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Jessica van der Schalk

Towards institutionalized anti-racism

The global protests ensuing George Floyd’s death have not only condemned racism in general, but specifically its deeply rooted systemic variant. Systemic or institutionalized racism, despite by some being framed as academic jargon, has real consequences and is responsible for structurally mistreating and marginalizing black people for centuries. Its ubiquity, tenacity and invisibility have even made us warry about if we will ever solve it. It seems that the only way to effectively combat racism is by fostering anti-racist socio-cultural, economic and technological structures that are as encompassing, resilient and normalized. A form of institutionalized anti-racism so to say. In this note, we allow ourselves to speculate to what extent we see a form of institutionalized anti-racism being materialized.

Our observations

  • In an earlier note we discussed possible precursors for the general increase in moral outrage. (e.g. #Metoo, climate change). Possible explanatory variables that were being considered were increase of discretionary income, secularization, social media and globalization.
  • The APM Research Lab presented a study which showed that three times as many black Americans died of the corona virus than white Americans, painfully emphasizing the structural marginalization of Afro-Americans in American society.
  • A study in Nature Human Behavior published this year shows that black drivers are more likely to be stopped by the police. Interestingly, the statistics also showed that black drivers were less likely to be stopped at night, as the driver’s skin color is harder to recognize by law enforcers.
  • The support for Black Lives Matter has gone up from a net support of -5% in 2017 to +28% this year, seeing the biggest increase after the death of George Floyd.
  • The Monmouth poll showed that 57% of the Americans believe that the police is more likely to use excessive force on black people than on white, as opposed to 33% who believed that the police is as likely to use excessive force on black and white culprits. Also 3 in 4 believe that racial discrimination is a big problem in the United States.
  • Greg Glassman, Crossfit CEO has resigned due to enormous social media backlash after releasing controversial statements regarding the Black Lives Matter movement.
  • A few big tech companies have announced that they upend their facial recognition technology. Amazon instituted a one-year moratorium on police use of Rekognition, while Microsoft will only provide access and Microsoft announced that they will refuse to share facial recognition technology with the police.

Connecting the dots

The recent global protests, signs of criminal justice reforms and the enactment of anti-racism policies in public life, flirt with the promise of real change for the anti-black racism movement. However, given the long history of broken promises one cannot fully escape the skepticism that these gestures will turn out to be short-lived and result in empty promises as soon as the public eye has moved to the next public concern. Hence, Maureen Johnson deems institutionalized anti-racism, i.e. deeper societal structures that oppose racism, as the only way to combat its counterpart. Hence, instead of focusing on the proposed reforms, we will speculate, in the spirit of neo utopian thinking, to what extent the current surge of anti-racism could be attributed to a deep transition towards institutional structures.

Some indications can already be found in the way these protests have evolved over the past decades. From the ‘60s to the protests following Floyd’s death, protests have become more global and diverse. This could indicate that the movement is gaining broader support in civil society and becoming more decentralized, making it harder for the entire movement to become marginalized or taken hostage by violent fractions. The decentralization is further reflected by the absence of a central charismatic leader of the magnitude of a Martin Luther King or Malcolm X. The documentary ‘I am not your negro’ shows the importance of their moral leadership (and their assassination) in the visibility and representation of the movement. On the other hand, the current absence of a central leader has the advantage of being less vulnerable and also creates the opportunity for a more amorph movement through which the heterogeneity of black identities and corresponding agendas can be represented.

When it comes to representation of black identities in mainstream media, we also see examples that oppose racism in a more nuanced way. Critically acclaimed movies like Moonlight and Dope or popular music artists like Frank Ocean or Childish Gambino have addressed the problems surrounding black hyper-masculinity and the issue of intersectionality, i.e. how the black identity combined with other identities (i.e. gender, sexuality, ethnicity) can result in special forms of discrimination. Black Panther, a $1.4 billion grossing Marvel movie, paints an optimistic afrofuturistic picture while also showing the nuanced positions within the civil rights movement.

In addition to traditional media, the rise of social media has probably even had a bigger impact on giving anti-racism a voice. Under the virtual umbrella of #blacklivesmatter, a vast coalition of activist groups and individuals is able to communicate, organize and create awareness on a global level. Civic journalism allowed the black community to expand on the aforementioned complexity and breadth of black identities and racist experiences. Furthermore, as the video of George Floyd’s death exemplified, smartphones and social media created grass roots surveillance. However, the civic scrutiny does not only apply to law enforcement, but also to other organizations in which employees call out tokenism and superficial PC behavior. Furthermore, the presence of social media has also created a real time social forum in which organizations cannot withdraw from the conversation and have to take a stance on the matter. Digitization also supports anti-racism through the broad collection and publication of socio-demographic and socio-economic data. Statistics like disproportionate incarceration numbers, unemployment rates or corona deaths among the black community, have helped in uncovering the painful truth of social inequality along racial lines. As written before, data has a will of its own, as the mere availability of data can help create awareness on latent social injustices and, as the protests have shown, help incite action. With the availability of AI we could even go a step further and directly influence biased decision making. Even though AI systems have shown to be racially biased, AI actually has the potential to make the decision making process surrounding racial related issues more transparent and controllable. This also explains why some tech companies are hesitant to share their facial recognition technologies with law enforcers as long as the required regulation is not in place.

The dissemination and reinforcement of anti-racist values, is not only driven by people but also by corporate structures. On the one hand, we can interpret anti-racist statements (and action) from large commercial companies like Microsoft, Disney and Nike as capitalist cash grabs of a social cause. At the same time, these companies provide a serious platform, cash grab or not, for people who intrinsically and authentically seek social change and who are suddenly able to reach a mass audience.

The emergence of institutionalized anti-racism does not mean that we should become complacent with regards to racism. After all, the existence of anti-racist structures does not automatically mean that racist structures are on the decline. Also, one could even argue, that the structural repulsion of racism could even lead to more subtle and invisible forms of racism such as benevolent prejudice, aversive racism and tokenism that are harder to call out and to deal with. Nevertheless, these potential pitfalls are no reason to abolish this utopia, but as a starting point to realize this speculative future.

Implications

  • As part of a larger trend towards moral outrage, we can see similarities with other protest movements. However, this does not necessarily mean that it will resonate as deeply as the black lives matter movement has, as it will depend on how broad (e.g. socio-economic, cultural, political) and deep the marginalization goes, and to what extent the specific movement itself is carried by economic, socio-cultural and technological structures.
  • Companies will not be able to hide behind a façade of PC-marketing. Instead, companies will be judged on their track record and past actions.

