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22 April 2007

Warning examples for would-be futures analysts

We have recently begun following the quirky Paleo-Future blog out of the horrifying spectacle that one day our own forecasts may be featured therein - though we are comforted in that our writings will no doubt likely remain quite obscure, especially in comparison to things such as AT&T advertising or Apple's early pop culture visions. But we learned early to always be mindful of the examples of other’s mistakes, in order to seek to avoid them ourselves.

Collections such as Paleo-Future serve to point out well that most of what passes for futures analysis is merely a concise summation of the features of the present, exaggerated in a manner which reflects the interests and cognitive biases of the day. And while the future may already be here in uneven distribution, interesting parts of that future also emerges at the intersection of today’s forces and drivers that create complex higher order effects in ways that will always be difficult to predict. That’s why futures studies will remain just as much of a job as any other part of the intelligence equation.

We have been troubled by the lack of effective predictive analysis tradecraft in most intelligence analysis instruction, and a deep misunderstanding of futures studies techniques displayed on the part of many of the faculty and students emerging from typical academic programs. The process of authoring a fifteen year out-years assessment is far different than developing key judgments for an estimate regarding a current intelligence problem, but it seems too few times are those differences recognized or addressed.

This failure is not for lack of resources. The futures studies field has been producing a body of literature that frankly already nearly exceeds that of the intelligence studies academia, from a much smaller base of much younger institutions. The basic text as always remains the Art of the Long View, but there are numerous others tackling applications ranging from business strategy, technology developments, and a number of key national intelligence questions. Demonstrated project efforts abound, most notably in the United Kingdom’s multiple horizon scanning efforts, the National Intelligence Council’s excellent recurring series, and other private sector efforts. And for as much as Proteus is cited for its conclusions regarding the potential intelligence environment of 2020, the process by which it was developed is equally ignored.

This issue ties into the greater concerns regarding the lack of strategic imagination and strategic thinking within the intelligence community. It is widely acknowledged that the overwhelming press of current intelligence demands continues to rob time and effort that might otherwise have been devoted to longer term concerns, and to the kinds of interactions that lead to creativity and insight in futures problems. But it is hard to worry about tomorrow when one is always fighting fires today. Even when scarce time and analytical resources are devoted to futures studies questions, they often focus on easy, media-centric shibboleths which are politicized from the start by their very nature.

Futures studies, forecasting, and other forms of predictive analysis deserve far more attention than they current receive. There is some hope on the horizon, as some of the best in the community are shifting posture to emphasize a far more forward looking, forward leaning approach in intelligence studies – integrating predictive and opportunity analysis at every level. Hopefully, these efforts and their follow-on imitators bring new focus to futures intelligence.

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