Most of the questions people today are concerned about fall into three broad areas: biology, meaning health, food, genetics and so on; the global environment, with questions like climate change and resources; and new technologies, their impact on jobs, quality of work etc. In short, these questions concern people’s private and professional lives, as well as their children’s future. Remember that this more questioning attitude derives not only from a general shift in people’s minds and in the way they see things, but also from the development of science (technoscience) itself, which is tackling increasingly complex, and hence debatable and uncertain issues. Indeed, within all this, science is now revealing its own uncertainty.
This shift in the relationship between science, technology and society has given rise to a new “profane knowledge”. In the medical field, for example, there is an increasing tendency for illness to be jointly “managed” by patients and their families. It is not all positive, because this shift also implies a certain privatisation of knowledge and a decline in shared knowledge, meaning that the public domain is (paradoxically) shrinking. The way modern media work contributes to the lack of perspective and coherence. A new socio-cultural framework is being created in which all opinions are of equal merit, all interpretations are equally valid and all claims – even contradictory – are justified.
Our usual form of governance in democratic societies is becoming obsolete as a result, particularly where scientific and technical questions or emotive issues are concerned, like energy, waste, the environment and food. The role of the “experts” is being challenged. Areas of instability are appearing in the triangular relationship between decision-makers, the media and public opinion. Undoubtedly, the major challenge facing our societies, which claim to be both technically advanced, open and democratic, is to sacrifice neither progress nor democracy. And that means constructing a new form of governance for today’s new society. A step in this direction is OECD’s Forum 2001, in which politicians, the media and civil society from around the world will debate together the question of sustainable development and the new economy. Building a new governance will depend on public dialogues such as this.
*Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie is the venue of OECD Forum 2001
©OECD Observer No 226/227, Summer 2001