Brexit: A Sign of Urgent Need to Rethink Social Progress

Nicky Wunderlich |

Brexit indicates the crucial need for far deeper and wider reflection on our global future. Our world requires an urgent rethinking of social progress for the 21st century.[1] The scientific community, the sciences, social sciences as well as the humanities should collaborate, open up their research agendas for public engagement and interdisciplinary dialogue to work towards a diversity of possible solutions to address ‘the troubles of our time’.[2]

In the debate about the consequences of Brexit, the European Union (EU) is often conflated with Europe. But the making of international governance with a strong European outlook came with industrialisation and globalisation long before — during the nineteenth century. The EU is hence part of a greater ‘Europeanisation’ process involving a web of multiple organisations and dependencies. Leaving the EU does not mean leaving Europe. Despite Brexit the UK will be connected to Europe in a myriad of ways.

The deliberations about Europe’s future should therefore look more widely to the vital question of how to organise and manage the international flows of goods, people, information, pandemics and pollution, inevitable in our globalised world.[3]

Many have, rightly, criticised the EU for its technocratic character. Yet this is present in all international organisations – from the United Nations, and the Council of Europe to CERN and the European Space Agency.  They have been built on the belief in the rule of experts, thus people like us, our ‘rational decision-making’ and the preference for avoiding overt political and public deliberation.[4]  It is time to reappraise these axioms of both European and global governance, not so much because of its costly errors, but principally because current designs reflect the old dream of building a European, or even global, state which would eventually surpass nation-states[5], while the public support for this is clearly faltering, and many issues need localised solutions.  New constructs for local, national and international governance are needed combining technocracy and democracy to reduce the democratic deficit of which Brexit is a symptom.

Evolving national and international governance is crucial if we are to address some of the challenging interconnected issues, including rising inequalities, unemployment, growing migration, climate change, human rights, arms control, cyber-insecurity, and terrorism. Brexit must not simply prompt organisations in Europe to engage in yet another round of navel-gazing discussion focused primarily on the future of their own interests, particularly funding and trade. Instead, we should encourage experimentation with a variety of new democratic governance forms at all levels (local, national and international) to create more participative forms of policy-shaping. In my own area we should focus less on stimulating R&D and innovation, as if all is positive, and open up the debate about its directions to think about how knowledge production and innovation contributes to social progress to address the societal and environmental challenges of our time.[6] The University of Sussex’s Science Policy Research Unit, which I lead, has developed a new research strategy aimed at the development of fresh innovation theories, policies and practices for bringing about transformative change.[7]


  1. See work of the International Panel on Social Progress, see
  2. C. Wright Mills. The Sociological Imagination. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1970, pp. 9-14 (reprint; original published in 1959).
  3. This argument is explored in a six volume book series Making Europe: Technology and Transformations, 1850-2000, Palgrave/Macmillan, 2013-2017. See
  4. For this term see Wolfram Kaiser and Johan Schot, Writing the Rules for Europe. Experts, Cartels and International Organizations, Palgrave/Macmillan, 2014.
  5. For an excellent overview of the visions behind world government see Mark Mazower, Governing the World: The History of an Idea, New York, Penguin Books, 2013.
  6. Stirling, Andrew (2008) “Opening up” and “closing down” power, participation, and pluralism in the social appraisal of technology. Science, Technology, and Human Values, 33 (2). pp. 262-294


For further reading on the possible solutions and answers see:

International Panel on Social Progress. Search on Twitter #IPSP

See also working papers on Deep Transitions and framing on Innovation 3.0. Search on Twitter #DeepTransition #IP3.0

Post a comment

Copyright © 2024 Johan Schot