Strategic foresight: inspiring our thinking about the (un) known (un) knowns

Source: pixabay.

If there is one area where strategic thinking and scenario planning has a long historical record, it is most likely in the military. This is certainly so for the North Atlantic Treat Organisation (NATO) where detecting trends, anticipating possible future developments and ‘looking out of the window’ are seen as crucial for defence and security decisions. Dr. Stefanie Babst, Head of the Strategic Analysis Capability for the Secretary General and the chairman of the Military Committee at NATO, presents in this article* her views on why it makes sense to engage in foresight, and also various conceptual aspects of such activity.

By Stefanie Babst, Strategic Analysis Capability, NATO

Strategic foresight is in vogue. In the past few years private foresight companies and consultancies have mushroomed across the globe, offering their services and products to businesses, governments, international organizations and individuals; in short, to all those who seek to obtain insights and analyses about future geostrategic developments and potential risks. National governments and international organizations have perhaps taken a little longer than private corporations to discover the advantages of strategic foresight but many of them have accelerated their efforts recently. Most European countries as well as the United States and Canada have started to invest in strategic foresight resources and structures. In many European capitals, dedicated foresight teams and tools have been created in order to complement traditional policy planning and intelligence gathering. In Brussels, the center of the European institutions, the strategic foresight vocabulary has entered the language of policy-makers and bureaucrats alike.

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Increased strategic foresight resources and structures Both public and private organisations engage more in future challenges and risks. The continuously globalized world and technological development contributes to this interest.

Domino effects and hard to predict unknows The complexity of today’s world reinforces the need to reassess the so-called ‘butterfly effect’ which stipulates the way in which small causes can have very large effect in complex systems. Equally, there are unknown threats and challenges that cannot be measured beforehand by strategic and systematic human thinking. In addition, human beings have cognitive biases leading to blind spots for emerging issues.

Multiple futures Understanding the past does not necessarily bring forward useful future strategies. Foresight mechanisms can offer a way of engaging in the unknown challenges and risks and sharpen our eyes, with the aid of scenario planning, about multiple futures and provide inspiration.

Optimising strategic foresight If organised in an interdisciplinary and inclusive manner and taken up at policy-making level, strategic foresight may provide a useful mind-set and method for decision-makers ‘to look out of the window’ with a fresh pair of eyes.

The reason for the growing interest in strategic foresight is obvious: in our increasingly globalized world, decision-makers want to guard against the many strategic surprises out there. Arguably, comprehending the complex realities of today’s world is hard enough, yet trying to grasp the future seems even harder. Stephen Hawking, the British theoretical physicist, once (2000) said that the 21st century will be the century of complexity and he was right. It is mostly due to profound technological advances in the past few decades, particularly in the areas of telecommunications, the internet and more lately block chain technologies and artificial intelligence, that our world has become deeply interconnected and complex. Indeed, one could argue that we are now at the beginning of what may become the most dramatic change in the international order in several centuries, the biggest shifts since a group of European rulers signed the Westphalian Peace Treaty in 1648 and thus created an entirely new concept of sovereign states.

The profound and fast changes we are witnessing every day illustrate that complex is different from complicated. For a layman, the inner workings of a battle tank may look like a highly complex thing but in reality, they only reflect a complicated process. Complicated systems, in principle, follow Newtonian characteristics in that they perform predetermined and repeatable functions. By contrast, a complex system contains a large number of autonomous elements that constantly interact with each other in non-linear ways. Complex-system scientists — when asked ‘What is a complex system?’- usually just reply ‘Look out of the window!’ Clouds, mountains, rivers, the entire landscape of our world are expressions of what results from unpredictable interactions. Changes in complex systems — whether ecosystems, stock markets or human-centric domains like cities or states — can sometimes take place not in a smooth progression but in a sequence of fast catastrophic events.

Source: Pixabay.

The US mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz, a pioneer of the chaos theory, coined the famous term ‘Butterfly effect’ for describing the way in which small causes can have very large effects in complex systems such as the weather. In the same vein, Per Bak, the well-known Danish theoretical physicist, reminded us that the domino effect in complex systems can sometimes have catastrophic effects: ‘Cracks in the earth’s crust propagate this way to produce earthquakes, often with tremendous energies.’ Translated to our political world of today, we seem to be faced with exactly this: propagating effects and surprising energy. Radical change in one area produces radical change elsewhere. The days of simple interactions and easy-to-map dynamics lie definitely behind us. It is the complexity of change and its unpredictable outcomes that pose a genuine challenge for decision-makers.

Source: Pixabay.

What governments fear most are strategic surprises or so-called Black Swans, a category of futures that the philosopher and statistician Nicolas Nassem Taleb (2007) described as ‘rare, hard-to-predict developments that have a large, game-changing impact’ on peoples, national interests, policies, processes and many more areas alike. In 2002, not long after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld referred to Black Swans as ‘unknown unknowns’: ‘There are known knowns. These are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.’ This well-known phrase is often quoted in a satirical way but it contains a large kernel of truth.

In the past few decades, the world has had to cope with some Black Swans or unknown unknowns; for example, the Asian financial crisis in 1997/98; the global economic and financial crisis caused by the sudden collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008/09; the Arab Spring in 2010; the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011 and, of course, the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. They not only caused major disruption but had large, far-reaching repercussions on numerous states, their policies, concrete actions and ultimately a huge number of people.

It is our own human nature that hampers our efforts to think about the future more systematically, with a long-term, open-minded view. Indeed, all human beings — including those in power positions — are afflicted with cognitive biases or, simply put, blind spots. Many of the past and current crises, political upheavals, natural disasters or pandemics do not fall into the category of Black Swans. We could have guarded against some of them or at least mitigated their effects if decisions makers had been prepared to read the signals announcing these events correctly and if they had spent sufficient time and effort to prepare for contingencies. But allowing our blind spots to dominate our thinking and focusing on immediate issues rather than long-term strategies is not only a tempting choice for policy-makers across the board — it is also an expression of a deeply engrained human attitude.

But even if decision-makers in governments were to become more conscious of their respective cognitive biases and developed a fresh way of thinking, detecting plausible signals that point at future strategic surprises remains an extremely difficult exercise. For one, it is much more demanding than explaining, in hindsight, why certain events unfolded as they did. True, an entire industry of scientists, academics, analysts and commentators are busy offering reasons why the Russian leadership decided to annex the Crimean peninsula in spring 2014 or why in 2016 a majority of British voters opted for their country to leave the European Union. While it is obviously important to make sense of past strategic surprises, these are, in essence, all ‘post-mortem’ analyses. Their thinking and explanation is fundamentally backward-looking. Yet, providing hindsight of past events — regardless how useful such an exercise is — does not necessarily translate into foresight. Simply because we can provide an explanation for, let’s say, why the current state of affairs between Russia and the West has evolved in a certain way, does not mean we are in a position to forecast the next political drama or catastrophe.

Sometimes our preparedness to take long views on future trends and events is challenged by another member of the animal kingdom, the Black Elephant. Singapore’s Peter Ho, one of the intellectual fathers of strategic foresight, has called a Black Elephant the ‘evil spawn of our cognitive biases.’ It is a cross between a Black Swan and the proverbial Elephant in the Room: a problem that is actually visible to everyone but no one wants to deal with it. When it blows up as a serious problem, a widespread reaction is that of shock and surprise, whereas, in reality, it should not have come as a surprise.

Was the migration crisis that hit Europe reportedly ‘out-of–the-blue’ in 2016 a Black Elephant? I suppose so. The pull and push factors that drove a dramatically growing number of refugees and migrants from the conflict zones in Syria, Iraq and North Africa towards Europe were known for some time; so was the demographic data as well as the nexus between organized crime and human trafficking; and still many European governments pretended that the arrival of hundreds of thousands of people on their doorsteps came as an utter surprise to them.

There are other examples illustrating that most of the recent strategic shocks were in fact rather known unknowns or Black Elephants. For example, Russia’s arrival in the Syrian conflict zone in autumn 2015 or North Korea’s reinvigorated desire to challenge the international community’s resolve with missile tests could be categorized under this heading.

Can strategic foresight make a difference? The cautious answer is yes, perhaps. Strategic foresight or futures thinking can be a useful way for governments and international organizations to better understand global complexity and prepare against Black Swans or Black Elephants. For sure, strategic foresight is not about predicting the future. Nobody can predict what precisely the year(s) to come will bring. But understanding key global and regional trends, detecting critical uncertainties and risk factors and developing scenarios about potential future developments makes a lot of sense if one wants to avoid nasty surprises.

