existing information technologies: instantaneous global communication, unlimited knowledge storage and retrieval, sophisticated techniques for data analysis and simulation, and artificially intelligent design with robotic manufacture (Keating & Mustard, 1993; Lipsey, 1993; Romer, 1990). The fundamental task for contemporary societies, then, is to adapt effectively to these new realities:

. . . the two dominant issues facing countries like Canada are (1) to build the new kind of economy that can create wealth from ideas, and (2) during a period of profound economic change with diminished resources, to sustain the healthy social environment that is best for human development. (Keating & Mustard, 1993, pp. 101-102)

Different cultures and societies have arrived at different solutions to the dilemmas of contemporary social organization (Rohlen, 1992). The comparative study of these varying adaptations suggests that some solutions work better than others for particular issues. But cultural forms are not interchangeable parts; what works in a particular setting may not easily transfer to a different cultural pattern. As well, demands shift over time, and some contemporary societal successes may owe as much to historical contingency as to cultural adaptability. To adapt well in the face of these challenges, we will need to become learning societies. To understand this better, we can look first at notions emerging from recent research on how individuals and groups learn.

New Notions of Learning

Many of the key issues are brought into focus if we use the new notions of learning arising from recent research in the human sciences, from neuroscience to cultural anthropology (Task Force on Human Development, 1992). In recent years we have begun to develop a clearer picture of the critical importance of the quality of the social environment for an individual's development of competence, coping, health, and well-being (Keating, 1993; Keating & Mustard, 1993). In other words, the ways in which we learn and adapt are shaped in a mutual interaction between the individual and the environment. This is true for visual and other sensory systems, which have critical periods in early life that set the stage for their lifelong functioning (Cynader, Shaw, Prusky, & Van Huizen, 1990). There may be similar critical or sensitive periods for other fundamental social, cognitive, and behavioral systems, such as patterns of attachment to parents (or other caregivers) in the first two years of life, or central conceptual structures in domains like mathematics in the preschool years (Case, 1992).

Another crucial part of this equation is our species' characteristic of neoteny, a delay in the attainment of maturity that provides an extended period of plasticity for learning. This enables us to adapt to an extremely wide range of habitats. For example, we quickly come to regard as commonplace what earlier generations would have seen as supernatural: making sense from arbitrary visual symbols, flying through the air, having a pleasant chat with someone half a globe away, or viewing that globe from afar as it spins through space. These changes, in turn, create new patterns and possibilities for action, communication, and thought.

The social and technological transformations we are going through alter the contexts of individual development. But we should not assume that unguided changes automatically will have positive consequences for population health, competence, and coping. If we fail to provide adequate support for human development, especially in early life, then we may expect to encounter a long-term reduced capability for learning and adaptation in the population overall (Ross, 1993).

Despite the dramatic changes in our habitat, most of our basic biological needs remain relatively constant. The development of healthy humans still depends on their attainment of competence and their ability to cope with, and to learn from, change, stress, and novelty. Many kinds of social environments can support healthy development, but all the successful ones share key features that we are learning to identify. We are also learning, sadly, about the kinds of social environments that create enormous risks for healthy development (Keating, 1993; Offord et al., 1992; Ross, 1993; Tremblay et al., 1992).

Following traditional Western folklore that viewed knowledge and expertise as an exclusively individual possession, most of our research on learning has focused on the individual. More recently, researchers have recently begun to focus on the social aspects of learning (Resnick, Levine, & Teasley, 1991), particularly collaborative learning. Although there are many variants of this notion, only a few of which have been studied carefully, one common core is the recognition that knowledge and its acquisition are inherently social.

Instead of empty vessels awaiting the infusion of knowledge, learners (even the youngest ones) now are seen as actively constructing their internal world from their interactions with the external world, and especially with other people (Gardner, 1991). Working within groups on meaningful tasks seems to engender the kinds of interactions most likely to advance individual learning (Resnick et al., 1991).

Efforts to apply the new information technologies more effectively also have contributed to an increasing recognition of the social nature of knowledge. Recent research on the dynamics of the workplace (especially for knowledge work), for example, suggest that it typically functions as a learning community or "community of practice," and that connected networks of expertise within the workplace generally are more productive than experts working alone or in small enclaves (Brown & Duguid, 1991; Lave & Wenger, 1991). In addition, there is considerable evidence that the use of networks in school situations (for example, cooperative learning, discourse-centered instruction, or computer supported intentional learning - Scardamalia et al., 1989) raise both group and individual performance levels.

