May 28, 2013
We do not have to predict the future in order to plan for it. The core concern of strategic foresight is not a simplistic identification of what technology we will use in twenty years, for example, but what effects technological change will have on our national interests. Understanding geopolitical and technological tides will assist policymakers and business leaders in charting out smart strategies today which hedge against unwelcome storms while capitalizing on innovation and progress. This can only be done by having conversations geared toward exploring a future of unknowable, but unavoidable possibilities and pitfalls.

In 1876, an internal Western Union
memo panned the telephone, a recent invention, as having “too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.” Needless to say, this was ultimately an erroneous statement – after all, no one sends telegrams anymore. An expanding nation with increasing communication needs demanded disruptive innovation that sped up how we connected. In this case, that innovation consequently changed the way we govern domestically and internationally.

Mr. David Roberts, of Singularity University, during an event hosted by the Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative, of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, made the key comment that it is extremely difficult to pinpoint disruption – we simply don’t see it coming. Western Union may have understood that the nation needed a better communications system, but did not foresee that it could turn to an entirely new technology. Also speaking at the event, which aimed to understand the impact of disruptive technologies on our world, Mr. Salim Ismail, also of Singularity University, added that the difference today is that the pace of technological development has increased dramatically making it all the more important to be mindful of trends. Agility will be crucial to success. Governments must be able to adapt to a quickly changing social landscape, and this is accomplished through a forward thinking strategy.

Instead of attempting to predict the inherently unpredictable, to nail down a constantly and rapidly moving target, strategic foresight aims to categorize the trends which influence the future and map out potential futures with an eye toward informing long-term policy making. The goal is not to predict the next telephone but to understand the trends – whether it is a demographic shift, climate change, individual empowerment, or the diffusion of power – which have potential to generate significant problems as well as innovative solutions to current challenges.

If strategic foresight seeks to identify and understand the trends which will shape our national interests in the future, then it is naturally a concern of the foreign policy community. Both our national interests and the means of achieving them affect and are affected by other states, by the twists of geopolitics, and the pressures of time. Whether a national interest is an ideal – such as individual freedom – or a physical asset – such as energy resources – it serves us well to think about these interests in a future context.

This context is built upon global trends. The US National Intelligence Council’s (NIC) Global Trends 2030 report catalogs a number of “megatrends” and critical game-changing questions. Framed this way – with broad strokes defining the believable parameters, and critical questions highlighting the uncertainty of the future – we can build more resilient strategies.

Some trends seem utterly obvious in their global implications while others struggle for attention in Washington. Climate change has cleared the hurdle and appears on both domestic and foreign policy agendas around the world. Urbanization is moving under the foreign policy umbrella though it remains on the edge – with some advocates, such as Undersecretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Robert Hormats, pushing for serious consideration of urban issues by the foreign policy community. Technology has its own pitfalls, with many in both the public and policy communities greatly distracted by incremental change and gadgetry rather than concentrating on emerging disruptive technologies and the strategic implications thereof.

The key remains to link these trends, which are necessarily broad, to strategy. Because we accept that the future is unpredictable, but not entirely random, we can plan smart strategies – that are flexible without being flimsy, that take into account the concrete reality of shocks and black swans without professing to know in advance their nature.

Military strategists have known for a long time that “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” In the strategic foresight context time can be cast in the role of enemy. No plan survives contact with tomorrow, but well-laid strategies are enabled to shift with the changes of time and technology. It is only through the very act of thinking about the future can we even begin to prepare for it.

Catherine Putz is an intern with the Scowcroft Center's Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative.