Use the future to build the present
Anticipatory Science Diplomacy in Practice
Stakeholder Type
1Quantum Revolution& Advanced AI2HumanAugmentation3Eco-Regeneration& Geo-Engineering4Science& Diplomacy1. ANTICIPATIONPOTENTIALAdvancedArtificial IntelligenceQuantumTechnologiesBrain-inspiredComputingBiologicalComputingCognitiveEnhancementHuman Applications of Genetic EngineeringRadical HealthExtensionConsciousnessAugmentation DecarbonisationWorldSimulationFuture FoodSystemsSpaceResourcesOceanStewardshipComplex Systems forSocial EnhancementScience-basedDiplomacyInnovationsin EducationSustainableEconomicsCollaborativeScience Diplomacy
1Quantum Revolution& Advanced AI2HumanAugmentation3Eco-Regeneration& Geo-Engineering4Science& Diplomacy1. ANTICIPATIONPOTENTIALAdvancedArtificial IntelligenceQuantumTechnologiesBrain-inspiredComputingBiologicalComputingCognitiveEnhancementHuman Applications of Genetic EngineeringRadical HealthExtensionConsciousnessAugmentation DecarbonisationWorldSimulationFuture FoodSystemsSpaceResourcesOceanStewardshipComplex Systems forSocial EnhancementScience-basedDiplomacyInnovationsin EducationSustainableEconomicsCollaborativeScience Diplomacy


Anticipatory Science Diplomacy in Practice

Examples of International Organisations

Many multilateral actors already engage in anticipatory science diplomacy in order to fulfil their missions. Confronted with the high pace of science and technology and its impact, finding ways to anticipate trends and translate this knowledge into practical tools has become essential for many organisations.

This section provides four short examples showing how selected actors engage in science anticipation in practice, what it means for their work and what challenges they see. Their views are based on three questions and were collected through interviews and written statements. Their responses represented the views of the experts consulted and offer a practical grounding for thinking about anticipatory science and diplomacy and how the GESDA Science Breakthrough Radar can contribute to some of the world’s current challenges. We asked the following questions:

  1. What does your organisation do already to integrate advanced science and technology into its work?
  2. In which domains of your work would anticipatory science be most useful?
  3. What are the difficulties in anticipating and what is the added-value?

Ulrike Till

Director IP and Frontier Technologies DivisionWorld Intellectual Property Organization

Science and innovation are in the DNA of WIPO, which is sometimes called the world innovation agency. WIPO is integrating advanced science and technology in its work in three different ways. First it uses cutting-edge technology to expand or develop new tools to make its services easier, more accessible, faster and more efficient. An example of this is the use of artificial intelligence for translation, automatic text and image recognition. Second, WIPO is constantly scanning technologies that might potentially be disrupting the IP field, such as, for example, blockchain, on which WIPO is preparing a white paper. Thirdly, there is the broader horizon-scanning where WIPO tries to identify technologies further down the road that could support the mission of WIPO, innovators and creators, or impact the global IP system. WIPO aims at fostering a balanced system that works for everyone and this requires sharing information, exchanging views and building the necessary resources.

One of the difficulties with anticipation is to find the time to balance the urgency required by the present while allowing space for reflection on the longer-term issues. Having the ability to step back and reflect in order to anticipate future science and technology developments brings real benefits. Also, as the issues get deeper — especially in the context of IP issues — there is a need to introduce a level of simplicity and explainability in issues that are becoming ever more complex.

Science and technology anticipation has huge value if it is able to develop the language to make its insights understood beyond the core group of narrow specialists. As science and technology is developing at a very rapid pace, with very complex implications, the right communication tools are needed to make sure that the knowledge gap between stakeholders is not widening. To make an informed decision, all relevant parties need to have a basic understanding.

This raises another challenge, which is to gather a broad range of stakeholders with very different backgrounds, knowledge, and levels of understanding about the issues involved, to discuss advanced science and technology. The difficulty lies in convening these discussions without giving the impression of an implied agenda. This requires a lot of information sharing and a transparent and open way to engage in a topic.

Finally, there is a need to strike a real balance: our faith that future science and technology breakthroughs will help to solve some of the big challenges must be weighed against the fact that some of the issues that we are facing now could be alleviated in the present by focusing on behavioural or societal measures.