Discovering ways to enhance both individual and organizational learning will become keys to societal adaptation. Diversity is a key factor at both levels. With respect to individual learning, for example, when individuals experience a broader, and more diverse range of tasks and challenges, their cognitive complexity and ability to solve problems increases and grows more flexible (Kohn & Schooler, 1983). Similarly, with respect to organizational learning, if workplace constraints are quite narrow (as in the traditional manufacturing assembly line), then workplace skills and attitudes are likely to develop similarly across the population working within those constraints. There will not be much diversity nor a very high capacity for organizational learning. On the other hand, if the constraints are broadened (for example, to encourage a focus on the higher-order goals of the organization as well as on the specific task at hand), a collectively more diverse range of skills and talents will emerge across the organization, and its capacity to learn and to adapt will increase.

In sum, the capability of any group to learn and to adapt is based on two factors: the total amount of ingenuity available within the group, that is, how effectively the individuals learn and adapt; and the ability of the group (or society) to function as a learning organization.

The Learning Society

It seems likely that tomorrow's successful societies will be those that find innovative ways of supporting human development, both individually and collectively. As it happens, we now are in a position to make effective use of a considerable body of research on human development to help us understand the critical factors that have the greatest impact. We can sensibly group these factors as follows:

Societies that do well on these dimensions are likely to become learning societies: purposeful enough to be successful in a global economic competition; strong enough to participate in global economic partnerships; and innovative in response to changing social, political and economic conditions. As the "price" of information decreases, what will distinguish more from less successful societies is their relative ability to learn from universally available information; that is, to adapt quickly and productively to rapidly changing conditions.

Healthy Communities: Foundations of a Learning Society

The scientific story here is quite simple at one level, but can be expanded to reveal considerable complexity. In a nutshell, it is that the quality of the social environment is principally responsible for overall population health, well-being, and competence, and for the learning capacity both of individuals and of society. In health, for example, the social class gradient (the degree of social disparity) accounts for more of the difference in health outcomes between countries than does health care expenditure. These are not just poverty effects, since they obtain throughout the middle class as well. Moreover, countries with steep gradients (high degrees of social disparity) have overall poorer health outcomes than those with flatter gradients (Keating & Mustard, 1993). Similar findings appear to hold for educational achievement outcomes.

Developmental Pathways to Health and Competence

Discovering the connections between broad social environmental factors and outcomes of health and competence is an important first step. These are central markers or indicators of how various sectors of the population are functioning. In addition to monitoring these outcomes, however, we need to get a better grasp of the developmental processes that underlie them. Otherwise, we may be induced to make decisions on the basis of spurious or superficial connections.

One such developmental process that it is important to understand is the evolution of antisocial behavior in children. Antisocial behavior in childhood often has its roots in the dynamics of the home. In the Ontario Child Health Study, 5.5% of children 4 to 16 years of age were classified as conduct disordered; that is, they had clinically important levels of antisocial behavior. Children with this disorder have a lowered life quality, disturbed social relationships and poor school performance. The onset of antisocial behavior in childhood very often heralds a lifetime of serious psychological disturbance. For instance, in the Ontario Child Health Study, approximately 60% of children age 8 to 12 who were classified as conduct disordered retained that classification four years later. And, in clinical samples, approximately 40% of children or early adolescents with persistent antisocial behavior have been found to have serious psychosocial difficulties in adult life, including psychopathy, criminality, and alcohol and drug abuse. The societal costs resulting from conduct disorder and its sequelae, thus, are very high (Offord et al., 1992).

Knowledge of the developmental pathways by which antisocial behavior arises is of prime importance if effective intervention programs are to be realized, and if the socially marginal life courses of many of these children are to be avoided. One of those developmental pathways, that has been well documented (Offord et al., 1992), begins with a preschool child who has a difficult temperament, and who grows up without encountering consistent parental limits. When such a child enters school, he often exhibits aggressive patterns of behavior, which lead to a downward spiral of alienation and school failure in the early elementary years. By early adolescence, the child often has found a deviant peer group with whom to associate (Offordet al., 1992).

