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Retroscope 2019

The end of the year is a time for contemplation. In this Retroscope, we look back and reflect on the ideas and insights we have published in The Macroscope throughout 2019. We have covered a wide range of events and developments in technology, global politics and society. The Macroscope is marked by our team’s diversity of perspectives, ranging from philosophy, economics, history, sociology, political sciences to engineering. Combining this interdisciplinary approach with scenario thinking, we aim to assess current affairs from a comprehensive and long-term perspective. Our retrospect of 2019 is therefore about how this year’s events tie in with or deviate from larger trends in technological, hegemonic or socio-cultural cycles. Our mission is to unlock society’s potential by decoding the future.

We hope you enjoy our reflection!

FreedomLab Thinktank

Click here for our Retroscope of 2019.


Click here for our Retroscope 2019: Hegemonic cycle

Click here for our Retroscope 2019: Technological cycle

Click here for our Retroscope 2019: Socio-cultural cycle

Click here for our Retroscope 2019: Disruption in the making

Retroscope 2019: Hegemonic cycle

Hegemonic cycle 2019


We have frequently reported that we are in a period of “hegemonic shift”, as the current hegemony of the U.S. is challenged by the rise of China. In 2019, we saw this hegemonic conflict intensifying, most obviously in the escalating trade war between the U.S. and China,but also in regional power shifts resulting from this great power competition. Furthermore, a new vector of hegemonic battle is opening, in which countries are trying to establish cybersovereignty in the digital space, and superpowers are building their own Stacks.

1. On the planetary network, sovereignty trumps economy – for now

In the past year, we have seen governments around the world taking measures to establish their sovereignty within the digital space. In some cases, these attempts to establish sovereignty take precedence over immediate economic concerns. An Indian Stack is emergingbased on Indian principles of innovation and India is trying to develop its own data governance model to protect its emerging tech industries. Led by an ambitious new European Commission, Europe is also trying to infuse the Stack with European values. Russia is developing a highly centralized Stack with an internet infrastructure that can disconnect from the rest of the world. An African Stack is also slowly emerging, inspired by the rise of pan-Africanism and the new African trade area that is set to become the world’s largest, whichwill benefit emerging hubs such as Ethiopia. Meanwhile, cities are also trying to establish their sovereignty in the digital space. In all of these cases, attempts to establish sovereignty clash directly with immediate economic interests (e.g. India, Africa and Russia all having ties to both U.S. and Chinese tech firms).

Looking ahead, as many countries will increasingly face challenges such as deglobalization, economic stagnation and depopulation, it remains to be seen whether they’ll be able to protect their sovereignty in the digital space without sacrificing too much economic opportunity by shutting out American and Chinese technology leaders. It is also likely that we will see different cultures ending up with different technological futures, while conflicts erupt over the overlapping of Stacks across political boundaries (e.g. TikTok being a potential vector ofChinese ideals).

2. Amid the heat of hegemonic conflict, China remains focused on the long term

For China, the conflict with the U.S. has attracted by far the most attention in global media, but China has stayed focused on important long-term risks and opportunities.

First, (Greater) China faces internal challenges. Although Western media have falsely painteda dilemma between violent intervention or losing control of Hong Kong, China has chosen to maintain the status quo by safeguarding the special status of Hong Kong. China has adopted a similar long-term-oriented strategy towards Taiwan, namely to pull the island into its orbit. Within mainland China, the Communist Party seems to have anticipated the need for greater political liberalization (e.g. based on new Chinese generations), as it’s experimenting with ways to put democracy into the hands of local officials.

Second, China’s long-term global ambitions reach far beyond what has grabbed global headlines (e.g. resolving the U.S. conflict, Belt and Road Initiative). We have also seen thatChinese finance is becoming an alternative to Western institutions, that China is investing in a new food strategy and could even become the global sustainability leader. Chinese digital platforms are becoming regional (if not, global) standards and China is pursuing a pragmatic relationship with the EU and eyeing key strategic assets for the future, such as Greenland.

3. Scenarios at the end of the fourth Hegemonic Cycle

We have seen in 2019 that we are nearing the end of what we have called the fourth Hegemonic Cycle. This idea is based on the history of financial hegemons from the Italian city-states, the United Provinces and the United Kingdom to the United States. In particular,we have seen that three scenarios for the future world order are still possible: a new alliance that protects the current world order, an alternative Asian system, and a long period of conflict.