For strategic foresight to be successfully embraced both as an anticipatory mindset and a method, we must accept that we will have to continue to live with a high degree of uncertainty now and in the future. For some politicians, this may sound banal; in the eyes of others, such a statement is antithetical to what they aim to make voters believe, namely that they have a firm and clear view of what the future holds. Strategic foresight methods, processes and products, however, are not meant to explain the future in linear terms. By contrast, they can help to better understand the complexities surrounding us; they can help challenge our own assumptions and make us aware of our blind spots; they can help sharpen our eyes about multiple futures and inspire our thinking about the unknown unknowns out there — but serious strategic foresight analyses and scenarios will never seek to tell a group of policy-makers that the future is straightforward and black or white.

Scenario planning exercises can be a meaningful way to make people aware of uncertainties, risks and problems but also opportunities. Developed by the oil giant Shell in the 1970s, scenario planning has become a globally acknowledged and broadly used foresight tool. In countries such as Finland and Singapore, scenario planning exercises are held regularly on a national level and based on a whole-of-government approach, i.e. all ministries and offices of the government are involved at senior level. In Finland, not only the executive but also legislative branch participates in scenario planning exercises. In both countries, scenario planning is part of the national strategic planning process and thus taken seriously.

Horizon scanning is another, complementary foresight method. It is not meant to be a description or analysis of the current state of affairs but rather an effort to distinguish ’noises from signals,’ to observe the unfolding of important, emerging trends and to identify potential critical game-changers. Data mining tools can meaningfully support horizon scanning exercises in that they help digest big data and search for weak signals that could evolve into sudden shocks. Ultimately, however, they cannot replace the sense-making process that is still the task of a person.

Finally, it should be highlighted that strategic foresight works best if organized in an interdisciplinary and inclusive manner. If scenario planning, for instance, is purely exercised by a small group of like-minded individuals that sit on the margin of the policy-planning process and have no linkages to the other parts of the bureaucracy, the impact will likely be very limited. Likewise, if strategic foresight products are not shared at the policy-making level they do not have a great impact either. Ideally, strategic foresight should help bring the various silos in a bureaucracy together in order to generate a broad and diverse spectrum of individual assumptions, mental maps and perspectives.

So where is NATO in all of this? In recent years the transatlantic Alliance has significantly upgraded its intelligence and crisis anticipation capabilities in order to better guard against unpleasant surprises, risks and threats, regardless whether they come from the East, the South, cyber space or through technological advances. Among others, a joint civilian-military Strategic Analysis Capability (SAC) provides NATO with strategic foresight analyses and scenarios about future developments of strategic relevance for the Alliance. SAC regularly engages with external foresight teams, regardless whether they sit in Allied capitals, NATO partner countries, the private sector or other international organizations.

NATO’s strategic foresight themes range from Russia’s future course of action at home and in NATO’s eastern neighbourhood, to future scenarios for the conflict-ridden Middle East and North Africa region, from the future evolution of the terrorist threat to NATO’s member countries to the many strategic unknowns that come with the global rise of China, and from the question what the cyber threat may look like in five plus years to the potential impact of new disruptive technologies. These and related topics cannot come as a surprise to anyone since they are populating the pages of numerous public outlooks and foresight reports. But geared towards NATO’s needs they constitute hard and substantial work.

After all, strategic foresight is primarily about encouraging everyone involved in a decision-making process to ‘look out of the window’ with a fresh pair of eyes and try to comprehend the dynamics that are driving our fast-changing global environment with a new way of thinking. This is neither easy nor comfortable. But trying to grasp how the nature of power, and those who yield it, will continue to alter in the years to come, how future relations between states and citizens will change or future wars be fought cannot possibly succeed if we still use the mental maps of the past. We may not find all the answers to these and other questions but at least we should try to pose them as smartly as possible.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent any official NATO position. This article was also published on the website of the Munich Security Conference, held from 16–18 February 2018.

This article was first published on the October 2018 of the ECA Journal. The contents of the interviews and the articles are the sole responsibility of the interviewees and authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Court of Auditors.



Articles from the European Court of Auditors, #EU's external auditor & independent guardian of the EU's finances.

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Articles from the European Court of Auditors, #EU's external auditor & independent guardian of the EU's finances.