Finally, when the antisocial adolescent becomes a father or mother, the whole pattern may repeat. Indeed, one of the best predictors of this developmental pathway is the parents' own personal adjustment before the birth of the child. Youths who have had important social adjustment problems tend to mate with individuals who have also had adjustment problems (Rutter, Quinton, & Hill, 1990). They are at high risk of becoming parents early in life, and of providing less care to their children (Quinton & Rutter, 1988; Serbin, Schwartzman, Moskowitz, & Ledingham, 1991). We need to find how to break this intergenerational reproduction of social failure (McCord & Tremblay, 1992; Offord & Racine, 1991).

It is important to note, however, that the foregoing pattern is not an immutable one. Early developmental stimulation may be a promising avenue for interrupting this negative cycle (Weikart & Schweinhart, 1992). Other factors, such as attachment to a supportive adult, other than the parents, can mitigate these effects and generate a different developmental pathway (Werner, 1989; Werner & Smith, 1992). Much work is needed to refine our knowledge about developmental pathways, and about the "points of leverage" that can be applied to transform an unsuccessful developmental trajectory into a successful one (Keating, 1990).

One such point of leverage for redressing early difficulties is suggested by experimental studies with non-human primates (Rhesus macaques). In these studies, macaque infants who are genetically susceptible to hyper-reactivity to stress, have been cross-fostered to highly nurturant mothers. These infants do not follow their predicted pattern of low troop status and/or early death. Instead, they are generally indistinguishable from the general population, and in fact are slightly more likely to become troop leaders (Suomi, 1991).

Note that cross-fostering is but one form of surrogate nurturing of the young, a phenomenon that occurs in various forms in most primate species, including Homo sapiens. Recall that a key buffering or protective factor for high-risk children, found in many studies, is a supportive relationship with a non-parental adult. In particular, support from extended families, or other social connections, has a beneficial effect on the quality of nurturance, especially for high-risk mothers (Booth, Spieker, Bernard, & Morisset, 1992). Thus, there are many possible ways to ensure that virtually all children receive adequate nurturance. To the extent that societal changes have compromised these historic sources of support for families with children, we need to devise new ways to provide these critical supports for healthy human development.

Many developmental pathways could be similarly described, both for dysfunctional and for more optimal outcomes. As we improve our ability to monitor and to understand these pathways, we may be able to learn how to respond more effectively to prevent problems and to optimize development. Doing so will be a key to protecting and enhancing the learning capacity both of individuals and of society, and it is on that learning capacity that both economic prosperity and the quality of societal life will depend.

Social Environments and Human Development

The good news from all this is that we now understand more clearly the impact of the social environment on the development of health, well-being, coping and competence, and we have identified many of the key factors (Hertzman, 1993; Keating, 1993) The bad news is that many children and adolescents are not growing up in highly supportive environments. For some of these children, poverty is the central problem. But these difficulties increasingly are being observed among the working and professional/managerial classes as well, largely because of shifts in labour market configuration (Maxwell, 1993; Ross, 1993). For example, the proportion of children under age 13, who live in a home with two parents, one of whom is at home full time, is small and decreasing (Lero et al., 1992). Generally, the quality and affordability of alternative care for these children is inadequate, leaving a substantial proportion of the infant/toddler population subject to suboptimal care (Pence & Goelman, 1991).

Although there is justifiably great concern about how social changes are affecting the nurturance of infants and young children, it is also important to recognize that subsequent developmental histories also have a strong effect (Keating, 1990, 1993). In particular, the transition to school, the onset of adolescence, and the transition to work occur in social environments that impact on individual health and competence, and on the capacity to learn.

Learning societies will need to support lifelong learning throughout the population, especially as the time available for social adaptation to technological and other changes shrinks from eras to generations to individual lifetimes. Japan and much of Europe appear to foster lifelong learning much better than do the UK, US, or Canada. But Japan and Europe differ quite sharply from each other in how they accomplish this (Rohlen, 1989; Streeck, 1990). Finding better ways to shape the social environment, so that it can provide more effective support at these crucial transition points, should greatly enhance the ability of our population to learn and to adapt throughout life.