Scenario-denken: het omarmen van onzekerheid

Wanneer we nadenken over de toekomst, zijn er twee strategieën die we toe kunnen passen. De eerste is het doen van prognoses: hierbij wordt daadwerkelijk geprobeerd de toekomst te voorspellen. Deze strategie wordt vaak gebruikt door politici of bedrijven om stemmers of consumenten voor zich te winnen (‘Als u zich bij ons voegt, ziet de toekomst er zo uit’). De tweede strategie omarmt de aanname dat de toekomst per definitie onvoorspelbaar is vanwege structurele onzekerheden, en men concentreert zich hierbij op het ontwikkelen van verschillende scenario’s die worden behandeld als allemaal even waarschijnlijk. Vandaag de dag lijkt het erop dat we ons steeds bewuster zijn van, en steeds meer geconfronteerd worden met, structurele onzekerheden zoals klimaatverandering, virusuitbraken, snelle technologische innovatie of politieke instabiliteit. Dit kan ertoe leiden dat mensen op zoek gaan naar partijen die onzekerheid omarmen, in plaats van proberen weg te nemen.

Onze observaties

  • Complexiteit wordt gedefinieerd als het aantal factoren waar we rekening mee moeten houden, de variëteit ervan en de relaties ertussen. Hoe meer factoren, hoe meer variatie en hoe meer ze met elkaar verbonden zijn, des te complexer wordt het om de toekomst te voorspellen.
  • Met de opkomst van het internet en digitalisering, zijn dingen die ooit geïsoleerd waren, verbonden geraakt, wat de wereld complexer heeft gemaakt dan daarvoor. Er hebben onder andere technologische en sociologische veranderingen plaatsgevonden: de digitalisering van enorme hoeveelheden informatie, smart systemen die autonoom communiceren, de steeds lagere kosten van rekenkracht, het toenemende gemak waarmee ‘rijke content’ gecommuniceerd kan worden door tijd en ruimte en institutionele innovatie met betrekking tot industrienormen en zakenmodellen. Door zulke ontwikkelingen is het veel moeilijker geworden een enkele, goed gedefinieerde en hoogstwaarschijnlijke toekomst te voorspellen.
  • Volgens Forbes hebben auteurs in populaire zakelijke media en academische literatuur er moeite mee om termen te vinden voor de toenemende onmogelijkheid grip te krijgen op de wereld en de gebeurtenissen die zich voordoen. Onzekerheid, turbulentie, snelle verandering, dynamisme, verstoring, complexiteit, hypercompetitie, hogesnelheidsmarkten en flux zijn voorbeelden van zulke termen. Het acroniem VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex en ambiguous, te vertalen als veranderlijk, onzeker, complex en ambigu) wordt steeds populairder, omdat het recht doet aan de verschillende dimensies van onzekerheid waarmee we te kampen hebben.
  • Volgens BNY Mellon zijn een paar van de vele consequenties van de continue technologische verstoring dat bedrijven veel korter op topposities staan op de beurs, traditionele bedrijfsmodellen veranderen en dat bedrijven een veel kortere levensduur hebben. In 1965 bleef bijvoorbeeld een bedrijf gemiddeld zo’n 33 jaar op de Amerikaanse aandelenmarkt. In 1990 was dat al gezakt naar 20 jaar – In 2026 wordt verwacht dat dat gemiddeld nog maar zo’n 14 jaar zal zijn. Dat zou inhouden dat gedurende de komende tien jaar, ongeveer de helft van de 500 grootste bedrijven op de beurs in de VS vervangen zal worden.
  • Het schetsen van meerdere scenario’s is een gangbare manier geworden om de toekomst te verkennen. Het World Economic Forum heeft bijvoorbeeld vier mogelijke scenario’s geschetst voor de toekomst van energie, KPMG vier voor de toekomst van kunstmatige intelligentie, Medium bedacht vier scenario’s voor de toekomst van werk, ook kranten opperen soms meerdere scenario’s (zoals The Guardian over Brexit) wanneer belangrijke gebeurtenissen meerdere plausibele uitkomsten hebben, en Bloomberg Opinion schetste onlangs voor investeerders drie scenario’s over de impact van het coronavirus.

Verbanden leggen

Een prognose doen in de vorm van een enkele uitkomst die wordt gezien als de meest waarschijnlijke is een traditionele manier van strategisch plannen in organisaties. Hierbij wordt ervan uitgegaan dat het, in theorie, mogelijk is de toekomst te voorspellen, mits men beschikt over de juiste informatie en de (menselijke/geautomatiseerde) slagkracht om die data te verwerken. In de meeste gevallen houdt dit in dat een huidige trend verwacht wordt zich voort te zetten in de toekomst. Maar sinds de oliecrisis van de vroege jaren ’70 lijkt het doen van voorspellingen tekort te schieten als tool voor strategisch plannen in tijden van onzekerheid. De olieprijs leek toen al tijden een van de meest standvastige elementen van de wereldeconomie en experts voorspelden dat dit nog een decennium of langer zo zou blijven. Nu weten we dat hier niks van klopte, omdat de prijzen explosief stegen toen een aantal Arabische olieproducerende landen in actie kwam tegen het westen.
Maar in de late jaren ’60, voor de oliecrisis, had Pierre Wack een nieuwe strategische tool geïntroduceerd bij Royal Dutch Shell: scenario-planning. Dankzij deze tool konden de medewerkers van Shell op de oliecrisis van de vroege jaren ’70 anticiperen. Zij hadden de oliecrisis geïncorporeerd in een van hun scenario’s, dus toen de eerste tekenen van prijsverandering zich voordeden, herkenden zij dit scenario en konden ze snel inspelen op de veranderingen.
Bij scenario-planning wordt ervan uitgegaan dat de toekomst onvoorspelbaar is en onvermijdelijke onzekerheden bevat. Professor Van der Heijden maakt in zijn boek Scenarios onderscheid tussen drie typen onzekerheden: risico’s, structurele onzekerheden en het onkenbare. Van risico’s kunnen we modellen maken en deze doortrekken naar de toekomst, aangezien ze genoeg historisch precedent hebben in de vorm van soortgelijke gebeurtenissen die het mogelijk maken waarschijnlijkheden te formuleren. Structurele onzekerheden zijn trends of gebeurtenissen die uniek zijn en waarbij uitspraken over waarschijnlijkheid dus niet mogelijk zijn. Onkenbaar zijn gebeurtenissen waar we ons überhaupt geen voorstelling van kunnen maken.
Enkele huidige risico’s zijn bijvoorbeeld de spanningen omtrent handel tussen de VS en China of vergrijzing in veel landen. Huidige structurele onzekerheden zijn bijvoorbeeld de verstoring van veel bedrijfsmodellen door technologische verandering, de snel veranderende aard van werk, klimaatverandering of feedback loops.

