The ability to see into the future has long held our fascination of what life would be like if we only had the power to know what lies ahead. Technology is helping to make that possible – at least to some extent.
From weather forecasters to fund portfolio managers, forecasting what the future may hold is not new science. Like going from silent movies to current 3D film technology, progress is always bringing to the forefront new ways in which we see things. The ability to predict what a future environment might be can help people and organizations anticipate future missions and resources needed to support those missions and more importantly, what engagement strategies can be implemented now to best suit an organization’s strategic goals.
U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Ted St. Pierre is the Division Chief of AFRICOM J5-1, Counter Narcotics and Law Enforcement Assistance, and he reached out to WikiStrat to design and conduct a scenario-driven simulation that could ultimately help AFRICOM develop engagement strategies to combat illicit trafficking in the Trans-Sahel.
"Our office’s primary mission is to assist in building the law enforcement capacity of willing and capable African partner nations. It is imperative that we do not do this in a vacuum, but leverage the resources and expertise of U.S. and international law enforcement entities. This simulation provided unique insight that will assist us in developing effective multi-year security cooperation engagement strategies with African partners in the Trans-Sahel region," said St. Pierre.
AFRICOM staff had an opportunity to see what one of those possible futures might look like during a presentation January 15 on Kelley Barracks in Stuttgart. The presenter, Dr. Thomas Barnett, Chief Analyst for WikiStrat, Inc., and author of The Pentagon's New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-First Century, gave a back-brief of a simulation which was conducted in a virtual environment over a three-week period last November.
A key function of the U.S. military is devoted to developing engagement strategies to meet desired outcomes. AFRICOM utilizes military, civilian and contracted personnel who are experts in planning and designing scenarios used in military exercises. Scenario-based exercises that test the capabilities and capacity of an organization to execute its mission are key to any organization’s toolbox for mission accomplishment.
A new tool for that toolbox could be one offered by WikiStrat, which uses “crowd sourcing” to develop simulations that offer a look into what possible futures might be, based on specific criteria such as actors, environment, trends, demographics, economics, politics, militaries and other data. It’s really a new way to “war game” a scenario.
“The idea is that this technology leverages the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ just as averaging the guesses of the crowd at the county fair will come very close to the amount of jelly beans in a jar,” said Tim Haffner, Program Analyst for the Counter Narcotics and Law Enforcement Assistance branch within AFRICOM’s J5 Plans and Strategy directorate, and AFRICOM’s point of contact for the simulation project conducted by WikiStrat..
By “crowd-sourcing the simulation” WikiStrat receives a specific question or request from a client, then conducts what could be described as a “casting call” – by looking to their talent pool of nearly 1,000 members who participate as experts in a variety of subjects and disciplines.
The pool of potential scenario players, or “gamers” are from nearly 70 countries and represent a variety of analytical perspectives. Based on the specific client question or request, WikiStrat assesses who from their talent pool possess the right attributes, such as area of expertise, education, academic association, age, culture, profession and critical thinking skills. “It’s important to have diversity in our 'cast' to ensure we don’t end up with a result that reflects a single demographic; this provides a more realistic outcome,” said Ted Obenchain, WikiStrat’s Director of Business Development.
The resulting cast, or “crowd” from the cloud as they are called, agree to participate in the simulation. It’s all conducted on what Barnett calls “a cloud-based, globally-networked platform; it's kind of like 'Facebook' for strategic analysts.”
The individuals who make up the crowd meet in a virtual environment at a time convenient for each yet within the prescribed start and end dates of the simulation.
“Many of the ‘gamers’ in this virtual simulation we created for AFRICOM are from academia; some are retired generals from different countries, but equally important to our process are the ‘millennials’ because that demographic creates a balance in what possible futures may evolve. They get technology, and they are adept at utilizing multiple variables,” said Barnett.
So what were the results – what did this bring to the AFRICOM toolbox?
“The ‘crowd’ preferred soft power over hard,” said Barnett. “But given history and trends, that might not have been the assessment even as recent at 2005. And things will likely get worse before it gets better, so for a possible future that may soon be reality, it’s recommended that you build relationship capital – and that’s built over generations,” he concluded.
The takeaway here is that to design and implement effective current engagement strategies, it’s critical to have the tools that eable a better view down the road.