Learning to Develop Human Resources

Some may argue that health, well-being, competence, and coping are issues of individual behaviour, rather than of societal practice or governmental policy. But that ignores the fact that, in a high-technology, high-skill, high-wage economy, two kinds of costs become prohibitive for a society:

In addition, as Putnam (1992) demonstrates, we are coming to understand that economic benefits accrue to regions with highly civic societies. There is a legitimate public interest in addressing these issues.

While there are no magic solutions, and we still have much to learn, we can suggest a few guidelines for developing human resources in a learning society:

But these community initiatives need to be able to build on each other, rather than requiring reinvention on every occasion. To that end, governments can play a key role by reserving public spaces on the information highway to enable within-community and community-to-community exchange. We need to apply the notions of continuous improvement and diffusion of best practice beyond the corporate sector.

Collaborative Learning Organizations: The Human Advantage

Social policy analysts generally have become familiar with many of the foregoing issues, especially as the critical nature of human resources for economic growth has become more apparent. Less attention, however, has been paid to a closely related and equally critical human development factor: how those human resources can best be organized.

Innovation and Prosperity in the Information Age

In reconstructing our species' history, we have often focused on the technological and material aspects of revolutionary transitions:

What is less obvious, but equally true, is that each of these major revolutions depended, in part, on new forms of social interaction (Rosenberg & Birdzell, 1986). From intertribal trade, to the congregation of large groups of humans in urban settings, to the invention of ways to share risk through capital investment, Homo sapiens repeatedly have generated new social practices and institutions at a pace similar to that of technological innovation. It seems likely that we are once again entering such a transformation:

Although we do not fully understand the determinants of economic growth and prosperity, we do know that technological innovation is a driving force and that periods of major technological change cause changes in a nation's or region's prosperity base and its society. All of the evidence indicates that we are in such a major techno-economic and social change." (Keating & Mustard, 1993, p. 90)

The capacity for innovation, thus, is likely to become even further entrenched as a key determinant of economic prosperity. But, especially in the information revolution, the capacity for innovation is driven both by the pool of human ingenuity that is available, and by how well that ingenuity can be magnified by effective organization. This is the key idea of the "learning organization."

Learning Organizations: Key Principles

The development of information technology that can support learning organizations is relatively recent. As a result, we have many descriptions and case studies of learning organizations, but little comparative or systematic research. Nonetheless, key elements, noted by thoughtful observers, can be summarized. They all start with the recognition that learning occurs not just within individuals, but also within groups and organizations of all sorts.

A first characteristic of collaborative learning organizations is that they tend to emphasize coordinated group effort toward commonly shared goals, rather than purely individual accomplishment. This requires that enough people in the organization choose to participate actively in its success, and this, in turn, generally depends on the degree to which those individuals believe that they will receive a reasonable return for their investment of effort. As a result, effective learning organizations often require shallower gradients (less disparity) in the distribution of group-generated resources among members of the organization.

Societies with cultural traditions that emphasize a balance between the individual and the collective are likely to be better prepared to organize in this fashion, as compared with societies that place a strong emphasis on the individual apart from society (such as the United States and, to a lesser extent, Canada). The current search for communitarian models (Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, & Tipton, 1991; Etzioni, 1993) reflects this perceived need to strengthen the basis for collaborative effort by citizens within society. Indeed, in some recent studies, higher levels of civic participation have been found to lead to better economic growth and prosperity (Putnam, 1992).

Second, there is an active commitment to continuous improvement and to the diffusion of best practices throughout the organization. Part of each individual's contribution is to discover ways of doing the task better or more efficiently. In addition, the organization seeks to understand and analyze the dynamic system within which it is functioning (Senge, 1990).

Third, collaborative learning organizations are characterized by horizontal networks of information flow rather than vertical/hierarchical structures for top-down decision making. In vertical systems, there are "checks" on the flow of information at many points, both on the way up and on the way down. Decentralized decision making, on the other hand, yields a more nimble organization, as information is channeled more flexibly along the most effective route. Such horizontal systems, to operate effectively, require a widely shared understanding of the organization's goals. One might say that it requires a coherent, shared conceptual framework among the members of the organization.

