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“We need more freedom, not more power.”

Leading IT researcher Dirk Helbing talks about his vision of the digital world of tomorrow.

  • March 2019

His name will be familiar to anyone with an interest in the major digitalization themes such as artificial intelligence, big data and cybersecurity. Dirk Helbing, Professor of Computational Social Science at ETH Zurich, is one of the world’s foremost researchers in a field that studies the interactions between computer science, mathematics, physics and the social sciences. Helbing is an outspoken critic of what he sees as the imminent threat of society being automatically controlled by algorithms and artificial intelligence, and believes that we need to start thinking about alternative scenarios. In this interview with Egon Zehnder, he sets out his alternative model for a digital democracy – a participatory society where big data and artificial intelligence are used to create a more resilient, innovative and pluralistic world. Can this ever really work? we ask. In the third and final part of his interview, Helbing discusses the role of leadership and the part of young people in the metamorphosis from the analog to the digital world.


Egon Zehnder: What is the role of leadership in your model of a grass-roots digital revolution?

Dirk Helbing: I prefer to approach this question in terms of the type of leadership that will no longer be needed in the future, which is leadership through power. This is currently more of an obstacle to the necessary process of change. Interestingly, the transformation is all about power. Power executed from the top down isn’t going to solve the world’s problems and it won’t help us with the transition to a digital world either. In a complex world, power is the problem, not the solution. We need more freedom, not more power. If we don’t have this freedom, things are bound to come to a head, and I believe this will happen sooner rather than later.

We are currently still experiencing the transformation from the old, analog society to a new digital society. Think of it like a new birth: We have to cast off the old world, or the new world will be stillborn. We must forget about the old principles that brought success in the past and formed the basis of how everything used to work. This is the only way for us to prepare to actually open a new chapter in the story of humanity. Because that is exactly what lies ahead of us. Yet if we desperately cling to the old principles and privileges, to power and hierarchies, like clutching at straws, then the transformation will be a painful process. But that needn’t be the case.

“We need to unshackle the positive forces of transformation. Art and culture play an incredibly important role here.”

Dirk Helbing
Dirk Helbing

Egon Zehnder: A lot of people are coming to the conclusion that things were much easier in the old days when we didn’t have to cope with all this stress. At least we knew what was what and where we stood. For many of us, this brave new world sounds like something out of a science-fiction movie.

Dirk Helbing: People shouldn’t be under any illusion: from today’s perspective, the world in 15 years’ time is the stuff of science-fiction. Any predictions that might sound more realistic and less fantastical to us today will fall a long way short of what actually happens. Many things that we now use without a second thought and that have become a routine part of our everyday lives – for example smartphones and tablets – would have seemed like science-fiction 15 years ago. And the pace of change is getting even faster. If we don’t learn to think in terms of science-fiction, if we don’t find a way of imagining bold visions of the future, then we will never be able to get the transformation up and running successfully.

Egon Zehnder: And what will happen then?

Dirk Helbing: My guess is that we could see a financial meltdown that brings down the entire capitalist system as we know it today. Then virtually everyone will be broke and it will be time to press the reset button. This will come as a shock for many people. We need to have an alternative system ready to go in case this happens. Maybe superintelligence will guide us into the new era in a kind of autopilot mode.

Egon Zehnder: But perhaps it’s still not too late to do something about it before the meltdown occurs. Who could or should lead these efforts? And what role might business leaders play?

Dirk Helbing: We need to unshackle the positive forces of transformation. Art and culture play an incredibly important role, because they give us the visionaries who push the boundaries of our knowledge and our current reality far more than any of the other actors in our society. One thing we desperately need is a new zeitgeist. Many of the necessary impulses can come from culture and the arts, but not all.

As for our political leaders, if they themselves don’t know what to do anymore, then rather than monopolizing the debate they should provide a platform for other actors who can offer different perspectives. The same applies analogously to businesses. They have the money, the resources and above all the ability to get things done quickly. “Festivals of the future” spring to mind, for example, and here businesses could play an important role.

Egon Zehnder: What exactly are these festivals?

Dirk Helbing: Imagine a sort of jeux sans frontières between cities, or a kind of Olympic Games where cities would compete against each other in disciplines such as climate protection, energy efficiency, demographic change, mobility, refugee integration and solidarity. Businesses, the media and government would all be involved. The aim would be to stimulate broad-based innovation through friendly competition. Creative forces would be unleashed in a six-month hackathon format. A jury would choose the winning solutions and each city could then pick out the ideas that suit it best. By experimenting, learning from each other and making our discoveries available to everyone, we would achieve a quantum leap in creativity.

Egon Zehnder: What would your message be to the next generation – to our children – in terms of how best to prepare for this revolutionary new world?

Dirk Helbing: I often have the feeling that young people today are too patient. The current system gives them precious few opportunities to make a difference. This means that they end up seeking out niches where they can live a comfortable life, and often avoid ever having to face up to the real issues. Young people aren’t rebellious enough to transform the system, but then we haven’t given them the freedom to make the world like they want it to be. They are basically just waiting for the old world to come tumbling down. Presumably they will be there to pick up the pieces when it does, but they ought to get involved far more right now.

On the opportunities of Europe in the global big data competition

Dirk Helbing was born in 1965. Since 2007, he has been Professor of Computational Social Science at ETH Zurich’s Department of Humanities, Social and Political Sciences. Helbing studies the interactions between the social sciences, mathematics and physics. Together with eight other researchers, including economist Bruno S. Frey and big data expert Roberto V. Zicari, in 2015 he co-authored the acclaimed “Digital Manifesto”, which sounds a stark warning about the imminent automation of society using algorithms and artificial intelligence.

Topics Related to this Article


Leading IT researcher Dirk Helbing talks about his vision of the digital world of tomorrow:

Episode 1 - “The time has come to reinvent democracy and capitalism for the digital age.”

Episode 2 - “We need to combine human creativity with artificial intelligence.”

Episode 3 - “We need more freedom, not more power.”

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