What is a knowledge city?

Last week I participated in a panel discussion that kicked off Melbourne Knowledge Week. MKW is a Good Thing that has been running for a few years. It was initiated by Melbourne City Council against the background thought that knowledge is becoming progressively more important to our lives and our economies so Melbourne should be in the business of promoting itself as a knowledge city or smart city which would involve showcasing its achievements and targeting more – which is to say attracting more knowledge businesses to Melbourne.

I’ve had some involvement in discussing these issues with quite a few people in the Council and I think this is a sadly unimaginative way to think about the issues. When the moderator of the panel, the excellent and equable Peter Mares circulated his own prompts to get discussion going amongst the panel before the evening on which it was to take place I responded in the terms below – which have been only lightly edited to make them slightly less like an email and more like a blog post. And I quote:

I’m struck by how mercantilist – another buzz word for this is ‘neoliberal’ – the frame in which such things are so often considered including in your definition of a knowledge city and your way of posing quite a few of the questions. I use the expression ’neoliberal’ reluctantly as this is likely to conjure in people’s minds all sorts of positions associated with opponents of neoliberalism which I think are pretty formulaic and miss the mark as much as neoliberalism does.

But you’ve conceived of the idea of a focus on knowledge and MKW as something which has a lot to do with attracting ’smart’ jobs and ’smart’ industries. I have no problem with this as a goal, and I’m also all for funding the development of knowledge and expertise but it seems to me to put the cart before the horse.

We have before us an astonishing new set of technologies which are transforming our lives. Thinking of how we convert them into jobs is a little like welcoming the invention of printing by asking “How many printing jobs can we attract to our city/country”.

So in my comments on the panel I’d like to focus on how knowledge can change our lives – as it can and does in virtually every aspect of them. I’d like to see this as the starting point with economic issues (which embrace both production and consumption by the way even though your definition of a knowledge city is skewed towards knowledge production!) being seen as just one aspect of this.

So let me explain this with an example. We could decide – we should in my view decide – that it would be good to export Victoria’s or Melbourne’s excellent health services (which embody Victorian medical knowledge amongst other things). To do so the first thing we’d need to do is do what we did in education and unpick subsidies to Australians which we want to keep going from services to foreigners which, unless we’re seeking to provide some special aid – should be full fee paying.

But that’s where two visions would differ. A mercantilistic frame would just have us focus on how we could make a buck by selling to foreigners. No great harm there though it comes with some downsides as we learned in education (spruikers and poor quality providers trashing our ‘brand’), but I think we can do better.

We can try to focus on excellence in medical provision for the Australian population. I’d like to see much more published data about the quality of various services – including consumer satisfaction but also recovery rates, infection rates in hospitals etc. (As you can imagine I could go on about this, but have kept it brief here). This would generate improvements in services to our own population, but we could then use it to market Victorian health services to full-fee paying foreigners as one of the prime attractions of our offering in the (international) marketplace.

I think that would be much more beneficial not just in its first round effects on the Australian population but also in its second round effects as an asset in our export marketing. And the third round effects would be to both improve the incentives to improve things we were not so good at and attract growing resources into areas where our own objective measurement showed we were best at.

(Note by the way, that even if one maintains the usual mercantilistic focus, I think this approach is likely to generate vastly more export success in the same way that Google beat Alta Vista and Facebook beat MySpace – by focusing on providing services that are as good as they can possibly be, and better and seen to be better than one’s competition as the first priority with attention only then turning to monetisation. This mistake is made continually by incumbent firms and even more by those further away from a market as universities and governments are. )

Anyway that’s just an example to try to give you the flavour of what I’m suggesting because its hard to understand what I’m getting at if I just make the points in a general way.

I can point you to two other resources that may be of interest to you if you want to understand where I’m coming from. This is a presentation I did at the ‘Do Lectures’ about building the public goods of the 21st century – they were all knowledge goods but very different kinds of goods from public private genomic partnerships to improved social capital (also a kind of social knowhow). And I’ve just got off the phone from a radio interview explaining an idea which I’m hoping may be in the new Government’s arts strategy – I’m on the relevant reference group. I asked them to send me the mp3 of it in case you’d like to listen to it. It is likewise a proposal for a knowledge artefact which, if it was successful could easily become an important global player in arts marketing, but it arises from trying to work out how to solve a problem, not by trying to ‘attract knowledge workers’ or bankroll them or anything like that. It arises from seeking to solve problems on their merits. Anyway you can download the interview if you’re interested from this link.

As a challenge to myself, here’s your definition of a knowledge city and then a bit of a go at mine. It goes on longer than yours perhaps because I’m thinking aloud to myself, but also because your definition taps into a kind of shorthand, whereas I’m trying to build mine more from the ground up.

Yours: “A city in which there are lots of high-value, well-paid jobs, a city that educates its citizens to participate in these high knowledge jobs and make the most of their opportunities and a city that draws in talented individuals, ideas and capital from other places.”

