Introduction: Anticipating the rise of tensions
Fragmentation, friction, uncertainty and hence unpredictability within many countries and between major power blocks are becoming more commonplace. Often resulting in violence or conflict, these tensions can be aggravated by climate change and competition in the field of digital technologies. Therefore, despite its difficulty, anticipation and foresight informed by science and technology are critical in the field of peace and war. Such foresight allows the anticipation of a variety of futures. On the basis of these, it becomes possible to create and implement appropriate programmes and strategies to prevent or contain conflict, and to advance the more promising approaches to peace.
Applying GESDA’s anticipatory methodology to mapping the future of peace and war involves a cross-regional, multi-disciplinary approach involving social and political scientists’ as well as historians, technology experts, economist and climate scientists. Unlike anticipating breakthroughs or new applications in the field of technology, foresight in the fields of social and political sciences entails more fragile projections with a wider margin of error. A wide range of uncertainties, unanticipated tipping points and black swan events can come into play at any moment, transforming anticipated scenarios.
Ultimately, while it should be based on relevant science, longer term anticipation in this field also requires some exercise of the imagination. As a result, this is far from an exact science, and one that is constrained by our tendency to anchor scenarios in what is familiar from the present — the “tyranny of the now” — which tends to limit a required element of creative thinking. Nonetheless, the difficulties can be partially mitigated by acknowledging them and also by exploring counter trends, peripheral trends that may become dominant as well as known unknowns.
Methodology: imagining a range of possible futures
The future cannot be predicted. Instead, we must use foresight and anticipation to think about a range of possible futures (the plural is important), as a basis in the present to help us steer towards a more desirable future.
There are, of course, issues concerning who gets to define what is a “desirable” future and the broader legitimacy of what is considered desirable. What is seen as “desirable” will vary viewing point. However, when it comes to issues of peace and war, there tends to be consensus that war, conflict, and other forms of unrest that restrict human wellbeing, equality, security and freedom to thrive are universally accepted as undesirable, especially by those across the globe who are the survivors and victims of violence and conflict.
To anticipate possible futures related to peace and war, while maximising the chance to influence policymakers, participants in the workshop here decided to formulate a variety of scenarios — “portraits” of possible or probable futures — through construction of a two-axis framework. This methodology lent from the academic realm of future studies creates a way to analyse four distinct “families of futures”, with one family in each quadrant.
The vertical axis of this scenario framework represents the continuum that separates peace from war (and/or extreme violence and/or mass violations of human rights). Recognising that we are on the cusp of major societal changes illustrated by the unprecedented speed and reach of science and technology breakthroughs, the horizontal axis focuses on how new scientific and technological developments and ruptures will impact the distribution of power in, and between, societies. To go deeper, we must first give space to the issue of definitions.
Precautionary considerations: the vital nuances of peace, war, science, technology and power
Focusing first on the vertical axis of our scenario framework, we note that any investigation of the continuum between war and peace necessitates a clear and nuanced definition of war, conflict and peace.
Much of our present world writhes and persists in the greyzone between full-blown war and an ideal of quality or “positive” peace. Moreover, a mere absence of war, or a so-called “negative peace”, is not an ideal: defining peace simply as the absence of visible conflict can conceal states akin to war where there is widespread violence, systemic suppression of human rights, terrorism, threat from organised crime groups and, at worst, genocide.
Additionally, we have to consider the importance of “legitimacy” in decision making. This is a central component in the definition of peace: conflict can escalate to violence when institutions cannot resolve differences between actors or stakeholders in a manner that the society or societies concerned broadly recognise as legitimate.
Based on the accumulation of academic expertise in this field, the agreed working definition of peace includes the following three dimensions: respect for physical integrity, a common readiness to resolve differences through peaceful means broadly recognised as legitimate, and the pursuit of equality values — while acknowledging that different societies have different levels of tolerance for inequality.
The horizontal axis, which relates to issues of technology and power, involves more complexity. Technology's pervasive influence within society can be likened to a climate that surrounds and pervades all aspects of modern life, and influences people’s sentiments and behaviour. Contemporary and emerging technological developments and innovation have proven as transformative for the world as the invention of the printing press and the 19th century industrial revolution.
