Scenario-Round-Table: Blending Experience with New Ideas

cisgbonn Expert Commentary 2018

The International Security Forum’s second day was dedicated to the future “Imagining what could happen next is just as important as dealing with what is currently happening,” read the invitation. Young experts were asked to apply to the forum with a scenario that could impact German and European security. After listening in on the debates on the first day, participants were invited to discuss two of those scenarios in a session chaired by Prof. Dr. Carlo Masala (Bundeswehr University Munich) and facilitated by Dr. Ulrike Franke (ECFR) and Dr. Jana Puglierin (DGAP).

To the organizer’s surprise, senior participants of the forum turned out to be just as interested in thinking about the future. So a balanced group of experienced thinkers and newcomers got to exchange ideas on the future of NATO and the implications of artificial
intelligence in smart cities’ critical infrastructure – two high-impact, low-probability scenarios on potential critical security challenges submitted by Benjamin
Cole and Kate Saslow.

The goal of the exercise was to blend experience with fresh ideas, to think outside of the box and discuss how to deal with potential future events that tend to be disregarded as unlikely, but would fundamentally challenge Germany’s and Europe’s security architecture. Separated into a senior and a junior group of experts for each of the two scenarios, participants were asked to anticipate the possible actions the most important actors of each scenario would take in response to the threat and to present a strategy from a German and European perspective. The other groups were then invited to challenge the results.

This unconventional set up led to surprising insights on the future of German, European and transatlantic security and highlighted the value of the scenario method for strategic thinking-

To read the indivdual scenatios click here for Scenario 1: Trump and the U.S. Decommit from NATO, and here for Scenario 2: AI in BRICS Public Critical Infrastructure.

Conclusion: Strategic Thinking Needs Foresight

From national ministries and multilateral organizations to think tanks, scenarios are an increasingly popular tool for thinking about the future. They are useful to encourage people to talk about developments they usually write off as unlikely, and to improve (strategic) planning for the future.

The Scenario Method

A prominent tool of future studies, the scenario method is applied to foster strategic thinking about the future, improve decision-making and facilitate group communication.

Scenarios are not predictions and therefore not judged by their ability to correctly foresee the future. Instead, a scenario is an illustrative story or thought experiment about a possible future or aspects thereof. Scenarios are a tool to simulate variations of plausible futures, find discontinuities and deal with complex interactions that predictive tools cannot simulate.

Scenario exercises often focus on finding so-called “wild cards” These are possible future events or developments that are commonly ignored – even by the expert community – because they are deemed highly unlikely, despite their potentially critical consequences. In a scenario process, a trained facilitator supports people to overcome their cognitive biases and think ahead in a structured manner. There is a range of supporting foresight methods, which often result in multiple scenarios about how the future may unfold and can then inform strategic planning.

For the Scenario Roundtable in Bonn, organizers took a different approach Starting with two pre-selected wild card scenarios written by young professionals, they allowed participants to focus on the analysis of actors and interests at stake and to discuss potential strategic responses. They also enabled young professionals to set the agenda and force experts to discuss issues that had been major “elephants in the room” during the forum’s first day: the U.S. ’ decommitment from Europe’s security and the increasing importance of artificial intelligence in a changing global security context.

The separation of senior and junior experts into different discussion groups may seem counterintuitive from a methodological perspective. To ensure plausible scenarios that are well-supported and thought through, facilitators usually aim at groups that are as diverse as possible. In this case, however, the unusual setup proved to be a guarantor of interesting discussions and important insights.

In the young professional groups, participants were able to express their innovative ideas freely and unconstrained by senior experts’ view on what’s currently possible within NATO or national MoDs. The senior experts, in turn, were able to discuss the details of NATO and government operations without having to explain background knowledge to newcomers.
This led, for example, to the junior group expressing doubts about a future U.S. commitment to European security independently from the current administration, while experienced participants focused on the potential to negotiate a re-commitment and wait for better times. It also enabled junior participants to declare cities and multinational companies to be much more important players in the AI&BRICS scenario and almost completely sideline national governments in their solution, while the senior group focused on “more realistic” negotiated solutions between national governments.

Altogether, the senior groups turned out to be more focused on criteria such as likelihood and realism and had a harder time letting go of the idea of correct predictions in favor of out-of-the-box thinking and plausibility. In the comparing plenary discussion, however, their experience and insights into both national governments’ and NATO’s operating procedures enabled senior experts to challenge core elements of the strategies presented by young participants, eventually adding to a more plausible plan for possible future strategic conduct. And they were more experienced in deconstructing the motivation of a potential attacker that tries to weaken NATO.

From leveraging European private data and technology companies against Alibaba as a semi-autonomous non-state actor, to the importance of a “plan B” in the case of the U.S. decommitting from the nuclear umbrella: the roundtable highlighted areas in which Germany and Europe are currently not prepared to meet potential future challenges and made participants aware of the urgent need to change this Scenarios and other tools of strategic foresight are important to achieve this goal – as is including young people. In contrast to mathematical predictions that try to calculate future developments on the basis of past or current trends, (strategic) foresight focuses on discontinuities and leverages diverse perspectives. It thus helps to open up debates, draw attention to overlooked problems and facilitate important shifts needed in the strategic planning of defense and security actors.

The policy implications that result from thinking through speculative scenarios are transferable across different potential threats. For example, deciding to expand an institutions’ strategic foresight toolbox, to regularly review strategic priorities, and to consult people with different sets of expertise and worldviews can help organizations to counter a specific risk like artificial intelligence in critical infrastructure, but to be adaptive in an environment of rapidly evolving, complex risks.

The outcome of scenario processes are closely linked to participants’ unique experience that cannot be replicated in a different setting. Results are thus often hard to “sell” to outsiders Policy makers might not “buy” the exact scenarios discussed at the roundtable, or deem the strategic options developed as unrealistic. But even if we assume current trends like the increasing importance of artificial intelligence, China’s growing power and the U S ’ shifting geopolitical focus continue at the current pace, the two scenarios and their implications are no overstatement of the coming security challenges for Germany and Europe. After the exercise, participants very much felt like they were just variations of potential futures that might start to unfold tomorrow. So it might be time to start adapting today.

Scenario 1 by Benjamin Cole, University of Cologne
Scenario 2 by Kate Saslow, Stiftung Neue Verantwortung
Conclusion by Sarah Bressan, Global Public Policy Institute