Inaugural Session of The School of International Futures has Begun

The inaugural School of International Futures started yesterday at Wilton Park, Britain’s foremost global policy centre, on the theme of Strategic Foresight.

When we discuss elements of the predictable future, policy planning is often structured in a linear way.  The historical trend has been to forecast in a way that draws links between the current world and the potential world.  When predictions are well-made, like Churchill’s on Nazi aggression, we remember the prowess of leadership through foresight.  When we look at predictive failures, like the dot-com boom before 2000, we look for culprits and assert lessons learned.  However, the effort to predict says less about outcome probability than it does about our need to create an illusion of control. Communities in general but governments specifically often have an innate desire to control variables.  Again, this is often done in shortsightedness, within an electoral cycle and managed by political will. With these limitations it seems we demand foresight, but deny the appropriate tools to analyze the future.

In this light, predictions often belie probability.  Attempts to strategically plan for future often hit stumbling blocks, even when made in an attempt to look beyond the fence. Sir Michael Quinlan had a theorem on which Lord Peter Hennessey likes to reminisce: “What we expect we plan and provide for. What we plan and provide for, we therefore deter. What we deter doesn’t happen. What does happen is what we did not deter because we did not plan and provide for it because we did not expect it.”

The effort then, is to create strategic foresight that accounts for nonlinear possibilities.  What occurs in the future is not contingent on a single set of variables in the current structure, but a multivariate set of unknowns in an ever-changing international structure.  We have long-term risks that can affect policy choices, like climate change, population growth, and global economic inequity. Policy leaders also have to deal with short-term risks that have long-term implications, like natural disasters, industrial accidents, infectious diseases, terrorism and food safety.  These risks together can be causally linked, but require a strand of nonlinear problem solving to be fully addressed.  How do we address the climate change that can give rise to food insecurity? How can we alleviate the risks associated to population growth in a way that deters the spread of infectious diseases?

These are the types of questions we seek to answer at the School of International Futures.  Increasingly, policy makers and professionals from across the spectrum of disciplines are seeing the need for appropriate forecasting methods in a complex and multipolar world.  It is becoming more unsustainable to make incorrect, inefficient predictions.  It is becoming untenable to ‘expect’ scenarios by creating determined and linear policies

This is the lesson learned in the MRAP military vehicle debacle in the United States.  Retroactively engaging a problem is less effective than building adaptive strategies into policy.  Need for effective foresight has been furthermore reiterated by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, when recently discussing adaptability and duplication-reduction by creating smarter defense. It is necessary to diversify our competencies, to create adaptive approaches by discussing scenarios in a nonlinear way.

Clearly this is not only applicable to defense strategies; it is just as effective in creating adaptive responses to long-term problems like climate change. As Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter noted yesterday, we need to imagine a constellation of outcomes, without focusing on the assumption of what we believe will happen.  Indeed, strategic foresight is both an art and a science.

We have already had one day of productive discussions at the School – mainly introducing the principles SOIF will engage in.  Bringing in diverse practitioners from business, politics, and policy, SOIF is engaging the unknown in a novel way.  Instead of giving the government sector reign over strategic foresight, we have discussed the need for a greater venture – public and private ownership of risks and long term realities.  It is a strategy long existing in the private sector, and is worth conversion into the policy realm.

As researcher-in-residence, I will continue to provide thoughts and commentary throughout the week

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