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S1E5 – In Episode 5 we talk to Emily Munro, Head of Strategic Anticipation at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GSCP). We start by asking what COVID-19 has taught us about strategic anticipation. How well-prepared were we for a pandemic and what has this preparedness taught us about the importance of using strategic foresight to be better prepared in the future? How can we anticipate what will be the most significant challenges to the private security sector in the future? How can strategic anticipation be harnessed by multi-stakeholder initiatives with diverse stakeholder groups like ICoCA?


This podcast was originally published July 23, 2020

Hello, my name is Chris Galvin and I’m pleased to introduce episode five of the International Code of Conduct Podcast Series, Future Security Trends Implications for Human Rights. Today I’m joined by Emily Munro, head of Strategic Anticipation at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, also known as GCSP, to discuss Anticipating the Future: Foresight and International Security. Emily, you head up the strategic Anticipation cluster at GCSP, can you tell us about the cluster and perhaps start by explaining the concept of strategic anticipation?

Thank you so much for the invitation to speak with you. So, at the GCSP we’re working with individuals and organizations so they can develop a more forward-thinking approach in their work related to peace and international security. So how do we do that? Well, we do that through joint projects or courses and workshops with actors in different parts of the world. We also publish analysis on different issues, and we connect with different areas of expertise we have at the center to highlight emerging security issues and to examine the various interconnections at play.

So, strategic anticipation is a key skill for actors to have in this environment. You can take whatever buzzword you wish, we hear them all almost every day on certain complex or turbulent, and it can help you navigate these times. So, what is it? It’s really the process of looking beyond the present in order to better anticipate and plan for the future. So not prediction, and it’s inherently connected. Whether you’re an actor in the private sector or in the government policy sphere to action to decision making. So otherwise, why would you invest the time? And that’s a key point here. We at the center think about it in terms of three different overlapping aspects. The first one is this mindset of strategic anticipation that the future might be quite different up ahead. It’s not a straight line. We say in this sphere also that it’s about integrating this thinking in organizational contexts, so that ownership and that context, you need to take your surrounding environment into account internally or externally. And that might mean not just foresight or anticipation skills, but that could mean how you communicate the results, the leadership buy in you have within your company to ensure that effectiveness of what you’re doing. And the last aspect is with regard to methods. So, we all hear about scenarios, but there’s other methods as well and skills in those methods are important in this area as well.

Well, these are indeed turbulent times. 2020 has been a year unlike any other, certainly in my lifetime. And I’d like to just kind of turn to the topic of COVID-19 for a moment and really what COVID-19 has taught us about strategic anticipation. At the start of the crisis it seemed like governments around the world were caught on the back foot, especially when it came to basic preparedness, such as having stockpiles of personal protective equipment. So how well prepared were we for a pandemic, and what has this preparedness taught us about the importance of using strategic foresight to be better prepared in the future?

Well, yes, I think in all of our various areas and sectors, we’re reflecting on what COVID-19 means for us and it’s no different in strategic anticipation, that’s for sure. I mean, I think the first point to make is COVID-19 is not a black swan. It was on the radar of many public sector actors. It was included as a as a major risk in foresight reports for many years and there are also historical precedents. So, look to the past, even though we’re speaking about the future here today.

So, I think the three lessons that we could draw from this these events, this crisis of the past few months are that we need to invest more in preparedness. So, that means that link between anticipation and all of those activities that we do and policy and strategy that link needs to be stronger. That means to ensure on the one hand that foresight processes are action oriented in their design phase so that methods, when you apply them, they can translate to down the road recommendations for measures to be taken and embedding those processes in your company and your organization into strategy, into budget cycles. So, we could invest in, in those different measures. So that’s one that anticipation policy link.

The second one, I think that we’re drawing from COVID, at least in strategic anticipation, is that the future might be quite different than we anticipate. So, this new thinking, this idea of shock that we’ve had with this crisis. So, in foresight we do talk about different future developments that could be quite different from what we have right now and COVID is a reminder of that. So, maybe is an opportunity to open up new thinking about how the future might unfold could be quite different, good or bad. So, you can’t prepare for everything; you have to ask yourself the question about how the world might change and then conduct analysis to ensure that you’re prepared for a number of different eventualities.

And lastly, I would say it’s about the way we approach planning, it’s about adaptation. So, developments are quickly moving and the planning cycle needs to adapt. Planning is not something static and set, and companies need to learn from this crisis and be stronger for the next. So, the resilience that other buzzword, but it’s also a step-in strategic anticipation to go a step further and to anticipate other potential crises that might be from a very different sector than the health sector and I think that’s also a lesson we have learned from COVID.

