“People that make big decisions can’t think about everything”

Dr. Pierre-Alexandre Balland is to be part of a panel of experts that will advise the European Commission

At the European top, politicians and policy makers have to take important decisions on increasingly complex issues. Dr. Pierre-Alexandre Balland, Professor of Economic Geography and Complex Systems at Utrecht University, is going to be part of a panel of experts that will advise the European Commission on the societal transition to sustainability, equality and digitisation; important subjects that are currently relevant all over the world.

What do you bring to the panel with your expertise?

Dr. Pierre-Alexandre Balland

I am an economist and a data scientist. I study complex social systems, new digital technologies and big data. Experts traditionally learn to deal with problems in silos, next to each other. But today, our economic, social and environmental systems are becoming so interwoven that trying to solve one problem might easily backfire into another one.

For example, rising gas and diesel taxes sounds like a good approach to limit CO2 emissions until the Yellow Vest movement forces you to understand that it will mainly impact the part of the population with the lowest living conditions – trapped into using old polluting cars to commute from the countryside to their work.

The group I will be a part of, Economic and Societal Impact of Research and Innovation (ESIR), aims to provide scientific assessments on key societal challenges by bringing together leading scholars, activists, politicians, policy-makers, and innovation experts in economic, social and environmental systems and their complex interconnections.

© European Union 2018 - European Parliament
ESIR experts will advise the European Commission on complex and important issues

The expert group will advise the European Commission on important issues in society. Our world is going through many transitions, and politicians need to make big decisions on fundamental issues within this transition. In making these kinds of decisions, there proved to be a lack of high level expertise, which our sixteen ESIR experts will bring. We will help support and guide society through three themes within this transition; sustainability, equality and the digital transition.

I mentioned that the increasing complexity of decision-making is a key challenge. But  new disruptive technologies and big data are also fundamentally shifting existing boundaries of expertise. Mark Zuckerberg's 2018 testimony to Congress went viral because it illustrates the gap between the knowledge of the actors of the digital economy and the knowledge of the ones that tried to regulate it. When Senator Orrin Hatch asked how Facebook is able to sustain its business model while providing free services, Zuckerberg stated the obvious: "Senator, we run ads." ESIR experts are innovation and technology experts and will help advance European values in the 21st century economy.

You mentioned the three themes on which ESIR will advise the European Commission; can you elaborate?

In our 24 month mandate, we will tackle the three pillars under the umbrella of transition. The first pillar is ‘Green’; sustainability, agriculture, et cetera. ESIR will be one of the main advisory groups in the EU Green Deal, for instance. The second pillar is about inequality in a social transition, like how can we support society when many occupations become obsolete because of AI?

How can we support society in the digital transition?

I will be most involved in the third pillar, the digital transition. Though the EU is leading in research and development, we have missed the internet revolution and the first wave of AI. The digital economy has two backbones, one in China and one in the US with websites like Google, Facebook, Amazon, Tencent, Alibaba, and Baidu. Where are the EU tech giants? We need to catch up to the internet revolution, and make sure the EU can be a part of the AI- and blockchain revolution.

This is not only important from a prosperity perspective but also if we want EU values to shape the new AI and blockchain world. How do you make sure to create a sustainable and inclusive tech space? Concerning inclusion, many people do not realise that an AI system is as biased as the data you used to train it. Recently, a large company deployed an AI promotion system that ended up systematically discriminating woman because it learned from years of gender discrimination. It is important that these sorts of issues come up, because where you see it, you can fix it.

What do you hope ESIR will be able to succeed in?

We have a big opportunity for inclusion with this group. Complex systems are incredibly inequal; when you’re looking for a solution to a problem, one solution might benefit one person and hurt another. Nowadays, everything is interconnected. There is a snowball effect in place where a disproportionate reward system makes those who are already at an advantage come out on top.

There are a few key issues that we will have to address to counteract and prevent inequality and unsustainability. At the moment, the system in place is failing us in these areas, and together with the European Commission we need to fix and repair the system to create harmony.

Do you think your experience in ESIR will benefit Utrecht University?

Utrecht University has the potential to become a top world talent magnet

I believe that this experience will bring back an immense amount of knowledge to Utrecht. Through this ESIR experience, I am able to teach my students about the real world. Some elements that students learn in their studies just work differently in the real world – especially when politics steps in. I can give my students an understanding of the EU political landscape and the progress that world leaders are making in the most pressing challenges of our generation. I want to break the ivory tower of professors; academia is not a monopoly of expertise. Sometimes dealing with issues like these feels like taking on big waves with small buckets, but we need to start somewhere. 

It also brings a lot of visibility to Utrecht. Utrecht University is world-leading in many fields but like many top European institutions, compared to American ones it is an hidden gem. Let’s not forget why the US is so innovative: it is a magnet for top world talents. European Universities, like Utrecht, but also EU companies and cities have the potential to become such a magnet but we first need to make sure that the world knows about EU scientific quality and values.

Further reading

Research, innovation and industry tend to concentrate in large cities