Power-shifts within the Western world

As the EU takes on a global leadership role in areas from where the U.S. is pulling back, a new type of Western cooperation is taking shape, which could lead to a new type of Western alliance in the coming years, possibly more on EU terms. The U.S. is in a deep political transition whose next phase will focus on building a new economic order. Interestingly, theEuropean Union is not only trying to conjure up a new type of global leadership (especially with the European Green Deal), but there are also important power-shifts within the EU: most importantly, France is regaining its leadership role, whereas Germany desperately needs a new surge of innovation to prevent the country from falling behind. Meanwhile, Russia is quietly resurging and the crucial question is in what ways Russia will grow closer to which countries.

Asian alternatives

An alternative Asian system is emerging. Across the Indian Ocean, a new world system is emerging based on Asian principles of connectivity and multipolarity. Within this world system, the emboldened Indian PM Modi is trying to turn India into a superpower in the face of deep structural challenges, but the outlook for India remains positive in the long term. The system is also creating new types of economic models (e.g. the massive boom of remittancesthat is already more important than foreign direct investment and foreign aid). However, there will also be a greater likelihood of conflict, as East Asia has become the center of global geopolitical competition.

30-year conflict

However, based on the rise of mass protests, trade conflicts and hardened geopolitical strategies, which are fueled by destabilizing trends such as demographic transitions, economic stagnation, deglobalization and depopulation, it is also possible that we’re headed for a highly volatile period that scholars of hegemony Giovanni Arrighi and Immanuel Wallerstein characterized as the 30-year conflicts that recur whenever financial hegemons lose their dominant position.

4. Looking back to “Three Events We Are Not Expecting in 2019:

At the start of each year, we highlight a few events from our geopolitical forecasts that may surprise global media in the coming year. In 2019, we have seen that all three of our forecasts from the end of 2018 were accurate.

First, the global backlash against China that seemed to be taking shape has indeed faded. China, despite concerns around Huawei’s 5G infrastructure, is maintaining a highly pragmatic relationship with India, is mostly successfully pursuing a pragmatic relationship with the EUand southern Europe is increasingly growing closer to China.

Second, Arctic activity has indeed for the first time made global headlines. In August, President Trump made clear that the U.S. has important strategic interests in Greenland, which is becoming a coveted strategic asset, by tweeting that he wanted to buy the island. Afterwards, the U.S. announced that it would open a new consulate in Greenland.

Third, president Widodo in Indonesia and president Modi in India won their reelections this year, boosting reformist optimism across Asia. Moreover, including the Philippines, successful democratic transitions characterized Asia’s biggest growth engines. Widodo’s second term indicates the newfound political stability of Indonesia and Modi’s attempt to turn India into a superpower runs parallel to the reemergence of the Indian Ocean world system based on Asian principles of connectivity and multipolarity.

Click here to see the full Retroscope of 2019

Macroscope 200th edition

This week we published the 200th edition of the Macroscope! In this special edition, we would like to show you how philosophy plays a key role in our efforts to understand everyday phenomena. In our research, we analyze present developments and decode the future by learning from past and contemporary philosophers. A brief glance at the history of philosophy shows why it emerged and why it remains relevant in our modern, digitized world.

In one of the most relevant cities in ancient times, Athens, Western philosophy emerged. People from different backgrounds with diverging opinions and professions had to live close with one another. This gave rise to philosophical questions on how to live together in harmony (ethica). How can different values be served? How to make decisions that concern everyone? Cities became the breeding grounds of culture and innovation, complex forms of society from which politics, the judiciary, and business originate. Philosophy was practiced on the market square and in large academies as a vital part of public life in the polis. It also included questions on how to understand the world around us (fysica) and how to produce good arguments that are the basis of knowledge (logica). The reflection on these topics is the origin of scientific disciplines as we know them today.

During the Middle Ages however, philosophy disappeared from the public sphere. Life was increasingly organized in smaller communities and less centered around the polis. Intellectual activity was confined to the closed context of the monastery. Philosophical questions were answered by God and the Bible was mainly studied by monks. Philosophy was bounded to trace all insights to God with little room for alternative ideas and intellectual progress slowed down.

