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Een meisje houdt haar tablet vast in de klas op een tabletschool in Lopik
Digital technology is all around us and has a great deal to offer society. Examples include remote working, identifying early signs of skin cancer, or rapidly detecting cyber attacks. At the same time, however, digitalisation is increasingly cited as part of societal problems. Deepfakes, disinformation, and online hatred affect democratic debate and political decision-making, and place the rule of law under strain. Four to five million people in the Netherlands are unable to participate effectively in the digital society. Moreover, do the authorities actually have control of the many digital systems and algorithms that they themselves utilise? The key, in short, is to make use of digital technology in a wellconsidered manner.

In the coming years, the Rathenau Instituut aims to contribute to shaping a society that utilises digitalisation democratically, and in which everyone can participate


Focus areas

Public values and human rights in insecure times
We will analyse how – in the face of rising geopolitical tensions with Russia, China, and other autocratic countries – the digital society can most effectively safeguard various public values and human rights, such as privacy and non-discrimination. Especially in these times of increasing insecurity, values can clash and need to be considered very carefully. For instance, we will explore how the police, the intelligence services, and the military can ensure a balance between new technological possibilities on the one hand – for instance for surveillance and detection purposes – and the ethical risks on the other. We will also explore how the Netherlands and Europe can gain greater control of their existing and emerging technology infrastructure, including platforms, cloud services, satellites, and quantum technology.

Trusted digital administration
We will explore how the responsible application of digital technology can contribute to reliable public administration and well-informed democratic decision-making. In that regard, it is important that the public authorities themselves utilise algorithmic applications in a transparent manner, and have clear frameworks for promptly detecting and eliminating risks. It is not possible, however, to eliminate every risk, and it is therefore also important for the authorities to disclose the considerations involved and engage in public discussion of them. Finally, there are concerns about the impact that disinformation, social media, and online hatred have on democratic decision-making. We will examine the extent to which these concerns are justified and how democratic decision-making can be strengthened.

Living, working, and growing up in the digital society
Together with the public and professionals, for example healthcare and education workers, we will research and design a vision for growing up, working, and living together in the digital environment of today and tomorrow. We will explore how digital technology can help tackle the tight labour market and contribute to the quality of work. We will investigate how young people can grow up enjoyably and safely within a digitalised environment, and we will explore what tomorrow’s public digital space (a “metaverse”) might look like. By engaging with politicians, policy-makers, and the business community on the basis on our insights, we will assist them in shaping a digital society in which everyone can participate.

The dominance of technology companies

We will investigate the impact that the dominance of technology companies has on society. Europe is becoming increasingly dependent on non-European companies for key digital infrastructure, such as social media platforms, cloud services, and satellites. Moreover a small number of tech companies, acting as “gatekeepers”, dominate the markets in which they operate. In so doing, these companies are increasingly gaining a foothold in other sectors, such as healthcare, education, and finance. Society may suffer because of this, given that multinationals may not automatically respect the norms and values of our democracy.