The 2021 Strategic Foresight Report presents an open and multi-disciplinary perspective on the EU’s approach for the coming decades. It presents global trends, challenges and facts that will shape Europe’s tomorrow. In this post you will also find the startups that are actively working in each trend.
Key global trends
1. Climate change and other environmental challenges
The European Union aims to become the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. It has become a necessary goal since climate change has already impacted every region on Earth. Global warming will likely surpass 1.5ºC in the next two decades and head towards 2ºC by 2050. Every additional 0.5ºC will increase the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, droughts, wildfires or floods. Rising temperatures also mean more ice melting and higher sea levels.
These changes will have significant consequences for the environment, health, food and water security, and human safety and development.
In this sense, Climeworks, a Swiss startup is working on capturing CO2 from air through a carbon dioxide removal technology and then turning it into atmospheric CO2. This byproduct can then be used to produce carbon-neutral hydrocarbon fuels and materials
Environmental challenges extend well beyond climate change, with an alarming situation regarding biodiversity loss and change in the nitrogen cycle. The EU’s natural ecosystems are under cumulative pressures also from pollution, land use, resource extraction, invasive species and the loss of pollinators.
Human activities have substantially changed the nitrogen cycle, mainly due to its agricultural use. This affects freshwater, coastal areas and human health too.
Such environmental challenges have economic consequences often overlooked: an estimated EUR 3.5-18.5 trillion per year in ecosystem services from 1997 to 2011 were lost globally owing to land-cover change, and an estimated loss of EUR 5.5-10.5 trillion per year due to land degradation.
All these issues make future pandemics or diseases more likely. Challenges include infections, diseases, advanced antimicrobial resistance, and also mental health problems, which have traditionally been underestimated.
However, some startups are helping develop products that help manage mental issues through the use of AI. Affectiva, an MIT media lab spin-off, has created and defined the Emotion AI category. Built on deep learning, computer vision, speech science and massive amounts of real-world data, Affectiva’s technology can detect nuanced human emotions, complex cognitive states, activities, interactions and objects people use to improve their wellbeing.
2. Digital hyperconnectivity and technological transformations
Another global trend is digital hyperconnectivity and technological transformations. The UE is strong in terms of knowledge and innovation: it accounts for almost 20% of the world’s total research and development, publications and patenting activity. It is leader in smart and sustainable mobility and low-carbon technologies and its capabilities in artificial intelligence, big data and robotics are similar to Japan’s. However, it needs to catch up with leaders: the USA and China.
Hyperconnectivity is driving the transformation. It results in an increased convergence of industries, products, technologies and services. The number of connected devices globally might increase to 200 billion in 2030. This global trend results in the increased risk of cyber-attacks and network outages in both digital and physical world. It might also increase the threat of intellectual property and data loss and theft.
Consequently, many startups are working with quantum computing technologies to protect user’s privacy. Qdevil and Isara Corporation are some of the main players in this field. If you would like to read more about Quantum Computing’s keyplayers, check our previous post. By developing components for quantum computers and developing quantum-safe cryptography, they are successfully generating new ways of reducing risks.
3. Pressure on democratic models of governance and values
Democratic governance is declining globally. 2020 was the 15th consecutive year of a decline in political rights and civil liberties at a global level. 34% of the world’s population lives in countries where democratic governance is declining and only 4% lives in countries that are becoming more democratic.
Zones of instability and conflict close to the EU and beyond are likely to persist and may even grow.
Large-scale disinformation will also arrive, powered by new platforms, will pose increasing challenges to democratic systems and drive a new type of information warfare. This could threaten our democracies, polarise debates, and put health security and the environment at risk.
In this context, there are a few startups working on identifying fake news through AI. Logically, a UK based startup that raised $ 2.5 M in 2020, combines advanced AI, expert OSINT investigators and fact checking teams to fight damaging misinformation and deliberate disinformation at scale. This technology empowers governments, businesses, and the public to identify and mitigate harmful content, in the hope to shape a more positive and cohesive social discourse.
4. Shifts in the global order and demography
Another unavoidable trend is the increase in population. It will reach 8.5 billion in 2030 and 9.7 billion people in 2050, where the EU’s population is expected to represent just a 4.3% share of the global population.
Demographic growth will influence geopolitical ambitions, but may also create sustainability or migration challenges. Some agri-tech startups are focusing their efforts in providing plant-based meat alternatives (check Meaty Foods for more info). Others, like the Spanish Natural Machines and the Israeli TIPA are trying to reduce food waste.
By 2050, the working-age population will diminish by about 16% in Europe. At the same time, the median age of the EU population will rise from 43.9 in 2020 to 48.2 years by 2050. The demographic pyramid is becoming more of a cylinder having a larger tier with older population on top supported by a smaller tier of younger people.
The energy transition will further contribute to the redistribution of power and countries with a large capacity to generate and export renewable energy will gain influence.