The Middle Ages were followed by the Renaissance. As the authority of the Church was increasingly challenged and the importance of the capacity of individuals to think for themselves emerged again. Later, during the Enlightenment or Age of Reason, philosopher Emmanuel Kant urged individuals to show courage, use their own understanding and challenge what is conceived evident. Human reason became the primary means of acquiring knowledge instead of turning to God. This initiated a time marked by an emphasis on rationalism and scientific rigor.

Modernity is the culminating point of rationalization in all domains of our lives. Rational institutions, rational technologies and rational sciences have shaped modern societies. Modernity’s rapid scientific and technological inventions and progress has had a transforming effect on the world we inhabit: our polis has turned into a global technopolis. Somehow, we have to find out how to understand this world around us, how to understand each other and how to live together. Especially over the past decades, digitization has created new virtual worlds and new ways to connect and interact with each other. How can we understand the virtual space? What does it mean that we are living in an emerging algorithmic reality? How do we interact in the online space? What is good behavior in the digital world? Philosophy helps us to ask relevant questions through which we can navigate today’s world and anticipate the future. In this 200th edition of the Macroscope, we discuss different philosophers and their relevance in understanding the world of today and tomorrow.

We hope you enjoy our reflection!

FreedomLab Thinktank

Click here to see the full edition

April 2019: From online to real-world violence

Social media are increasingly scrutinized over their role leading up to and following several violent events in the last month. In California, a gunman opened fire in a synagogue in Poway. And in New Zealand, two consecutive terrorist attacks on mosques took place last month. Prior to both the California and New Zealand attacks, the shooters had posted information and evidence on the anonymous online message board 8chan. In late April, a man killed 10 people by driving a van down a busy street in Toronto. The attacker had posted his plans online and was linked to an online (incel) community. During Easter, in Sri Lanka, Islamists called for violence on Facebook before conducting attacks killing more than 250 people. Social media were temporarily banned in the Asian country in order to prevent the spreading of misinformation after the tragic suicide bombings. The concerns were that social media networks such as Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Viber would fuel further hate speech and incite more (retaliatory) violence.  

It is doubted how effective social media bans or regulation are in reducing real-world violence. Some argue that bans would even do more harm than good, only leading to more repression, deepening isolation and preventing people from organizing themselves in non-violent local groups. Leaving media platforms in charge of the fight against misinformation has also shown to be ineffective. In January, YouTube announced that it would “begin reducing recommendations of borderline content,” including videos “making blatantly false claims about historic events like 9/11.”  The recent Notre Dame fire has shown that these efforts have not yet resulted in improvements in fighting conspiracy theories. As Notre Dame burned, an algorithmic error at YouTube put information about 9/11 under news videos. This shows that applying algorithms to fix the conspiracy problem and limit misinformation will not suffice.

As written earlier, societies are forced to seriously consider social media regulation. As violent content is clearly leading to real-world violence, the question remains, how to filter or discern alarming messages from jokes or false warnings in a time of immense quantity and frequency of online speech. Almost two billion people click on YouTube videos every month one can make a YouTube video in fifteen seconds. We are starting to comprehend that everything is potentially suspect – every post, every meme, every link, every quote, writes The Atlantic. The internet has become a breeding ground for intolerant content that, when it goes viral, might lead to real violence.

Possible implications:

  • Last year, we already wrote about the risk of an infocalypse, which term was coined by the technologist Aviv Ovadya, who has described the scenario of a crisis of misinformation. The rise of A.I. is likely to lead to a growing stream of fake news and conspiracy theories and it will be increasingly difficult to trace the authenticity of news sources. An arms race will commence between fake news generators and fake news detection systems.
  • Further violent attacks linked to online content will lead to more governments trying to regulate social media. However, this may also be perceived as a crackdown on the freedom of online speech. Governments failing to genuinely fight real-world violence linked to social media content will enjoy less legitimacy. Furthermore, online violence is often rooted in real-world struggles, such as economic precariousness, isolation, loneliness and polarization of society, issues that have to be addressed by the state for the battle against online violence to be effective.


The Risk Radar is a monthly research report in which we monitor and qualify the world’s biggest risks to watch. Our updates are based on the estimated likelihood and impact of these risks. This report provides an additional ‘risk flection’ from a political, social, economic and technological perspective.
Click here to see the context of this Risk Radar.

