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Developing Context Scenarios for Future EU R&I policies


Dr. Attila Havas

Jun 7, 2022

What types of EU R&I policies would be effective in the years to come? How shall
these policies help us explore and respond to the uncertainties of the future?
Finding answers to these questions requires first of all imagining the context, in
which future EU R&I policies might be situated. For doing this, we need to explore
developments both at global level and within the European Union.

1 Why Multi-Level Context Scenarios?

Several recent developments strongly suggest that a new ‘world order’ is evolving, replacing the relatively short period characterised by US dominance, which, in turn, followed the bipolar world (the cold war between the blocs led by the US and the USSR) that existed for several decades after WW2. This new world order will be a multipolar one, but we cannot know yet how these ‘poles’ would behave. Thus, it is an imperative to consider several options. To do so, we propose exploring three different types of multipolar worlds:

A) ‘poles’ genuinely collaborating when tackling global challenges,

B) antagonistic groups of countries that are nevertheless willing to engage in limited co-operation, and

C) at least one ‘pole’ is openly hostile towards others.1

The EU might also evolve along different paths, and thus we have enriched these multipolar scenarios at global level by also exploring two variants of how the EU might evolve in each of the global scenarios. The two variants of EU development we consider are i) a dynamic and resilient variant and ii) a destabilised and thus vulnerable variant. Preferably, the EU will be strong, dynamic and resilient, but we cannot be sure about this, and thus need to consider a possible weakening of the EU’s position in the world.

By considering these two futures for the EU in each of the three global multipolar scenarios, we arrive at a set of six scenarios in total (Table 1). Due to the explicit consideration of multiple development paths at both the global and EU levels, we obtain a multi-level architecture of scenarios. It is certainly more demanding to analyse the six possible futures stemming from our 2x3 structure, but it provides more nuanced insights on the possible contexts for the EU R&I policies, and thus these policies can be underpinned by more relevant analyses, considering several options in a systematic and transparent way.

This multi-level nature is what distinguishes our set of scenarios from other recent scenario projects that we have drawn upon as sources of inspiration. The notion of a multi-track scenario, coined by the recent OECD project on Global Scenarios 2035,2 stresses the idea of rather autonomous developments paths of different clusters (groups) of countries. This idea is shared by the EC SAFIRE scenarios,3 which also propose almost autonomous future pathways of different world regions. The global dimension of our scenario matrix further differentiates the multi-track idea into three variants of how groups of countries might relate to each other: genuine collaboration, limited co-operation, or open hostility.4

The JRC’s background report to the EC Strategic Foresight Report 20215 with its emphasis on the concept of open strategic autonomy of the EU emphasises the relationship between the EU and its global context, but it does not distinguish multiple development pathways at both global and EU levels. We argue, however, that this distinction is particularly productive to explore options for future EU R&I policies, because the room – and need – for manoeuvre depends on global opportunities and constraints, as well as on the collaboration and disparities between the national innovation systems of EU Member States.

Of course, other factors of relevance to EU R&I policies also influence the EU and the global landscapes, such as the emergence of new types of non-state actors, or growing concerns about global challenges that are shared by all countries.

Considering several types of a multipolar world offers an opportunity to think about different types of political and policy stances vis-à-vis Russia, China, and the US, which is important in order to derive future-proof implications and devise a future-proof EU R&I policy strategy. For example, the EU can make cognisant, well-considered preparations for a hostile, as well as a limited or genuinely collaborative relationship with Russia in the coming decades. While the latter may seem difficult to imagine in Spring 2022, it should not be discarded in the longer term. Further, this structure makes it easier to recognise that we need to put more emphasis on the security of the EU, and thus its cohesion. It also implies the need of taking a more pronounced ethical stance by the EU when considering various options, actual and potential internal tensions, as well as external threats and challenges. In view of how the global relations might evolve in the three different world orders, the EU needs to take a position that is both robust with regard to these three possible future worlds and at the same time compatible with the basic values that the EU aspires to defend. These choices are likely to have crucial repercussions on its R&I policies as well.

