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Anticipating, forecasting, predicting, projecting, forseen…

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war on the rocks


If the U.S. intelligence community has one unifying cultural principle, it is “mission first.” But for all the benefits that principle confers, it also comes with some potentially significant downsides. These include, a tendency to act hastily — before the situation is well understood — and the ensuing waste of precious time that such haste often begets. No better example of this tendency exists than in the intelligence community’s approach to anticipatory intelligence.

What is anticipatory intelligence? It is a relatively new type of intelligence that is distinct from the “strategic intelligence” that the intelligence community has traditionally focused on. It was born from recognition that the spiking global complexity (interconnectivity and interdependence, both virtual and physical) that characterizes the post–Cold War security environment, with its proclivity to generate emergent (nonadditive or nonlinear) phenomena, is essentially new. And as such, it demands new approaches.

More precisely, this new strategic environment means that it is no longer enough for the intelligence community to just do traditional strategic intelligence: locking onto, drilling down on, and — less frequently — forecasting the future of issues once they’ve emerged. While still important, such an approach will increasingly be too late. Rather, the intelligence community should also learn to practice foresight (which is not the same as forecasting) and imagine or envision possibilities before they emerge. In other words, it should learn to anticipate.

Fundamentally, anticipatory intelligence is about the anticipation of emergence. As clear and compelling as the case for anticipatory intelligence is, it remains poorly understood. A primary reason for this goes back to the aforementioned tendency to take hasty action before understanding.

Since the 1990s, increasing complexity has been an issue that many in the intelligence community have impulsively dismissed or discounted. Their refrain echoes: “But the world has always been complex.” That’s true. However, what they fail to understand is that the closed and discrete character of the Soviet Union and the bipolar nature of the Cold War — the intelligence community’s formative experience — eclipsed much of the world’s complexity and effectively rendered America’s strategic challenge merely complicated (no, they’re not the same). Consequently, the intelligence community’s prevailing habits, processes, mindsets, etc. — as exemplified in the traditional practice of strategic intelligence — are simply incompatible with the challenges posed by the exponentially more complex post-Cold War strategic environment.

Starting in 2012 and fueled in part by performance concerns related to the then-recent Arab Uprisings — the flash-mobs that formed in Cairo were exemplars of emergence — the intelligence community rashly embarked on a veritable smorgasbord of initiatives (including the 2014 and 2019 National Intelligence Strategies) aimed at defining and clarifying anticipatory intelligence. Paradoxically, however, all that attention did not prove to be particularly helpful as a huge number of people — many with little if any exposure to complexity science — piled on to these initiatives. Indeed, as many of these people had little if any exposure to complexity science, the intelligence community’s official definition came to prioritize mythical “emerging trends,” even though trends, by definition, are established patterns and thus not emergent. In sum, these initiatives mostly amounted to a classic case of activity masquerading as progress.

So, in an attempt to change this situation and make the discussion more productive, this article proposes to reset the conversation by elucidating a simple and succinct definition of anticipatory intelligence — one that is more in keeping with the original sense of the concept while also being accessible to those not familiar with complex systems. It then distills that definition down to a few key — and completely distinct — sub-terms/concepts.

In all, by doing these two things, this article aims to help slice through the Gordian knot that is preventing a more coherent understanding of anticipatory intelligence, and enable the intelligence community to finally make real progress.



Scientists, businesspeople, professional forecasters predict differing worlds of 2052 (Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Aug 5, 2019)


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