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This is the 9 April 2020 issue of our weekly scan for political and geopolitical risks (open access). Again, a very large part is devoted to the COVID-19. Read the scan below, after the editorial, quite long this week.

Editorial

First, this week’s scan features the excellent article “Stretching the International Order to Its Breaking Point” by Thomas Wright, Senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in The Atlantic. The highlight for the article reads:

“The greatest error that geopolitical analysts can make may be believing that the crisis will be over in three to four months.”

It is not only geopolitical analysts that are making this error, but, apparently, an increasingly large majority of people, whatever their position and role in the system.

As we progress here, at The Red (Team) Analysis Society, with the building of scenarios for the COVID-19, the idea of a crisis with a rapid end looks more and more improbable, not to say impossible. The COVID-19 is a pandemic, caused by a highly contagious, dangerous virus about which we know extremely little. It is highly improbable it disappears as if by magic, because it is inconvenient to human beings.

The sketch Wright paints for the future is highly interesting and is definitely a must read.

The second point I would like to make for this scan, considering the signals collected, is the incredible sheer mass of texts, articles, posts, etc. produced on the COVID-19. It is not only the COVID-19 cases that grow exponentially, but also publications about it. Thus, we are also faced with the dangers of a huge information overload. It is impossible to keep track of all the articles. It is impossible to even skim through them to sort out quality articles from rubbish, serious articles from fake news, scientific analysis from mere opinion. We certainly cannot rely on Google or search engines, as their algorithms rarely privileges quality and relevance. Google, for example, in its ranking, puts a high premium on page-speed and commercial stuff. But are these truly important criteria to find truly crucial articles on key uncertainties regarding the COVID-19?

The COVID-19 information overload will accelerate the need for closure, which is already enhanced by the stress and the crisis. The need for closure is the imperious need to get answers, any answer, immediately. It rises notably with time-pressure, critical when going through duress and crisis, and with environmental noise, which includes information overload (for more on the need for closure, cognitive biases in general and strategies to mitigate them, see our online course 1 – Geopolitical Risks and Crisis Anticipation: Analytical Model – module 2). Of course, when faced with a pandemic, jumping to decisions and responses is not a very good idea. On the contrary, one needs to think peacefully and to use evidenced-based analysis, and to wait, when necessary, until proper analysis and science-based findings become available. Thus one needs to have a low need for closure.

Now, the very means we have to obtain analysis and scientific articles, the web, because of the massive amount of texts on the COVID-19, creates an information and cognitive overload that, in turn, generates need for closure thus stops the capacity to think. Thus, to be able to know, we impair our ability to think.

Disaster looms.

Actors will probably fall back on classical means to obtain information: the system as it exists (which includes also the pre-COVID-19 Google, Bing and others algorithms). But, this directs us to ask a very inconvenient question.What led us all to first an outbreak of a completely unknown disease, then to an epidemic then to a pandemic, with all the unpreparedness that is everywhere increasingly documented is this very system. Hence, is that system the best to select the relevant and reliable information we need to face and overcome the pandemic?

If not the system then what? Could part of the system be salvaged and should other parts be abandoned? Here our topic is selection of quality and relevant analysis, but should these questions be also extended to the whole system?


The Scan

Using horizon scanning, each week, we collect weak – and less weak – signals. These point to new, emerging, escalating or stabilising problems. As a result, they indicate how trends or dynamics evolve.

The 9 April 2020 scan→

Horizon scanning, weak signals and biases

We call signals weak, because it is still difficult to discern them among a vast array of events. However, our biases often alter our capacity to measure the strength of the signal. As a result, the perception of strength will vary according to the awareness of the actor. At worst, biases may be so strong that they completely block the very identification of the signal.

In the field of strategic foresight and warning, risk management and future studies, it is the job of good analysts to scan the horizon. As a result, they can perceive signals. Analysts then evaluate the strength of these signals according to specific risks and dynamics. Finally, they deliver their findings to users. These users can be other analysts, officers or decision-makers.

You can read a more detailed explanation in one of our cornerstone articles: Horizon Scanning and Monitoring for Warning: Definition and Practice.

The sections of the scan

Each section of the scan focuses on signals related to a specific theme:

  • world (international politics and geopolitics);
  • economy;
  • science including AI, QIS, technology and weapons, ;
  • analysis, strategy and futures;
  • the Covid-19 pandemic;
  • energy and environment.

However, in a complex world, categories are merely a convenient way to present information, when facts and events interact across boundaries.

The information collected (crowdsourced) does not mean endorsement.

Featured image: Milky Way above SPECULOOS / The Search for habitable Planets – EClipsing ULtra-cOOl Stars (SPECULOOS) is searching for Earth-like planets around tiny, dim stars in front of a panorama of the Milky Way. Credit: ESO/P. Horálek.

About the author: Dr Helene Lavoix (MSc PhD Lond)

Dr Helene Lavoix, PhD Lond (International Relations), is the Director of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. She is specialised in strategic foresight and warning for national and international security issues. Her current focus is on Artificial Intelligence, Quantum Science, and Security. She teaches at Master level at SciencesPo-PSIA.

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