Emerging technologies have changed the way in which we access, perceive, and share information, and therefore altered the foundations of political legitimacy and related institutions. This has already had wide-reaching and disruptive impacts, especially on democratic political systems with minimal online content moderation. AI-powered tools enable the generation of photorealistic images or video, and targeted polarising narratives can be used to accelerate these dynamics. The easy access to and geographic immediacy of digital technologies also allow for often untraceable cross border disruption on a massive scale. The result is an increased possibility of greater political fragmentation and violence within and between societies in decades to come.
Should existing and emerging technologies such as social media and artificial intelligence continue to undermine the legitimacy of institutions, violence and conflict will continue to increase, as national and international institutions rooted in another era become increasingly unable to manage differences peacefully. Moreover, the growth in so-called cerebral-cortex warfare, where actors use emerging technologies to manipulate collective sentiments and evoke violence, is likely to increase. Such a trend could be exacerbated with breakthroughs in areas related to human enhancement such as cognitive technologies or genetic engineering. Furthermore, as control over emerging technologies continues to be an important source of political power, intra-state rivalry over control and access to emerging technologies may become a growing driver of instability within the international system.
In this context major technology companies are not neutral actors who passively deliver technological tools. By virtue of a deficit in public policy and legislation, and due to their size, their social, economic and political impact some large tech companies now wield power comparable to nation-states, and actively participate in matters of conflict, peace, and security.
However, new technologies also afford us instruments and channels to further global peace. At a practical level they can help make peace processes more inclusive and hence more durable. They can help read threats faster thus enabling earlier action for resolution or containment. They can provide a universal, real time lens on human rights abuses furthering accountability processes. They also give rise to global, often youth-centred cross-border movements that further action on issues such as gender equality and climate change, which in themselves can exacerbate conflict if given no attention.
Emerging digital technologies are proportionate in power to the amount of data they have access to. In the future, new capacities to collect, store, and communicate data and information are likely to reshape the distribution of political power. Thus, access to data itself is becoming a source of significant power or lack of it. International and national regulation of access to, ownership and use of data will be an essential component of stalling or reversing the upward trend of local and global friction and conflicts.
As well as these clearly visible technology-driven issues, a number of technological issues sit behind global mega-trends, affecting the future landscape of conflict. For instance, emerging technologies such as cyberattacks, autonomous weapons, AI-enabled disinformation, and bio-engineering are creating new pathways and avenues for conflict. These can be deployed alongside conventional weaponry during war or used alone for low intensity conflict which can disrupt infrastructure and cause loss of life. Should regulation, including global arms treaties such as on Lethal Autonomous Weapons, not be deployed to constrain their use, emerging technologies will be increasingly used to destabilise and manipulate opponents even when “hot” wars are not waged. Low-level conflict in cyberspace is already a geopolitical reality.
This is particularly problematic because it is highly likely that the spread of access to these technologies will remain uneven. What’s more, these technologies have the potential to be highly destabilising if introduced within communities and states that lack experience, institutions and legislative guard rails to mitigate their harmful impacts. Varying access to new technologies within and between states can also exacerbate inequality, which can, in turn, nurture conflict.
As the world enters an era profoundly shaped by this new industrial revolution — which brings with it risks of fragmentation, polarisation and new, highly accessible means for promoting violence — geopolitical risk and societal disruptions will magnify. This is made particularly problematic by the fact that pre-existing technologies, such as for nuclear or biological warfare, have already led to unparalleled destructive powers. Humanity’s “margin for error” has arguably never been narrower.
With all this said, it is far from clear how new technologies will affect the distribution of power between and within societies. It may be that current trends are causing an evolution towards power concentrated among a small number of actors who retain control over emerging technologies (such as states, and large tech companies). An alternative is that, given the declining costs and barriers for accessing technology, power will become increasingly diffused among a multiplicity of actors. It is worth noting that both trends can co-exist, and that peace and conflict are possible under both scenarios.
It is also worth noting that concentration and diffusion of power may take place simultaneously in different parts of the world and potentially within different groups in societies. Concentration of power among only several powerful states could encourage political fragmentation and fragility in others. For example, emerging technologies could offer groups such as organised crime networks increased power within more fragile states that are unable to regulate or contain malign applications of these technologies.
Despite these multifaceted unknowns about what the future of technology will bring, one pivotal question emerges: will technology cause concentration, or diffusion, of power? For this reason, one end of the technology axis in our scenario framework reflects high concentration of power through the use of new technologies; the other reflects a high diffusion of power through the democratisation of technology.
