The value of future studies

Strategic decisions look to create competitive advantage and the effect of those decisions will be felt for a long time. As we are well aware, it is today’s decisions that shape the future security responses. Strategic decision making requires an understanding and then acceptance of the residual risk. Risk however is contextual and can only be understood within a framed problem. Thus the problem rests within, and can only be contextualised by, the future. Unfortunately the future is unknown, so how can we contextualise the unknowable to inform today’s strategic decisions? The prevalent view of an unknowable future is contestable and it is the ability to be comfortable with uncertainty that actually enables true strategic thinking.

today’s decisions shape future security responses

Make no mistake – the decisions made today dictate the capabilities available tomorrow

Consider this. Strategic decisions look to improve a state’s, or an organisation’s, capacity. To create a competitive advantage. On the national stage this advantage often manifests itself in capability over-match, favourable trade conditions, decreased security threats or even improved international relationships with allies and close neighbours.

For obvious reasons, decisions are made in the current context. Decision makers are inherently biased, framed by current policy, knowledge and, probably most critically, the available resources. These factors are set against a short public attention span / media cycle / political turn-table creating an imperative for immediate results. And sometimes these impacts are immediate and obvious.

This is useful as we can immediately judge the value of that decision. More often, however, strategic decisions have long germination times and create a long-term impact. The Joint Strike Fighter, replacement submarines and armoured vehicles are classic military procurement decisions with long lead times and their impact will be felt for decades.

So how do we know if we made the right purchase? The long-term value of these decisions can only be contextualised by the future operating environment. But what does that look like? Not an easy question as the future is predictably unpredictable. In fact, one could argue that the future is becoming even more complex due to increasing connectedness of organisations, people, states, resources and environment. There are more agents, or players, in the game that have an increasing capability to generate high impact events. Anyone who claims to be able to predict the future in the face of this complexity is, quite frankly, a charlatan.

So if the future is so complex and unpredictable how can we understand it and thus be able to measure the value of today’s decision?

There are two perceptions of the future. There is the future we are given and the future we shape.

For many people, the future is a product of forces and changes that will happen no matter what you do. For them successful navigation comes from understanding the drivers of change and the external nature of risk. In other words, control has been externalised. Strategic risk results from external events. This naturally leads to increased surveillance and analysis of drivers of change.

For some people the future is something that can be shaped. They have a vision of a desired future and their actions are aimed at achieving this future regardless of external events. Again an understanding of the drivers of change is required, however the focus is on what they can change. This approach naturally leads to the development of a shared vision and focused activities.

The second perception does not discount the first. Rather it is the mindset that is the critical difference. The proactive seeking of a desired vision over the reactive restoration of current normality.

Where then are the futurists? Look around you, here, at work, in public life and you will see that there are few people who are able to inspire and coordinate a shared vision.

The lack of appreciation for future studies can be attributed to the poorly understood paradigms resulting from very little exposure. Yet future studies is often cited as being an essential ingredient to national security. The National Security College of ANU recently released a working paper on this exact topic. The Australian Defence Force 2015 Joint Warfare Conference’s central theme was about understanding the future and many of the presenters lamented the lack of understanding and education in future studies.

First, to be clear. There is no expectation that everyone should become a futurist. In fact most people should focus on the here and now. Certainly within the military, the current operations cells receive the most kudos and exposure. They work very hard and are exceptionally good. The reality is that we operate in the now and dream in the future. It makes sense that our people should concentrate on the here and now.

However, there is an expectation that you contextualise your decisions in the probable future. Preferably you have a vision of the desired future. That way we can rationalise today’s decision, knowing the future risks that we are accepting. Krepinevich wrote that today’s decisions are always in the context of the last war. Today’s decision determines tomorrow’s options.

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