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Foresight: Understanding the future security environment

Military planning includes anticipating and developing weapons systems, doctrine, force strengths and capabilities and relationships with other governments, agencies and partners. Foresight studies, done well, can inform and provide an intelligent backdrop for these critical plans decisions.

Recently, the Department of National Defence published The Future Security Environment 2008-2030, Part 1: Current and Emerging Trends, an excellent example of how a foresight study can inform decision-making. The FSE quickly became a bestseller in Ottawa. Its original print run of a thousand copies was snapped up and the backlog of demand has resulted in plans for a second printing. Many departments are finding the FSE study a useful tool for anticipating potential emerging international conditions that will have considerable impact on their areas of responsibility, as well as serving as an excellent model for their own work.

For decision makers at every level, but particularly in the policy and executive stream, foresight studies provide the means to understand a range of futures that “could be,” typically looking out 15 to 40 years. The primary product of a foresight study is a range of scenarios. Those future possibilities provide an intelligent backdrop to mid- and long-range strategic planning and investment.

Foresight studies are not forecasting. Forecasting provides the best estimate of “will be.” Technology roadmaps plan how to get to an end condition or product that has already been identified.

Foresight studies are practical and useful in the real world. One of the best examples is present day South Africa. Twenty years ago, a pioneering foresight study about the future of South Africa shaped the debate about ending apartheid. Futurists developed scenarios that mapped the various pathways the country could take, leading to disparate destinations of stability, civil war and worse. That foresight exercise is widely credited with leading to the decision to free Nelson Mandela and thereby avert the descent into chaotic violence and facilitate the transition to today’s peaceful if still troubled society.

Foresight studies are now built in to the planning processes of almost all Western European governments, including the United Kingdom. Most notably, the Finnish Parliamentary Committee for the Future has commissioned dozens of foresight studies over the past 20 years that have spearheaded innovation throughout Finnish society including transparent governance, open and connected information systems, creative childhood education, and innovation training in every discipline, to name a few sources of Finland’s world leading comparative advantages and performance.

For over 20 years, Royal Dutch Shell has been using foresight studies to frame their 30-year outlook and agenda for exploration, investment and business lines.

The Demographic Objectives project undertaken for the Privy Council Office (PCO) in 1972-73 is perhaps the earliest study embodying rigorous foresight methods conducted by the Canadian federal government. It has served well as the backdrop for policies such as immigration and multiculturalism, and pointed to the need for policy staff to monitor such indicators as birthrates and internal migration. Today, the Policy Research Initiative office of the PCO is monitoring and providing linkages among the dozen or so foresight studies being undertaken by federal departments and agencies.

An informal network of foresight experts meets a dozen times a year as the Foresight Synergy Network at the University of Ottawa to share methods, cases and presentations from foresight experts around Canada and the world. Providing foresight services is now a thriving niche business for approximately 20 consulting firms in Canada.

Future findings
The foresight discipline does not set out to define a desirable future and then figure out how to get there. Participants at the point of departure do not know where they will arrive. The end result is a finding, not a construct. They might well conclude they did not wish to live in any of the worlds they projected – but all those worlds are within the range of probability. The strategic planning that follows consideration of the scenarios may focus on minimizing future risk and harm.

One view is that foresight studies should not rely on alternative worlds or scenarios created within a simplistic matrix/quadrant chart. They are tempting because they are both imaginative and logical. That makes them quick, easy and usually of little value.

Well-managed foresight studies cast a fine net for expert participants and their hunches. They look for participants with expert knowledge and feel for a subject area, and what is in the innovation “pipeline,” from basic and applied research to application. The goal is to find enough of these experts to generate a critical mass of speculation.

Participants are encouraged (and facilitated) to make many incremental hunches about the future, extending further and further out in time and creativeness. In half a day, a dozen people can generate several hundred possibilities. At the end of a workshop there could be a harvest of a few hundred annotated ideas about the future.

The process includes finding and iteratively clustering patterns among hundreds of these incremental “could be” conditions to detect alternative scenarios of future systems or “worlds” and the primary drivers that cause them. Differing rates and types of globalization, demography, climate change, environmentalism and innovation are frequently found as major drivers.

Many people enter these events with skepticism. Intellectual curiosity, the presence of stimulating peers and new patterns emerging and coming together almost always draw them in. The excitement of finding new patterns and “could be” possibilities becomes irresistible. Good foresight studies also have a way of eliminating nonsense predictions.

Potential conditions
National Defence’s future security environment assessment is the first in a series of three documents that “examines future security issues from the present out to Horizon Three (20+ years). It seeks to anticipate, not predict, future conditions. The other FSE documents, Part 2: Future Shocks, and Part 3: Alternate Futures, will be promulgated within the year.”

The sources used and noted are worth reading carefully. The FSE is loaded with well-synthesized information from workshops and other studies around the world. It hits the sweet spot of providing a reasonable set of deductions while not shying away from uncomfortable possibilities.

In good foresight study fashion, it explicitly defines the terms it uses about the future, ranging from “Will – circumstances are already moving in this direction, and moving off this trajectory is not foreseeable” through “Probably” to “Possibly” to “Unlikely – the outcome is deemed improbable as there is little or no evidence projecting its occurrence.”

Far from being a theoretical or academic exercise, the FSE provides us with a breathtaking look at potential global conditions and conflicts over the next 20 years. It should be read by every long-range policy and planning expert and official in Canada.

Inter alia, the FSE indicates that the Canadian Forces will operate in a variety of collaborative contexts in the future, working with domestic and foreign partners to achieve effect. Perhaps if they all participated in developing foresight scenarios their strategic planning could anticipate gaps and enhance their potential impact.

Major-General Stuart Beare, under whose guidance the study was initiated, and the staff he led as Chief of Force Development have given the CF and Canadians good value with a publication that is already having an impact on future policies and planning in all sectors of our society.

Glen Milne has worked on policy and process issues for public and private sector clients for more than four decades. Among many other assignments, he designed and led the 1972-73 Privy Council Office Demographic Objectives project.

Author: Glen Milne from the Dec 2010/Jan 2011 issue published

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