April 2019: Negative outlook MENA

Uncertainty and weakened growth have hit the Middle East and North Africa region. IMF’s Regional Economic Outlook: Middle East and Central Asia Update April 2019 shows that growth in countries in the Middle East, North Africa, Afghanistan, and Pakistan (MENAP) region has weakened due to rising conflict, corruption, slow reforms, high levels of debt and fluctuations in oil prices. The IMF further warns that elevated levels of uncertainty might increase risks for investors in the region and lead to capital outflow. Especially Iran, the second largest economy in the region after Saudi Arabia, will shrink by 6% in 2019.  

The weak economic outlook is especially felt by the youth. In a region where about 45% of the population is under 25 and youth unemployment surpasses that of other parts of the world, weakened growth affects them greatly. In the 2019 Arab Youth Survey, Young Arabs name rising costs of living and unemployment as their major causes for concern. They perceive the ongoing religious conflict as a root problem. The respondents say conflicts with religious and sectarian elements, such as those in Syria and Yemen, are holding back the Arab world. It leads the youth to lose faith in the governance of their religious institutions. A steeply risen number of respondents have rated religion as “too influential” in the Middle East and almost half of them believe religion is losing influence in the region.

Growing unease with stagnating progress might lead to new unrest. Indeed, the survey concludes that the youth are calling for reform. While it shows that faith remains important to young Arabs, it also emphasizes the difficult task the youth faces of trying to reconcile the conservative religious traditions of their parents with the modern world they live in. Today’s rising Arab generations have different grounds on which to debate religion than their parents, which might widen the generational gap in society. At the same time, awareness about mental health is growing in the region, laying bare high levels of anxiety and depression among the people. Affected by strains on mental wellbeing, such as economic struggles and ongoing uncertainty and conflict, as well as becoming detached from the religious establishment, the youth might come to fuel new unrest. Similar to the 2011 uprisings, youth groups were behind the movement leading to the Arab Spring. The region is already witnessing intensified rebellion in Libya and a new wave of protests in Algeria and Sudan.

Possible implications:

  • -Stagnating progress will cost more lives. Human development will further experience setbacks in the region, as more economic insecurity will fuel upheaval. New findings from the United Nations show that the conflict in Yemen will have claimed about 102,000 lives by the end of 2019 and that more victims will die of hunger, disease and the lack of health clinics and other infrastructure than from fighting. Furthermore, the UN predicts that if the war ends in 2022, development gains will have been set back an entire generation (26 years).
  • (Political and economic) reform processes will still take long to lead to progress. Favorable demographics will underpin long-term growth in the decades ahead, but productivity gains will be slow. Despite efforts to diversify their economies, many MENA countries will still rely on oil in the coming years.


RISKS MARKED ON THE RISK RADAR AS NUMBER 2: tensions throughout the Middle East, EM insolvency, large-scale migration

The Risk Radar is a monthly research report in which we monitor and qualify the world’s biggest risks to watch. Our updates are based on the estimated likelihood and impact of these risks. This report provides an additional ‘risk flection’ from a political, social, economic and technological perspective.
Click here to see the context of this Risk Radar.

April 2019: Foreign interference

RISK 1: Foreign interference

Earlier this month, Special Counsel Robert Mueller released his 448 page report of the Trump-Russia investigation. Although Mueller emphasizes that his report has not established that there was a conspiracy between Trump and the Russian government to interfere with the election, it did provide a detailed account of the interference and influence campaign carried out by Russian operatives during the 2016 election. Also, the evidence in the report is by no means enough to claim “total exoneration”, as U.S. Attorney General William Barr has done. Trump himself has called Mueller’s investigation a “coup” and an “attempted overthrow of the United States government,” and Republicans have said Democrats’ demands for the investigation were unreasonable: “Democrats have yet to prove their demands anything but abusive and illogical”.


The fact that Trump is trying to defend the legitimacy of his presidency is distracting the government from protecting the 2020 elections from renewed election meddling. While the American government has promised to shield the elections from Russian interference, intelligence officials have complained that President Trump has shown little interest in the matter, according to F.B.I. director Christopher Wray. There is a lack of high-level coordination and there has been some dismantlement of voting-protection functions. Meanwhile, the threat of misuse of social media, fake news, propaganda, trolls, etc. persists, undermining faith in democratic voting systems, and potentially further polarizing already divided electorates, Wray adds.