2 Scenario Descriptions 2.1 Major common features of the three multipolar worlds and general observations The world is running on multiple separate tracks in all the three multipolar worlds, while the level of co-operation and conflict between the poles varies in the different scenarios. Attitudes towards key determinants of well-being (inequality, freedom of expression, surveillance, ...) are highly divergent between the groups of countries, of which the various poles are composed. Thus, social tensions and inequalities might be high in one ‘pole’, while in another one a socially balanced development is of high priority. That would possibly lead to mass migration from one pole to another (unless prevented by force). Planetary boundaries – especially biodiversity, climate change, quality of soil, air, and water – might be either neglected or respected in the different ‘poles’, possibly causing major global challenges – or even disasters – with their further economic, social, and environmental repercussions. These major issues are tackled in markedly different ways in the three types of multipolar worlds, just as access to critical resources.

State actors, businesses, NGOs, and newly emerging actors might behave in different ways in the same scenario. Competition and collaboration might occur in parallel (both among and inside the ‘poles’, as well as among the different types of actors). Co-operation in research, technological development and innovation activities (attitudes towards collaboration, as well as its domains, channels and forms, the types of actors engaged) are likely to vary across the scenario sketches. Finally, the actual ways, in which the EU tackles the major challenges and disruptions could vary in the six scenarios, depending on to what extent the various major actors (the EP, the Council, the Commission, big businesses, NGOs, ...) can shape the agenda and control the actions needed to implement the decisions. All these aspects are to be explored during the more detailed scenario building phase of the project.

2.2 A genuinely collaborative multipolar world Given the emerging global challenges, there are strong and successful efforts to set up global governance mechanisms to tackle critical issues (climate, biodiversity, migration, access to energy and other natural resources, regional conflicts, ...). Sustainable development goals (SDGs) are at the top of the agenda. Planetary boundaries are major concerns for all major stakeholders in all (most) poles. Businesses are active partners in global trade, investment, and innovation activities across the poles.

A) Thriving in collaboration: A strong, dynamic EU in a genuinely collaborative multipolar world

The EU is politically and financially strong enough to tackle the major societal and environmental challenges in its own territory with innovative solutions, supported by effective R&I policies, orchestrated between the EU and member states’ levels, as well as across the relevant policy domains. These strengths and successes make the EU a leading partner – able to co-shape the agenda – in global collaborations, which, in turn, also creates favourable conditions to these efforts.

D) Decline, despite collaboration: A destabilised EU in a genuinely collaborative multipolar world

Given its decline, the EU can tackle only a few of the major societal and environmental challenges in its own territory. One of the root causes is the poor policy orchestration between the EU and member states’ levels, as well as across the relevant policy domains. The EU is a neglected partner in global collaborations and can take advantage of the favourable global framework conditions to a rather limited extent.

2.3 A multipolar world with limited co-operation Different systems and standards in different parts of the world have solidified, creating several parallel groups of states, which, however, ‘talk to each other’. Leading powers of the poles gradually recognise the need for international co- operation (e.g. given major disasters) in tackling the most urgent (and possibly less demanding) issues. Limited multilateral (global) governance mechanisms are in place to tackle these carefully selected critical issues. Success is achieved in tackling jointly some of these issues, lowering the probability of major conflicts. Some planetary boundaries are respected in most poles. Global trade, investment, and innovation activities across the poles occur, but to a rather limited extent.

B) Respected partner: A strong, dynamic EU in a multipolar world with limited co- operation The EU is politically and financially strong enough to tackle the major societal and environmental challenges in its own territory with innovative solutions, supported by effective R&I policies, orchestrated between the EU and member states’ levels, as well as across the relevant policy domains. The outcomes of these efforts, however, are severely constrained by the limited nature of global collaboration. Given its strengths and successes, the EU is a respected partner in global co-operations. Yet, it is not strong enough to extend and intensify global co-operations due to the limited commitments of the other poles.

E) Negligible partner: A destabilised EU in a multipolar world with limited co- operation

Given its decline, the EU can tackle only a few of the major societal and environmental challenges in its own territory. One of the root causes is the poor policy orchestration between the EU and member states’ levels, as well as across the relevant policy domains. Further, the outcomes of the EU’s weak efforts are severely constrained by the limited nature of global co-operations. Given its weaknesses, the EU is neglected partner even in the limited global co-operations, cannot co-shape the agenda.

2.4) A hostile multipolar world

At least 1-2 strong pole/s want/s to impose its values (ideologies), political, and socio-economic structures on other(s). The expansionist pole/s encourage/s their favoured firms to encroach into other pole/s to undermine that/ those. Antagonistic ideologies (political systems) first cripple global co-operation altogether. Simply it is impossible to tackle global critical issues. That triggers ever more severe major conflicts, leading to open hostility (cold and hybrid regional wars; the fatality of an all-out [nuclear] war is understood, though.)

