In any society, improved knowledge and understanding of the world around us, can help 'improve' our way of life. It can also lead to chaos and conflict if not implemented properly/fairly etc.

If we were to wake up tomorrow and find a hidden cache of 'higher' knowledge how fast could changes be made without leading to chaos and strife by those who feel they were sidelined?

When looking at 'failed' attempts to upgrade the level of society one of things historians, and economists, political advisors etc, note is that they tried to do too much too quickly, and/or that a small group of people controlled the distribution of this knowledge and became immensely rich (and corrupt) off it!

Is there some sort of established/agreed on theoretical rate or method for stable civilisation upgrade? Or is it too dependant on the existing societies make-up?

I have a feeling that many people will hoard the knowledge so as to have more power over others. They will throw barriers in the way of any attempts to improve the bottom rung of society etc. Major Religious institutes and other interested parties won't want a change in the status quo.

Pretty much I want to determine how fast I can get my benevolent ruler of a large empire to introduce changes (based on a hidden cache of lost knowledge that is superior to our own current level) that will improve society without leading to civil war and the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. How fast can a society /civilisation level be upgraded? I have a particular scenario in mind, but it is not completely fixed yet so I am still interested in any other broad theoretical aspects that I might be able to incorporate into my world. You can read on for my scenario or real life 'failed' examples. Hopefully the scenario edit will help narrow down the scope of this question.

My Scenario

This benevolent ruler supposedly has total power through both marriage and blood and a little bit of superstition (and winning a civil war to get the throne). They can implement any reforms or changes in law they wish. The nobles might not like losing their 'power' but have to go ahead with the reforms for fear of losing their land, riches and titles etc.

My world has several empires. In the Empire in question, absolute rule is held by an Emperor and his immediate family as well as a noble class. They are supported by a Janissary style military arm as well as more traditional army. As with the Janissaries of history the nobles have seen the pro's of being a member and have weakened the system by promoting on status rather than merit. The general population is a mix of slaves, freedman (not a lot of those), tradesman and merchant families etc. I'd hazard a guess that the technology level is late middle-ages to early renaissance.

All land is property of the Emperor, who gives it out to who he sees fit shortly after their ascension to power. Typically noble families keep their lands over several generations and most consider the whole relinquishing of land and titles to the throne a mere formality. There is no one major religion (or if there is I haven't come up with it yet) but there are several belief systems - the janissary belief system being the most prominent. Magic doesn't exist, only in the mind of the superstitious.

This being a made up world, we have several deposits of hidden/lost knowledge from a lost space-faring age. One of these deposits is a library accessible to any who wish, but it's kind isolated and tricky to get to so not a lot of people visit. On the plus side this has stopped book burning through the centuries! Knowledge of exactly what is included in this library has even been lost so not even the librarian's know just how informative it can be!

Another deposit is reached through a single user interface that has for centuries been locked (to stop the possible misuse of such information). It can only be accessed by a select few, so sharing the knowledge will take time but can be controlled. All the knowledge is information - very few working technological devices and no real blueprints on how to make things more like the theories behind it. This knowledge also includes a record of all of human history (up until it was lost) so hopefully whoever uses the interface will be able to learn from past mistakes.

My empire and neighbouring countries have just come out of a devastating civil war and a new leader has emerged. They have the complete support of the remaining janissaries, and most nobles support them for various reasons. They are popular with the some of the general population - they also just outlawed and freed all the slaves (that opens up a whole different level of complexity so for now just go with popular with a vast majority of lower class subjects). Enter my benevolent ruler! (wow, just writing this makes me realise how cliché it all is)

Now my benevolent ruler is aware of this lost knowledge and most importantly wants to change the world for the better. They have a handy summary of how things can go wrong if they push to fast or too hard. They also have the support of the other library deposit and they will help with spreading 'the word' like missionaries. So this leader is hoping to learn from the mistakes of their ancestors and skip several cultural revolutions that resulted in the rich hoarding all the power, the poor getting angry and frustrated and several head chopping incidents that can ensue. They know they can't change things overnight and are planning are several phases of 'development' to build on the foundation of the previous phase. The leader is prepared for this to be a multi-generational project but would really like to see, at least some, successful end results before they die!