Indeed, it appears as though voters will have to accept the (new) reality of foreign interference in their democratic elections. Even before the Mueller report’s release, a plurality of Americans believed that Trump had “colluded” with Russians, according to Reuters. This coincides with faith in democracy being at an all-time low. In an Axios/SurveyMonkey poll conducted in October 2018, only 51% of Americans reported having faith in the country’s democracy, while 37% said they have lost faith in democracy. This development could be interpreted as favorable to Russia. By deciding to degrade the Mueller investigation in order to defend the President’s legitimacy, the American government has given its people a sign that foreign interference is acceptable.

The 2016 election meddling was merely the “rehearsal for the big show in 2020”, F.B.I. director Wray warns. Meanwhile, democratic governments around the world have been and will be experiencing more cyberattacks. Canadian intelligence, for instance, warns of foreign electoral interference ahead of its October elections. As one of the world’s biggest democracies, the U.S. is not leading by example in fighting such interference, which points to a world in which malign influence operations are considered the new normal by governments and voters, further deteriorating democratic systems. Indeed, it is not only Russia meddling in elections – the U.S. itself is guilty of this practice.

Possible implications:

  • Other upcoming elections will also see increasing influence from foreign agents.
  • Fears over the use of digital tools for foreign influence are likely to lead to increasing techno-nationalism (in public technology tenders, but possibly also among consumers). The concerns around the 5G technology of Huawei already point to these fears.

RISKS MARKED ON THE RISK RADAR AS NUMBER 1: Deteriorating relations Russia and the West

The Risk Radar is a monthly research report in which we monitor and qualify the world’s biggest risks to watch. Our updates are based on the estimated likelihood and impact of these risks. This report provides an additional ‘risk flection’ from a political, social, economic and technological perspective.
Click here to see the context of this Risk Radar.

March 2019: Scramble for Africa

Africa has again taken center stage when it comes to the interests of different superpowers. Throughout history, there have been different scrambles for Africa. In modern history, the first was rooted in 19th-century colonialism, as European imperial powers divided and colonized the continent. The second was marked by the Cold War. When Africa gained political importance to the U.S. Cold War policy, Washington tried to secure African support while preserving its alliance with European colonial powers. A third wave is happening now, and its focus is more on exchange and trade. The scale of foreign interest is currently unprecedented – bringing opportunities to the continent but also potentially destabilizing it. Illustrative of this is how embassies have mushroomed there over the last years: 320 new embassies were opened between 2010 and 2016. The question is whether this surge in interest in the continent will play out well for the African countries themselves or whether powerful nations engaging with the countries will further increase inequality.

First, African countries do not (yet) show the unity needed to get on top of the scramble for Africa. For instance, the continent has China’s leader bargain with African leaders individually. It has been twenty years since the establishment of an African Union, initially intended to accelerate the process of integration in the continent and to enable it to play its equitable role in the global economy. However, these ambitions remain largely unachieved.

Second, the IMF already warned last year that Africa is heading towards a new debt crisis, with the number of countries at high risk doubling over the past five years and the total amount of external debt for the continent estimated at $417 billion. China plays an important role in this. Although the data are difficult to verify, since China does not participate in the OECD’s Creditor Reporting System, it is estimated that 20% of African government external debt is owed to China. Between 2000 and 2015, China provided loans of about $100 billion to Africa. In 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a new package of loans of $60 billion to more than 50 African leaders at the 7th Forum of the China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). Although only a portion of the promised sum and other Belt and Road Initiative projects do not qualify as “official development assistance”, it is remarkable that Xi promised the aid would not “come with any political conditions attached” – but with high debts instead. Still, the Chinese quick loans with fewer strings attached than Western aid are often difficult to turn down for African leaders who are in need of infrastructure and trade partners.

Of course, some African countries are performing well – as the continent will be home to several of the world’s fastest-growing economies – and could escape this negative outlook as superpowers will be less able to get their hands on these bright spots. With the lack of unity in the continent and debt continuing to pile up in many African countries, the current scramble for Africa may lead to greater inequality in relation to developed regions and growing disappointment among the rapidly growing group of young Africans who are seeing globalization turn against them, resulting in unrest and conflict.

