lighting, Diplomacy

AI Transformation of the UN: Many opportunities and some risks

17 April 2024

Event description

Report from the Master Briefing by Jovan Kurbalija for the UN Directors of Communication

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Welcome to the ‘Wondering Birds’ club!

Dealing with AI and digital issues requires a ‘wondering birds’ approach. Namely, many AI and digital issues are counterintuitive, involving various, often paradoxical, dynamics.

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1. EspriTech de Geneve: Where technology meets humanity

Let us start from where we are today! We are at ITU in Geneva. It brings us to EspriTech de Geneva, a term that describes Geneva’s role in shaping an interplay between technology and humanity. One starting point for exploring Geneva’s historical and current role could be the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), our meeting venue. Among many exciting moments in ITU’s history, one was the first online meeting held between the UN HQ in New York and ITU in October 1963.

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If you go outside ITU’s building and walk through the streets of Geneva, you will find many places related to critical figures for shaping the history of technology and society.

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The following historical figures laid the conceptual and philosophical basis for how we have developed and integrated technologies in society over the last few centuries.

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We come to today’s relevance of EspriTech de Geneva. As you can see from the map below, more than half of global digital governance is addressed by organisations based in Geneva.

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2. Demystifying AI: AI is simple, but not simpler

AI is often presented (and perceived) as a highly complicated technology that non-experts cannot understand. Only the AI “priesthood” (experts, for example) could decipher the complex terminology and techno-mysticism surrounding AI.

Such a situation is fertile for misinformation, confusion, and misuse of AI narratives for economic and political advantages. 

Against this backdrop, I wrote a book that describes AI through flags, starting from the core of AI, patterns and predictions, and moving to neural networks and other technical issues that trigger more confusion than clarity in current AI debates.


Before you read more on patterns and probabilities, you can watch a short video on explaining AI via UN flags

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Patterns show up in both AI and flags. Flags can be grouped into flag families based on their colours, patterns, and symbols. Nordic crosses are on flags from Scandinavia. Most Arab flags are black, green, white, and red.

AI can identify patterns in large amounts of data, just as in various flag designs. Pattern recognition is the functional and conceptual foundation of AI. When you scale it up to the massive amounts of data and computing power of modern computers, you get AI platforms like ChatGPT and OpenAI.

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After identifying patterns among flags, we could ask: What would be the design of a potentially newly independent state? Here, we come to probability, the second pillar of AI. Probability is not a certainty.

This distinction between certainty and probability can be illustrated in the selection of the new flag of Greenland back in 1984. Flags of the Nordic region where Greenland is located have the Nordic cross in common: Iceland, Faroe Islands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland. Based on this rather specific pattern, one would expect Greenland to also have a Nordic cross on its flag.

In the 1984 selection, one of the proposals was to design the Greenland flag around the Nordic cross. However, this expected certainty did not happen as 14 out of 25 members of the ‘flag committee’ voted in favour of the flag with a circle, which became the new flag of Greenland. The proposal with the Nordic cross received eleven votes.

The moral of this story is that probability does not equal certainty. Even though the pattern of previous flags made no exception for using the Nordic cross, the new flag deviated from this pattern due to a political decision of selection committee.

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Patterns and predictions underlie how ChatGPT generates text responses to our questions, as illustrated below…

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Now, after understanding the core of AI, we come to terminological confusion around AI. AI is an umbrella term with different facets and meanings, as illustrated below with the ‘elephant and blind person metaphor’. Thus, when we discuss AI we should be precise on what we are referring to.

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3. AI will change us as we are busy discussing future of AI.

This slogan paraphrases John Lennon’s song “Beautiful Boy” lyrics:

‘Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.’

It accurately describes the framing of AI debates in 2023. We were busy debating AI’s extinction risks for humanity, as depicted on Time’s cover page in June last year, while less spectacular but more profound changes started impacting education, jobs, and the economy.

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The dominance of long-term AI risks in 2023 has to be re-balanced with more policy focus on short-term and mid-term risks by AI, as outlined below.