There have been several previous leaders who have tried to reform and bring some advancements to the way things are done. Some of these ideas have stuck around, and some have been squashed once the leader was no longer around to reinforce them. So a lot of people are aware that there is another way of doing things and after this civil war they just survived a lot of them are receptive to trying another way!

In the rebuilding after the war, my leader can make many reforms to change the way people are promoted based on merit, re-educating the nobles who didn't support them, re-educating the uneducated masses, pretty much re-educating the world and generally just being a kickass leader. sidebar - re-educating - NOT in the Russian or Chinese revolutionary way of thinking

How fast can they drag the people from the backwards way they live to a more enlightened era? Are there some set steps or methods that might avoid most of the pitfalls? I'm hoping that any changes my leader make are not negated the moment they die! I'm thinking that my leader can use the chaos of post war to slip in a few amendments that the typical snobby noble won't like. By the time these nobles notice they can't do much without losing what power they still have.

And the leader can show the nobles real life examples of what will happen if they don't upgrade and what will happen if they upgrade in such a way that the elite few keep the power. Show the benefits of improving agriculture returns etc etc.

Real life 'failed' examples:

After the Chinese Emperor decided he, or his predecessor, had lost the mandate of heaven (major fire in one of the major palaces, might have been the forbiddon city, among other things) he stopped the Chinese expansion and exploration of the world, closed off the borders and isolated the Chinese Empire for the next few centuries. Then when the European nations 'advanced' there was a clash when the two met. Different ideologies and different 'level' of society. China has since undergone a rapid expansion but has been ruled in a very strict authoritarian manner. While China may have mega cities and major transport networks etc, I am under the impression that a vast majority of everyday people are still poor, and while not technically uneducated they don't have the greatest of life's.

Genghis Khan was originally from a tribal nomadic way of life. Once Genghis united the clans of the steppe he defeated the Chinese Empire. This was an Empire that was for all intents and purposes more 'advanced' than the horse tribes. Genghis incorporated most knowledge and technology into his 'empire' and the everyday life of the average person was greatly improved (if they survived the initial invasion and mass killings). As soon as he died the empire disintegrated over squabbles between his sons and leading generals as to who should lead (the same can be said for Alexandra the Great).

A more recent example which has for all intents and purposes failed, or at least not taken off with a flying start, is post apartheid South Africa. A small minority of people held power over a small population of white European descendants and a much larger indigenous population. Amongst other horrendous things, the Apartheid government restricted access to education to the average everyday person of any other colour except white. When the ANC took power, they promised to reform the system and redistribute the balance of power. In twenty years, rural schools are still majorly underfunded and understaffed. Every year there are incidents where schools have not received the school books for the year. And yet the government can afford to pay ZAR4billion for a private plane! The power has essentially transferred from the elite white nationalist party to the elite black african national party leaving the poor just as marginalised as before. To be fair this is an on-going situation and people are working on correcting the system...but I'd like to avoid this situation in my imaginary world.