Possible implications:

  • A rapidly growing group of educated, young and urban Africans will be more critical of their governments and give the ruling party a lower share of the vote, leading to the call for new, anti-establishment leaders. This force of a growing population in combination with already weak institutions might lead to political destabilization or conflict.
  • Chaos can also lead to the election of authoritarian leaders who will try to create order and modernize countries with a firm hand.
  • A lack of hope or optimism for progress might spark further migration waves.
  • The current levels of debt might result in an African debt crisis

RISKS MARKED ON THE RISK RADAR AS NUMBER 3: large-scale migration, rising inequality

The Risk Radar is a monthly research report in which we monitor and qualify the world’s biggest risks to watch. Our updates are based on the estimated likelihood and impact of these risks. This report provides an additional ‘risk flection’ from a political, social, economic and technological perspective.
Click here to see the context of this Risk Radar.

March 2019: Imperfect biometric technology

Earlier this month, Dutch police were allowed to force a suspect to unlock their smartphone with a fingerprint scan. The court ruled that this method is not in conflict with the principle that a suspect does not have to cooperate with their own conviction, stating that, as placing the thumb is a “limited infringement” of physical integrity and “the fingerprint was obtained with a very small amount of coercion”, this act is lawful.

A few months earlier, IBM released a dataset of almost a million photos that were taken from photo hosting site Flickr, which they had coded to describe the subjects’ physical characteristics, such as facial geometry and skin tone, which details may be used to develop facial recognition algorithms. The problem was that none of the people in the pictures had given consent for the use of their images in this way – they did not even know their pictures were part of a training dataset and it is almost impossible to get the photos removed. IBM is not the only company scrambling for pictures in order to feed their algorithms to improve their face recognition technology, the internet offering very easy and fast ways to access these pictures.

Both cases show that the use of biometric data is rapidly emerging in many domains without the legal or ethical frameworks in place concerning law enforcement, border control, and, relevant in the case of IBM, commercial use. This is because authentication of individuals based on physical characteristics is rapidly spreading, as biometric technologies are becoming better, cheaper, more reliable, accessible and convenient. The fact that accessing biometric data does not require “active cooperation”, as the Dutch court ruled, shows us that indeed, biometric data are up for grabs and make us vulnerable to threats from external parties who may use and abuse these data.

There is a variety of concerns about the use of biometric technology. First, there are security concerns, as there is a risk of hacking and abusing of the collected biometric data. Second, there is a risk of inaccuracy, as biometric technology is improving rapidly but still imperfect, as it remains vulnerable to errors. To illustrate, face recognition algorithms have a poor accuracy record when it comes to identifying non-white faces. Moreover, biometric technology is still easily manipulated. For instance, a Dutch consumers’ union tested 110 smartphone models and found that the facial recognition feature used for locking devices can be tricked with photos on 42 phones (the iPhone withstood the test). Finally, the fact that we are increasingly living in a sensor-based economy with a plethora of seamless interfaces and sensors gathering biometric data, raises serious concerns over the blurring boundary between security and surveillance and the conflict between privacy and security.

Possible implications:

  • Human identity authentication based on biometric data does not guarantee the level of security that was previously hoped for.
  • More cases of misuse, hacks, errors in biometric technology that affect a large group of people, as the technology, when applied on a large-scale, can create a “vulnerable world”, as philosopher Nick Bostrom calls it.
  • Backlash could arise to the use of biometric data without consent, possibly aimed at companies deploying the technology, as well as a call for more regulation.



The Risk Radar is a monthly research report in which we monitor and qualify the world’s biggest risks to watch. Our updates are based on the estimated likelihood and impact of these risks. This report provides an additional ‘risk flection’ from a political, social, economic and technological perspective.
Click here to see the context of this Risk Radar.

