To exist, foresight products as well as warnings must be delivered to those who must act upon them, the customers, clients or users. Furthermore, they must be provided in a timely fashion. This criterion of timeliness is extremely important. It means that customers or users will have enough time to decide and then implement any necessary course of action as warranted by foresight.
Timeliness: enabling the coordination of response
Most often, the challenge of timeliness is thus understood as stemming from the need to conciliate on the one hand the dynamics which are specific to the issue, object of anticipation, and on the other the related decision and coordination of the response.
Let us take the example of Peak Oil, i.e. the date when “world oil production will reach a maximum – a peak – after which production will decline” (Hirsch, 2005, 11) which implies the end of a widespread availability of cheap (conventional crude) oil. The phenomenon is now well documented and relatively widely recognized, from scientists’ reports, associations, institutions and books (see, for example, the creation of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas in 2000 , Robert Hirsch report (2005), the Institut Français du Pétrole (IFP), Thomas Homer Dixon, Michael Klare or Jeff Rubin), to web resources such as The Oil Drum or Energy Bulletin to finally the International Energy Agency (IEA – it recognised the peaking of Peak Oil in 2010, e.g. Staniford, 2010), despite still some resistance by a shrinking number of actors.
Notwithstanding other impacts, Hirsch estimates that 20 years of a “mitigation crash program before peaking” would have allowed avoiding “a world liquid fuels shortfall” (Hirsch, 2005). Assuming that oil peaked in 2006, as evaluated by the IEA, if we had wanted to have an energy mix of replacement for the now gone cheap oil, then we should have decided implementing and then coordinating a response… back in 1986. Thus SF&W on this issue should have been delivered some time before 1986.
Obviously, this did not happen, even if one starts finding rare articles regarding Peak Oil earlier (e.g. the 1974 miscalculated warning for a global Peak Oil happening in 1995 by M. King Hubbert (Wikipedia ‘Predicting the timing of Peak Oil’) and much later Colin J. Campbell and Jean H. Laherrere, “The end of cheap oil,” Scientific American, March 1998). Why?
Timeliness, credibility and biases
Jack Davis, writing on strategic warning in the case of US national security, hints at the importance of another criterion linked to timeliness, credibility:
“Analysts must issue a strategic warning far enough in advance of the feared event for US officials to have an opportunity to take protective action, yet with the credibility to motivate them to do so. No mean feat. Waiting for evidence the enemy is at the gate usually fails the timeliness test; prediction of potential crises without hard evidence can fail the credibility test. When analysts are too cautious in estimative judgments on threats, they brook blame for failure to warn. When too aggressive in issuing warnings, they brook criticism for “crying wolf.”
For Davis, credibility is the provision of “hard evidence” to back up foresight. Of course, as we deal with the future, hard evidence will consist in understanding of processes and their dynamics (the model used, preferably an explicit model) added to facts indicating that events are more or less likely to unfold according to this understanding.
Credibility is, however, also something more than hard evidence. To obtain credibility, people must believe you. Hence, biases of the customers, clients or users must be overcome. Thus, whatever the validity of the hard evidence in the eyes of the analyst, it must also be seen as such by others. The various biases that can be an obstacle to this credibility have started being largely documented (e.g. Heuer). Actually, explaining the model used and providing indications, or describing plausible scenarios are ways to overcome some of the biases, notably out-dated cognitive models. Yet, relying only on this scientific logic is insufficient, as shown by Craig Anderson, Mark Lepper, and Lee Ross in their paper “Perseverance of Social Theories: The Role of Explanation in the Persistence of Discredited Information.” Thus, other ways to minimize biases must be imagined and included, that will most probably involve time. The possibility to deliver the SF&W product will be accordingly delayed.
Credibility and more broadly overcoming biases are so important that I would go further than Davis and incorporate them within the very idea of timeliness. This would be much closer to the definition of timely, according to which something is “done or occurring at a favourable or useful time; opportune” (Google dictionary result for timely). Indeed there cannot be timely SF&W if those who must act cannot hear it.