Outcomes: populating the four quadrants
Having defined the two axes of the scenario framework — with a vertical axis representing the continuum of peace-war, and a horizontal axis measuring how the appropriation of technology is used to either channel or diffuse power — it becomes possible to populate each quadrant with anticipated families of the future.
In the upper-left quadrant (Q1), for example, the use of technology to underpin power results in various types of (relative) peace. Here, one can imagine tech-dependent and tech-savvy states, companies, and/or other non-state actors with a high concentration of power, agreeing among themselves to manage rivalry without open conflict. Yet, a high concentration of technological power also makes it more likely that access to technology is not equitably distributed. Across multiple units of analysis (e.g., local, intra-state, regional, international), this could mean that technology benefits a few states as well as global elites, while possibly also being used to manipulate and control — all while maintaining relative peace.
The boundaries of each quadrant must be understood as permeable. The relative peace in Q1, for example, may deteriorate to relative instability in Q4 (lower-left) were states (or groups within states) to find themselves in more conflictual relationships with each other.
Indeed, Q4 represents a family of futures where power is highly concentrated and the prevailing situation is one of conflict, instability, and/or violence. On the geopolitical front, one might imagine the culmination of a cold-war-like trajectory between tech-power-players erupting giving rise to outbreaks of violence. In this possible future, competition over scarce resources needed for technological development may become more salient and danger-ridden. Technology will be increasingly weaponised by the limited actors who have access and control.
Q4 may also be characterised by population control with few human rights guarantees, less respect for physical integrity of citizens, and a deficit in legitimised decision-making. Should technology be used to concentrate power, the fact that it is increasingly interwoven into all levels and facets of governance could result in an abundance of political systems characterised by strict and intrusive control over citizens. Here, one might imagine technology-driven consequences such as AI-driven surveillance technologies, digital identity manipulation, and uncontrolled human augmentation.
Q3 (lower-right) represents a family of futures similarly riddled with conflict and violence. Yet, the ability to appropriate technology for power is widely diffused. This would likely create different relationships between states, technology companies, non-state actors, elite structures, and populations than in Q4 — and immense competition over the information space.
There are various possible consequences here. With power in the hands of the many instead of the few, organised crime syndicates, terrorists and other violent non-state armed groups may pose new challenges to state leadership, especially without the existence of legitimised, inclusive institutions capable of effectively channelling grievances. Populations — particularly youth — similarly empowered by access to advancements in science and technology may enter into new types of struggles with elites; one might imagine, for example, a new generation of citizen hackers that looks to destabilise certain institutions or corporations.
The relative instability of Q3 does not suggest, however, that such a family of futures will not also see greater efforts to use technology for peace. The introduction of drone surveillance on the border between Rwanda and the DRC has dramatically reduced violence and trafficking, for example, and as indicated above, trans-national social media-driven movements have contributed to action against climate change and gender discrimination, reducing contributors to conflict.
In the midst of instability, Q3 may also see a civil society leveraging its own access to open-source intelligence (OSINT), or unregulated innovation contributing positively to peace. Additionally, access to technology may present new opportunities for political protest for disenfranchised groups, which could end in positive or adverse outcomes depending on other contextual factors.
Moving up the peace-war continuum from Q3 to Q2 (upper-right) would likely require strong, agile, innovative regulatory frameworks and capable institutions. In Q2, a high diffusion of power is paired with relative peace, and a multiplicity of powerful actors find avenues for cooperation.
In all four scenarios there will be a high penetration of technology in society. However, high levels of security, transparency, and data protection in Q2 could limit abuse and exploitation. Potentially viewed as a public good, technology may be leveraged to reduce inequality and exclusion, to improve education, health, agricultural, and small business sectors, as well as to strengthen supply chains and — for the purposes of peace and security — find increased utility in peacekeeping operations, diplomatic dialogue, and multilateral decision-making.
Ultimately, the future will likely present a complex mixing of these four quadrants. Populating this framework, however, should encourage anticipatory thinking and provide policymakers with an image of probable families of futures to enhance their understanding of the environment in which they make decisions, and what the consequences of those decisions may be over a longer period of time.