Het huidige coronavirus kan gecategoriseerd worden als een structurele onzekerheid: hoewel we niet hadden kunnen weten wanneer en hoe het zou gebeuren, is het een zekerheid dat we zo nu en dan te maken zullen krijgen met een wereldwijde virusuitbraak. Een voorbeeld van een onkenbare gebeurtenis is het Fukushima-ongeluk. De nucleaire basis leek bijna overal op voorbereid, maar wanneer een tsunami toesloeg, veroorzaakte dit bij drie reactoren een meltdown. Scenario-planning beslaat het terrein van structurele onzekerheden.
Omdat structurele onzekerheden niet gereduceerd kunnen worden tot waarschijnlijkheden, is het bij scenario-planning zaak om rekening te houden met meerdere uitkomsten van zowel bekende als nog onbekende ontwikkelingen. In tegenstelling tot bij voorspellen, is het uitgangspunt bij scenario-planning het beschouwen van al deze uitkomsten als even waarschijnlijk. Naarmate de tijd verstrijkt, worden gebeurtenissen en trends bekeken door de lens van deze scenario’s, en wordt gezocht naar aanwijzingen en gekeken of die aanwijzingen weak signals zouden kunnen zijn van een bepaald scenario. Verder worden de ontwikkelde scenario’s regelmatig herzien en wordt nagegaan of ze nog up-to-date zijn na verloop van tijd. Het zijn zogenaamde levende documenten die zich steeds blijven ontwikkelen, in tegenstelling tot statische strategieën, die zich altijd vast blijven houden aan één visie.
Tot slot, voordat een beleid wordt geïmplementeerd of een project wordt gestart, wordt het geanalyseerd met het oog op deze scenario’s om vast te stellen of het succesvol zou kunnen zijn in één of meerdere scenario’s. Nu structurele onzekerheden zoals technologische verstoring, de toekomst van werk en klimaatverandering de perspectieven van bedrijven sterk beïnvloeden, maken veel van ’s werelds grootste bedrijven, zoals Disney, Apple en Accenture, gebruik van scenario-planning.

Implicaties

  • Zoals we eerder schreven, wordt onzekerheid steeds meer geaccepteerd in ons denken over de toekomst. Speculatief design is bijvoorbeeld ontstaan als nieuwe discipline in de architectuur en kunst. Hierbij worden de onzekerheden en ambiguïteit van nieuwe technologieën als uitgangspunt genomen om meerdere mogelijke uitkomsten uit te stippelen. Pragmatisch utopisch denken is aanzienlijk populair geworden in verschillende domeinen. De algemene houding van deze pragmatische utopische beweging is dat meta-narratieven en utopisch denken niet als blauwdruk voor de samenleving gebruikt moeten worden, maar moeten worden beschouwd als rudimentaire oriëntatiepunten voor het maken van beslissingen en als bron van hoop in onzekere tijden. Actuele ontwikkelingen in het genre horrorfilms bieden ons ook de extreme scenario’s waarmee we ‘veilig’ enkele duistere perspectieven kunnen verkennen.

  • Een flexibelere manier van kijken naar de toekomst is alleen mogelijk wanneer onzekerheid een structureel element is op de agenda van bijvoorbeeld beleidsmakers in het bedrijfsleven of de politiek. Nu meer aandacht besteed wordt aan onzekerheden, is het mogelijk dat een creatieve, meerzijdige toekomstvisie, die blijk geeft van voorbereidheid op meer dan een (voorkeurs)scenario, meer vertrouwen zal inboezemen dan een simpele oplossing met maar een enkel toekomstbeeld (denk aan Trumps ‘America first’ of de (oorspronkelijke) mission statement van Facebook ‘om mensen de macht te geven om te delen en de wereld meer open en verbonden te maken’).

Scenario thinking: embracing uncertainty

When thinking about the future, one could employ two different strategies. The first is referred to as forecasting and is all about actually trying to predict the future. This strategy is often used by politicians or companies in order to persuade voters or consumers to join them (e.g. if you join us, this is what the future will look like). By contrast, the second strategy embraces the assumption that the future is inherently unpredictable because of structural uncertainties, and concentrates on developing various scenarios that are treated as equally possible. Today it seems we are increasingly aware of, and confronted with structural uncertainties such as climate change, virus outbreaks, rapid technological innovation or political instability. This might cause people to look for parties that embrace uncertainty rather than trying to solve it.

Our observations

  • Complexity is defined as the number of factors that we need to take into account, their variety and the relationships between them. The more factors, the greater their variety and the more they are interconnected, the more complex it becomes to predict the future.
  • With the rise of the internet and digitization, things that used to be isolated became connected, making the world more complex than it was before. Among other factors, technological and sociological changes took place: the digitization of massive amounts of information, smart systems communicating autonomously, the decreasing cost of computing power, the increasing ease of communicating “rich content” across space and time, and institutional innovation in terms of industry norms and business models. Because of such developments, it has become more difficult to predict the future as a single, well-defined and highly probable future.
  • According to Forbes, popular business press and academic literature are struggling to find terms that refer to an increasing inability to get a grip on the world and the events that occur. Uncertainty, turbulence, rapid change, dynamism, disruption, complexity, hyper-competition, high-velocity markets and flux are examples of such terms. The notion of “VUCA” (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) is gaining popularity as it covers the various dimensions of uncertainty we are facing.
  • According to BNY Mellon, some of the many consequences of the continuous technological disruptions is that companies are spending a much briefer period on leading positions in the stock markets, a change in traditional business models and a much shorter lifespan of companies. In 1965, for example, a company could spend 33 years on the U.S. stock market. By 1990 that average had fallen to 20 years – by 2026 that number is expected to have shrunk again to 14 years. This implies that over the next 10 years, about half of the 500 largest companies in the U.S. stock market will be replaced.
  • Portraying multiple scenarios has become a common way to explore the future for many. The World Economic Forum, for example, made four different scenarios for the future of energy, KPMG made four different scenarios on the future of Artificial Intelligence, Medium made four scenarios on the future of work, newspapers sometimes offer multiple scenarios  when important events have multiple plausible outcomes (e.g. The Guardian on Brexit), and Bloomberg Opinion recently offered three scenarios for investors on the impact of the coronavirus.

Connecting the dots

Forecasting the future in terms of a single outlook that is considered most probable, is a traditional way of strategic planning in organizations. It assumes that, in theory, it is possible to predict the future if only one has the right information and possesses the (human and/or automated) capabilities to process that data. In most cases this implies that an ongoing trend is extrapolated into the future. However, ever since the oil crisis in the early 1970’s, forecasting appeared to fail as a successful strategic planning tool in times of uncertainty. At that time, the oil price had remained one of the most stable features of the global economy and experts had predicted it would stay that way in the next decade or so. As we know now, these forecast were way off as prices rose explosively due to a number of Arab oil-producing countries taking action directed against the West. However, at the end of the 1960’s, before the oil crisis, Pierre Wack had introduced a new strategic tool at Royal Dutch Shell: scenario planning. Because of this tool, Shell successfully anticipated the oil crisis of the early 1970’s. They had included the oil crisis in one of their scenarios, so when the first signs of price changes occurred, they linked them to this scenario and where able to anticipate the sudden changes quickly.
Scenario planning assumes that the future is unpredictable and contains irreducible uncertainties. In his book Scenarios, Professor Van der Heijden distinguishes tree types of uncertainties: risks, structural uncertainties and unknowables. Risks can be modelled and extrapolated into the future, as they have enough historical precedent in the form of similar events that allow for probabilities to be formulated. Structural uncertainties concern trends or events that are unique and don’t allow for a perception of likelihood. Unknowables are events that we cannot imagine at all. Some of the current risks