Apologies if this is a duplicate question. I couldn't find anything but will happily be pointed in the right direction.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Define upgrade. And what kind of upgrade? What is the problem with upgrading all society, but richer at a faster rate? What if everyone ends up hooked to a computer, kept alive in their ideal fantasy land? I'm just trying to get you thinking here. $\endgroup$ Jul 5, 2016 at 1:34
  • $\begingroup$ A lot of organizations will likely also want to help you, especially religious ones $\endgroup$ Jul 5, 2016 at 1:44
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    $\begingroup$ Upgrade in be able to use the information at their fingertips-not necessarily straight away. I don't mind the rich staying rich or getter richer as long as my poor are not getting poorer or are left behind! That's why my leader has decided NOT to cut off everybody's head's and let the nobles keep most of their land, titles and positions of power! I believe the leader is trying to bribe those rich old bastards into helping! $\endgroup$ Jul 5, 2016 at 7:18
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    $\begingroup$ You might want to check PNG and how Australian colonists took it out of Stone Age and its current situation for inspiration (more here: davorrostuhar.com/2012/…) $\endgroup$ Sep 13, 2016 at 6:30
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    $\begingroup$ By excluding the Russian and Chinese models you are excluding two of the most illuminating historical examples. The Russian Empire / Soviet Union raised many peoples from the Middle Ages to the Industrial Age in two generations; Red China raised half a billion people out of abject poverty to something very much resembling the Internet Age in about 40 years. They did this by relentlessly focusing the might of the state on development at all costs, including disregarding any notion of human rights; whether it was worth it is another question, but the speed of transformation is unparalleled. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Feb 7, 2017 at 2:26

7 Answers 7


You'll have extreme problems when switching away from a class based system. You mentioned freeing the slave. What happens to their owners?

You mentioned other states, how will they react? Think of say US getting access to nukes during cold war, while USSR can't get them. It creates a massive imbalance of power. Will they sit idly by while you get more advanced?

When you say benevolent, is he ready to do what need to be done? Are his people in front of everyone else for him? Is he ready to go to war to protect them, even when he is in the wrong?

Another way to do this would be to go the evil route: Implement a police state. Kill all dissidents. Force the change. Won't make you the leader they want, but it will make a stronger society. Problem is it will most likely end with the people turning against you. Only way to prevent that is to give them an enemy. Someone who doesn't want them to prosper, who steals their jobs, takes their money and food. Unfortunately, you've basically created Nazism at that point.

Any change will be opposed by people not understanding it. The more drastic the change, the worse it gets. Only way for a peaceful change is education. So you need a new generation to be educated into accepting the change as something normal.

  • $\begingroup$ I kinda want to avoid nazism! Giving the people a common enemy works-until you find you are at peace with them. Then you have residual distrust & hate that can build up further and back fire decades later. See reaction to end of communism. The west had this whole propaganda war during the cold war saying Russian communists bad,western capitalism good. When the cold war ended, many people still distrustful of anything Russian. Try and tell people the cold war was over and that you 'friends' didn't make a difference to the stubborn old goats :) also see brexit and fears of German expansion. $\endgroup$ Jul 5, 2016 at 14:12

There are several issues that would need to be addressed (and indeed a lot of this question might be opinion based).

Firstly, how disruptive of the prevailing order is this new knowledge? Existing institutions and power structures will fight tooth and nail in order to preserve their power and perques, so anything which directly challenges an existing political, academic or economic interest will be met with everything possible to stop it. Ride share programs like Uber are under attack because they inherently disrupt the cosy monopoly that most civic governments have established with the taxi industry. "Fintech" is now under assault in Canada by the "Big Five" banks because it threatens their business models. Air BnB is under regulatory attack as it threatens the hotel industry, on line learning and private universities are being denied recognition and so on.

IF this new knowledge does not directly threaten an existing institution, then it will be able to grow and expand in a new niche and reach critical mass before a counter attack can be made.

The second issue is how well can people adapt to it? Personal computers were a novelty item for a decade until Apple developed the Graphical User Interface (GUI), meaning millions of people did not have to learn command line prompts in order to actually use a computer. The Internet eventually took off with the development of the Mosaic Browser, which made finding and using things on the Internet much easier, followed by the search engine explosion, which made finding anything on the internet easy and useful. If this new knowledge is esoteric in nature or difficult to apply, most potential users will give it a pass.

Finally, how useful is this new knowledge? If it is narrow and limited, then it will not be adopted by many people outside of its niche. The Internet as a technology is actually very esoteric and capital intensive, but the power of the Internet comes from its scalability and the ability of users to find everything they want from funny cat videos to YouTube instruction "manuals" that take you through a project step by step to on line news and commentary to Worldbuilding sites etc. etc. If the Internet had remained at email and message boards, it would still have a fairly wide adoption, but most people would consider it a secondary source, rather than the first impulse being "I'll just Google that".

