Horizon Futures Watch Workshop 6: The Futures of Big Tech in Europe
Dec 4, 2023
The sixth Horizon Futures Watch Dissemination Workshop explored futures of Big Tech in Europe. Contemporary societies increasingly rely on Big Tech for different functions, such as work, communication, consumption, and self-expression.
"Big tech" companies, often referred to as the giants in the technology industry, have a significant impact on the global market, economy, and society. Decision makers, regulators and stakeholders grapple with the challenges of uneven competition and the political and ethical implications arising from the actions of these major players, as well as their data usage practices. In addition, the majority of large high-tech corporations are not headquartered in Europe.
Questions regarding the challenges posed by the future of Big Tech abound: Should Europe try to develop its own Big Tech as well? Should Big Tech be left free to carry on unimpeded? Should governments impose detailed standards of conduct? Foresight experts investigated what the situation could look like in 2040 and the implications for the future of Big Tech in research and innovation policy.
Based on the discussions stemming from the foresight experts, 4 scenarios were conceived:
Winner techs all – The economy depends on infrastructures owned and honed by Big Tech. This growing reliance is balanced by benefit sharing arrangements and empowerment of businesses. Stability is underpinned by the existing framework of Globalisation, supported by both informal (G7, G20) and formal institutions (IMF, World Bank). The US continues as the dominant superpower, setting the global agenda, while the EU's role is more constrained, fitting into the international labour division.
Pax technologica – The economy balances between pro-global business interests and pro-local political constraints, where 'local' refers to cooperative yet competitive groups of countries. Despite the drive for economies of scale and scope, increased regulation and stricter borders have led to more fragmented supply chains focused on suppliers within mega-regions of preferential partners, prioritizing stability over efficiency. The EU acts as a nexus for these external and internal pressures, embodying the "Brussels Consensus."
Re-match – The development of nations and regions is shaped by their unique paths in a diverse international landscape, where proactive and coordinated policies are increasingly relevant. After a period of rapid expansion, Big Tech's growth has slowed, giving way to innovative cross-regional and trans-sectoral entities that thrive in a complex economy with active public sector involvement. The EU plays a key role in fostering network building and protecting vital components of the modern economy, balancing citizen engagement and global fragmentation.
Closet liberalism – In this scenario, commercial and financial integration advances, with power increasingly crossing national borders and impacting state sovereignty. Large multinationals, particularly tech monopolies, influence public governance, though their maturity leads to higher costs and poorer quality. This environment, characterized by a network of competition authorities, presents opportunities for decentralization, particularly at local and city levels, while the US prioritizes its interests and the EU advocates for market order, with internal members reinterpreting rules for their benefit.
Overall, the experts concluded that Europe needs its own leading actors in the digital world. The key question remains how compatible they would be in an existing market and what they would mean for competition and equality in Europe. EU-based research and development startups receive a lot of offers from bigger tech giants, calling for closer monitoring of the global connectivity of ecosystems to avoid the gobbling up of in-house expertise.
Grappling with Big Tech scenarios raised issues tied to ethics, for which project TechEthos provided feedback. This project, which seeks to create ethical guidelines for emerging technologies, aims to define potential ethical implications of future technologies. They believed the scenarios were well defined but lacked a focus on societal and ethical implications. When examining technological risks, the scenarios focused on whether specific technologies prioritised the achievement of their intended functions, rather than considering the ethical implications and transformations these technologies might undergo. Their pointers turned toward copyright issues and the ways in which creative generative companies are restructuring their human labour. They asked scenario experts how a responsible innovative model for Big Tech might look so that new narratives can be strived towards.
Project PLUS offered a step in that direction by analysing how the platform economy affects work, welfare, and social protection, employing an innovative approach that spans multiple cities. From drone deliveries to automated driving systems, from the artificial intelligence of home assistant devices to the digitization of agriculture, they stressed that today it is the major platform economy players like Amazon, rather than the public sector, which develop patents for new technologies. This could be a feature of scenarios with a prominent role for the EU.
One participant argued in favour of building the capacity for data analysis for public purposes. While the business sector can do this efficiently, the public sector lags behind. They argued that the public sector should be empowered with the capacity to exploit data this way. At the same time, a greater effort is needed to use data repositories in Europe. However, large companies already have a big head start, thus increasing the competition with existing big data infrastructures.
The capability to exploit data proves as important as the technologies themselves, indicating that the future of Big Tech will not only be shaped by technological advancements but also by the mastery of data utilisation. This intertwining of data exploitation and technology underscores the potential for even greater influence and innovation in the years ahead.
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Laura Galante & Hywel Jones
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