Now, COVID is just one of many challenges it seems that the world is having to deal with and each seems to pose a greater threat to our security than the last. I mean, pandemics is one, climate change is another. But how might we anticipate which trends are likely to present the most significant challenges to the private security sector? And another question is, does strategic anticipation tell us anything about timing? When should we expect the impacts of these challenges to be felt?

First, I would say that while recognizing that there’s great human suffering and the negative impact of COVID-19 in terms of the economic consequences and job loss and impacts on individuals. What we’ve also seen in this pandemic is how challenges have led to a number of opportunities. So new ways of meeting and working this community spirit and innovative ideas for collaboration and creating connection. So, my first comment in parentheses would say, before going to the heart of your question, Chris, is that we don’t want to look at everything like a challenge. This is a natural tendency in security where both you and I work, where we focus on threats for our world, but think companies can also ask themselves, how might some of these developments be generated for advantage in your setting going forward.

In terms of better anticipating the trends for the private security sector, I would point to first the need not to stay stuck in your region, your country, maybe even your own background. We’ve seen how quickly COVID-19 spread around the world. So, it’s really a call to broaden your own perspective on where these trends may come from and bring it back to your own company for interpretation and context. So, pick up on those what we call in foresight week signals the sign or the hint that something is changing. So, quite simply, don’t be afraid in your organization to raise something. Promote that culture of sharing and listening and not just at the top, but maybe up and down in the hierarchy.

The second is address the interconnections amongst the various issues we face. So, look to different domains and sectors and conduct analysis that maps out those intersections and the consequences. The next one, I would say is that you see that the trend landscape is overwhelming. The speed, the complexity, the uncertainty about how things are going to develop kind of paralyzes us sometimes, it’s just a simple fact that it’s difficult for our brains to handle. So, some issues are really quickly upon us and others are slowly burning. I think your question demonstrates that as well, because obviously in the health sector that’s at the forefront of our minds right now and environment and climate change, these ones are looming, but there’s other ones, obviously inequalities and the risk for violence there in artificial intelligence and other technological developments. What is the future for cities right now and how have the developments of the past few months changed our picture of that? So, I think the role that foresight can play a bit more specifically is to provide structure to your deliberations on this overwhelming trend landscape. So, some of the results that you can expect may include that you identify issues for yourself, that you just want to monitor and maybe act on only later. You might even uncover issue interactions that you hadn’t ever thought about and that you’ll develop some either some capacity in or make an investment in. Or you might also just identify an approach that you can implement now that you’re going to be able to use that to prepare for multiple developments. Back to this thing that I mentioned earlier that you won’t be able to prepare for every eventuality, but you might find an approach that can help you in 1 or 2 scenarios and I think that’s an important part of it.

One of the most powerful aspects of strategic foresight is about future stories. So, narrative and stories can help us better imagine from this cloudy picture of today and how the future might evolve. This can be expressed in words or images, and we’re speaking over a podcast, so I’m going to maybe use a few words just to point to a few trends that we see today and paint a picture of those. So, will the future for private security companies be one of strong currents? So, I’m thinking of currents of electricity and data, but maybe also transportation across oceans. And this idea of the dominance of technological developments, which we talk so much about these days, also in the security sphere. So, this idea of spillover of cyber operations to the physical world more directly or the ability to acquire the latest technology for some actors, there’s obviously higher costs or demands for sophistication that go up and up and up, and there might be a great advantage for some, but other ones won’t have that advantage. So, this idea of have and have nots and we see that quite simply in the last few months just with regard to online education and access to technology, which not everyone would have that access.

The second one I would point to is people power after the strong current. So people power is something we’ve seen for a number of years, this idea of individual activism and an individual being able to change and use social media to get out a message and the idea of global civil society. So, we’ll see even greater cohesion and can this even translate into positivity and a caring for our shared future around the climate, for example? Or was this localization as a result of COVID-19 carry on and how will that develop? And of course, there’s a there’s the negative or the flip side of that with the use of different technologies by malicious non-state actors. So, the people power and the negative sense and that sometimes damages how governments can influence and function. We see this also coming out of COVID-19.

The third one I have is life raft. So obviously this one points a bit more to environment. The different changes afoot in this area. So, sea level rising, flooding, but also fires and mass migration. So, are we going to see empty cities and uninhabitable countries? We also see other developments here which are more positive. They’re a little bit harder to find, but it’s something also to think about with the explosion of vertical farming or cooperation, maybe also a humanitarian spirit. The question being, will we see even a different approach to migration in the future? I think that’s something to think about.