Mine: A city/ a community in which people value all knowledge including each others’ knowledge at whatever level that knowledge exists. A city in which city planners and those who run large systems (including systems of intellectual and professional knowledge) understand that they have a very important role to play in administering an ‘architecture’ of knowledge but also understand that how impoverished or even counterproductive such a system can be to the extent that it ignores the knowledge of those within the system, those at the coalface. It must capture their knowledge not just in production but also in serving their own private interests and the interests of those communities of which they are a part. This understanding of knowledge and the application of knowhow as grounded in our experience will directly improve lives and indirectly provide a sounder foundation for expertise being parlayed into economic prosperity widely shared within the community than the seeking of technical knowledge for its financial value on its own.

Some other things I’d didn’t squeeze into the above but which I think are important in no particular order are these:

    • In some areas of technical knowledge “the best will out”, but even in technical knowledge and virtually always elsewhere – for instance in economic knowledge, social knowledge – the arrogance of the most able and/or qualified of most privileged (both in terms of their documented and extreme overestimation of what they know and their assumption of their own superiority over others) stand as huge obstacles to groups of people making effective, self-aware and safe use of what limited knowledge they actually have.
    • Knowledge must be revised, replenished and renewed. In this regard those with new ideas, especially, but not exclusively the young, usually receive inadequate attention and support within the system. However our market for ideas is very like our market for PR – with superstars who typically specialise not so much in knowledge but in its plausible presentation. Unless they boil down their ideas for popular consumption and trot out a TED talk, those with new ideas and those who need support to develop new ideas get short shrift in this environment.
    • Our current ways of ranking credibility are makeshift and unsatisfactory. For instance big ‘brands’ of privately marketed expertise in consulting houses, law firms and merchant banks and some other professions operate as rent seeking pyramids with graduates and relatively junior people doing a great deal of the work with their time billed at many multiples of its cost to the organisation with the people at the top not only taking most of the benefit of this, but also dominating the information flow (even though the more junior ones have closer knowledge of what’s going on). This violates what we know about well functioning environments for complex information (Toyota production, Wikipedia) which typically involve flat structures and low focus on hierarchy.
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8 years ago

I still think your definition is too narrow. The idea of a “knowledge city” implies a geographic restriction that, quite simply, does not apply to modern knowledge work.

In my case, I live and work from the South Coast of NSW, for a Privately owned US corporation. My boss lives / works on the Gold Coast, his boss lives in Seattle, her boss lives in California and the owner lives in Las Vegas. Our customers are all over the world. Which “Knowledge City” do we live in ? And for the mercantilists out there, who benefits from our income and spending ?


8 years ago

Your last paragraph and your example of exploiting the Victorian health system are not really aligned well — The Victorian health system has anything but a flat structure, so you can clearly have a system that functions reasonably without it. As anyone in the university system can tell you, this sort of a system is actually quite good for making money, since it means management is never accountable, and so never does anything wrong, and problems and poor standards can simply be hidden for a very long time (as the recent episode in the hospital in Bacchus Marsh and probably others shows). I also suspect the reason we don’t have information on hospitals that you want could be found in Yes Minister episode. It’s not that the sort of information you want couldn’t be collated, its that it is in no managers interest to collect it, especially those with the power.

8 years ago

I like this – thank you. An interesting piece that usefully reminds us that even though a topic may be new or shiny, economic principles don’t fundamentally change.

Mercantalism should be called out for what it is. It’s not that the intent is bad, but usually the process proposed in the mercantilist mindset just leads to rent-seeking behaviour.

For safety and quality data in healthcare, click here.

John walker
8 years ago

Nicholas re your idea for an arts TripAdvisor, it sounds like something useful.

However , outside the major performing arts orgs, government funding is not the main source of funds. I.e consulting with representatives of the top level of arts funding will give a scewed sense of reality.
For example in my area , visual arts ,the main source of money is the private buyer ; even now there about 30 to 50 private collectors that each, each year purchase more art than all of the public galleries ,combined. And the spend of patrons like David Walsh on MONA or Judith Nielson on white rabbit etc dwarfs the entire public spend on viz art by the proverbial mile. ( in the viz arts the main source of public subsidy was via employment in the uni art school sector or jobs in various arts admin positions- do not know how much that adds up to. The other relatively large spend is on subsidies to the indigenous art centers ).

In a broader contex the australia council supports about 150 small to medium organisations to a total of about $22 million a year. These organisations, well some of them, use that seed funding to raise about $130 million in total from ticket sales donations etc.
The long term chronic problem withe the funded sector, esspesialy at its higher levels is that it is all supply and no demand in thinking. So anything like your idea has to be an improvement.

John walker
8 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

Nicholas the link to the radio talk has become a 404 error, I would like Anne to have a listen, can you fix it? Or email the link.