Three types of AI risks

AI Risks Venne Diagram

Short-term risks include loss of jobs, protection of data and intellectual property, loss of human agency, mass generation of fake texts, videos, and sounds, misuse of AI in education processes, and new cybersecurity threats. We are familiar with most of these risks, and while existing regulatory tools can often be used to address them, more concerted efforts are needed in this regard.

For example, AI transforms education profoundly. The first glimpse of changes came with the impact of ChatGPT on writing essays. The first knee-jerk reaction was to ban the use of AI at some universities. However, it is changing. Educators are increasingly acknowledging AI as a new reality which opens new possibilities. You can read here how we use AI in Diplo’s pedagogy. Diplomacy, as a text-intensive activity, will undergo structural and profound changes due to LLMs’ language capabilities. More information can be found in the AI and Reporting section and throughout this text.

Mid-term risks are those we can see coming but aren’t quite sure how bad or profound they could be. Imagine a future where a few big companies control all the AI knowledge, just as they currently control people’s data, which they have amassed over the years. They have the data and the powerful computers. That could lead to them calling the shots in business, our lives, and politics. It’s like something out of a George Orwell book, and if we don’t figure out how to handle it, we could end up there in 5 to 10 years. Some policy and regulatory tools can help deal with AI monopolies, such as antitrust and competition regulation, as well as protection of data and intellectual property. Provided that we acknowledge these risks and decide we want and need to address them.  

Long-term risks are the scary sci-fi stuff – the unknown unknowns. These are the existential threats, the extinction risks that could see AI evolve from servant to master, jeopardising even humanity’s very survival. These threats haunt the collective psyche and dominate the global narrative with an intensity paralleling that of nuclear armageddon, pandemics, or climate cataclysms. Dealing with long-term risks is a major governance challenge due to the uncertainty of AI developments and their interplay with short-term and mid-term AI risks.

4. The beginning of the end of traditional publishing, PDF and Web 

We are on the eve of the next major shift in communication, with the gradually diminishing importance of traditional publishing, PDF, and web. Although this evolution will take some time, it should be on the radar of strategic communication planners.

The main conceptual ‘battles’ will be between, on the one hand, the dispersed nature of digital communication with avelange of textual, sound, and visual spinets on social media and the web, and, on the other hand, our inherent need to have ‘closure’ in grasping and understanding reality.

For example, storytelling is important in ‘closure’ and comprehension of topics. Geometrically speaking, story-telling provides a ‘vertical’ aspect to the otherwise dispersed ‘horizontal’ nature of hyper-textual information. This tension was explored by Borges in his book The Library of Babel.

PDF runs the ‘last mile’ of its life cycle

The PDF has long succeeded in mimicking traditional printed texts, bridging the pre-digital and digital worlds. However, its sequential, page-by-page nature limits its ability to support the next evolution in information presentation – the dynamic interplay between ‘horizontal’ flexible formats and ‘vertical’ storytelling.

In the United Nations, the PDF remains the cornerstone of official communication, from treaties to diplomatic correspondence. Its format is indispensable for these purposes, preserving the formal integrity of documents.

Yet, the sequential structure of PDFs is often ill-suited for most UN documents, which rarely follow linear narratives. In many cases, you can dive into the middle of a UN report and grasp the essential information without following a previous narrative thread.

As an illustration, you can take an example of access to content in policy briefs via official PDF or via a web page. Although the UN website offers an engaging multimedia introduction to policy briefs and enhances content accessibility, the potential for more flexible, non-sequential formats of policy briefs remains underexplored due to the PDF format.

It’s time to rethink how we present information. The PDF, while valuable, should evolve to meet the demands of contemporary information consumption, where flexibility and ease of navigation are paramount.