are, for example, the trade tensions between the U.S. and China or aging populations in many countries. Current structural uncertainties are for example the disruption of many business models by technological change, the rapidly changing nature of work, climate change or feedback loops. The current coronavirus can be categorized as an occurrence of a structural uncertainty: although we couldn’t know how and when it would happen, the fact that we are confronted with a global virus outbreak every now and then is a given. An example of an unknowable is the Fukushima accident. The nuclear base seemed ready for almost anything, but when it was hit by a tsunami, three reactors had a meltdown. Scenario planning operates in the area of structural uncertainties.
As structural uncertainties cannot be reduced to probabilities, scenario planning aims to take into account multiple outcomes of known, or yet unknown, developments. Contrary to forecasting, the starting point is to consider these different outcomes as equally probable. As time unfolds, events and trends are monitored through the lens of these scenarios, looking for clues and question whether they might be weak signals for one particular scenario. Also, the developed scenarios are revisited on a regular basis, verifying whether they are still up-to-date as time goes by. They are so-called living documents that evolve over time as opposed to static strategies that hold on to one vision over time. Finally, before policies or projects are launched, they are analyzed vis-a-vis these scenarios in order to see whether they can be successful in one or more scenarios. As structural uncertainties such as technological disruption, the future of work and climate change are dominating the outlooks in business, many the world’s largest corporations, including Disney, Apple and Accenture are using scenario planning.

Implications

  • As we wrote before, uncertainty is increasingly accepted in our thinking about the future. Speculative design, for example, emerged as a new discipline in design, architecture and art. It takes the uncertainties and ambiguity of new technologies as a starting point and imagines possible outcomes. Pragmatic utopian thinking has gained considerable popularity in different domains. The general attitude within this pragmatic utopian movement is that grand narratives and utopian thinking should not be used as a blueprint for society, but instead should be perceived as tentative orientation points for our decision-making and as a source of hope in uncertain times. Current developments in the horror movie genre also seem to provide us with the extreme scenarios that allow us to ‘safely’ explore some of our dark horizons.

  • A more flexible way of looking at the future is only possible when uncertainty is a structural element on the agenda of, for example, policymakers in business or politics. As structural uncertainties are increasingly getting attention, trustworthiness might shift from offering voters or consumers simple solutions that envision just one future (e.g. Trump’s “America first” or Facebook’s (original) mission statement “To give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected”) to presenting a creative and multiple outlook into the future, demonstrating to be prepared for more than one (preferred) scenario.

Britain after Brexit

What happened?

On 31 January, the United Kingdom officially withdrew from the European Union. Although negotiations for trade arrangements are still in full swing, we could speculate as to how Britain will change after Brexit. During the Brexit campaign, the idea of Global Britain popped up, but how realistic is this post-Brexit pledge? More generally, how should we imagine Britain after Brexit?

What does this mean?

Global Britain is not merely a nostalgic yearning for a greater past. It is the strategy the UK must fall back on when it leaves the EU common market. We have already seen the first signs of what Global Britain will look like. The UK is strengthening commercial ties to former Commonwealth countries. A few weeks ago, Boris Johnson invited 13 African leaders to discuss finance, infrastructure, clean energy and agriculture. However, Global Britain will not only reorient the British economy: the UK is looking to reassert its military power in the Indian Ocean (for which Oman is an important partner), as the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier will make the British navy stronger than at any time since the 1950s.

What’s next?

In the coming years, aside from domestic tensions, the most important goal for the UK is finding new partners. Although it may sound counter-intuitive now (the UK refused to align with the U.S. in banning Huawei’s 5G), the UK will strengthen its relationship with the U.S., both militarily and economically. The UK will also strengthen ties to non-western regions. Although Global Britain seems overly ambitious, we should not disregard the potential of British industry, finance and soft power to transform the British economy post-Brexit.

The Dutch way of going circular

What happened?

Dutch material consumption per inhabitant is lower than the EU average and the Dutch consumed 20% fewer materials in 2018 than in 2000. Furthermore, compared with other countries, the Netherlands recycles a lot: 1700 kg per year per inhabitant. That the Dutch average of material use is below EU average is mainly due to the fact that the Netherlands is a relatively small and densely populated country, which means that relatively little material is needed per capita for the construction of the required infrastructure, such as roads. Furthermore, the Netherlands has a limited manufacturing industry and a large service sector, many goods are imported to be immediately re-exported after minor processing.

What does this mean?

The Dutch government aims to make the Netherlands circular within the next 30 years and to have its economy 100% waste-free by 2050, and is thus investing in promoting the circular economy. The reported progress is a good sign, but the Netherlands still has a long way to go if it wants to reach circularity by 2050.  On a global scale, the circular trend is even negative. The recently published Circularity Gap Report states that world is only 9% circular and that the upward trend in resource extraction and greenhouse gas emissions has continued. Circularity can only be reached when the problems of a linear economy are addressed. Reusing materials is labor-intensive, as more and more circular entrepreneurs have begun to notice. As a result, a shift to less tax on labor and more tax on resources is now supported by more Dutch sectors.

What’s next?

As the Dutch are striving for circularity, circular successes can be inspirational. As the building industry is still material-intensive, the BlueCity, an unusual building that serves as an incubator for companies working on the circular economy, has just won a prize for Rotterdam’s Most Sustainable Real Estate Project 2020. Furthermore, the government also aspires to circularity in agriculture. For a food nation like the Netherlands, this is a great chance to show global leadership.

Contemporary Collapsology

The end of the world is an ancient theme, prevalent in mythology, religion and arts throughout the ages. In recent years, we have witnessed rising popularity of this theme, albeit a secularized version, in popular media. Furthermore, we do not only tremble at the thought of the Apocalypse anymore: now, it is welcomed and even aspired to. Analyzing and understanding this emerging paradigm of “collapsology’ will reveal some of the deep structural transformations of our socio-cultural fabric and our perception of the current state of economic and political systems.

