Emergent Futures Lab

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The mission of the Atlantic Council’s Emergent Futures Lab is to explore emergent issues that may seem fringe, implausible, or unpredictable today, but which have the possibility to cause significant disruption in the future. At a time of historic transition and turbulence, the Atlantic Council has dedicated itself to supporting the United States and its allies in securing the future. The Emergent Futures Lab contributes to this mission by exploring beyond the trendlines and conventional forecasts to examine weak signals and unpredictable developments to prepare the international community for any eventuality. As the number of organizations focusing on futures analysis grows, the Atlantic Council’s renowned rigor and convening power ensure it will remain a center of excellence in preparing for tomorrow’s challenges.


Emergent challenges (as defined here) are those that can be detected but not yet fully discerned. They do not necessarily follow predictable trendlines, and therefore cannot be extrapolated solely from an analysis of plausible or likely current or near-term events. But they are likely to be disproportionately disruptive and impactful. How can we prepare ourselves for these unexpected shocks? By exploring the unlikely or unpredictable and preparing ourselves to adapt to a multitude of outcomes.

The Emergent Futures Lab does this by using a range of creative and non-traditional methodologies that explore the ‘what-ifs’. While remaining anchored by practical real-world constraints, these methodologies open the aperture of possible future outcomes. The Lab tailors its approach to each issue, often using a combination of methodologies to generate unique analysis, differentiated perspectives, experimental ideation and to act as a policy skunk-works as partners. These methodologies include, but are not limited to:

War Gaming and Scenario-based Discussions. War games immerse subject-matter experts into specific, tailored scenarios to draw out conscious and unconscious knowledge and explore the dynamic interplay of human decision-making. War game approaches include scenario-based discussion; turn-based, military force on force efforts; seminar war games; pathway games; and red-teaming as appropriate for the desired outcomes.

Creative Writing. Artists examine the world and our society from unusual and creative angles, providing a mirror and magnifying glass into our culture. Art is a fundamental aspect of any culture, and in turn culture is a key driver of individual and collective values and action. Using art and creative writing to explore future challenges provides new insights into the forces that will shape tomorrow.  Moreover, many successful artists have visions of the future in key domains that are at least as plausible, if not more so, than those of strategic planners in the public and private sectors.

Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and Big Data Analysis. AI algorithms and big data analysis tools have the potential to identify patterns and infer new approaches with speed and efficiency that a human could not achieve independently. We are only beginning to understand the profound possibilities and the limitations of these technologies. By pairing AI and machine learning tools to traditional analysis and data sets, new insights and concepts can be developed that would not be possible through other techniques.

Computer Games and Virtual Reality Simulation. Computer games have become a central pillar of today’s cultural engagement. For analytical purposes, they provide an immersive, non-linear vehicle for knowledge transfer and unique, in-depth exploration of issues.

Competitive Strategies. Competitive strategies are forward-looking, long-term plans that set out how an organization will gain a competitive advantage over its adversaries, defend its core elements, and ensure it generates greater returns on investment.

Crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing can rapidly generate a vast quantity and diversity of information. While powerful, this approach can result in unmanageable, ineffectual or counterproductive input. By focusing the input through surveys, online games, and creative competitions, it can be harnessed to generate a multitude of divergent perspectives to complement, validate, and challenge subject-matter expertise.

Horizon Scanning. As a formal process for identifying and analyzing potential risks and opportunities in the future, horizon scanning examines a range of factors to affirm or discredit existing trends and explore a range of potential outcomes for those trends in the future.

Alternative Futures. The alternative futures methodology uses a set of techniques to explore different future states by varying key trends, drivers, or conditions. It holds as its premise that everything can have multiple future paths that are affected by environmental change and specific decisions. It seeks to explore the range of the possible outcomes free of a deterministic path.

Design Thinking. Drawing upon logic, imagination, intuition, and systemic reasoning, design thinking explores possibilities of what could be—and creates desired outcomes that benefit the end user. By using design thinking in futures analysis, a preferable path is identified along with the necessary conditions to achieve that outcome.


Advice. The Emergent Futures Lab can provide insight and expertise to other Atlantic Council programs and centers on integrating scenario-based analysis, fiction writing, design thinking, crowdsourced surveying, and horizon scanning into their existing and future work streams. This provides a systematic and cost-effective way for Council programs to supplement their organic staff to deliver new offerings and differentiated analysis. Additionally, as the lab is externally facing, it provides partners with new ways of achieving their objectives.

Training: The Emergent Futures Lab has a range of publicly available training courses that combine lectures of high profile subject matter experts with interactive, experiential learning activities. These courses are tailored to the subject and objectives of each partner, but usually involve up to a day of focused panel sessions followed by a series of closed-door round table discussions or scenario-based exercises.

Writing. The Emergent Futures Lab’s network of creative writers can provide tailored scenarios and future focused fiction to assist in adding depth and texture to analysis, to highlight key issues, or as an intellectual anchor for abstract concepts. Written products can be produced by known and proven writers or through crowdsourced writing competitions as needed.

Events. From short ideas sessions and red-teaming, to longer scenario-based trainings and full-day conferences, these engagements provide a unique opportunity to brainstorm, test-run reactions, and engage with problem sets that may not have been previously considered.

Multi-Modal Research Program. Full research programs use a tailored mix of methodologies to generate new insights. Depending on desired outcomes, programming can include desk top research, foresight, interactive scenario-based workshops, red-teaming, and crowdsourced surveys to explore complex topics in innovative ways.