If the SF&W product is delivered at the wrong time, then it will be neither heard nor considered, decisions will not be taken nor actions implemented.
More difficult, biases also affect the very capability of analysts to think the world and thus to even start analysing issues. We are there faced with cases of partial or full collective blindness, when timeliness cannot be achieved because SF&W analysis cannot even start in the specific sectors of society where this analysis is meant to be done.
This is most probably what happened for our example of Peak Oil. If a model existed, created by M. King Hubbert, the initial miscalculation led to some loss of credibility as those denying peak oil underlined and still emphasize, even though King Hubbert model was not wrong. Analysts in SF&W in the early 1980s were more preoccupied with the Cold War than concerned by anything else. Afterwards, the system that had won against the Communist world could not even be thought not being perfect. Such highly disturbing threats that could question the prevalent worldview could not be envisioned. Had they been, they would most probably have been discarded first by policy makers then by political leaders. Furthermore, a host of actors had interest in a permanence of the ideological setting, which would have made the possibility to see a very early foresight work on peak oil develop very remote indeed (I am emphasizing here unconscious reactions and “deafness,” not hidden maneuvers).
Timeliness as the intersection of three dynamics
Thus, to summarize timeliness is best seen as the intersection of three dynamics:
- The dynamics and time of the issue or problem at hand, knowing that, especially when they are about nature, those dynamics will tend to prevail (Elias, 1992)
- The dynamics of the coordination of the response (including decision)
- The dynamics of cognition (or evolution of beliefs and awareness) – at collective and individual level – of the actors involved.
To understand each dynamic is, in itself, a challenge. Even more difficult, each dynamic acts upon the others, making it impossible to truly hope to achieve timeliness if the impact of one dynamic on the others is ignored.
For example, if we continue with our initial case of Peak Oil, having been unable to even think the possibility of Peak oil in the early 1980s has dramatically changed the current possible dynamics of the response, while both the cognitive delay and the absence of previous decisions and actions have orientated the dynamics of the issue towards some paths, while others are definitely closed. Any SF&W delivered on this issue now is quite different from what would have been delivered 20 years ago, assuming it could have been heard.
To acknowledge the difficulty of finding the timely moment, and the impossibility to ever practice an ideal SF&W in an imagined world where everyone – at individual and collective level – would have perfect cognition is not to negate SF&W. Answering this challenge with a “what is the point to do it now as we did not do it when things were easy/easier” is childish. On the contrary, fully acknowledging hurdles is to have a more mature attitude regarding who we are as human beings, accepting our shortcomings but also trusting in our creativity and capacity to work to overcome the most difficult challenges. It is to open the door to the possibility to develop strategies and related tools to improve the timeliness of SF&W, thus making it more actionable and efficient:
- Creating evolving products that will be adapted to the moment of delivery;
- Using the appearance of groups, communities, even single scholarly or other work on new dangers, threats and opportunities as potential weak signals that are still unthinkable by the majority;
- Developing and furthering our understanding of the dynamics of cognition and finding ways to act on them or, to the least, to accompany them;
- Participating fully in the current effort, which has just started within societies, at re-designing decision systems and response capabilities.
1st edition of this article: 14 Sept 2011 – This is the 2d edition. [lastupdated]
Anderson, Craig A., Mark R. Lepper, and Lee Ross, “Perseverance of Social Theories: The Role of Explanation in the Persistence of Discredited Information,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1980, Vol. 39, No.6, 1037-1049.
Campbell, Colin J. and Jean H. Laherrere, “The end of cheap oil,” Scientific American, March 1998.
Davis, Jack, “Improving CIA Analytic Performance: Strategic Warning,” The Sherman Kent Center for Intelligence Analysis Occasional Papers: Volume 1, Number 1, accessed September 12, 2011.
Dixon, Thomas Homer, The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of civilization, (Knopf, 2006).
Elias, Norbert, Time: An Essay, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992)
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