So in order for knew knowledge to be adopted quickly and spread widely through society, it must not directly challenge existing structures or institutions, it must be easy to use and it must be widely applicable.

  • $\begingroup$ In my scenario I have a civil war predating the introduction of this information. So I'm hoping to introduce some of the new information in the rebuilding process. Some of it can even be done slyly behind the remaining existing 'powers' back if need be. So that before they realise it, the knowledge is already out there and the only way to move forward is to...move forward :) $\endgroup$ Jul 4, 2016 at 18:19
  • $\begingroup$ Is there some way to narrow the question down? So that it is not too opinion based? $\endgroup$ Jul 4, 2016 at 18:22

Don't call it a failure when it's going through the same steps as every society that did it themselves went through.

All societies go through a phase of having a massively wealthy, corrupt minority in charge. It appears to be one of the stages along the line to becoming a modern society. Whether it's the aristocracy of Britain, the oligarchs of Russia, the corporations of the US, far too many politicians across Africa or the bankers of Florence. Ancient or modern, it's a phase society goes through (at least once).

Until the rise of the unions, the rise of the liberal elite, and the rise of massed education, your society is going to go through one of these corrupt stages. As long as the whole can be considered stable and progressing it has not failed. You must accept that many people in positions of power seek power for its own sake, many of the wealthy seek wealth for its own sake.

You can only create an environment in which people who seek or wield power for the sake of the majority can rise, and even then they'll struggle against the will of the masses. It's hard to escape the crab bucket.

In answer to your question of how fast:

If the opportunity is there, 2 generations. If it's not there, much longer. It'll take a couple of generations to get everyone educated to secondary level. It'll take another generation to get significant numbers educated to degree level if you have the university facilities, if not, a generation to train the academics who can then train the next generation. This assumes you have the knowledge and just need to pass it on. Any society that has moved off subsistence farming can get everyone educated to primary level.

My ancestors came to this country as illiterate immigrants over 100 years ago, my grandfather was the first to go to school, my father the first to go to university.

  • $\begingroup$ True. States haven't failed if they have a revolution or overthrow of corruption. That's progress that is how change is made. I was just hoping that if you knew where the dangers lie, if we could steer around the negatives while still getting alot of the positives. I'm also a third generation immigrant and the first generation to go to and finish university...it's the reason why I want my world to move on without conflict $\endgroup$ Jul 5, 2016 at 9:05
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    $\begingroup$ @EveryBitHelps, there's no need for conflict. Britain made it out of the corrupt era by social rather than violent revolution, but that can take much longer. We had the rise of the liberal elite who said everyone should be educated, get the vote, have rights, they banned the death penalty etc. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Jul 5, 2016 at 9:20
  • $\begingroup$ I can get the social movement rolling a generation or two before my civil war. That way, alot of the mindset has already been changed or started to change and there will be less 'conflict' or denial of the need for progress. $\endgroup$ Jul 5, 2016 at 9:25

Any technology is going to require time to integrate into a society and many factors will contribute to how long that time takes and how thoroughly the integration spreads into the population.

The biggest factors include...

  • Manufacturing
  • Distribution
  • Complexity of use when compared to existing technologies
  • Conflict with existing technologies and beliefs.

...and the effect of each of these factors will vary from case to case as the technology changes.

A technology which is purely knowledge based (such as the need for boiling water before consumption in a society which already regularly uses fire) will spread much quicker that a technology (such as cell phones) which require the manufacturing and distribution of hardware components.

If however, the prevailing medical understanding in your fire-using society uses spiritual rather than biochemical methods in its healing attempts, the boil water order might meet a lot of resistance during distribution. "Healers" might rightfully see that the new knowledge threatens their base of power. They might actively work against the adoption and use of such rival healthcare knowledge. Meanwhile, those same spiritual healers might see cell phones as an opportunity to further spread their teachings, and actively support its growth; giving away free phones with their equivalent of 911 pre-configured in auto-dial.