Traditional printed publications

Two years ago, I was asked to contribute text to a new publication on digital diplomacy. The production time was two years. It did not make sense. It prompted me to develop an alternative approach to publishing, reflecting both the rapidly changing nature of our knowledge space and the need for occasional ‘closure’, which provides traditional publications. It is how KaiZen publishing approach started, aiming to combine rapid AI-facilitated content updates with deliberate, deliberate human thinking for occasional printed publications. You can learn more about the KaiZen approach in this video:

Here is also a textual explanation of KaiZen publishing.

Story-telling is dead. Long live story-telling.

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In dispersed knowledge, storytelling is critical for achieving ‘closure’ in covering certain issues. The need for storytelling is deeply ingrained in human cognition, dating back to our distant ancestors. TikTok and other social media platforms are introducing young people to storytelling. Stories are shorter, but they still convey our emotions, expectations, and perspectives.

In public spaces, storytelling can act as a pressure valve, a problem-solving tool, and a strategic manoeuvring tool. It combines emotional and imaginative engagement with the strength of an argument to make the lesson more impactful and memorable.

The main challenge ahead of us is to blend narration and disperse the nature of digital communication.

Read more about storytelling.

Web: from organisational brochure to knowledge space

The web regained relevance following COVID. However, the web bonanza will end soon due to AI-generated information. Currently, most websites are developed around the paradigm of ‘organisational brochures’ of distributors of information (reports, documents, etc.). With the help of AI, they can become knowledge spaces.

The UN communication can gain a lot from this shift as UN websites are ‘hidden treasures’ with available but inaccessible information. AI can solve a problem that search engines could not: access to a deep knowledge of the organisation. Traditional web search is limited due to its approach and syntax. Unsurprisingly, Google and Microsoft have started experimenting with AI-driven search in order to get to a layer of meaning (knowledge), as illustrated on the knowledge pyramid below…

Knowledge pyramide describes evolution from data and information to knowledge and wisdom.

While this evolution from search to AI conversation space is inevitable, it will trigger major legal and policy problems, as Google already faced by answering that Obama is Muslim. Google’s AI answer gave ‘authority’ to an already highly controversial political issue. Tech companies can solve this problem with carefully curated data. For that, they need time and a lot of human expertise. 

Fortunately, there is a solution for this type of AI ‘hallucination’. AI can provide useful answers by being developed on small but well-curated data, as Diplo has been doing for the last two decades (see graph)

Diagram for bottom-up AI

UN can do the same by relying on internal documents and resources already ‘curated’ by UN policy processes. Suppose the AI is fully traceable to sources and algorithms used, as we do at Diplo. In that case, the UN can develop a new type of web as a conversation space without exposing itself to the risks of AI hallucination that tech companies face.

Paradoxically, the UN can become a technological leader by shifting its web resources from ‘brochures’ to knowledge spaces where visitors can interact with information and knowledge generated by organisations.

As you can see from the Diplo website, access can be adjusted to specific interests. You can have access to diplomats, researchers, journalists, or even more general access to participants at the UN Summit of the Future.

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Regarding the use of the web at the UN, you can also consult our study on the websites of international organisations, which provides an ‘X-ray’ of the thinking and management of organisations. 

AI assistants

AI assistants are tangible examples of the AI-driven shift, which will provide direct access to data, information, and knowledge. AI facilitates access to ‘deep knowledge’ in documents, videos, and books. You can consult a pilot AI assistant for the Summit of the Future:

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Here are a few examples of assistants supported by DiploAI:

5. Beyond the hype: UN as a safe harbour in turbulent digital times 

Solid policy anchors are essential in an era of technological hype, geopolitical confusion, and global societal tensions. The UN is uniquely positioned to have this vital and critical function for the future of technology and humanity.

However, it is not often a shared view about the UN. While at the UN High-Level Panel, I was concerned about how tech companies treated UN diplomats and high officials. We were viewed as ignorant people who needed to be techno-enlightened by tech companies. They were dismissive when we asked specific technical questions, as I did several times.

My point was and continues to be that the UN and governments have a noble role in representing humanity’s priorities and core values. 

Unfortunately, we are not always up to this noble task. Also, unfortunately, people worldwide have low esteem for diplomacy and politics in general. This gap between a noble role and low esteem must be changed rapidly for the sake of the future of humanity. This change could happen in a technological realm, which is both a hope and a fear of humanity. 

