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Speaking at the UK Horizon Scanning Centre’s FAN Club

October 14, 2009

Extracts from the Futures Analysts’ Network (FAN) Club Newsletter

Strategic Shocks (October 2009)

Strategic Shocks were the theme of the FAN Club’s October 14 meeting. 67 people found their way to the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, part of the Science and Technology Facilities Council and one of Europe’s premier science centres, to hear about them in a packed and highly varied programme of talks.

Brian Brader of the Foresight Horizon Scanning Centre began the day by discussing some recent British shocks that have disrupted the system in one way or another. His examples were flooding in 2008, the 2005 Buncefield fire and the subsequent disruption of aviation fuel supplies, and the 2009 parliamentary expenses scandal, a big disruption to the democratic system. But alongside these rapid shocks are slower ones, such as climate change, epidemics and terrorism. These are harder to spot. We tend to like information that confirms our view of the world rather than challenging it.

Mapping wild cards & weak signals (wi-we) and foresight

Rafael Popper discussed an EU project on wild cards and weak signals which forms part of the Framework 7 research programme and which is intended to help shape future science priorities. The aim is to produce a more interactive version of the Sigma Scan. Wild cards, he said, are one of the least understood areas of future studies. We need to know more about where to find them and how to classify them.

Asking about them at conferences, in surveys and by other methods has revealed the need for some consistent process. Asking an open question about them produces a large amount of unclassifiable material, but the policy makers need something usable and structured. Better structure also allows us to make sense of the wide variety of responses that come back if we ask different audiences – maybe the public, artists, scientists and civil servants – for their views. The project has built up a list of over 70 wild cards and over 80 weak signals which need to be classified.

How we do this and at what stage in a project is a question Rafael aims to answer. One approach is to divide wild cards into those that tell us that the future will be like the present, and others that suggest it will not. Gradual climate change effects, or a war in Europe, might be in the first group, and severe oil shortages, or a shift to renewables, in the second. The most difficult wild card to build into any idea of the future is one that has a totally new technology or paradigm.

Rafael urged us to avoid too many ideas about “good” and “bad” change. As he said, the extinction of the dinosaurs was bad for them but ideal for us. Terrorists might regard an attack as a success. More ambiguous are ideas like genetic engineering. We might want to wipe out genetic defects, but what about reengineering babies so they don’t commit crime? That idea certainly emerges in the science fiction literature.

iKNOW's Wild Cards & Weak Signals Framework

iKNOW's Wild Cards & Weak Signals Framework

From wild cards, Rafael moved on to weak signals, which he describes as “observable warnings that implore us to consider new interpretations of issues.” An example is the former US plan for an anti-missile system based in Poland and the Czech Republic. The US regarded it as an investment in threat reduction, but Russia, Iran and the UK all had their own views of its meaning. In the end these rival views led to its cancellation. Its cancellation is in turn a signal about the Obama administration’s policy intentions. Continuing on this theme, Rafael mentioned President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize – a wild card open to a massive number of interpretations.

On their hunt for wild cards and weak signals, Rafael and his colleagues have scanned over 3000 EU projects before moving on to magazines, journals, blogs and the Sigma Scan. Now they are having workshops with a wide range of experts working on major global issues to find out what breakthrough in their area would help most to solve their problem. The plan is to have a bulletin on the 50 top issues after the present analytical stage. There will also be an online tag cloud of key words and terms, the iKnow Oracle, which people can use like a Wiki version of the Sigma Scan to get at the issues.

See Rafael’s PDF presentation here and the iKNOW website here.

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