Our observations

  • In his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, historian Jared Diamond defines “collapse” as “a drastic decrease in human population size and/or political/economic/social complexity, over a considerable area, for an extended time.” (p.3) His book analyzes the collapse of various historical civilizations and identifies five influential factors: climate change, hostile neighbors, trade partners that provide alternative sources of goods (and services), environmental problems, and society’s response to these risks. Of course, the last of these factors is the only endogenous factor, and often revolves around the short-term interests of those in power and those who own the means of production and the long-term needs of society at large.
  • There is growing interest, especially in France, in “collapsology”, which is a movement that favors a collapse of current socio-political structures, because human history is full of collapsing civilizations that in turn became fertile ground for new ones. Mostly driven by climate change, this school urges us to turn our “current collapse” into a positive one, in which we actively build new economic, political and social systems (e.g. small-scale bio-regions, economic models not based on growth) that are attuned to the finitude of the earth’s resources and foster living in harmony with nature.
  • In his book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, theorist Mark Fisher sees capitalist realism as the “widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” (p.6) He attributes this idea to two cultural critics of “late capitalism”: Frederic Jameson (who famously said that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”) and Slavoj Žižek (a Marxist philosopher who uses movies and popular media to explore hidden ideologies and capitalist hegemonic dominance in post-modern societies, e.g. The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology).
  • Three years ago, we wrote about the historical recurrence of periods of “crises” and that according to the book The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy, we are in the midst of a twenty-year crisis period that started with the 2007 financial crisis and morphed into a broader socio-political crisis. Steve Bannon, Trump’s former Chief Strategist of the White House, was heavily influenced by these ideas and endorsed Trump as he saw him as the only person that could leverage this period of crisis to “drain the swamp” in Washington and lay the foundation for a new socio-political system (i.e. a “High”). Even after Bannon was ousted in August 2017, he has continued to support Trump for this reason.
  • A recent study shows that the fundamental political demarcation in the UK is no longer the “left-right” divide but the “centrist-anarchy” divide. Those in the anarchist ideological camp, comprising up to 40% of the population, have low trust in government, business and media and hail from both the left and right. Similarly, another study shows that both the far-left and far-right share a common urge for chaos, “sharing motivations associated with ‘chaotic’ motivations to ‘burn down’ the entire established democratic ‘cosmos’” (p.1). Their shared longing for chaos and anarchy is best illustrated by the hugely popular meme “some men just want to watch the world burn”, an expression from the movie the Dark Knight that refers to the Joker: a personage that wants to spread chaos and anarchy because “the only sensible way to live in this world is without rules”.
  • In the 1960s, ethologist John Calhoun performed experiments with mice to study the effects of population growth on individual behavior. By setting up the mice in a “utopian” environment, with plenty of food, no enemies and housing, he observed that initially the mouse population grew exponentially. However, as the space in the “mouse utopia” became increasingly socially defined, some groups of mice showed new behavior, such as extreme aggression as well as narcissistic isolation. In the end, the mouse population shrank significantly, due to a declining birth rate as a result of lower breeding and a higher death rate caused by increased violence. Calhoun dubbed this “extinction phase” and social breakdown the “behavioral sink”, and used it as a metaphor for the fate of man living in an overpopulated world by referring to the biblical Book of Revelation. Similarly, the Human Voluntary Extinction Movement defines its purpose as follows: “Phasing out the human race by voluntarily ceasing to breed will allow Earth’s biosphere to return to good health. Crowded conditions and resource shortages will improve as we become less dense.”
  • We have written before about the reinvigoration of the horror genre, with horror movies considered indicators of what (literally) keeps society up at night. One extremely popular sub-genre is the zombie genre. Although zombies look fearsome, many zombie series and films are not actually about zombies themselves but about the quest to rebuild society after the collapse of civilization due to zombies.

Connecting the dots

A few weeks ago, we explored three posthumanist paradigms. However, we didn’t discuss the most radical version of post-humanism: a scenario in which humans go extinct and our current societies and civilizations collapse. This “collapse” is an ancient theme, explored in many religions (e.g. the Last Judgment present in all Abrahamic religions), myths (e.g. the flood myth found in many cultures around the world), literature and arts (e.g. the movie 2012 (2009) that was part of the 2012 phenomenon driven by the eschatological end of the Mayan calendar). Fantasizing about the Apocalypse is making a comeback in our contemporary culture, philosophy and media. But why?
One could claim that collapse is an intrinsic “directionality” of reality. In physics, the process of “entropy” implies that any closed and stable system will eventually dissolve into more chaos and disorder. This not only holds in physics but also in social sciences, such as in the process of “creative disruption”, in which new innovations make old technologies superfluous and destroy their socio-technical system, periods of hegemonic shift, in which new challengers undo the geopolitical order of the previous hegemon, or from one generation to the next, as youngsters generally want to do things differently than their parents and grandparents and dream of creating a new society. Currently, we could be witnessing such seismic shifts in various parts of our society and culture, as systems move from an “old” phase to a new one. For example, the next technological revolution could be in the making, driven by improvements in AI, the fact that the end of America’s hegemonic cycle is nearing as China is on the rise, and the approaching new generational cycle, in which Gen Z embodies the Artist archetype (with corresponding characteristics), while new utopian visions of society are emerging that transcend our capitalist system of production and consumption (i.e. post-growth economies and post-materialist consumption).
In this sense, the “collapse” is just a phase in cyclical movements and a continual process of rebirth and decay, growth and collapse that is found all around reality. But collapse as a phase has both a negative and a positive side. On the negative side, the phase of collapse means that the destruction of our current political, economic and social systems. On the positive side, collapse is followed by the “post-Apocalyptic world”, in which man has the opportunity to rebuild his world, culture and civilization. And it is this positive part that has gained much popularity in recent years. So what is it that we long for in the post-Apocalyptic world?
First, there is a deep and fundamental belief that society’s systems are “broken”: social mobility is declining as inequality is mounting, politicians seem unable to harmonize polarized society and partisan politics cannot overcome society’s biggest challenges (e.g. climate change, affordable housing or healthcare for younger generations), many fear losing their “bullshit jobs” or don’t even like their job (e.g. 84% of workers are not fully engaged in their job) while others have to keep working to make ends meet (the Yellow Vests’ slogan is: “The end of the world, the end of the month, same struggle.”). Exactly this feeling that change cannot be accomplished within the system and that therefore the system should change, is what unites far-left and far-right voters. Indeed, this dystopic feeling (i.e. the belief that there is no alternative to the current state) shows that extremist parties in our current system are on the same page with respect to collapsology.