It is far more than simply mimicking the latest tech trend or hype, as the UN sometimes does. The UN should understand the tech trends rather than be driven by the tech-hypes of the day. The primary role of the UN should be to manage the critical interplay between rapid technological advancements and fundamental human values. It is more about ‘humanities’ than technologies. 

6. Connecting: The left hand knows what the right hand is doing

Breaking or overcoming policy silos is one of the most often mentioned and least achieved UN challenges. Rhetoric has not followed action. In 2023, we crowded 43 UN organisation and agency websites. We discovered that 6% of the more than 120 million links on the UN websites connect to resources in another UN agency. UN system does not refer to each other’s knowledge, from official documents to reports. 

On an epistemological level, 20% cross-referencing is required to classify a single system (organisation, business, university) as an integrated knowledge ecology.

We also investigated the Geneva scene, including UN organisations, NGOs, academia, and businesses. The percentage of cross-linking was 0.49%. Paradoxically, organisational or even physical proximity does not affect cognitive proximity.

Inter-linkages of web resources could serve as a good criterion for the UN to evaluate both overcoming policy silos and nurturing knowledge ecology. 

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Mapping of AI initiatives

UN should change its approach to mapping and survey of AI systems. Instead of just listing initiatives and activities, it should only list AI initiatives with some specificity in current functionality, use of curated data, and policy about weights in the AI model. In this way, the mapping would reflect a better reality of AI developments.

Rediscover knowledge management

Today’s focus is primarily on data. However, this focus is insufficient for quantifying the impact of AI. Knowledge must be restored to organisational rhetoric and dynamics. Fortunately, the United Nations worked extensively on knowledge management a decade ago. These studies and policies must be ‘undusted’ and repurposed for the AI era. Knowledge is at the heart of the AI era, far more so than simple data.

The UN Joint Inspection Unit’s excellent study of knowledge management at the UN could be a good starting point for activating UN knowledge for the AI era. This study was prepared by Ambassador Petru Dumitriu, Diplo’s lecturer. Please let me know if you’d like to be connected with him.

Digital footprint

The digital footprint shows the visibility of Geneva-based organisations from 50 cities worldwide for 500 issues searched on Google. Here’s a video explaining how we perform digital footprint analysis.

In addition to Geneva’s digital footprint, you can see the digital footprint of the major media houses covering the Gaza war.

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7. AI-supported reporting: Major shift in the way modus operandi of UN and diplomatic services

AI-supported reporting will have the most profound impact on UN and diplomatic practices. According to our estimates, diplomats and international officials spend more than half their time reporting. It has significantly increased in the last ten years due to the emergence of a ‘compliance culture’. Diplomacy has become more bureaucratic, focusing on reporting rather than its primary function of resolving conflicts peacefully through negotiations, engagement, and persuasion.

In this context, AI-supported reporting will positively impact diplomacy and the UN. However, this transition will be complex as it will require reskilling of staff, refocusing of resources, and overall organisation reform from ‘bureaucratic diplomacy’, focused on heavy reporting in the current ‘compliance paradigm’, towards core diplomacy aimed at the core functions of multilateral diplomacy to ensure security, facilitate development, and support human rights. This AI-triggered transformation will be the most critical for the future of UN 2.0.

Additional advantages of AI-supported reporting will be:

  1. Efficiency: AI can automate repetitive tasks like recording, transcribing, summarising, and analysing large amounts of data quickly and accurately, saving time and resources.
  2. Accuracy: AI tools can help ensure accuracy in reporting by reducing human errors in tasks like data analysis and summarisation.
  3. Data Analysis: AI can process and analyze vast amounts of data to identify trends, patterns, and insights that may not be immediately apparent to humans.
  4. Support for Decision-Making: AI-generated reports can provide diplomats with valuable insights and options for analysing trade-offs before deciding on specific issues.
  5. Time-Saving: By automating certain reporting tasks, AI can free up diplomats’ time to focus on more strategic and analytical aspects of their work.
  6. Accessibility: AI tools can be particularly beneficial for smaller missions and developing countries that may lack the human and institutional capacity to follow and analyse complex diplomatic processes.
  7. Consistency: AI can provide consistent and standardised reporting formats, ensuring uniformity across different reports in structure and style.