Joseph D’Cruz

Special Advisor, Strategic Planning and Innovation United Nations Development Programme

On the UNDP Accelerator Labs:

“All 60 Accelerator Labs became fully operational in 2019, bringing new talent and skills into UNDP. […] In 2020, the 60 Accelerator Labs addressed 147 development challenges covering all 17 SDGs. They introduce a new way to work within UNDP that consists of identifying key learning questions and a roadmap of activities (e.g., experiments, explorations, mapping grassroot solutions and partnerships) to understand sustainable development challenges better and generate learnings faster. Last year, the Accelerator Labs also documented over 1,700 grassroots solutions and used 48 different innovation methods and approaches”

Innovating in an Uncertain World: One Year of Learning and Breakthroughs - UNDP Accelerator Labs 2020 Annual Report

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) works at the applied end of science and technology. Through its network of Accelerator Labs, today consisting of 91 Labs covering 115 developing countries, UNDP looks to understand what is working on the ground, in terms of the solutions that people are finding for the problems they face. A strong focus is on how to find, share and scale technologies that are applicable in very local development contexts.

Traditionally, the strategy with development was to go into a developing country, to try to understand its problems, and then to bring a solution in from elsewhere. But the reality is that it doesn't work that way. Long before any development worker turns up in a location and tries to solve a problem, the people in that location have been working on solutions. Therefore, UNDP — through the Accelerator Labs in particular — builds up capacity to find and understand the local contextualised solutions that people are building for existing challenges, so that these can be tested, shared and scaled elsewhere. By connecting and combining portfolios of local solutions in this way, larger scale change can be catalysed.

Interestingly, when considering the science and technology components of the solutions, quite a few use advanced technologies. This is particularly true in the digital realm, where it is quite easy as a local entrepreneur to have access to cutting edge materials or tools such as 3D printing, which allow local production of even quite advanced solutions. The ability to make local products, at cheap cost and at scale, exactly where they are needed, is going to be transformative in a number of different sectors.

UNDP frames innovation not just as technology, but also considers social innovation, policy innovation or economic innovation. The Accelerator Labs in particular also look for innovations in terms of different social structures or different policy-making approaches. Solutions to concrete problems such as climate change, food systems or access to jobs and opportunities require understanding of local contexts and a stack of solutions across scales and sectors.

One of the elements that is important in policy discussions with governments is to understand which technological innovations are on the horizon. However, it is not about picking or advocating specific scientific solutions, but rather about creating the space where policy discussions that genuinely and rigorously look at options can take place. With the pace of the challenge we are facing right now increasing almost exponentially, this is vital. Conversations about governance arrangements needed for the development and application of science and technology need to happen in an open space without implying that they are being endorsed.

One of the biggest, most frequently-encountered challenges with working in the policy space is the degree to which policymaking genuinely understands the pace at which change is happening. In most countries, including the most advanced, policymaking still under-appreciates the scale of exponential changes in climate science, material systems, food systems, and others. On top of that, policymakers have to make decisions today that will often have implications for the next 10 or 20 years. The exponential rate of change creates a dilemma where policy decisions that prioritise short term needs and perspectives also need to catch up as things move forward. This is very expensive and increasingly unaffordable for a range of countries.

The question here is how are we to build the loop between the anticipatory perspective and the concrete policy and capacity-building support UNDP provides on the ground? Part of the answer is to make policymakers understand that anticipation does not mean prediction. What is going to happen in 25 years can’t be foreseen. It is possible, however, to build analytical and policymaking skill sets that anticipate potential developments and create policy decisions that maximise potential benefit.

For UNDP, the main domains of actions relevant to science anticipation are climate change, planetary emergency, energy production and the digitalisation of almost every form of human interaction. In those areas, having the ability to sense what is likely to come out of the scientific and technology pipeline helps to inform governments about how to create the policy space to maximise the positive impact. This is where we see the biggest use and benefit of GESDA’s Science Breakthrough Radar.