March 2019: Politically divided Europe

In the run-up to the next European elections (23-26 May 2019), the European political space is divided. Polls suggest that far-right parties are set to double their seats in the European Parliament. The far-right Europe of Nations and Freedom Group (ENF) is likely to win 67 seats in the European Parliament. In a survey by the German newspaper Bild, far-right parties are ahead in France, Italy and Poland. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party is poised to win 23% of the vote. In Italy, Matteo Salvini’s League is on pace to secure 33% of the vote, the Polish Law and Justice party is likely to receive 42%. As right-wing and Eurosceptic parties have made great gains in national elections in multiple European countries in recent years, mainstream right-wing and left-leaning parties are now bracing for a right-wing surge in the European polls.

The surge of the Eurosceptic radical right has led to what is referred to as Europe’s new tripolar political space. A tripolar political space is defined as a political space in which three poles – the left, the center-right, and in this case the radical right – obtain more than 12% of the national vote. The fact that this was the case for over 20 national elections in Western Europe between 2000 and 2015 has changed the face of the political landscape. It has gone hand in hand with the electoral decline of the mainstream parties of the left and the right – the social democrats and Christian democrats. The authors of the paper “Electoral competition in Europe’s new tripolar political space: Class voting for the left, centre-right and radical right” argue that, contrary to the thesis that European societies are marked by “an increasing homogeneity of experiences”, the rise of the radical right has not only shifted electoral competition from a bipolar to a tripolar setting, but has also triggered a process of class voting. This means that the radical right is competing with the center-right for the votes of small business owners, and it’s challenging the left for its votes of the working-class. Meanwhile, the radical right offers a cultural dimension that pits it against both the established left and right. In contrast to the established parties, the radical right strongly opposes immigration, multiculturalism and European integration. It responds to the wish to take back control and the longing for national sovereignty. Austerity measures after 2008, globalization and migration waves have led to the election of populists with the mandate to indeed regain control and put the brakes on Brussels interfering in national politics and on more European integration.
This Euroscepticism has materialized in two forms. One is the U.K. voting to leave the EU. Brexit populists repeatedly voiced the mantra “take back control” in their campaign. However, the fact that the Brexit process is getting messier each day, has led to a counter reaction in other EU member countries. As Caroline de Gruyter has suggested, Brexit is also a warning to all those who have pledged to follow the U.K. in exiting the EU. Although many predicted the implosion of the EU after the British referendum, it has only made Europe “stronger” in the sense that leaving is not regarded as a viable option anymore. And thus, Europe is left with a second and currently vivid form of Euroscepticism, or Eurosceptic Remainers: Eurosceptics that try to take back control within the EU while breaking its rules and playing their own game. The most prominent example last month was Italy joining China in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), after abstaining from a vote on an EU-wide investment-screening mechanism to ensure the security of Europe’s strategic sectors in February. Other examples are Hungary, Poland and Slovakia refusing to adhere to the EU’s requirements to take in their quota of refugees and Austria passing a law to cut child benefit for immigrants from poorer EU countries.
Possible implications:

  • Euroscepticism is slowing down European integration ambitions. Although it is projected that the traditional governing coalition (center-right European People’s Party and center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats) will lose over 100 seats of their current 404, they are likely to retain their first and second-place spots in Parliament. Eurosceptic parties will make great gains: Italian leader Salvini’s anti-migrant and Eurosceptic League party could become the second biggest force in Parliament.
  • A divided Europe will be weaker and thus less capable of resisting the interference of superpowers U.S. and China, becoming their plaything in their trade and tech war. The European Union and China announced the start of negotiations to establish commercial relations in 2013, but their progress is very slow. The fact that countries (Italy) are now individually bargaining with China is not conducive to speeding things up.
  • The surge of the radical right makes it difficult for Brussels to remain effective in managing external threats such as climate change.

RISKS MARKED ON THE RISK RADAR AS NUMBER 1: Policy uncertainty, protectionism

The Risk Radar is a monthly research report in which we monitor and qualify the world’s biggest risks to watch. Our updates are based on the estimated likelihood and impact of these risks. This report provides an additional ‘risk flection’ from a political, social, economic and technological perspective.
Click here to see the context of this Risk Radar.