There is no easy way to predict the speed with which a technology integrates into a society, even when that society is lead by an absolute monarch with strong motivations to see the technology integrated. Even in such an empire, there will be lesser powers and minor players which have a profound effect on the integration process.

  • $\begingroup$ Yes, the complexity does affect things. I had kinda ruled out cellphones, at least in the first generation! but still playing around with some sort of radio network. Maybe not one in every home but one in every town etc. This could then help spread 'the word' and hopefully make sure nobody is left behind in a backwater. At least make people aware that there is a better way! $\endgroup$ Jul 4, 2016 at 18:07
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    $\begingroup$ It would probably help others answer your question, if you gave us more details about the world you are writing about. What technology level are they starting at? What is the general nature of the new technology? Does it solve a major life-threatening issue or just add comfort or convenience? As your question is currently stated, only broad theoretical answers can be offered. With more details, you may get better answers. Also, you might want to ask a seperate question, asking how a monarch in possession of technology x could best spread its use throughout his country. $\endgroup$ Jul 4, 2016 at 18:20
  • $\begingroup$ I agree, more detail would help. I'm on my phone on the train at the moment. Was planning on adding more detail later when I get to a computer. $\endgroup$ Jul 4, 2016 at 18:27

Your question is essentially how to build a great and fair nation. The biggest thing to keep in mind is cause and effect of any influence your benevolent leader introduces.

We ought to consider this a control system problem, with feedback/outcome analysis of overall progress. Introduction of anything new (technology/reform) needs to be properly vetted to be sure no negative consequences are suffered eg. too much technology results in unemployment and starvation.

TLDR-Upgrade Length Historically (it's exponential):

  • Renaissance Period (1400-1700) - 300 Years
  • Industrial revolution (1760-1840) - 80 Years
  • Technological Revolution (1870-1910) - 40 Years
  • Electronic Age (1950-1980) - 30 Years
  • Information Age (1990-2010) - 20 Years

Overall we should focus on a couple key metrics and then on a few particular stretch goals.


If we think about how we measure the success of a country for it's citizens today we usually refer to Gross Domestic Product, Wealth-Gap, Education, Happiness, Freedom, Life Expectancy and Quality of Life. There are many attempts to normalize all these factors into measurement Human Development Index

Overall breaking down these indexes into the more general metrics we get the following, plus a few more for flavour:

  • Economy
  • Access to goods
  • Health
  • Science/Education
  • Social Reform

So assume your Benevolent leader is encouraging and managing factors of all the above to the best of his ability, while keep it manageable and controllable eg. not insane population growth (note the Black Plague actually culled population that would have probably died from starvation).

Stretch Goals:

Democracy or insert your favourite civic. Morality/Ethics. Quirks like Music/Art/Sportsball/Tradition you want to introduce in your narrative.

These stretch goals essentially need to overcome societal tradition and this can only occur long term, over multiple generations to facilitate a change in sensibilities.

Government - Modelling to the progression of the English Parliament

  • Parliament as an important ruling body - 1300s
  • First Revolution of monarchy - 1628
  • Settlement of Parliament and Constitutional Monarchy - 1701

So approximately 400 years to transition from a pure Feudal Model to an ruling Parliament.

Religious - Again let's use England as an example

  • Modern Era - Acceptance of new religions is fairly easy Social Acceptance of Branches of Christianity eg. Jews vs Catholicism vs Protestantism.
  • Protestantism took about 200 Years with some pretty strong "heretic" suppression.
  • Acceptance of Catholicism again after this persecution took about 400 Years. Normalisation of Judaism - >800 Years

Misc Culture Effects- Art/Sportsball/National Anecdote

Most cultural effects can be modified within 1/2 generations so say 50 Years.


  • War from foreign parties
  • Resistance to religious/belief/government model
  • Resistance to Technology
  • Loss of Benevolent ruler's influence.