As a practical illustration of AI-supported reporting, one can consult Diplo’s reporting hub with a few examples of reporting:

Here, you can find a knowledge graph representing relations among topics and speakers during one day of UNCTAD eWeek.

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8. AI Impartiality: Major threat (and opportunity) for the UN

The forthcoming AI transformation of the UN will profoundly impact the organisation’s ‘operating system’, built around two fundamental principles: impartiality and inclusivity. If the UN Secretariat’s ‘thinking’ is shaped by a specific corporate or national AI platform, it can undermine the UN’s impartiality and pose an existential threat to the organisation.

The upcoming AI transition differs from the UN’s previous major foray into digital innovation, which included data migration to the cloud in the 2010s and online meetings during the COVID pandemic in the early 2020s. In all previous cases, digital technology was used passively for UN negotiations, analysis, and reporting. However, AI can actively sharpen the thinking of UN machinery and, ultimately, impact decisions made by Member States.

The good news is that the UN can turn this significant risk into an advantage by developing UN AI based on the following 15 principles: openness, public good, inclusivity, modularity, professionalism, explainability and traceability, diversity, data and intellectual property protection, security, sustainability, environmental friendliness, capacity development, future orientation, accessibility, and multilateralism.

UN AI can be developed through open-source contributions of AI models from companies and countries. Analogous to donations to UN 1.0 in the form of, among others, conference rooms and paintings, UN 2.0 should be developed through the contribution of AI models.

9. UN 2.0: How to get it right

UN SG’s Policy Brief 11 provides comprehensive, insightful, and creative context or discussion for UN 2.0. My comments focus on the implementation of the ‘quintet of change’: data, innovation, digital, foresight and behavioural science expertise. The wider canvas for these four sets of changes is the cultural context, as was highlighted by Policy Brief 11. In setting a cultural context, it is critical to nurture ‘boundary spanners’ sensitivity and skills related to dealing with AI and other UN 2.0. challenges from various perspectives. Like governments and businesses, the UN should focus on ‘boundary spanners’ skills in retraining existing and hiring new staff. With this in mind, here are my comments on the ‘quintet of change’

From data ‘back’ to knowledge

As previously stated, data overshadowed the concept of knowledge, which as dominant in digital discussions a few decades ago. The data-centered approach distorts reality as knowledge is more appropriate for describing what AI generates. Data is a more passive, technical concept. Knowledge entails human interaction and values. It would be great if the UN system could begin revitalising knowledge as a better descriptor of artefacts created by AI and humans.


We should not be obsessed with more data in search of data-driven solutions. The focus should be shifted from quantity to quality of data.

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Innovation is a tricky concept. Through inflated use, it is almost trivialised, leading to an ‘innovation industry’ that has developed the language and framing to talk about innovation without innovating in reality. Thus, the chances of getting the innovation policy wrong are very high at the UN and in businesses. Typically, innovation boils down to establishing centres for innovation or launching projects. Obviously, it is not bad if it facilitates real innovation, which requires a much more change of the DNA of the organisation.

I experienced the challenge of getting innovation right at Diplo, an almost ideal lab for ‘innovation experiments’. Diplo embodies agility with creative and innovative staff, supportive leadership, non-hierarchical/matrix organisation, and in-house technological expertise (no need for outsourcing). Diplo has limited external compliance and stakeholder pressure unlike international organisations and governments. Diplo’s board is close enough to support and observe developments but far enough not to interfere with the unique fabric of the organisation. All in all, it is almost ideal setting for innovation.