And the last one is the more political one, what I call the empty table. So obviously geopolitics related. Conflict between major powers, is that possible? We see flare ups in different parts of the world. Will we see enhanced regional configurations? So far this hasn’t come to fruition, but that’s something that is possible. That might be mean a flourishing of certain parts of the world. And if there’s a shift, is there maybe a promoting of a new way of doing things? And will that new way of doing things be democratic, be more authoritarian? Obviously, the decline of multilateralism is receiving a lot of space in the past couple of years, and the jury is still out. So certain international actors might prosper in this and it might be a bit more informal or adaptable. So, the question obviously is then for you is which of these will be more dominant for private security companies? They’re really just quick sketches of trends, but they relate to one another. They’re not all negative or I’m try to also point some in some positive directions, but how will your stakeholders react in the different settings? So, for ICoCA, obviously what is occurring for the promotion of human rights and the rule of law in each of these, will it be more difficult or will there be fewer difficulties? Obviously also, who are the key allies and where are the trouble spots in each of those and what avenues might exist then for affecting change? So those are just a few questions you could ask yourself about those different pictures that I just painted.

Well, thank you for painting those pictures. That gives us much to think about. I just want to turn to something you said earlier about kind of addressing interconnection and the importance of connecting different domains because ICoCA is a multi-stakeholder initiative. It brings together private security companies and their clients and who work in many different sectors with governments, civil society organizations and others. So, it’s quite a diverse mix of actors at the table. And I’m wondering how can strategic anticipation be harnessed for a multi-stakeholder initiative like ours where the strategic priorities for each stakeholder group may be quite different and where even within one pillar, one domain, the strategic priorities for each member that make up that pillar may be quite different. And where, for example, in the corporate pillar, the members are essentially in competition with each other.

Yeah, that’s quite complex as you just painted. And I guess what I first want to say is a bit of a disclaimer that strategic anticipation can’t solve all your problems. You’re going to have to go to different places or think of different approaches. But what I can do is comment on where I think it could help and given that setting and that diversity that you have. Well, think strategic foresight tools, they can surface different perspectives and that’s encouraged in this type of discussion. So, when you talk about the future, it gives you that conceptual distance from today’s issues, today’s problems that might give you more freedom to talk about things which are a bit more uncomfortable, and so that the more diversity in the discussion, the better. And you can use foresight, the structure that we have in different methods to capture that. All your actors are dealing with what can be called this complex environment. All your members are operating in some in some way in those environments. So, exchange on that can also be valuable. Not every setting that each of those actors that you’re working with will be the same. So that exchange will be helpful because not all are on the front lines and you can learn from each other.

The other one is about the future, about our idea of the future. So, there is an agency that we all have when it comes to come to the future and that’s related to vision, if you like, and a shared vision. So, this is the idea that the future is not something that happens to us, but there’s somehow an ability to shape, to some extent, the future that we want to come about, not to the full extent. So strategic anticipation then can be used to help you gain clarity on what the common denominators are amongst your diverse membership maybe. So, while what you described is some organizations in your question Chris, have an individual path to getting to that vision, they might have a shared vision and understanding that shared vision and that basis and some foresight tools can help you do that. You might be able to then unpack how those different members see those paths and promote that transparency and discussion. So, even that conversation and can be a learning experience rather than just the result. So, I would say in foresight it’s not just about the result at the end, but it’s also about the process. Discussing that shared vision, understanding the different paths that different companies or different members of your network have to get, there could be a learning experience and that can mean maybe even identifying some good practice or encouraging that some of those good practices and those approaches to meet those future challenges. So, I would point to those two aspects that anticipation can help in that setting.

Well, thank you so much for that. And I want to ask one last question, and that is that you bring security experts from all around the world to teach on strategic anticipation. And I’m wondering whether the folks that you bring come up again and again and again certain issues. And if so, what they are? What are people most concerned about?

We do bring together actors both from around the world. So, in terms of the participants, but also different experts on different topics. And at the GCSP, we focus both on the more traditional aspect of security, but also the human security element. So, I would say the hard and the soft aspects of security, so I think that comprehensive idea of security is important. In terms of the trends and looking ahead, I would say obviously there’s a large focus on technology and how that can how that’s changing, how we’re thinking about security. But I would say more and more, we’re also thinking about the environmental security aspects in our work. This is obviously taking up more space and more concern for a lot of actors about what the security implications could be for developments in the environment. So, those I would point to as the two that we spend more time on. Obviously, I think the other thing to point to when we’re speaking about trends in the future and looking ahead and issues is that it’s not all about the new. We can already also look back to the issues from our past and see how they’re changing and developing and developing in novel ways. So, I think that’s also something to think about. And I’m thinking of issues related to maybe arms proliferation and weapons, but also related to terrorism and other issues which have been around for many years. And we talk about them a lot, but they have really novel dimensions that we need to also pay attention to. So, those are those are the a few things that I would say that we’re thinking about at the GCSP.



The views and opinions presented in this article belong solely to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the stance of the International Code of Conduct Association (ICoCA).