Second, there is more and more longing for personal agency and meaningful political engagement. As we increasingly inhabit abstract and complex systems (e.g. modern bureaucracies, multinational companies, global cities, international social networks), we feel that we no longer belong somewhere but anywhere instead (see David Goodhart’s book The Road to Somewhere). As such, many post-Apocalyptic media content shows us a world in which small communities have real interaction (e.g. The Walking Dead), and in which we have a tangible impact on our political systems. Furthermore, this could be a requirement for turning our nascent ecological collapse into something positive (e.g. city foodscapes).
Lastly, modern technology provides us with more freedom, but can distort our natural rhythms and possibly suppress our biological inclinations. As such, we increasingly feel out of touch with natural and concrete life: we no longer possess the skills to survive outside highly domesticated areas (e.g. cities, smart homes), which is a deeply-rooted psychological need, and are becoming increasingly detached from nature (which also causes mental problems). This problem is exacerbated by ever-increasing population growth that not only puts pressure on our resources but also on social and political spaces. Calhoun’s mice experiments show that increasing social and political density can induce social division and conflict, which we’re experiencing with rising extremism and increased social isolation. Calhoun likened this to the First of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, who is said to embody the Antichrist and to induce the destruction of a corrupted world. Similarly, to a large extent, digital technology and big tech now define our social and cultural spaces and increasingly mediate our relation to the living world and social spaces. This gives us new ways of relating, but also leads to different social behavior, such as hate speech or less ethical online behavior. As such, Scott Galloway has dubbed Alphabet, Amazon, Apple and Facebook the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse due to their unbounded power in all parts of our everyday lives. In contrast, post-Apocalyptic worlds, in all their brutality and destruction, force us to take matters into our own hands, work the land for food and survival, rebuild new societal structures and communities from the ashes of the previous civilization, and gain an immediate relationship to the world around us (i.e. not mediated by digital technologies). This could help explain the popularity of survival series (e.g. Ultimate Survival, Naked and Afraid).
Many of the “romantic” imperatives and latent wishes of the post-Apocalyptic world are already coming to us in less violent and dangerous forms. For example, in leisure, we want to live closer to nature, e.g. by camping and a #vanlife. In economics, we perceive the rising (or returning) cult of craftsmanship as an attempt to gain more control over our own means of production and denounce the “abstract labor” that is prevalent in post-industrial or late capitalist societies. Politically, new forms of “counterculture”, such as cryptocommunities, bottom-up and local cooperatives, as well as terrorism and rising fundamentalism, are increasingly rebelling against the system and wish to overturn it. Lastly, from a philosophical perspective, transhumanism tries to overcome the current “human condition” by either letting humans go extinct or transcending man’s limited physical and mental capabilities to create new societal structures in line with evolutionary (e.g. Kevin Kelly’s technicium) or sustainability imperatives.

Implications

  • The Apocalypse as a subject is on the rise in films, series, but also in videogames in which the aim is to retreat from society and venture into new worlds. Negatively, this is because apocalyptic games offer “sustained escapism from our own reality”, writes Alfie Bown in his book The PlayStation Dreamworld (p.40). But on the positive side, videogames like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Neo Scavenger, or The Forest depict a world in which gamers can interact in a deep way with the environment and practice survival skills.
  • Collapsology could become a defining feature of the “formative experience” of younger generations, which would render new value patterns and ideas about the Good Life. In the model of The Fourth Turning, “Crisis” (i.e. Collapse) will be followed by a “high” period (i.e. the post-Apocalyptic world), which will value strong institutions and social conformity, with a solid pragmatic problem-solving worldview. Theoretically, Gen Z’ers are then likely to become more socially conservative and less liberal, which is already visible in their more prudish and materialist lifestyles, declining tolerance of minorities and increasing wish for authority to make others behave as they wish.

Could Europe Fix the Internet?

Over the last two decades the internet has gradually balkanized into myriad centralized spaces where either big tech or authoritarian state actors have become powerful gatekeepers. As a consequence, the project of an open global internet is jeopardized. It is against this backdrop thatEurope is currently in the process of developing a data and AI strategy which should restore some of its competitiveness and sovereignty. Here we take a closer look at some of these policies and speculate on future opportunities for Europe that go beyond a defensive digital strategy.

Our observations

  • In May 2015, the European Union announced the Digital Single Market policy, which aims to remove trade barriers among EU members in the domains of digital marketing, e-commerce and telecommunications. The Digital Single Market is part of the Digital Agenda for Europe 2020. The directives on datasharing are within the scope of the Digital Single Market.
  • On the 19th of February, European Commission Vice President Margrethe Vestager presented a new package on data and artificial intelligence with a strong strategic focus on social AI and the re-use of data. Regarding the latter, it aims to establish a European data space in which data can seamlessly be shared among private and public organizations with the purpose of stimulating trade and innovation.
  • On the 17th of April, the European Union adopted the Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market. Similar to how the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) established individual data ownership rights, this directive aims to establish data ownership for content creators. However, this policy is more controversial, as it also goes against the an elementary aspect idea of reusing content for the purpose of user generated content.
  • The Dutch ministry of Economic affairs and Innopay did a study on the possibility of Dutch SMEs sharingdata. As a conclusion, they offered a framework covering nine important building blocks ranging from standardization, governance to rules for consent.
  • In the open-source community we can see the emergence of protocols (e.g. Ocean Protocol, Blockstack, IOTA) that aim to offer part solutions to a frictionless data exchange layer. Applications that are built on top of this soft infrastructure will be able to seamlessly exchange data as these protocols automatically handle indexing, pricing, payment, compliance, provenance, etc.
  • The Big Data Value Association, an industry-driven international not-for-profit organization that acts as the private counterpart to the EU Commission to implement the Big Data Value PPP program, published a whitepaper in 2019 in which it describes the many potential technical solutions for a European Data Sharing Space.

Connecting the dots

Currently, the internet seems to be headed in the direction of having a few actors decide the rules of our digital realm. On the one hand, we find a handful of big tech companies that have claimed the most important functions of the internet (e.g. access, storage, compute, search, commerce, entertainment) and have entrenched their position through data, network effects and political and financial power. Especially U.S. and Chinese platforms have been able to grow their platforms quickly due to their large internal market. On the other hand,we see governments that are gradually establishing their own stacks through the installment of friendlyinfrastructure, data localization, abandonment of global standards and formulating policies that allow for more topdown authoritarian state interference. In contrast, Europe has been facing fragmented data regulation among its members and has been lagging behind in terms of data availability, data standardization, data infrastructure, data quality, data interoperability, data governance and data literacy. In addition and partly thanks to aforementioned issues surrounding data, Europe has not been able to offer its own share ofnoteworthy digital champions and, as a consequence, is largely at the mercy of technologies and platforms from the U.S. In response, to regain some control over the situation, Europe has been working on data legislation and policies. In 2018, it introduced the regulatory framework GDPR to give its citizens more control over their personal data. In addition to these protective measures for its citizens, the European Commission is now also in the process of proposing an AI and data strategy in which it outlines policy measures and investments to stimulate the European digital economy for the next five years. As presented in its communication on the 19th of February, it aims to 1) introduce a cross-sectoral governance framework for data access and (re)use, 2) invest in Europe’s capabilities and infrastructure for hosting, processing and using data while also improving interoperability, 3) stimulate individuals’ and SMEs’ data skills and literacy and lastly, promote the development of common European data spaces in the domains of manufacturing, mobility, health, finance, energy, agriculture, public administration and the European Green Deal. With its AI strategy, it aims to introduce measures to develop competitive AI (i.e. ecosystem of excellence) while also taking all the necessary precautions to ensure that these systems will be human-centric and to induce trust with their users (i.e. ecosystem of trust). Although these regulatory frameworks are an important first step in outlining Europe’s digital values and interest, it is generally perceived as a game of catch-up instead of changing the global rules of the game. Many of the issues concerning data in European industry refer to a deeper-seated problem with how the internet works globally. As discussed before, because of their client-server architecture, most platforms can treat data as an asset that can be extracted from their users to then be locked away within the platform’s silo, only accessible when terms set out by the platform owner are met. 

