A Map with No Edges
Anticipating and Shaping the Future Operating Environments
By Richard Kaipo Lum
Today, we in the United States are confronted with a bewildering array of changes, occurring on multiple levels and unfolding at different rates. The world order is clearly undergoing a set of transitions and with rising geotechnological competition and unraveling global integration, it is even more challenging to make confident statements about the future. In fact, there is no single future “out there.” We are always confronted by a range of possibilities for how the world could change and today, given the breadth and depth of changes underway, effectively dealing with those possibilities requires us to address the future in new ways.
Given the reality that confronts us, we need to take a more expansive approach to thinking about the future. We need to think about it in more rigorous ways and we need to approach “the future” from a different point of view – one that is oriented towards shaping the emerging landscape rather than making bets on competing prophetic statements about what shape it will take. And lest anyone start to object to this activist approach to the future, let’s be clear that it works. Years ago, our geopolitical competitors were deeply unsatisfied with their assessments of what was, at the time, the future operating environment of the 21st Century. They set about to alter things, and we are all presently living through the success of their efforts.
As a former hyperpower (for however brief a time) and as a global actor that has experienced an uncomfortably abrupt loss of relative power, influence, and stature on the world stage, we need to deeply embrace the understanding that we actually need to think like a competitor, and not like an incumbent on the defensive. The time for that reactionary, legacy mentality is over.
It’s past time we got back in the game. Foresight and futures thinking can play a critical role in getting us back, if we adopt the right approach.
Reflecting Back on Past Futures
One key aspect of taking a more expansive approach to thinking about the future is the need to explore it through multiple lenses. No single lens gives us all the insights we need, and we have to explore enough of the space of future possibilities for any given issue to give us confidence to make strategic decisions. In this way we are trying to be rigorous in our exploration of future possibilities. An example of the need to take a rigorous approach to thinking about the future is the modern smartphone and the difficulty that would have been involved in forecasting the sheer breadth and depth of the impact the smartphone has had on the world.
The ubiquitous little slab of plastic and glass that we all carry around today is used for a very wide variety of activities: to access health care; to prosecute combat operations; to manage companies; and to create a wide variety of original digital content. The smart phone powers a wide variety of business models and industries and has become a critical enabler of many of the systems we have come to rely on in the daily life. For most of us, it would be difficult to see how we could conduct most of the things we do each day without our ever-present devices.
There is no straight-line extrapolation from the pagers we were all rocking in the 1990s to our present reality. Somewhere in that story is Steve Jobs and iTunes and the app economy and the iPhone. There’s access to GPS, the boom of Silicon Valley, and China becoming the world’s manufacturing engine. This history is a story about the internet, about “Web 2.0” and the emergence of social media. It is a story of smartphones massively accelerating the evolution of social media, which in turn leads us to “surveillance capitalism”, the inversion of the consumer as the product rather than the customer, and the rise of new business models and industries that make all of this intensely profitable and increasingly difficult for users to escape.
This would have been the challenge just for anticipating the future of smart phones. How much more challenging are vastly more complex and sprawling questions like, what is the future of the geopolitical order or the future of human conflict? Extrapolating some trend lines, interviewing a bunch of senior leaders, and generating a 2x2 matrix of four scenarios is woefully inadequate for coming anywhere close to sufficiently exploring the space of possible futures. To be confident that we are adequately exploring the complex issues that we are deeply concerned with, such as the future of conflict, we have to take an expansive approach, probing the topic from a multitude of perspectives and employing a variety of tools.
Thinking Ahead on Emerging Futures
In thinking about the future, we are not simply trying to better guess what might happen tomorrow; we are also trying to generate new ideas about tomorrow. Put another way, we are using the foresight process to detect the obvious emerging opportunities as well as kickstart creativity and innovation to define new opportunities.
A futures question that is high on many of our minds today is, what will the future operating environment (FOE) look like? In order to think about the FOE, we of course have to think about the future of conflict. What might it look like? Who might be involved? What new ideas might we generate about what is possible? And critically: what then would we prefer for the future? And as we have seen, to adequately explore something as broad and complex as the future of conflict, we need to explore it through multiple lenses. For our present purposes, we will take two different approaches.
Starting with trends, we can look at broad trends like urbanization, littoralization, the digitization of society, and dense connectivity across the world. What have these trends presented us with to date? We see a world in which there are increasing numbers of actors empowered to seek change in the order of things. We see the built environment – very much our expanding digital infrastructure and networks – becoming a defining landscape in human competition and conflict. We see the diffusion of powerful capabilities across states, companies, and communities. And we find that populations are once again in play, becoming the common targets, subjects, and the medium of competition and conflict between actors.