C) Deterring fortress: A strong, dynamic EU in a hostile multipolar world

The EU is forced to focus on defence and security issues, at the expense of tackling major societal and environmental challenges in its own territory. Given its economic strengths, resources required for significantly improving its defence capabilities might be sufficient, especially if it can form alliances with other pole/s.6

F) Frail fiefdom: A weak, vulnerable EU in a hostile multipolar world

The EU is forced to focus on defence and security issues, and thus largely neglects societal and environmental challenges. Given its poor economic performance, resources might not be sufficient even for significantly improving its defence capabilities.

3 The Added Value of Multi-level Context Scenarios Multi-level scenarios offer the possibility of capturing the complexity of contexts for policies in a systematic, structured, and thus transparent way. By definition, though, they are complex and more demanding than those that consider only a single governance level. Hence, multi-level scenarios are built and used far less frequently than single-level scenarios. Yet, for EU R&I policies both levels of contexts are of paramount importance: i) how global issues might unfold (what major issues, in need of global responses, would evolve and what types of global responses can be expected from various poles); and ii) in what EU context the EU R&I policies should be devised and implemented (especially the position of the EU vis-à-vis other major global players; the decision-making mechanism inside the EU, e.g. orchestration of policies across policy domains and governance levels; available resources for R&I policies).

To start with the global level, the three multipolar world scenarios highlight that the global co-ordination mechanisms, including global markets, do not work satisfactorily for actors having a decisive power to shape political, economic, societal, and environmental developments, and thus they opt for following their own track. This basic feature is not a speculation; it is the reality to be faced by all actors. Only one of these scenarios depicts a world order, in which the poles are willing to collaborate when tackling global challenges, notably security and peace; access to energy, other critical resources, and food; environment (climate, soil, air, water, biodiversity), and migration, to mention just the most fundamental ones. These imply a strong need for effective orchestration of policies and other actors’ steps at the global level. Yet, in the other two multipolar worlds co-operation is either limited among the poles, or it is not only missing, but open hostility is the context. In a bit simplified way, we can claim that the EU had been created assuming the first type of world order: global co- ordination mechanisms, especially global markets work for all major actors in an acceptable way. Now it finds itself exposed to the realities of a multi-track world, at best with limited co-operation – but currently ‘tainted’ by open hostility as well, right at its Eastern borders.

Depending on its own path, the EU can react to these new realities in different ways in the various multipolar scenarios. R&I activities must play a major role in

finding relevant answers to these challenges, and thus R&I policies should deal with these issues.

Just to illustrate it with the energy issue, in scenario A) the EU has access to energy sources globally. Further, it can collaborate with all major global actors in shaping and pursuing an energy R&I agenda7 at a relatively leisurely way and speed – and as a strong partner. Besides the global collaborative project, the EU can – and need to – still pursue its own energy R&I agenda. In scenario D) the EU can still collaborate on these issues with the other major partners, but given its weak position, would not be able to influence the agenda: it can only play a role decided by the major global players. In both cases the energy R&I agenda for collaboration would be mainly shaped by climate and economic considerations. Collaborations are likely to beneficial in either case, although to a significantly different extent, depending on the EU’s ability to shape the agenda.

In scenario B) the EU ́s access to energy sources is more limited geographically. It can still co-operate with some major global actors in shaping and pursuing an energy R&I agenda, but the scope of these co-operations is narrower, and co- operation is less intense, compared to scenario A). In scenario E), the EU ́s role, and thus the benefits it can gain, are more limited than in scenarios B) and D). In scenarios B) and E) the energy R&I agenda would be mainly shaped also by climate and economic considerations. The weight of these factors would be defined by the nature of the limited co-operations, in which the global partners are willing to enter. A ‘variable geometry’ of co-operations is likely to emerge; different combinations of poles would agree on different types of co-operations (e.g., in terms of themes, intensity, and forms of co-operation) and these are likely to change over time.

In scenario C), the EU has access to energy sources only in territory of those poles that are not hostile to it. It can only co-operate with its allies in this openly hostile world order. The scope and intensity of energy R&I co-operations would be determined by the nature and territorial aspects of hostility. Given its strengths, the EU can co-shape the co-operative energy R&I agenda with its allies. In scenario F), the EU ́s role, and thus the benefits it can gain, are more limited than in scenario C). In scenarios C) and F) the energy R&I agenda would be mainly shaped by security considerations, eclipsing climate and economic ones. Moreover, R&D results and the impacts of innovations would be requested more urgently by all stakeholders. That implies significantly stronger pressures on R&I actors than in scenarios A), B), D), and E), on the one hand, but also larger funds would be made available for these activities, on the other, at the expense of financing some other R&I activities.