As a result, individual data ownership and the potential collective value of data are subordinate to the interest of the platform. Investing in local cloud infrastructure(e.g. Gaia X) will not fundamentally change this dynamic, as it only determines where data is stored but notdirectly how data is governed and exchanged. Going forward, the EU could consider a more ambitious and scalable approach by facilitating the development of a soft infrastructure layer, i.e. a layer based on software protocols in which the access to computational resources can be collectively managed, and in effect could disrupt the siloed model of the internet globally. Here, the EU could find an interesting ally in the open source community, which is currently working on such decentralized internet protocols, which on the one hand aim to place data under the direct control of the rightful stakeholders through data provenance and rights management tools (i.e. data vault) and on the other hand makes these datasets seamlessly accessible to other public and/or private services through global data marketplaces in which data owners can be compensated for the use of their data (i.e. data exchange layer)These protocols will not only benefit the rightful data owners, but could generate substantial network effects and open innovation for the system as a whole, as all stakeholders stand to benefit from greater data accessibility as opposed to only a handful of gatekeepers having access. As a result we could see the rise of digital mega-ecosystems where services can frictionlessly share data and work together to meet the market’s demand. There also seems to be a natural fit with the European governance model as the decentralized nature of this type of soft infrastructure resembles more closely the Rhineland “stakeholder” model. Governance decisions can be voted on by network stakeholders while consensus protocols and blockchains facilitate trust by creating game-theoretical interdependencies in which it is very unlikely for a single actor to game the system. As these ecosystems are also open in nature, these ecosystems do not necessarily have to limit themselves to European members but could also allow other countries that want to withdraw from the more centralized stacks. Furthermore, the decentralized and thereby trusted infrastructure also creates the possibility that many of the EU digital market regulations can be programmed into smart contracts, thereby enabling automatic compliance upfront. This should solve the issue of digital law enforcement, which will become even more pressing as the frequency and complexity of digital interactions increase. The development of such soft infrastructure will not only serve an ideological cause but could benefit from systemic tailwinds and has the potential to reinstate a global internet that is based on interoperability, openness, privacy, sovereignty and open innovation.

Implications

  • Europe could represent the third model of the internet, next to China’s state-driven model and the US’ industry-driven model to the internet. There is the possibility that these three models will become complementary and compensate for each other’s shortcomings.
  • A global data exchange layer will gradually develop, at first in the form of ad hoc data dumps between , then as agreement frameworks within industry sectors which will then be further abstracted and formalized into soft trustless infrastructure as the underlying technology becomes more scalable.
  • As with inequality and climate change Europe could also take the lead in developing a human-centric internet
  • A European stakeholder approach to the internet could strengthen alliances with countries that are also stuck between the digital hegemony of China and the US (e.g. India, SE Asia, Latin-America)

Europe’s geopolitical strategy is a green strategy

In December last year, the European Commission presented its European Green Deal. The Green Deal takes on this generation’s defining tasks: tackling climate change and environmental challenges as well as creating a more inclusive economy while combating rising inequality. The plan for this green transition contains bold promises such as that it will “leave no one behind and provide a new growth strategy for Europe. Although the plan is ambitious, there are good reasons to believe it has great potential – even geopolitical.

Our observations

  • The Green Deal is European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s flagship project. The ambitious plan aims to make a deep transition towards a new socio-economic paradigm that is more inclusive and especially more sustainable, by leaving behind the paradigm of industrial modernity (e.g. aresource-intensive economy based on the use of fossil fuels, capital-intensive with lower returns on labor, working on the basis of extractive instead of regenerative business models).
  • This requires a set of transformative policies as formulated in the plan, that aim to: 1) reach climate neutrality by 2050 (i.e. by enforcing a climate law to further reduce carbon emissions and by ensuringeffective carbon pricing throughout the economy), 2) decarbonize the energy system (which also involves innovative technologies and infrastructure, such as smart grids, hydrogen networks or carbon capture, storage and utilization, energy storage), 3) create a circular economy (with special focus on action in the sectors that are energy- and resource-intensive and reducing waste), 4) create a renovation wave of public and private buildings (as they are responsible for a large share of energy and resources), 5) accelerate the shift to sustainable mobility, 6) create a European food system thatwill be the global standard for sustainability, 7) restore ecosystems and preserve biodiversity (Europe’s natural capital), and 8) reach zero pollution in air, water and soil.
  • The European Commission will mobilize €1 trillion of investments to finance the transition. According to the European think tank Bruegel, the European Green Deal should be comprehended as a reallocation mechanism, as it fosters investment shifts and labor substitution. First, effective carbon pricing in all sectors should be guaranteed through the strengthening of the EU emissions trading system (ETS). Besides this carbon pricing, a sustainable investment strategy should push companies to switch to the necessary technologies. Also, innovative, green European companies should be aided by the right conditions to flourish. And finally, those negatively impacted by the climate policies (such as coal-mining regions) should be supported with compensation measures.
  • The plan has been received with a lot of criticism. Critics say the deal will mostly be greenwashing and is not inclusive. Furthermore, reaching climate neutrality will not be easy. The EU’s own annual climate action progress report says reductions in emissions will have to speed up significantly for the EU to become carbon-neutral by 2050. Also, von der Leyen’s plan for a carbon border tax, a tariff based on the difference between the EU carbon price and that in the exporting country to create a level playing field for European companies, is seen as a protectionist measure harming developing countries and potentially causing problems in international trade for the bloc.
  • Also, one EU member that is crucial in reaching the ambitious climate goals, has opted out of the plan. As Poland is still heavily dependent on coal, von der Leyen wants to bring the country on board by proposing a compensation fund for ultra-carbon-dependent regions.

Connecting the dots

The European Green Deal is a far-reaching policy document affecting every sector of the biggest internal market of the world. It requires all kinds of stakeholders (local, regional, national and international, public and private) across the bloc to take action. In order to get everyone involved, the deal makes considerable promises. First, it promises a just and inclusive transition, to leave no one behind. Second, it promises to provide Europe’s new growth strategy, as von der Leyen has said to be convinced that “the old growth model based on fossil fuels and pollution is out of date and out of touch with our planet”. And the third big promise is that the deal could make the EU a global leader. It can show the world that a competitive economy does not have to emit greenhouse gases and that economic growth can be decoupled from resource use. Although the U.S. Democrats’ Green New Deal has a similar goal, the European Union’s version is technically more feasible. While the EU commission wants the plan to inspire the world, the bloc to lead international efforts, and Europe to be a front-runner in climatefriendly industries and clean technologies, it also recognizes that climate goals cannot be achieved without other countries, and wants to build alliances with the likeminded.

