Enhancing Foresight with the Temporal Dimension

Find out the latest articles of the ongoing series here.

Below is a general explanation of the project itself.

How can we protect ourselves from risks is one of the key questions that so many actors, from citizens and the corporate world to governments are asking themselves and trying to answer. It is the main question with which the latest World Economic Forum (Davos) opens its video launching the 2015 Global Risk Report.

As a whole and generally, our abilities – if not willingness – to identify threats, and the assessment of their likelihood and impact improve. Nonetheless, one component of threat and risk assessment remains unconsidered, unnoticed, and neglected: time.

Time, the crucial orphan dimension

In the collective imaginary, space – as well as the search for specific individuals – attracts much more attention than time. How many films, of anticipation or not, depict war and crises rooms, or situation centers where maps are presented with plenty of lines and blinking lights, while the hunt for terrorists is portrayed through transparent LCD tables, where agents or analysts can access terabytes of information, sometimes even using holographic display?

Star Trek, temporal observatory, temporal cold war, timeline, strategic foresight and warning
Still from Star Trek Enterprise, “Cold Front” Episode 11, Season 1, 28 Nov 2001, Paramount Network Television – considered “fair use”.

Time is the orphan dimension, except most famously for Star Trek fans: in the latest production of the TV series, Star Trek Enterprise (2001-2005), time is at the heart of the scenario as temporal agents fight a temporal Cold War. There, a temporal observatory was imagined and created by Star Trek scenarists and designers as shown in “Cold Front” Episode 11, Season 1, 28 Nov 2001, Paramount Network Television. This extract from the episode (start at 2:04) displays how such a “temporal situation room” could look like in the future, with timelines flowing in “timestream”.

Why should we, in the “very serious business of national and international security” pay attention to this, as it is “only” science fiction and a TV show? Well, hard scientists and the NASA (The Science of Star Trek, 05.05.09) do, and are not afraid to use their imagination. Now, what if Star Trek were, once more, scientifically visionary, as has been the case so many times throughout the long history of the TV programme started in 1966. Even the now famous tablets were foreseen in Star Trek, as detailed among others by Paul Hsieh, “8 Star Trek Technologies Moving From Science Fiction To Science Fact” (Forbes, 24 June 2014). What if this could also be applied to the way we foresee risks, thus move out of hard science and technology to analysis?

Indeed, time components, i.e. timing (when something, or a particular scenario happens), timeline (succession of events) as well as duration (how long will a phenomenon last), are crucial elements when one wants to protect oneself from risks and threats. We shall not act similarly if a risk or a threat are possibly going to happen in one month, one year or a decade. The answers available to us will vary according to time components.

From a strategic point of view, increasingly important nowadays when the world is rediscovering “the flare up of interstate conflicts” (WEF, Global Risk Report 2015), besides civil wars as a major threat, one of the most critical elements in any strategic situation is the “clock”. How fast is the strategic situation moving, whose side (yours or the opponent’s) is time on, at what point in time is the strategic environment most receptive or “ripe” for intervention are critical questions for both the analyst and the strategist.*

Temporality in risk, strategic foresight, warning and political science

Even if the importance to consider the onset of events as well as duration or more generally “time” appears to be obvious and common sense, they are rarely integrated into existing methodologies, even less into final products, besides a general time framework.

What we can find falls broadly into three categories. First, we include a time horizon in our main question, answer and product: e.g U.S. Intelligence Global Trends 2035, or U.K. Ministry of Defense Global Strategic Trends – Out to 2045. However, within this broad framework, most often the way temporal estimates are made is not very well-defined to say the least.

Second, risks or threats are sorted out according to proximity of onset. If we take the U.K. example, we have four processes and products: short-term horizon scannings produced across government and focusing on risks that might happen within the next 6 months, the classified (not public) National Risk Assessment (NRA) focusing on risks that might happen within five years (House of Commons), the National Security Risk Assessment (NSRA) for risks between 5 and 20 years, and finally the Climate Change Risk Assessment that looks forward to the next 80 years (UK Cabinet Office, “UK approach assessing risk and responding to events“;House of Commons; Fact Sheet NSRACCRA). The how temporality is estimated is not detailed, and most probably left to “expert judgement”.

Finally, and this concerns more warning, we find the idea of timeline-indicators (indicators are ordered in a dynamic way, which allows for following the progression towards events as events occur and are monitored as indications – see also H Lavoix, “Horizon Scanning And Monitoring For Anticipation: Definition And Practice“, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, 22 June 2012). Meanwhile, scenarios also include this idea of dynamics. Interestingly these temporal “lines” that are more or less depicted by timeline indicators are also those graphically shown in Star Trek Enterprise film. In warning and in scenarios, temporality is seen according to previous and next events, which is absolutely crucial. Yet, is it enough? How long between two events, as singled out by indicators? Is this length of time varying or static, and in which cases?

This is also, very unfortunately, the case in political science and international relations, which are the two scientific fields upon which we rely – or should rely – for our assessments. Besides some interest in diffusion (for example the propagation of an idea or norm, e.g. Elie Kedourie, Nationalism, Oxford: Blackwell, 1960, 4th ed. 2000), sometimes – too rarely – considering timing to check that the explanatory framework given for a political event is correct, or even more rarely the integration of key historical sequencing as explanatory variable, as masterly done by Ertman in The Birth of Leviathan (Cambridge University Press, 1997), very few political scientists integrate any temporal dimension in their work. As underlined by Paul Pierson in Politics in Time: History, Institutions, and Social Analysis (Princeton University Press, 2004), there is a

“Very high price that social science often pays when it ignores the profound temporal dimension of real social processes… Attentiveness to issues of temporality highlights aspects of social life that are essentially invisible from an ahistorical vantage point. Placing politics in time can greatly enrich both the explanations we offer for social outcomes of interest and the very outcomes that we identify as worth explaining.” (Pierson, 2004: 2)

Thus, the general current situation is that policy-makers and decision-makers are – at best partly – left in the dark as to when this event or that scenario could take place (timing) and how long they may last (duration), while the strategist has little to work with to fWorld_line2 blueully incorporate at best “the clock”. If a temporally-based scientific perspective is fully integrated within strategic foresight and risk management, as should always be the case and as we strive to do here, then our understanding starts improving, even if the dearth of research in that area is in no way helpful. If warning practices are included, as we promote here with Strategic Foresight and Warning, then the situation further improves. Decision-makers will then have access to the fact that this or that event will be followed or preceded by others (timeline). But, outside military and sometimes intelligence circles, warning is very rarely added to strategic foresight and risk management, while, in general, temporally and historically based social science is so often ignored. As a result, the lack of consideration given to temporality diminishes the practical use of risk management and anticipation in general for the design, choice and planning of policy and strategy.

The Temporal Project

To start answering this needs, the Red (Team) Analysis Society launches a Temporal Project.

It will start with an experiment, as we shall explore ways to answer the question: “what will be the status of the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia within one year?” Shall we see war and rising tension, or, on the contrary peace, diminishing tension and even cooperation? The current, very fluid environment in the Middle East should present challenges that will increase the potential for findings. What could happen, with which likelihood and when?

As we progress in our case study and exploration, we shall post updates on the process, the tools we shall try, the hurdles we shall meet, as well as findings.


*this paragraph owes much to Ross Harrisson, author of Strategic Thinking in 3D: A Guide for National Security, Foreign policy and Business Professionals (Potomac Books- 2013).

Featured image: Resized and colorised by Helene Lavoix for the Red (Team) Analysis Society, from a public domain image by Geralt, Pixabay