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December 20, 2011: Governor General David Johnston pose for a photograph at Rideau Hall in Ottawa.

Dave Chan/Dave Chan/ The Globe and Mail

It is perhaps the defining question of our time: How to tackle the complex, interrelated challenges of the 21st century in a coherent and effective way?

The answer, I am convinced, lies in what I call the diplomacy of knowledge, defined as our ability and willingness to work together and share our learning across disciplines and borders. When people achieve the right mixture of creativity, communication and co-operation, remarkable things can happen.

Why is learning and the sharing of information so important?

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The first reason is that, in our globalized world, the well-being of nations is increasingly being defined by the ability to develop and advance knowledge. In other words, knowledge – as opposed to military might or GDP – is gaining momentum as the new currency and passport to success.

Second, information has never been so ubiquitous, and so cheaply and easily shared. By practising the diplomacy of knowledge, we can open up relationships between peoples and foster harmony in an interconnected world.

Third, as a result of the speed and ease of communications, our world is experiencing unprecedented rates of change. We live in a time of rapid transformations, characterized by risk and opportunity on a global scale. Because of this, we must always look to the evidence – particularly scientific evidence – to help navigate change and inform our choices.

Fourth, ideas are improved when shared and tested through action. I often draw on Thomas Jefferson's image of a burning candle when illustrating the importance of collaboration. The candle symbolizes not only enlightenment but also the transmission of learning from one person or country to another. And when you light your candle from the flame of my candle, my light is not diminished, it is enhanced. The sharing of knowledge collectively enlightens us.

Finally, we must promote the practices that have served us well, including the scientific method – one of the truly great innovations in human history. The fundamentals of mathematics and science have propelled global leaps in communications since the time of the printing press. And, in fact, it was 300 years of discovery in math and science from Newton to Einstein that laid the foundations for the rise of the Internet.

The complex issues we face require us to move beyond inter- and multi-disciplinary efforts to adopt truly trans-disciplinary approaches. I am encouraged to see so many of the world's leading scientific minds in Vancouver this week for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, exploring the idea of creating a global knowledge society to address the challenges of the 21st century.

The challenges are many – affecting our health, food, energy, economy, water, land and climate. That these issues are global in scope and profoundly interconnected only compounds the difficulty – as do the stresses associated with our growing population, now at seven billion.

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Clearly, this is a challenge not just for scientists but for all of us. So how do we bring about a smart and caring world that is at once prosperous, sustainable and resilient?

Our ability to work together – to practise the diplomacy of knowledge – will be the key to our success.

We have good reason to be optimistic. Consider just this week's gathering in Vancouver: Scientists and leading thinkers from some 60 countries are in attendance, their approach is collaborative, and their focus is global.

Learning together is an important part of living together. While many of our greatest challenges arise through the interplay of complex problems, so, too, do our greatest advances often occur at the intersections between disciplines. Who knows what a greater understanding of quantum physics will be able to tell us about genetics, or what a better grasp of ecology can teach us about global networks?

The constant, dynamic elements in our learning are creativity, communication and co-operation. Canadians can play an important role in the global knowledge society. Our challenge is to renew our commitment to the principles of scientific learning that have served us well in the past, while drawing on the best thinking in navigating the changes ahead.

Aristotle once said, "All men by nature desire to know." Today, we can perhaps recast this statement for the 21st century, envisaging a world in which all nations are eager to know and to share their learning.

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David Johnston is the Governor-General of Canada.

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