Although we have only hinted at some important implications of the energy issue given space limits, it needs to be stressed that the critical issues identified above are strongly interrelated. Just to illustrate the importance of their co-evolution – their impacts on each other –, let’s start again from the energy angle. The available energy sources (their types) and our way to use energy has major

impacts on the environment (climate change, quality of soil, air, and water, as well as on biodiversity, e.g., insects pollinating plants), and thus on food security (quantity and quality of food supply). Security (geopolitical) issues would determine access to natural gas. As natural gas is a major input for fertilisers, there will be major implications for food security through this chain of impacts, too. Another example is that security (geopolitical) issues have direct impacts on food supply e.g., from Russia and Ukraine,8 and thus on food security in the EU and elsewhere. Climate change, security in its strict sense, and food security in other continents can easily trigger mass migration. Clearly, implications for R&I policies, stemming from these cross-impacts, need to be considered as well.

More generally, the EU can use its R&I policies for science diplomacy in different ways and to different extent in the six scenarios sketched above. For example, in scenario A) it can initiate global R&I alliances for the pursuit of solutions to global problems (e.g., energy, climate, food security, new pandemics, digital safety and security). It can also promote global science as a ‘world public good’ and use its higher education systems to attract global talent to work in the EU or collaborate with EU partners upon return to their home countries. These opportunities would be significantly more limited in all the other scenarios (in terms of thematic and geographical scope, as well as intensity) given the EU’s own strengths, on the one hand, and the basic features of the world order, on the other. Further, the EU’s own interests would also differ significantly in the six scenarios, and thus it would – need to – put different emphasis on building its own strengths in isolation vs. seeking different types of co-operation.

Considering multiple futures is a necessary precondition to devise ‘future-proof’ R&I policy strategies (including priorities, relevant policy tools, as well as governance structures and methods), that is, strategies that would be effective in most of the plausible futures. Our intention with this blog post is not to offer strategic advice, not even to identify a set of the most relevant and pressing strategic issues; rather, we would like to ignite a heated, but thorough, systematic, and transparent discussion on the possible future contexts for the EU R&I policies as a starting point for strategy setting, and thus invite the visitors – contributors – of this platform to consider the proposed set of scenarios, identify decisive issues that require close attention of decision-makers and consider the R&I policy implications of these issues.

References and examples for multi-level scenarios Havas A. (2008): Devising futures for universities in a multi-level structure: a methodological experiment, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 75 (4): 558–582,

OECD (2021): Global Scenarios 2035: Exploring Implications for the Future of Global Collaboration and the OECD, Paris: OECD Publishing,

Lebel L. (2006): Multi-level Scenarios for Exploring Alternative Futures for Upper Tributary Watersheds in Mainland Southeast Asia, Mountain Research and Development, 26 (3): 263–273, 4741(2006)26[263:MSFEAF]2.0.CO;2

* All views presented in this site are the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of national and EU bodies nor engage those in any manner.


1 The OECD considers just one type of multi-track world, composed of several “clusters” that is, groups – of countries, which follow their own track (path of development). These countries are not necessarily located in the same region, that is why they compose clusters, as opposed to world regions.

2 We use ‘multipolar’ and ‘multi-track’ scenarios as synonyms in this post.


4 We could consider a fourth type of multipolar world, between limited co-operation and open hostility, when the “polars” – the various groups of countries – operate in a splendid isolation. In that world there is hardly any global trade, international co-operation in investment, and RTDI activities. There are no efforts to set up global governance mechanisms to tackle critical issues, and thus ‘luck’ is needed to avoid major conflicts. To keep the number of scenarios lower, however, we do not elaborate on those scenarios here.


6 For a recent report on RTDI activities’ contribution to EU defence, see, e.g.,

7 The major objective would include to explore and extract new energy sources; develop new energy production (conversion) technologies and new ways to transport and store energy; enhance energy efficiency in all user sectors; better understand the behaviour and attitudes of various types of energy users, as well as the impact pathways of different policy tools, including regulations, to better steer and nudge their energy consumption patterns.

8 We can also think of other major food exporters in other countries and continents, depending on the food items in question.





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