February 2019: AI’s vulnerable world

The rapid deployment of AI in many domains is making us vulnerable in many ways. As the scope of AI applications widens, so does the range of failures. Well-known is the case of an Uber autonomous vehicle killing a pedestrian at the beginning of last year. But more and more examples of AI making ‘wrong’ decisions are popping up. In the AI Now Report 2018, which called 2018 a “dramatic year in AI”, three risks are identified.
First, AI is amplifying widespread surveillance. The rise of unregulated facial recognition systems creates a risk for citizens since the technology is hard to ‘escape’ or to ‘opt out’ of it, while it is easy for third parties to link other personal data to the once identified face. This leads to insights about persons that have little scientific backing, but are of high impact. History teaches that the pseudoscience of linking characteristics to one’s character or personality has often led to discriminatory purposes. When thinking of ever-expanding, large-scale surveillance techniques, China’s social credit system and surveillance activities in the Xinjiang to exert control over the Uighur population comes to mind. However, as the report notes, it is crucial to acknowledge that many of the same infrastructure already exist in the U.S. and is used by law enforcement – while rarely being open to public scrutiny. In an interview with MIT Technology review, futurist Amy Webb points to this specific risk. In China, the central authority enables the government to test and build AI services that incorporate data from 1.3 billion people. However, in the U.S. this is left to the private sector, by big tech parties who are constrained by the short-term demands of a capitalistic market, make long-term, thoughtful planning for AI impossible. Moreover, large-scale surveillance techniques are spreading over the globe at great speed, often to countries with authoritarian regimes.
Second, 2018 showed an enormous increase of governments adopting Automated Decision Systems (ADS) while these often show flaws when implemented. By implementing ADS, governments try to save costs and make systems more efficient in domains like criminal justice, child welfare, education and immigration. However, the risk that come with these systems are that, once a flawed decision is made, the impact of the scale far exceeds that of the human case-by-case decision-making process, automatically affecting large numbers of people. Next to possibly affecting big groups of people, ADS are mostly not designed to mitigate incorrect decisions. Moreover, the decisions are even hard to replicate or understand, creating a ‘black box’ problem.
The third risk is the fact that man-machine interactions, such as in the case of the Uber accident, there is no discrete regulartory or accountability category in place, called the ‘accountability gap’. Another point in case is IBM’s Watson recommending unsafe and incorrect treatments for cancer patients. As we have written before, concerns are growing over the reliability, openness and fairness of these systems that are increasingly not only informing, but steering human decision-making.
The impact of these three risks can be understood in terms of “The Vulnerable World Hypothesis” of philosopher and author of the book “Superintelligence” Nick Bostrom. Bostrom states that we have reached a level of scientific and technological progress that has created unprecedented welfare and prosperity, but also rendered humans the capacity to destabilize civilization, fundamentally disrupt economies or even destroy the world. Bostrom doesn’t claim that all people will use these technologies for bad, but given the huge heterogeneity of human beings, even the smallest chance of having a morally corrupt or angry individual with a demonic plan (e.g. creating a huge bomb, spreading a deadly virus) significantly raises the chance of devastating results (i.e. having a vulnerable world). In the WEF Global Risks Report 2019, the vulnerable world created by large-scale AI applications are also listed among the top risks. For instance, research shows that AI can be used to engineer more and potentially more impactful data breaches than we saw in 2018.
Historically, the benefits of technologies have outweighed the risks and their destructive capacity. However, this balance is now tilting with the decreasing cost of many radical and exponential technologies and open-source software, making it easier for individuals and groups to employ them, possibly with bad intentions (e.g. terrorist groups). Advances in DIY biohacking tools might make it easy for anybody with basic training in biology to kill millions, cyberwarfare leverages asymmetrical power relations and enables small groups to spread fake stories easily, while advances in AI could trigger an AI arms race, as we wrote in an earlier Risk Radar. As such, the vulnerable world hypothesis offers a new perspective from which to evaluate the risk-benefit balance of the development of next-gen technologies, as well as a renewed interest in enlarged preventive politics and governance.

Possible implications:

  • More systemic flaws in surveillance techniques harming civil rights
  • AI arms race
  • Other systemic, yet unforeseeable failure do to the large-scale deployment of AI across multiple domains, for instance in the Internet of Things that connects billions of devices
  • Shift towards a unipolar world order, in which a centralized body controls the development and deployment of these technologies of mass destruction


The Risk Radar is a monthly research report in which we monitor and qualify the world’s biggest risks to watch. Our updates are based on the estimated likelihood and impact of these risks. This report provides an additional ‘risk flection’ from a political, social, economic and technological perspective.
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