Nadia Isler

Director of the SDG Lab United Nations Office in Geneva

Equal access to technology and connectivity (and by extension to advanced science and technology) are two themes of increasing relevance to efforts to accelerate the implementation of the SDGs. With the Covid crisis, this trend has only been amplified. At the SDG Lab, we have worked at a very operational level through the “convening/connecting” of different partners to incubate concrete partnerships, such as that between the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the Government of Niger, that support countries’ work to accelerate the access to connectivity and technology for all, in order to accelerate SDG results. At the policy dialogue level, we are currently working on identifying the most intelligent entry point that the SDG Lab could use to add value on the “very trendy” digital/technology/connectivity (DTC) trend. We are noticing that there is a growing pattern of DTC being portrayed as the silver bullet to reaching the SDGs, yet we are hearing from several governments and other stakeholders that we need to caution against this trend, as DTC is only a means to an end.

In a nutshell: countries could have access to all the DTC in the world, yet this would still not be enough to ensure equal access and to solve the major global challenges of our time (SDGs), as the needs for education, skill development, infrastructure etc. will persist.  The SDG Lab is therefore thinking of taking up this “mismatch” between the growing narrative of DTC (by extension advanced science and technology) being the silver bullet and the reality on the ground. The aim is to encourage very open debates on the matter, with all relevant stakeholders (member states, UN, science, academia, NGOs, private companies etc.).  We believe that Geneva is the perfect place to do so because of the presence of many of the key actors. 

When reflecting on the value of anticipatory science, it would be particularly relevant to bring information about “what’s cooking in the labs” to informal discussions with, and among, member states of the UN and other stakeholders, including all the SDG active actors of International Geneva (the Geneva 2030 Ecosystem), through for example, the SDG Lab. This would allow member states and other actors to be aware of the upcoming future science trends and, when relevant, act upon them earlier rather than later. It would also allow stakeholders to appreciate the future political trends, so that the relevant actors can anticipate and start to build the bridges that are needed between science and diplomacy, prior to the anticipatory science becoming reality. The SDG Lab would welcome anticipatory science as a key domain to help anticipate the trends that will influence the SDGs (and the next generation of SDGs). Conversely, this would help an entity like the SDG Lab to think ahead (anticipate) and identify the political debates that it (and other UN and non-UN partners) could help make happen. 

From a political point of view, anticipation is never a very easy sell because there is already so much today that needs our immediate focus, time, and resources. This may have changed with Covid, which demonstrated how fundamental it is to anticipate. It would be very helpful to gather a series of real situations (such as Covid) and look at how anticipation on trends in science and in geopolitics could have provided a different outcome.

There is a unique opportunity today, through GESDA and Switzerland’s engagement in Science Diplomacy, to bring these issues to the forefront of political and policy debates. Let’s build on this momentum.

Federica du Pasquier

Strategic Advisor to the President International Committee of the Red Cross

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) operates worldwide, helping people affected by conflict and armed violence, and promoting the laws that protect victims of war. Since it was established in 1863, the ICRC has continuously adapted to respond to people's evolving needs in the best way possible. The organisation explores, tests and pilots new and emerging technologies, seeking opportunities to address problems and anticipate disruptions. One example is the partnership recently set up with the Swiss Polytechnic Schools EPFL & ETHZ - through which ICRC engages in cutting-edge projects that involve geospatial imagery, artificial intelligence, privacy-enhancing biometrics and a range of other technologies.

In the context of the ICRC, science anticipation is critical because the deployment and use of cutting-edge technology may impact people affected by conflict and violence. This is where it becomes important for the ICRC to understand the use and potential harm of those technologies. This ranges from the implications for the automation of warfare raised by AI and machine learning to, more broadly, the intertwined futures of environmental, human and animal health.

A key challenge with anticipatory work is translating it into terms that are relevant for practitioners — in the case of the ICRC, people who are busy dealing with emergencies every day. What does this mean for the problems they are already facing? A clear “so what?” is central to unleashing our collective intelligence.

The ICRC believes that strategic foresight is essential to developing the right approaches and skills to respond to tomorrow's challenges. To this end, the ICRC is currently setting up a Strategic Foresight Forum — ICRC in 2040 — to explore future influences and disruptions to our mission and mandate by analysing perspectives from our staff and communities affected by conflict. Perspectives and insights from GESDA and other entities committed to anticipation are also being integrated into that context.