EURAM 2022 Annual Conference - From science fiction to reality: how we prepare society for future changes (eng)

Winterthur, 15.06.2022 - Allocution du président de la Confédération et chef du Département fédéral des affaires étrangères DFAE, Ignazio Cassis - seul le texte prononcé fait foi

Ladies and Gentlemen

Mars lies 56 million kilometres from Earth. The distance to Jupiter is 589 million kilometres. Between the two, an asteroid has been making its rounds for thousands of years. Its name? Davida. Inside this approximately 300-kilometre space satellite lie vast quantities of iron, cobalt, and nickel. The scientific start-up Planetary Resources estimates the value of these deposits at around 15 quintillion dollars. That means 15 with 30 zeros. To put this in perspective, the total amount of cash in circulation and assets in bank accounts worldwide was around 96 trillion dollars in 2019, according to Forbes. That’s 12 zeros. This is like comparing the surface area of the African continent with a ladybird. Experts predict that in 25 years, humanity will be ready to fire rockets at the asteroid and mine this wealth. Now, of course, a few questions arise: first, do we really want to do that? And second, if so, who decides who gets to exploit it, and how?

I admit, this sounds more like Hollywood than foreign policy. But reality is catching up with us faster than we think. The example of the asteroid Davida is far from being an invention of filmmakers, but rather part of the GESDA Science Breakthrough Radar – which I’ll come back to shortly. As humans, we strive for innovation, while at the same time fearing change. But the world is in a constant state of flux, whether we like it or not. In his excellent book “Everything was forever, until it was no more” Alexei Yurchak writes: “Although the system's collapse had been unimaginable before it began, it appeared unsurprising when it happened.” Since the industrial revolution, technological development has repeatedly confronted us with a new reality. What seemed impossible yesterday is self-evident today. Numerous technical innovations have made our lives much easier, but at least as many have had unintended consequences. It seems all the more important to study these developments and to understand them from a wide variety of perspectives, before acclaiming them or demonising them.

1. Harnessing potential and preventing the shock of change

Today, we can laugh at Thomas Watson, who sixty years ago as IBM chairman stated: “there is a world market for maybe five computers.” And his British colleague Douglas Hartree wrote as late as the 1950s, “(…) at the full flower of their development one or two computers per nation would suffice for all imaginable needs”. Now, these men were anything but stupid. They were among the best in their field. And that was exactly the problem: both men saw computers solely as machines for solving difficult equations. They could not imagine the influence such technological developments would have on our daily lives.

The crux of the matter is that technological progress is always accompanied by unpredictable consequences, and thus with social change. And such change can be alarming. Especially when we can't grasp its consequences. Just what are the benefits of innovation? And what adaptations are we prepared to undertake? Such questions have been formulated since the industrial revolution, and we have been muddling through them ever since. Ever since the French workers threw their “sabots” – their wooden shoes – into the mowing and threshing machines, thus founding the term

“sabotage”, reference has been made to the social changes that follow important technical innovations. What does this mean for us? Well, two things:

* On the one hand: technological development offers great potential. Particularly for young entrepreneurs and bright minds like you.

* At the same time, it is important that we attempt to mitigate the shock of change that can hit society abruptly.

How can we do that? By shifting the discussion about progress from one about fears to one about opportunities. That is what science diplomacy is all about. Anticipating innovations and initiating a societal discussion that addresses the challenges of innovation at an early stage in order to prepare society for the upcoming – and inevitable – change. It’s not about predicting the future, but about preparing society to deal with the future. Because, whether we like it or not: change is coming.

2. Using the future to build the present

Are we ready to face this new reality – as individuals, and collectively as a society? Are we ready to make every effort to promote the positive use of new technologies while mitigating the risks? Three years ago I was convinced of the necessity to create a new organisation – the GESDA Foundation – to get to the bottom of these very issues. My idea was adopted by the Swiss government and accepted by the authorities of Geneva: the foundation was then created. We felt – as the host state of one of the foremost centres of global governance and as a major global player in science and innovation – that there is an urgent need to fully capture what science and technology have to offer humanity in terms of foresight and solutions. The converging of different sciences is expanding and accelerating technological progress. This will change the face of humanity. This will change the way humanity is governed globally. The interaction between science and diplomacy should allow us to anticipate new technological challenges for humanity, in order to design appropriate solutions and to turn new technologies into opportunities for each and every one of us. This will lead us to build the global governance of the 21st century.

The GESDA Foundation aims to address this. Its method is based on anticipation of the challenges and opportunities of technologies that lie ahead. To that purpose, the foundation compiles the GESDA Science Breakthrough Radar, an overview of the scientific developments that can be expected in the next five, ten and twenty-five years. Scientific breakthroughs such as the ability to exploit resources on an asteroid millions of kilometres away. The method is also based on participation and geared towards impact: GESDA facilitates the conversation between multiple stakeholders in order to build convergence around concrete solutions. What we are trying to achieve with GESDA is new and therefore not a simple process. To link anticipation – that looks far ahead – with action – that is immediate – is a major challenge in itself. I would like to invite you all to join us on the path of forward-looking science diplomacy and to play your part in ensuring the implementation of relevant political processes. Or, in the words of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “From here and today an epoch of world history will end, and you can say, you were there when it happened.”

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Département fédéral des affaires étrangères