However, while technological changes have been simple, integrating AI into Diplo’s operational fabric has not been straightforward. It has disrupted traditional approaches to knowledge management, challenging centuries-old academic, business, and governmental practices. Historically, knowledge and information have been tightly controlled and monopolised by key individuals or organizations, both internally and externally.

In order to address these deeper and tacit limitations, we have been developing a concept of cognitive proximity by nurturing closeness in thought and collaboration between humans and machines. This evolution has required immense patience and a nuanced understanding of individual learning and knowledge assimilation. Fast adaptation has been crucial. This journey has not been solely about incentives (‘carrots’); at times, it has necessitated firm measures (‘sticks’) to overcome institutional inertia and passive resistance to new methodologies.

Here are some insights from our experience:

  1. Identify the right people: Seek out ‘boundary spanners’—those who can think beyond conventional boundaries and organizational limits. Innovation thrives on this expansive mindset.
  2. Concrete deliverables: Ensure real and tangible innovation by seeing through innovation jargon.
  3. Protection from pressure: Shield innovative thinkers from organizational pressures that cling to the status quo. This protection is vital for fostering genuine creativity.
  4. Promote innovative behavior: Highlight and reward these innovators. Show that embracing new ideas is not just beneficial for the organization but also a pathway to a successful career.
  5. Start small, Scale Up: Begin with small units or teams. Once successful, gradually expand these innovative practices to the broader system.

In essence, fostering an innovation-driven culture requires more than just structures and policies; it demands a fundamental shift in how an organization and its people think and operate. At Diplo, our ongoing journey reveals valuable lessons for any organization seeking to weave innovation into its core fabric.

You can read more about Diplo’s Cognitive Proximity approach.

Digital solutions

Digital solutions should advance core UN principles and approaches in practical and tangible ways. For example, whenever the UN asks the global community to provide an opinion – e.g. ‘Have your say’ actions, the UN should respond by indicating what happened with specific submissions and proposals. AI can help identify the ‘destiny’ of proposals by comparing each submission and the final report or document of policy processes. It is just one example of how digital solutions can increase legitimacy and ‘buy-in’ from citizens, communities, and countries worldwide.

Foresight and behavioural science 

The core of this aspect of UN 2.0 is the future relevance of ‘choice’. As the illustration shows, we make choices by using logos (brain), ethos (heart), and pathos (stomach), as Aristotle argued.

Image of choices made by people and machines.

Today, this ancient decision-making trinity is challenged by machines, as computers can make more optimal and informed choices than we can do. Algorithms know us better than we know ourselves. They can do that based on the information they collect about us (what we click on, our likes, interests, data gathered from a Fitbit watch…). 

Human choices (freedom) and optimisation (modernity) are two pillars of enlightenment, and the above-visualised dichotomy between the two could be regarded as the so-called autoimmune disease of enlightenment. 

If machines can make optimal choices, they can decide instead of us about our selection of partners, purchases of things, and political preferences. It is a fundamental dilemma ahead of us. We may consider having the ‘right to be imperfect’, which could leave space for our genuine choices even if they are not as optimal as those made by machines. 

10. Making Summit of the Future a new type of meeting

The Summit of the Future could be a pivotal moment for the evolution of the UN, often referred to as UN 2.0. This new phase of the UN should be characterized by a more agile, inclusive, and future-oriented approach.

Here are a few suggestions on how the Summit could ‘walk the talk’ by using innovative and future-oriented tools and approaches:

  • AI Reporting from the Summit of the Future and other UN GA deliberations;
  • Launch the UN AI Transformation initiative for the development of open-source, traceable, and diverse AI modules for the UN; it will include new types of donations for UN 2.0, development of standards for UN AI systems, and policy on AI weights (transparency on elements that can influence AI inference).
  • Nudge a new approach to UN AI transformation by launching the ‘Ask UN’ platform as the first ‘walk the talk’ tool that can illustrate practically how new types of open-source, traceable, and diverse AI modules can be developed.
  • Start developing future literacy in order to understand and shape future narratives beyond cliches (see: oDiplo’s course on ‘Futures literacy’)