Only a matter of time

Mining asteroids for their natural resources and downloading the contents of the human brain are quickly moving from the realms of science fiction to reality. The Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator builds capacities to spot future scientific and technological breakthroughs before they happen. The independent foundation, which enjoys FDFA support, is set to unveil its Breakthrough Radar at its upcoming inaugural summit.

A rocket engine and launch pad, surrounded by clear blue sky.

Future scientific breakthroughs like space mining present humanity with a new set of challenges. © Keystone

For thousands of years the asteroid 'Davida' has been orbiting between Mars and Jupiter. Inside the roughly 300 km planetoid lie vast quantities of iron, cobalt and nickel. Planetary Resources, a space start-up, values these reserves at 15 quintillion dollars. To put this into perspective, Forbes estimated that the total amount of cash in circulation and in bank deposits worldwide in 2019 was somewhere in the region of USD 96 trillion. This corresponds to the ratio of the area of Africa compared to the area of a ladybird:

Illustration illustrating the relationship between 15 quintillion USD and 96 trillion USD.
The ratio between USD 15 quintillion and USD 96 trillion illustrated. © FDFA
Illustration of an asteroid being towed into the Earth's orbit for mining.
An asteroid being towed into the Earth's orbit for mining © Keystone

Davida, when viewed in these terms, is a colossal cosmic cash machine. Experts reckon that the first missions to mine the asteroid could happen within the next 25 years. However, a development like this raises new questions for the international community: What potential do space assets actually offer and is humanity equipped to use them equitably? Will human expansion into space be pursued in the interests of improving life on Earth? What rights should states have with regard to the ownership of resources that are outside the Earth's orbit? 

These questions underline the urgent need for a renewed spirit of multilateralism to ensure that everyone reaps the potential benefits of human expansion into space like the proposed Davida mining venture. This is where science diplomacy comes in.

Harnessing advances in knowledge to safeguard our collective welfare

The Geneva Science Diplomacy Anticipator (GESDA) acts as a bridge between the worlds of science and diplomacy. In keeping with its vision of 'Using the future to build the present', the Foundation seeks to understand frontier scientific breakthroughs and leverage them, where appropriate, in the interests of the collective welfare of humanity. Once it has identified what the next advances could be, GESDA presents them in an accessible way to decision-makers in the political and business communities, and to the public at large. This process relies not on crystal balls but on a concrete three-step approach:

1. Scientific anticipation

GESDA deploys its global scouting system – similar to the talent spotting system used in the world of soccer – to identify what will be 'cooking' in labs over the next 5, 10 and 25 years and to spot the next scientific breakthroughs that could generate an impact on a global scale. Every year, it assesses the consequences that these advances might have for people, society and the planet. 

2. Diplomacy acceleration

GESDA facilitates dialogue between the scientific, political and diplomatic communities, the private sector, philanthropists, NGOs and the general public on scientific breakthroughs and their impact. Using the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals as their roadmap, participants discuss and develop solutions to current and emerging challenges facing humanity.

3. Translation in action

It then falls to the legitimate stakeholders of global governance, in particular national governments, to implement these solutions. The insights and analyses made available through the work of GESDA can advance the implementation process. GESDA also encourages the development and scaling up of solutions which are rooted in new technologies rather than in international agreements. One of the ways in which the foundation can support this process is by bringing together the relevant actors, such as investors, scientific and private-sector partners, as well as multilateral institutions in International Geneva.

Sustainable Development goals Agenda 2030

The Swiss federal government and the canton of Geneva founded GESDA in 2019. The initiative was prompted by a growing awareness of the rapidly accelerating pace of scientific and technological breakthroughs. Humanity is left with less and less time to adapt to new realities and create the legal frameworks and standards needed to regulate them. Here's an example: although the first cars began appearing on the roads 100 years ago, they long remained beyond the financial reach of most families. Traffic rules – which are now in place around the globe – were able to develop slowly over time. Today's world is different. If a product were to come to market that extends human capabilities by making it possible, for example, to download other people's memories or knowledge, the necessary efforts to revise existing human rights protections would have to move at breakneck speed. What was once confined to the realms of science fiction may soon become reality.  

First Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipation Summit

The Davida asteroid is one of many cases that will be discussed at the inaugural Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator Summit, which will take place between 7 and 9 October 2021. A large number of high-ranking representatives from the worlds of science, politics, industry, international organisations and the general public are expected to attend the conference in Geneva. GESDA will present the Breakthrough Radar, a tool it has developed to assess the impact and momentum of future advances in four scientific fields:

  1. quantum revolution and artificial intelligence
  2. human augmentation
  3. eco-regeneration and geoengineering
  4. science and diplomacy
Photo of Alexandre Fasel
Alexandre Fasel, Switzerland's special representative for science diplomacy © FDFA

A shared capacity to anticipate

"GESDA is here to make sure that global governance keeps pace with technological and scientific advances", explains Alexandre Fasel, special representative for science diplomacy at the FDFA. "If the international community is to safeguard its ability to take action and shape the future, it needs to recognise and understand the innovations that are coming on stream. GESDA helps the international community build its capacity to anticipate." 

It is no coincidence that GESDA is based in Geneva. International Geneva is a leading centre of global governance. It is arguably the most important global governance hub given the number of international governmental and non-governmental organisations based there and the many diplomats and international civil servants who work there. Some also refer to International Geneva as the engine room of the international system because it is where a significant proportion of global organisations' activities are defined and managed. 

International Geneva – working for the world, and Switzerland

It is also no coincidence that the co-founders of GESDA are the Swiss federal government and the canton of Geneva. According to Fasel, there were two motivating factors at play, "The first is our role as the host state of International Geneva, which affords us a prominent and recognised position on the international stage. The international community values our ongoing development of Geneva as a neutral platform where global actors can meet and connect. The second is that Switzerland leads the world when it comes to science, technology and innovation. Our efforts to better integrate and use science diplomacy in international affairs are part of a coherent and credible approach." 

Switzerland leads the world when it comes to science, technology and innovation.
Alexandre Fasel, Switzerland's special representative for science diplomacy

Who ultimately benefits from GESDA's work? According to Fasel, it is "the international community, because of the strengthened position of International Geneva, which in turn benefits Switzerland itself", adding that "In Switzerland, we only feel we are doing well if everyone else is too! If we are able to make a contribution which leverages the excellence of our cutting-edge research and innovative economy, they too will ultimately benefit from our efforts."

Everyone reaps the rewards

It is not only International Geneva, Swiss universities, research institutions and companies that stand to reap the rewards of this collective capacity to anticipate and the actions arising from it. The global population, including the people of Switzerland, will also benefit from the work of GESDA. Scientists across the world are working around the clock to find solutions to problems like cancer (through mRNA-based therapies, for example), Alzheimer's disease, climate change and safeguarding prosperity. It is therefore only a matter of time before the next space breakthrough occurs and a space freighter docks on Davida.

Science Diplomacy – an instrument of Swiss foreign policy

To ensure the effectiveness of its foreign policy, Switzerland adopts a coherent and strategic approach. After analysing the state of the world and evaluating trends and developments that could shape the future, the Federal Council defined the four goals that its Foreign Policy Strategy 2020–23 should pursue: peace and security, prosperity, sustainability and digitalisation. These priorities set out the broad outlines for Switzerland's thematic and geographical follow-up strategies. This approach avoids any overlaps and harnesses synergies between all partners involved.

Science diplomacy is a key component of Switzerland's peace and security efforts. Where dialogue between policymakers  breaks  down,  science  can  help  to re-establish trust and ties between states and lead them to work together on issues of common, and even global concern. The FDFA will issue its science diplomacy guidelines in 2022.

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