Overall the speed of influencing any of the above is the speed of specialisation of the populace. ie. 10 people live hand to mouth farming vs 6 farmers + 1 blacksmith + 1 doctor + 1 tailor + 1 merchant is probably a more productive village.

Upgrade Timeline Guide:

Explicitly I would say industrialisation is the best model we can assume so going off GDP as a measurement of Industrialisation then the trend is exponential.


Time-span is dependent on the point on the exponential curve, but as a guide let's compare to 2 known periods of what can be considered an "Upgrade"

  • Renaissance Period (1400-1700) - 300 Years
  • Industrial revolution (1760-1840) - 80 Years
  • Technological Revolution (1870-1910) - 40 Years
  • Electronic Age (1950-1980) - 30 Years
  • Information Age (1990-2010) - 20 Years

Keeping in mind these periods of growth revolved around a certain few key technologies:

  • Renaissance Period - Trade Guilds
  • Industrial Revolution - Steam Power+Colonialism
  • Technological Revolution - Manufacturing
  • Electronic Age - Transistors
  • Information Age - Silicon/Internet

Overall the power of a single individual can only very optimistically match the natural development of many competing nations. Plus a lot of ground work goes into making the geopolitical/economic/social/ changes ready to transition/upgrade nations.

For your goal of small income gap, it's pretty hard, because this essentially wipes out Capitalism as a driving mechanism. I would suggest propelling development first then transition to post scarcity in future tech if you really want that utopia scenario.

Key Sciences:

Key Sciences for overall better quality of life.

  • Sanitation - Better Health and no Cholera.
  • Construction - Better cities
  • Agriculture - More efficient food growth
  • Refrigeration - Uplifts society from hand to mouth
  • Health Services/Medicine - Keeps your people healthy
  • Education - Enlightening People and accelerating growth
  • Industry - Craftsmanship/Efficiency
  • Misc Future/Tech - Space/SciFi

In terms of science, it's perfectly acceptable to have a proxy that make the "breakthroughs" and many Renaissance/Enlightenment scientists relied on the patronage of the wealthy families. eg. Leonardo Da Vinci

Universities are essentially a formalisation of this trend if you consider them a guild of science.


You might be surprised, but progress within a society depends quite a lot on land ownership. Raw knowledge is great, but when all of the land is held by the emperor, that's a recipe for stagnation. Real innovation comes when common people own land that they can develop as they see fit, or lease, or use as collateral for borrowing money. There also needs to be clear title to the land, so that it can be transferred within a legal framework, and so that people always know who owns it. Land won't get developed if there's no reasonable assurance that there will be a return on investment. The one thing your new emperor could do that would give his empire a giant leap into modernity would be to allow private ownership of land.

  • $\begingroup$ If so, how come Singapore, where almost no one owned land for most of hits history, was able to become an Asian Tiger economy? $\endgroup$
    – ohwilleke
    Jan 28, 2017 at 3:09

Everything depends on who releases the revolutionary information and how.

What you are talking about is called development, which is when a society, nation, state, kingdom etc. becomes more advanced. Development has different measures, but today is measured by income, literacy, education of women, and the most prominent economic sector (agriculture, manufacturing, services). In the end, development is all based on the view of the measurer.

Revolutionary information -- you will need to discover what exactly the information is in order for the story to succeed -- has power to create civil & even global wars:

If the freed slaves and working class got their hands on the information before the nobles: war.

If the lower classes thought that the releaser of information was unfair: war.

If it was centered around one policy, person, or single group (your real world examples): war.

Therefore there must be a universal desire and hunger for this information, as well as a gradual way to diffuse it through your empire equally among the social associations. Here are some proposals.

Solution (what I would do)

Have your emperor designate a trusted or elected group (small) to go into the library of which you spoke for years in order to glean all possible information from the endless tomes. These people are the first of the "enlightened" or some other name. Unless the information is toxic (I don't recommend that in the slightest), then these designated few will emerge into society as start spreading the gospel, which means good news. This would have to be controlled or monitored by the emperor, otherwise he would not stay in power.


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