Indeed, the EU commission admits that the plan makes bold promises, and von der Leyen herself has dubbed it Europe’s man on the moon moment”. There is widespread criticism of the plan’s vagueness on details making itunrealistically ambitious. While this is valid criticism, it is beside the point. In her analysis, economist Mariana Mazzucato sees the U.S. Green New Deal (which has a similar mission but is even vaguer on details of how to reach the goals) as a mission-based policy. The value lies in it setting a clear direction for change, it is a good guide because its goal is worth pursuing. A green transition is complex and requires more than the technological accomplishment of getting to the moon, but a positive vision for change is nonetheless a strong driver for success.

More than the clear and widely shared mission of the plan, multiple developments are increasing momentum for a green transition. First, as the conflict between the U.S. and China has shown EU member states that they need Europe to stay competitive in the new era of great power competition, there is more support from member states to unite in pan-European projects. The Green Deal fits with a more assertive European industrial policy that not only aims for green business, but seeks to build European champions as it enjoys first-mover advantage: the Green Deal is a historical occasion to revitalize the European industry. In that vein, von der Leyen has said climate change would be her commission’s top priority and that it will be a “geopolitical Commission”, stressing that Europe needed to be more assertive in the world. Second, the EU has a decision-making model that strives for consensus and the deal was unanimously endorsed by the European Council. Third, multiple progressive member states are already positioning themselves as sustainability champions with national policies, such as France, with its sweeping anti-waste and circular economy bill, which may easily inspire othersto do so as well (as the surge in cities and states declaring climate emergency has shown). And fourth, European citizens increasingly vote for a green future by electing green politicians and by consuming sustainable goods.  The European elections in May 2019 resulted in 74 green MEPs (almost 10% of the assembly) being appointed and also showed more environmentalist rhetoric from other factions. The majority of European consumers are willing to pay a premium price for more environmentally friendly products. The idea for a single market for green products has already been tested successfully. Alongside the widespread climate strikes, these are signs that European civil society is pushing for more ambition in fighting climate change.

There is much at stake for Europe. Since the Paris Agreement and other global climate goals such as the SDGs are less effective as they are not legally binding and lack global governance, the European Green Deal could be a vital means for Europe to show it can unite in action. Failing would degrade trust in the EU as an effective bloc. But if the EU succeeds in making a green transition, it will prove an important opportunity for Europe to become a leader in a new, green socio-economic paradigm and simultaneously boost trust in pan-European initiatives.

Implications

  • In the absence of effective climate action from the U.S., the question is whether Europe can bring along China in its ambitious climate goals. With tensions rising between the U.S. and China, the EU is suddenly a much more interesting partner in climate and in trade for China, the world’s biggest emitter. Hopes are high for the EU-China summit in Germany in September, as it could be an important gaugeof whether Europe can successfully engage China.
  • In a few weeks, the European Commission will present an EU industrial strategy to address the twin challenges of the green and the digital transformation. The latter is key in achieving green goals.

Residential energy storage systems

What happened?

Residential energy storage systems, i.e. home batteries, appear to be taking off across the globe. In the United States, annual installations grew from 2.25 MWh in 2014 to 185 MWh in 2018 and growth continued in 2019 as well. For Europe, analysts believe a doubling of installations, to 1.2 GWh per year, will have taken place by 2024.In Germany, with the highest electricity prices in Europe, already half of all households that invest in solar panels order a home battery as well. It is thus no wonder that battery producers (e.g. Tesla, CATL), traditional energy companies (Shell) and suppliers of conventional generators (e.g. Generac) are jumping on this market.

What does this mean?

Most households use their home battery to store solar energy during the day so they can use their “own” power after sunset as well and minimize their utility bill. This is especially relevant in areas where consumers receive a low price for the excess energy they supply to the grid or where “time-of-use” tariffs make it expensive to use grid power during peak hours. These factors, in combination with purchasing subsidies for the (ever cheaper)batteries, make that solar-plus-storage can already compete with grid-power. Aside from lower costs, households may also seek to become as grid-independent as possible. For some, this is a rather romantic ideal, for others, it is increasingly a necessity, as events of extreme weather are leading to more frequent power outages (sometimes power is shut off on purpose, to prevent wildfires).

What’s next?

The transition to renewable energy power generation will require ever greater capacity to store excess power for later use. These home batteries already play a valuable role on the level of individual households, but there are also attempts to leverage them to balance supply and demand in the wider energy system. Storage capacity aggregators (e.g. utilities or dedicated companies) are developing “bring your own battery” programs that pay consumers a premium to have their batteries provide energy to the grid during peak hours. These initiatives fit with ideas of a decentralized energy system, but it remains to be seen whether they can actually compete with the kind of large scale battery projects that have also enjoyed rapid growth in recent years.

Our changing structure of feeling

What happened?

A recent study shows that pop songs are in a downward emotional trend, consisting of more emotionally negatively valenced and fewer positively valenced lyrics. Similarly, two films that address that modern society is rotten from within: The Joker (rampant inequality and lack of social security) and Parasite (capitalism induces greed and leeching off others). At FreedomLab, we are interested in grasping our Zeitgeist. Coming from the German philosopher Hegel, the term refers to the general spirit of our time, which manifests itself in cultural patterns and structures of social recognition. In accordance with Hegel’s philosophy, we believe that this expresses itself in pre-theoretical utterances, such as religious imagination and the arts; in pop songs and Oscar-winning movies, for instance, but also in horror, videogames, and dominant narratives.

What does this mean?

There is fierce debate on what could be called “the state of the world”. On the one hand, there is a deep belief in the developed world that things are changing for the worse: rising inequality, ecological degradation, an authoritarian China that will end Western hegemony, digital technologies that cannot live up to their promises and are turning the world into a sort of eternal “panopticon”, or culture wars that are ripping apart the socio-moral infrastructure of societies. On the other hand, many popular books have been published in recent yearsthat stress that things are not as bad as they look, e.g. Harari’s Homo Deus (e.g. man is on the brink of eradicating hunger, disease and war and gaining immortality and superhuman abilities), Pinker’s Enlightenment Now (showing the major progression of human wellbeing in recent decades), and Rosling’s Factfulness(presenting ten reasons why the world is in a better state than we think).

What’s next?

Hegel learned that we only come to grasp or “philosophically understand” something when it has become history: when reality has turned it into something fixed and has moved on. As such, we should stay attuned tonew “structures of feeling” that emerge, as material progress does not reduce our “sentiment of crisis”. Indeed, in our times of uncertainty, we should pay attention to signs that show intrinsic development instead of extrinsic material progress. This often comes from speculative and experimental arts as well as pop culture. In his book Nordic Ideology, Hanzi Freinacht writes that metamodernism overcomes both the naivety of modernist rationalism and nihilism of skeptic postmodernism and stresses that the inner spiritual development is essential for solving and managing society’s problems. As such, the arts could come to play a much more important role in navigating the future and finding new alternative narratives at the return of history.