This horizontal network, when effective, brings together all the expertise of an organization. The more diverse that expertise, the more contact points there will be with the external world to which the group needs to adapt. Diversity can increase significantly the learning capacity of an organization or society. For example, in North America, one frequently overlooked learning resource is multicultural diversity. Too often that diversity is viewed as a difficulty to be overcome, rather than as a strength. Although some advantage may accrue in the short term to more monocultural societies (such as Japan), the diverse storehouse of useful cultural solutions contained in North American society constitutes an invaluable asset that should greatly enhance our capacity to learn and to adapt in the future.

We need to discover how best to organize learning communities in the information age. Supporting effective learning by organizations, in all sectors of society, will be a critical factor in the building of a learning society.

Building the Learning Society

Can we design a coherent strategy for becoming the kind of learning society we have described? We hardly need to be reminded of the catastrophic failures of grand central plans for society in this century (Harvey, 1989). We are wise to be leery of grand social designs. In addition, as the complexity of available information expands, and as the rate of change accelerates, it becomes even more obvious that there can be no central blueprint to specify the steps for building a learning society. Instead, it is useful to think of the learning society we hope to achieve not as a static structure toward which we are headed, but as a process of continuous improvement.

The Changing Role of Governance: Organizing for Adaptation

Although difficult to build, successful learning societies benefit from progressive self-renewal. And the active participation of the whole population in lifelong learning, in a series of learning organizations and networks (at home, in school, at work, in the community), is perhaps the best safeguard against future grand social designs.

The role of governance in all of this is clearly central, and major changes in the styles and forms of governance will be needed if we are to achieve a learning society. But what changes? In approaching this question, we need to recognize explicitly that we are involved in an experiment with civilization, willingly or not, and that our only positive choice is to learn as much as possible, and to work together to do so. Governance, in a learning society, will need to be more concerned with empowerment than power, and will need to fulfill an educative function about our collective tasks. If our analysis is broadly correct, then, it suggests at least three important new roles for governance:

Building Healthy Communities

One important task for governance in this domain is to establish mechanisms for monitoring important human developmental outcomes, and for incorporating this knowledge into policy and planning, both public and private. No modern government or business would finalize decisions in the absence of economic information, and most new initiatives to change the physical world require an estimate of environmental impact. Yet we do not systematically do this for human developmental indicators. We should.

Fortunately, we do not need to build such indicators and monitoring mechanisms from scratch. A surprising number of these already exist, and a relatively small investment in coordination, and in filling some gaps, could produce very significant benefits.

Building Learning Networks

Second, learning societies will need to find ways to organize human ingenuity in more productive ways. A broad social goal should be to maximize learning, both by individuals and by groups (firms, organizations, communities, and so on). Increasingly, governments will need to coordinate rather than control such learning activity. They will need to encourage new learning partnerships across traditional divides (such as school and work, management and labor, private and public sector).

Building Social Consensus

Third, we need to recognize that Canada, as a multicultural society, cannot rely on historically shared cultural or institutional traditions to supply the social consensus needed to underpin legitimate and effective government action. Instead, that social consensus needs continually to be constructed from among the diverse perspectives and traditions that make up our society. Such a consensus cannot be constructed through the denial of conflict, or even through its management, but rather needs to be based on a process of learning from conflict, and from our diversity. It is essential that we find better ways to accomplish that.

Of these three key tasks, perhaps the most critical is the forging of a social consensus. Such a consensus may emerge to support the notion of building a learning society, and such a consensus would provide an essential foundation for future economic growth, population health, and human development.


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* It has been suggested that this analogy overemphasizes the accelerative function, treating time as if it were simply linear. Various log transforms would show different patterns, some with non-exponential acceleration. On the other hand, humans are temporal by both biology (in growth rates and lifespan) and culture (with precise timekeeping artifacts and social practices). Thus, the widespread perception of change as explosive may well reflect the true state of affairs, at least as it pertains to humans. Harvey (1989) offers a detailed critique of this notion of time-space compression in society.

** Some have used the notion of human capital to convey the same idea. Both metaphors attempt to place the human talents of a population into an economic discourse, to indicate its value. This is a good starting point. But the limits of the analogy should also be noted; human talents are neither capital nor resources in the strict sense. Finding common ground and a common language to understand these relations is itself a daunting task.

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