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Beyond Reading Tea Leaves – Foresight as an instrument of modern crisis prevention

Dr. Reez, you are the foresight officer at the German Federal Academy for Security Policy. What in your view are the characteristic features of strategic foresight?
As the name suggests, strategic foresight is about vision, watchfulness, and thinking ahead. “Caution” is a word that also belongs to this semantic field. The best way to illustrate the characteristic features of strategic foresight – and hence its benefits – is with a story. I am sure you know the famous scene in the movie TITANIC, when the camera pans from the sailors’ lookout – the “crow’s nest” as it is called – across the starry Arctic night sky, to show us giant icebergs looming behind wisps of fog. The story of the Titanic – the biggest shipping disaster in recent history – has many lessons to teach us about foresight. Firstly, you can only see about one-seventh of the iceberg – the rest is not visible since it is below the water line. The question is: How big is the iceberg? In a figurative sense, this is exactly the question at the core of foresight processes: What is in store for us? What does the uncertain future look like, that we can see only in outline (so-called “weak signals”)? What should we prepare ourselves for?

And what other lessons can the Titanic case teach us?
The second reason why the tragedy of the Titanic is instructive is because it has been shown that fatal false assumptions caused the disaster. The ship’s engineers were completely convinced that the luxury liner was “unsinkable.” That is why not enough lifeboats were provided for the number of passengers on board, for example. From the designers’ and engineers’ point of view, based on their calculations, it was totally inconceivable that the ship could sink. In the context of strategic foresight, this phenomenon is called cognitive dissonance or distorted perception. Foresight processes allow the systematic identification of groupthink – which was the case here – as well as wrong assumptions, perceptual filters and thought-traps.

What does that mean for security policy in the 21st century? To what extent can strategic foresight help us prepare better for crises and disasters?
Today, of course, it is no longer sufficient to “drive by sight.” As a result of political and social challenges that never existed before, such as the pervasive digitalization of our lives (ubiquitous computing), early warning and foresight require other methods. It is definitely not enough anymore to send a sailor up to the lookout with a set of binoculars – so to speak – to keep watch for icebergs. To put it in clear terms, we need practical quantitative and qualitative methods and techniques of strategic foresight. A new kind of “crow’s nest” for states is needed. Interestingly, back in the 1980s, the renowned systems researcher Niklas Luhmann once referred to himself as an “observer in the crow’s nest”. This is very accurate and highly topical: today we need a systematically developed early warning system, a “new type of crow’s nest”, that facilitates and sustainably supports anticipatory governance. This is because today we have to deal with different, complex problems (known as “wicked problems”). To stay with the iceberg metaphor: the iceberg is constantly turning – so quickly that we cannot measure its proportions at any given time.

Could you explain that in more detail? What exactly is the difficulty for crisis prevention today?
Social scientists and crisis researchers use the term “dynaxity” (dynamic complexity) and talk about a VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous). This underlines the point that crisis preparedness and crisis prevention are no longer only a matter of classical cause-effect relationships. What we see instead are surprising and unforeseen domino and cascade effects as a result of state interventions, for example in measures to prevent global warming, international migration or urbanization. In other words, to cope with new pressures, states have to develop their “sensors” and tools. I believe that foresight capacity building is now an imperative for state institutions, because strategic foresight offers precisely such a toolkit. It goes beyond and complements classical planning, taking potential problem situations and possible solutions into account at an early stage. Eckard Minx rightly talks about “Denken auf Vorrat” (i.e. thinking ahead and making provisions for a wide range of possible future scenarios). In the world of strategic foresight thinking, surprising events and disruptive trends are called “wild cards” or “black swans.” Conceivable scenarios of this kind should serve as a stimulus and a challenge: we should systematically analyze these possibilities and their social consequences in advance, so that timely provisions can be made. With regard to responsible security precautions by the state, developing an integrated strategic foresight system is now a condicio sine qua non.

There is nothing wrong with thinking ahead and making provisions. But how would you respond to those who say that strategic foresight is much like reading tea leaves, and has little practical relevance?
Foresight processes are structured communication processes, whether they are future workshops, scenario analyses, Delphi meetings, SWOT analyses or roadmaps. Ultimately the question is always: What specifically should be done, what action should be taken? In this respect, foresight has little in common with reading tea leaves, fortune telling or having your head in the clouds. Unfortunately this prejudice is very hard to eliminate. So too, by the way, is the much quoted and popular bon mot: “People who have visions should go see a doctor.” Visioning is actually a widely acknowledged, serious method of normative futures research. The goal is to develop positive visions of the future that can provide orientation and guide action for problem-solving and the realignment of organizations. Without such visionary ideas (in the best sense), day-to-day operations in organizations and institutions degenerate into piecemeal dealing and muddling through.

So, in your view, what specifically should be done?
I think an action program divided into five main task areas would be useful and possible: capacity building at the level of the German federal government, transfer of practical expertise to current leaders, creating additional higher education study opportunities, expanding network activities and educational work, and quality assurance in practice. In this context, it would be important to cultivate practical foresight work while maintaining standards and quality criteria, and prevent one-sided methodological development toward quantitative methods – which are referred to as “AI oracles.”

A foresight-based national early recognition and early warning system, such as you describe, will not be set up overnight...
Strategic foresight does indeed require a certain strategic culture. But skepticism toward these tools should decrease as the willingness even to engage with such decision-preparation processes increases. This could happen quickly if there is a growing conviction that it makes sense in principle to establish a new crow’s nest function in the government departments – in other words, that it is the expression of political prudence in the 21st century to use the instruments of strategic foresight.

Dr. Reez, thank you very much for the interview!

Author

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Norbert Reez is domestic policy advisor and foresight officer at the German Federal Academy for Security Policy (Bundesakademie für Sicherheitspolitik, BAKS) in Berlin. Previously he worked in law enforcement with the German Federal Police and as department head at the German Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance (Bundesamt für Bevölkerungsschutz und Katastrophenhilfe, BBK) in Bonn. At the same time, he was project manager in the LÜKEX national crisis management exercise series. Norbert Reez holds a doctorate in law and a degree in criminology. He studied in Saarbrücken, Mainz, Speyer, Frankfurt am Main, Hamburg and Dijon (France).

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