Conclusion: a call for a strengthened, innovative multilateralism and embracing of uncertainty
The course of history often takes us by surprise, with academics and practitioners alike frequently under- or over-estimating the disruptions that the interaction — and sometimes collision — of different trends and countertrends can produce. Moreover, any attempt at anticipating the future has to leave space for possibility of black swan events, which by definition cannot be foreseen. Also, a focus on technological or geopolitical vectors as drivers of change needs to be analysed in conjunction with variables such as climate change, macro-economic trends, migration and so on.
Of particular interest here, however, are the uncertainties generated by technology development. The precise nature of the technologies subject to the biggest developmental leaps over the next three decades will have profound effects on the future of peace and conflict. For example, should a small number of states achieve technological breakthroughs in particularly impactful areas (quantum computing and artificial intelligence, say) and refrain from sharing them globally, the future of conflict is likely to be shaped by great-power competition. In such a scenario, those countries who lack these capabilities, or have uneven access to them, would be put at significant disadvantage. Where inequality and exclusion prevail, as many studies have shown, the likelihood of conflict is greatly increased.
The GESDA Science Breakthrough Radar examines five families of scientific fields and related technologies, and not all of them are straightforward science-driven technologies like quantum computing and AI. For other types of technology on the Radar, such as those enhancing climate adaptation and resilience (negative emission technologies, energy storage, and nuclear fusion, for example), an uneven and partial spread could result in a lack of urgency to avert global climate breakdown. This would likely exacerbate existing inequalities, fuelling conflict and humanitarian catastrophes. In turn, this would almost certainly trigger migration crises, greater global instability, and spillover effects, even for states which do achieve a green energy transition. Even advances in technologies with a multiplicity of benign applications — such as pathogenic biology and neuromodulation systems — could open new space for conflict.
On a more positive note, states may also respond to disruptions — whether engendered by new technologies or global challenges such as climate breakdown — by taking better advantage of emerging technological tools and capacities to further peace.
It follows from all this that a key to harnessing the power of new technologies for peace, and containing their negative impacts, will be the human capacity to regulate the application of emerging technologies and corresponding robust national, regional and international regulatory systems.
Effective multilateralism that can act at the same pace as technologies evolve will be a vital ingredient to achieving this. It will have to happen in the face of compounding geopolitical tensions: it seems likely that the influence of those states who traditionally dominated in shaping negotiations and negotiated outcomes in multilateral settings such as the United Nations will further diminish, relative to other individual states, groups of states and non-state actors in the geo-political ascendant. This means that the practice of pragmatism, dialogue, and mutual efforts to understand and respond to the interests of others will be essential.
In a rapidly-evolving world subject to shocks and stressors engendered by emerging technologies, and global, systemic challenges such as climate breakdown, it is crucially important that no state - and particularly one armed with weapons of mass destruction - be isolated from the international system.
Given the speed of technological developments, regulatory frameworks will also need to be agile and anticipatory. The nature of technological evolution over the coming decades is not possible to fully predict. However, a “human-centric” anticipatory approach that uses human behaviour and the likely utility different individuals and groups will seek to derive from new technologies is most likely to yield results. To inform regulation, more attention and research is needed on new domains of conflict (such as cyber, cerebral-cortex warfare, and autonomous weapons systems) as well on new instruments for peace. The interaction of peace driven transnational youth movements as of non-state armed groups and organised crime networks with emerging technologies also merit further attention.
The disruptive impacts of an uneven spread of new technologies (multiplied by the uneven impact of climate, ecological, and demographic challenges) means that increased anticipation, dialogue, strategic planning, and resource transfer between developed and developing countries is crucial for peace. The goal should be to ensure that developing, fragile, and conflict-affected communities can share in the benefits of emerging technologies; and be supported to protect themselves from malign uses and impacts thereof. This will be key to preventing or limiting the proliferation of instability and violence.
Next steps: Making anticipation useful
For anticipation to be useful for conflict prevention, future scenarios ought to be considered through the optic of what needs to happen now; thereby maximising human agency and possibilities for more peaceful outcomes. This task will be the focus on this during future workshops and events under this program of work.
The first of these is at the 2023 Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipation Summit, scheduled for 11-13 October. This meeting will provide a space for dialogue between science, politics, diplomacy, business, and citizens on the application of this anticipatory framework and how it relates to the anticipation of scientific trends.
The GESDA Science Breakthrough Radar -- which provides an overview of 41 science trends and breakthroughs at 5, 10, and 25 years into the future – will be used to further enrich the scenarios developed and should inform future applications of the anticipatory framework.