A shift beyond the knowledge society in Sweden?


I read in the Swedish newspapers this morning the angry and desperate reports that Swedish students fall behind in global rankings. The so-called PISA report, which was published this week, shows that Swedish students are below the OECD average within all three areas of measured knowledge; maths, reading comprehension, and natural sciences.

This looks worrying for the Swedes, but might it indicate a shift beyond the knowledge economy? Is knowledge really that valuable in today’s world?

Systems thinker Russell Ackoff published his thoughts on the evolutionary path from data to wisdom as shown in the diagram above in 1989. Can we apply this model on societal development as well?

As our collective understanding (x axis) and thinking in systems (y axis) increases we shift our focus from data to information to knowledge to wisdom, and from the past to the future.

Perhaps Swedish students and society in general start to leave knowledge society behind and head towards something else? But is it really wisdom? What are the steps between knowledge and wisdom? Originally Ackoff had included a circle for understanding here, but this was later removed and added as one of the dimensions on the x-axis by other authors instead.

In today’s world, where all knowledge – historical and present – is available to all for free on Wikipedia etc, what’s the point of gathering knowledge in our minds? Can we put our brains to better use, by learning to see patterns and networks instead? Or do we have to stuff ourselves with knowledge to be able to see these systems and connections?

In any case, I don’t think Sweden has to worry too much about keeping up with the Asian tiger economies and kids in Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and the others in the PISA elite. Deep down, does anyone in Sweden really think that it’s possible to convince Swedish students to compete with the uber-ambitious Asians and their semi-robotic existences? Why would Swedish kids want to do that?

No, instead Sweden should think about what makes Sweden unique and what this society does better than others:

Focus on the whole.


Diagram by http://www.easterbrook.ca/steve/2012/09/what-is-climate-informatics/ adapted from Russ Ackoff’s “From Data to Wisdom”, Journal of Applied Systems Analysis, Volume 16, 1989 p 3-9.

2 thoughts on “A shift beyond the knowledge society in Sweden?

  1. I forgot to add a link to an article from Brainpickings.org, which quotes the chair of the Department of Biological Sciences at Columbia University and head of the neuroscience lab there, Stuart Firestein. His view on knowledge:

    “Ignorance has a lot of bad connotations [but] I mean a different kind of ignorance. I mean a kind of ignorance that’s less pejorative, a kind of ignorance that comes from a communal gap in our knowledge, something that’s just not there to be known or isn’t known well enough yet or we can’t make predictions from, the kind of ignorance that’s maybe best summed up in a statement by James Clerk Maxwell, perhaps the greatest physicist between Newton and Einstein, who said, “Thoroughly conscious ignorance is the prelude to every real advance in science.” I think it’s a wonderful idea: thoroughly conscious ignorance.


    So I’d say the model we want to take is not that we start out kind of ignorant and we get some facts together and then we gain knowledge. It’s rather kind of the other way around, really. What do we use this knowledge for? What are we using this collection of facts for? We’re using it to make better ignorance, to come up with, if you will, higher-quality ignorance.”


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