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From the corporate world to governments, we seek to escape uncertainty and surprises. This is crucial to survive and thrive. It is also necessary for the protection from threats, dangers and risks.
As a whole and generally, our abilities – if not willingness – to identify threats has improved with experience and practice. Notably, we became relatively efficient in assessing likelihood and impact. Nonetheless, one component of threat and risk assessment remains most often unconsidered, unnoticed, and neglected: time.
Yet, time is a crucial component of our ability to prevent surprise, handle threats and manage risks. This article assesses how we integrate time and highlights room for improvements.
Time, the crucial orphan dimension
Do we imagine time?
In the collective imaginary, space or the search for specific individuals such as terrorists or criminals attracts much more attention than time. How many films depict war, crises rooms, and situation centres with maps showing plenty of lines and blinking lights? Meanwhile, one portrays the hunt for terrorists through transparent LCD tables, where agents or analysts can access terabytes of information. Sometimes they can even use holographic displays.
Time is the orphan dimension, except most famously for Star Trek fans. In the production of the TV series, Star Trek Enterprise (2001-2005), time is at the heart of the scenario. There, temporal agents fight a temporal Cold War. Star Trek scenarists and designers imagined a temporal observatory, 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”.
Interestingly, and after a long silence, the latest Star Trek Series (2017), Discovery, includes again the theme of time and time travel.
Why Start Trek matters
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 do. They are not afraid to use their imagination (The Science of Star Trek, 05.05.09). Now, what if Star Trek were, once more, scientifically visionary? This has been the case many times throughout the long history of the TV programme started in 1966. For example, Star Trek even foresaw the now famous tablets (Paul Hsieh, “8 Star Trek Technologies Moving From Science Fiction To Science Fact”, Forbes, 24 June 2014).
What if we could also apply the foresight ability of Start Trek to the way we foresee risks? Indeed hard science and technology increasingly need to go hand in hand. Actually, we could perceive the use of time travel in the latest 2017 Start Trek series as a weak signal for a renewed interest in time.
Time in risk assessment and strategic foresight and warning
Which time components do we need in risk assessment and strategic foresight and warning?
We should consider timing (when something, or a particular scenario happens), timeline (succession of events) and duration (how long will a phenomenon last). These are crucial elements when one wants to protect oneself from risks and threats. Indeed, 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, time is increasingly important nowadays. As we deal with new, so far unknown technologies and science such as artificial intelligence (AI) and Quantum Information Science (QIS), we need to know when this or that technology will be operational. When shall we have universal quantum computers? How long until AI replaces human beings in this or that task? Furthermore, since Ukraine and the incorporation of Crimea in Russia, the world has been rediscovering as major threat “the flare up of interstate conflicts” (WEF, Global Risk Report 2015), besides civil wars. The rise of tension between China and the U.S., the end of the hegemony of globalisation and liberalism only adds to the need to consider time.
Indeed, one of the most critical elements in any strategic situation is how actors handle time. How fast is the strategic situation evolving? At what point in time is the strategic environment most receptive or “ripe” for intervention? Shall our actions be more timely than those of our adversary? These are critical questions for both the analyst and the strategist.
Temporality in risk, strategic foresight, warning and political science
As a result, it appears obvious and common sense that considering the onset of events and duration, or more generally “time”, is important. Yet, methodologies rarely integrate time, besides a general time framework. This is also the case for final products.
What we can find falls broadly into three categories.
A broad time horizon
First, we include a time horizon in our main question, answer and product: e.g U.S. Intelligence Global Trends 2035 or Paradox of Progress, or U.K. Ministry of Defense Global Strategic Trends – Out to 2045, and the latest edition Out to 2050 (Oct 2018): Global Strategic Trends: The future starts today (sixth edition).
However, within this broad framework, most often the way temporal estimates are made is not very well-defined, to say the least.
Categorisation according to proximity of onset
Then, one sorts out risks or threats according to proximity of onset. If we take the U.K. example, we have four processes and products. First, we have short-term horizon scannings produced across government and focusing on risks that might happen within the next 6 months. Second, classified (not public) National Risk Assessment (NRA) focus on risks that might happen within five years (House of Commons). Third, one uses the National Security Risk Assessment (NSRA) for risks between 5 and 20 years. Finally the Climate Change Risk Assessment looks forward to the next 80 years (UK Cabinet Office, “UK approach assessing risk and responding to events“;House of Commons; Fact Sheet NSRA; CCRA).
One does not know exactly how the temporality is estimated. It is most probably left to “expert judgement”.
Warning and timeline indicators
Finally, and this concerns more warning, we find the idea of timeline-indicators. Here, we order indicators in a dynamic way, along sequences. As a result one can follow a progression, as events occur. We monitor the reality according to these indicators, collecting 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, scenarios added to timeline-indicators create somehow temporal “lines”, which are very similar to what Start Trek Entreprise graphically shows.
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?
And social science?
Risk and SF&W analysts fundamentally rely on political science and international relations for their assessments. Could we thus hope to see some improvement in the way we handle time stemming from these fields. Very unfortunately, the answer is not very positive. We find 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 – political scientists consider timing to check that the explanatory framework given for a political event is correct. Even more rarely, they integrate key historical sequencing as explanatory variable, as masterly done by Ertman in The Birth of Leviathan (Cambridge University Press, 1997). Nonetheless, as a whole. 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)
Impact on decision-makers
Thus, as practitioners, we leave policy-makers and decision-makers – at best partly – in the dark as to when this event or that scenario could take place (timing) and how long they may last (duration). Meanwhile, the strategist has little to work with to fully incorporate time at best.
If we add warning practices to strategic foresight, as we promote here with Strategic Foresight and Warning, then the situation improves. Decision-makers will then have access to the fact that this or that event will be followed or preceded by others (timeline). Yet, outside military and sometimes intelligence circles, analysts and practitioners very rarely add warning to strategic foresight or to risk management. Meanwhile, in general, temporally and historically based social science is very often ignored.
As a result, the lack of consideration given to temporality diminishes the practical use of risk management and anticipation for the design, choice and planning of policy and strategy.
And the future?
Where shall we go for here?
We should build upon what we know and have. We should notably consider the incredible new possibilities offered by artificial intelligence and quantum information science. These are likely to lead to new breakthrough in our handling of time. But when?
Featured image: Quantum Gravity Photon Race – In this illustration, one photon (purple) carries a million times the energy of another (yellow). Some theorists predict travel delays for higher-energy photons, which interact more strongly with the proposed frothy nature of space-time. Yet Fermi data on two photons from a gamma-ray burst fail to show this effect, eliminating some approaches to a new theory of gravity. The animation link below shows the delay scientists had expected to observe. Credit: NASA/Sonoma State University/Aurore Simonnet