What are implications from all of this? One is that, unlike previous periods in history, today just about everyone is a potential innovator. Thanks to connectivity, access to information, and access to increasingly capable power resources, just about anyone could be pulled into a conflict through some set of relationships and could produce some innovation for participants in that conflict. Whether a concept, design, or process innovation, millions upon millions of individuals today could find themselves wittingly or unwittingly producing tactical, operational, or strategic breakthroughs for conflict actors.
What is the opportunity for us here? Seeing as we are in a global competition, we could look at the world map and nurture new forms and clusters of innovation. We are not talking about Silicon Valley-type innovation to support the VC and consumer electronics industries; we’re talking about innovation in things like basic economics, in societal resilience, and in political technology. This could be an opportunity to support partner countries in growing more resilient to our adversaries’ strategies and aims. In this global competition, greater diversity and resilience around the world likely helps the liberal and democratic nations of the world far more than those harboring totalitarian aspirations.
Another approach to thinking about change and the future is looking at things through the lens of transitions. As often happens in life, at some point the old structures, the previous arrangements and assumptions of an industry or social order become outdated as the world around them changes. A period of transition ensues as elements of the old order fall away or are abandoned and the possibilities for a new order rise and compete with one another.
When we look at the transitions currently under way in the world order – a primary backdrop for our future operating environments – we see a number of post-Cold War assumptions fading away and an increasingly crowded and energetic competition to accelerate the end of the old order. No longer do we have unquestioned faith in things like the existence of universal values or that US-flagged companies are inherently patriotic. At the same time, emerging realities like a balkanized internet and rising possibilities like a new technological revolution make simple, straight line projections of what relative power or capabilities will look like in twenty years problematic.
What is the opportunity in all this turbulence between the end of an American-led Post-Cold War order and whatever comes next? Considering the gaps left by unraveling institutions, emerging contexts, and new actors, perhaps we have an opportunity to define new norms for a new age. If the old structures and relationships are coming loose, we have an opportunity to knit together new communities, alliances, and institutions. We can design an architecture that is purpose built for this emerging environment.
The Ramifications of Future Operating Environments
The world is changing – and changing fast. A lot of other actors are pursuing change on the world stage, and our recent history has proven that they can succeed in pushing the world towards their preferences. If we truly want to maintain our advantage through what comes next, then we need to start thinking about the future in this more expansive way. We want to be nuanced and critical in thinking about things like the future of conflict, and we want to continually explore it from new angles. We also want to move from thinking of “the future” as a single, inevitable outcome, from making statements that articulate a single view of tomorrow, to truly thinking about it as a constantly evolving range of possibilities.
One consequence of this is that we need to work on our own preferences for the future. Given all the changes that have already occurred, considering all the things currently in flux, and accounting for all the emerging possibilities we can already discern, what do we want the future operating environment to look like? What is our vision for the future? And since we are not the only actors playing this game, and because we can never fully control things on the game board, we need a range of visions that we find acceptable. Put another way, we need to define a range of future outcomes that constitute “wins” for us.
Flowing from that, once we start talking about preferences for the future, we have stepped over into the domain of pursuing change. This is a shift to a shaping orientation, to taking back the initiative. In our strategy and policy portfolios, we want to rebalance to put more weight on the shaping side of the house and less on the hedging side. For some time now, we have been the incumbent, the market maker. During that time, everyone else was a competitor, and they thought like that. It’s long past time we stop thinking like an incumbent and started thinking like a competitor. And to do that effectively, we have to be hungry; we have to want change.
Which brings us right back to vision. We need brand new preferences for future world order, for future operating environments. Outcomes we really want to see. We need to start coming up with preferences for the future of conflict that will well and truly put our adversaries on their back foot again, slamming that ball right back in their court. And all of this ultimately gets translated into new forms of FOE documents, new guidance, and new frameworks for strategy.
As uncomfortable as it is for us right now, the world is going through an extended period of very significant change. As the incumbent, as the former hyperpower, one of our reflexes is to resist the changes occurring and to see most of what is going on simply as threat. That makes us defensive and reactive. By taking a more expansive approach to thinking about the future, we can do a better job of anticipating more of the genuine threats, and we can better see the broadening array of possibilities we have – and can create for ourselves – to shape the emerging landscape.