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"No Crystal Ball"

The editor of the SWP study “While We Were Planning”, Lars Brozus, speaks about the potential benefits of scientifically grounded foresight.

Point of View, 13.09.2018 Forschungsgebiete

The editor of the SWP study “While We Were Planning”, Lars Brozus, speaks about the potential benefits of scientifically grounded foresight.

2019: Turkey leaves NATO and moves closer to Russia. A fundamental challenge to the Alliance’s cohesion. Scenarios of that kind and their potential consequences are the subject of your foresight study. What are the concrete benefits of such an approach?

Lars Brozus: Scenario and foresight thinking can help us to prepare for unexpected events. International politics has produced one surprise after another in recent years: Brexit, Trump, Crimea, to name just three prominent examples. And more surprises are bound to follow. So it is useful to think through situations that are conceivable, such as a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement or South Korea acquiring nuclear arms.

In the introduction to the study you call for expectation management. What can political decision-makers expect from your foresight analysis? And what should they not be looking for?

We have no crystal ball, we cannot predict the future. We need to make that very clear to avoid disappointment. But we can help to sharpen political sensibility about situations that can arise unexpectedly. That does not just mean the developments discussed in our study. Instead we need to emphasise the importance of maintaining awareness of other potential developments and their consequences in order to be in a better position to deal with the inevitable surprises.

You have already mentioned two important recent events that were almost completely unanticipated: Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Why?

In both cases most opinion polls suggested a different outcome. And in both cases the result was very close. With Trump, about 90,000 votes tipped the scale, which is well within the margin of error. It is very hard to anticipate such a result. However, politicians could have been better prepared, for example by thinking through the possible consequences of an unlikely outcome. But to be honest researchers are also often taken by surprise, just think of the Arab Spring. That is another reason why we invest time and energy in scientifically grounded foresight.

How does politics need to change in order to predict and prepare for these kinds of events?

It is important to regularly examine situations that could happen, even if they appear unlikely. There are two objectives to this. One is to better anticipate possible developments, the other to run through the very concrete responses to unexpected events: Who takes part in the briefings, what questions need to be discussed, and how should information be communicated? Simulations and scenarios can assist that process. It would certainly help if there were more incentives for this form of analysis at the administrative level.

What distinguishes scientifically grounded foresight from forecasting?

A forecast involves a prediction of the timing and probability of a specific event. Foresight concerns hypothetical developments. What might be the consequences if the United States, China and Russia agreed to reform the United Nations in line with their own interests? Or if the EU’s security databases were systematically manipulated? We draw attention to events that might occur and how they might develop. And we examine the best available responses.

What criteria do you apply for selecting foresight contributions?

Three criteria are important: consistency, plausibility and relevance. Consistency relates to the described situation: Is it coherent? Plausibility refers to political context: Is this a conceivable situation? You need both scientific expertise and creativity to do this convincingly. And then there is relevance: The most interesting situations are those that would have considerable impact on German and European foreign and security policy, but are not currently at the centre of political attention.

Your study also includes two “foresight reviews”, revisiting contributions written in 2013. What is the purpose of this exercise?

The foresight review is a methodological innovation. The authors review contributions prepared several years ago. They examine which influencing factors were thought to be especially important at that time, and contrast these expectations with what has really happened. This kind of self-reflection allows us to update our ideas about future developments.

In the first foresight review the author reflects on her scenario of a breakthrough in electricity storage revolutionising the energy sector. How has that changed today?

What she did not anticipate in 2013 was the rapid decrease in the oil price which discouraged investment in energy efficiency. That factor plays a much larger role in her current contribution.

The second foresight review considers whether the Brexit negotiations proceeded as the author expected in 2013. What are his conclusions?

Broadly speaking the negotiations have gone pretty much as expected – and the author was writing three years before the 2016 referendum! What he underestimated was the potential for conflict within the British government and the political cohesion of the EU-27.

How can this insight improve future foresights?

Systematic scholarly self-reflection can sharpen our awareness of important factors we might overlook or discount. So we are learning for future foresights.

The interview was conducted by Candida Splett, online editor.