The importance of future studies

Australian Army soldiers detonate an M18A1 Claymore anti-personnel weapon during the 7th Brigade combined-arms training activity in Shoalwater Bay, Queensland.

by Major Leon Young

This piece is taken from a presentation to the Institute For Regional Security NEXT program on 13 Nov 15.

Make no mistake – the decisions you make today dictate the capabilities we have tomorrow

Consider this. Strategic decisions look to improve a state’s, or an organisation's, capacity. To create a competitive advantage. This advantage often manifests itself in capability overmatch, favourable trade conditions, decreased security threats or even improved international relationships with our allies and close neighbours. Strategic decisions are expensive, risky and their effect can be felt for a very long time.

Take the F-111 for example. The flying pig. Procured in 1963 while still in the design phase, the RAAF did not take possession until 1968. It did not see operational service until 1973. Its final flight was in Dec 2010. That’s 47 years of strike capability balancing on a single decision made at the start of the Vietnam War. How did the decision makers know they had made the right decision? How do we know that the Joint Strike Fighter is the right decision? How can you understand the value of your decision without understanding the context it operates in?

The long-term value of the decision can only be contextualised by the future operating environment. But what does that look like? If the future environment determines the risk of today’s decision, wouldn’t it be important to understand that environment? Future studies is important to our community.

But the future is also unpredictable. In fact, one could argue that the future is becoming even more complex due to increasing connectedness of organisations, people, states, resources and environment. There are more agents, or players, in the game that have an increasing capability to generate high impact events. Anyone who claims to be able to predict the future in the face of this complexity is, quite frankly, a charlatan.

So if the future is so complex and unpredictable how can we understand it and thus be able to measure the value of today’s decision?

There are two perceptions of the future. There is the future we are given and the future we shape.

For many people, the future is a product of forces and changes that will happen no matter what you do. For them it is about navigating the future and successful navigation comes from understanding the drivers of change and the associated risk. In other words, control is externalised. Risk results from external events. This naturally leads to increased surveillance and analysis of these drivers.

For some people, the minority in my experience, the future is something that we can shape. We have a vision of a desired future and our actions are aimed at achieving this future regardless of external events. Again an understanding of the drivers of change is required, however the focus is on what we can change. This approach naturally leads to the development of a shared vision and the focusing of all activities.

The second perception does not discount the first. Rather it is the mindset that is the critical difference. The proactive seeking of a desired vision over the reactive restoration of current normality.

Where then are the futurists? Look around you, here, at work, in public life and you will see that there are few people who are able to inspire and coordinate a shared vision.

The lack of appreciation for future studies can be attributed to the poorly understood paradigms resulting from very little exposure. In all of my education, graduate and post-graduate, civilian and military I can count on only two courses that actively sought to inculcate an understanding of the future. I daresay that this is two more than most people.

Yet future studies is often cited as being an essential ingredient to national security.

So what can you do?

Get comfortable with uncertainty. I want to be clear, I do not expect everyone to become a futurist. In fact I fully expect and accept that most people will focus on the here and now. Certainly within the military, our current operations mob receive the most kudos and exposure. They work very hard and are exceptionally good. The reality is that we operate in the now and dream in the future. So it makes sense that our people should concentrate on the here and now.

I do have an expectation that you contextualise your decisions in the probable future. Preferably you have a vision of the desired future. That way we can rationalise today’s decision, knowing the future risks that we are accepting. Future studies are important to our community, because the decisions you make today decide the response options of tomorrow.

Leon Young is an Officer in the Australian Army and is currently the Chief of Defence Force Fellow. Since commencing service in the Army he has deployed on operations in tactical roles, been part of joint, coalition and international operational planning headquarters and provided input and advice on strategic policy. He has taught post-graduate courses on Strategic Decision Making and Capability Option Analysis and Future Warfighting. He is a full member of the Association of Professional Futurists and the World Futures Society, an executive member of the Australian Society of Operations Research and member of the Kokoda / IFRS since 2010. He holds a BSc, MSc in Operations Research and is currently completing his PhD in Computational Strategic Thinking Models. His professional interests include quantifying risk through scenario development, futures education, strategic decision making and logistic modelling.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government. Further information.