On Wednesday, while world leaders meet for the last day of the Global Nuclear Security Summit, there will be another meeting.
For this meeting,“…participants from a wide cross-section of the emergency management community, select subject matter experts in relevant academic areas, select federal agencies, and other key stakeholders … will begin to identify, define, and refine key issues and drivers that may impact the future of emergency management [over the next 15-20 years].”
One meeting aims to “develop a plan of action to secure loose nuclear materials, prevent nuclear material smuggling, and deter, detect and disrupt attempts at nuclear terrorism.”
The other gathering wants to explore “issues, trends, and other factors that could impact the future emergency management environment, and to support expanded strategic thinking and planning for the future.”
One meeting deals with today’s threats. The other meeting seeks to create a better understanding of homeland security’s future context.
A central justification for speculating about homeland security futures is to “make strategic decisions today that will be sound for all plausible futures.” That’s the view of Peter Schwartz, one of the country’s best-known futurists.
There is a contrary perspective that argues the homeland security policy space is too undefined, too broad, too complex to allow any intentional journey into the future. From this perspective, thinking strategically about the future of homeland security is similar to what George Bernard Shaw said about chess: a foolish expedient for making idle people believe they are doing something very clever.
Abraham Lincoln was clever. He is quoted as believing “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”
Neat bumper sticker, but what does that have to do with anything real?
What is a homeland security future worth creating (to paraphrase Thomas P. Barnett)?
During homeland security’s early days, the people doing the work used to describe the challenge of creating organizations, policies, and programs, as “building an airplane while we’re flying it.”
The multibillion-dollar aircraft is now airborne.
Maybe now is an appropriate time to think deliberately and systematically about the kind of world that plane is flying toward.
That’s what the people in FEMA’s long-range planning initiatives are starting to do.
Here is the context for Wednesday’s strategic foresight meeting:
The world around us is changing in ways that may have profound effects on the emergency management enterprise. Collectively, we must begin to think more broadly and over a longer-timeframe if we are to understand these changes and their potential impacts. To this end, FEMA has launched a Strategic Foresight initiative, the objective of which is straight-forward: to seek to understand how the world around us is changing, and how those changes may affect the future of emergency management and our community.
Our approach is rooted in an explicit attempt to innovate and move beyond the constraints of existing planning efforts. FEMA recognizes that it is only a single member of the national emergency management enterprise. Alongside other federal partners, states, nongovernmental organizations, community based organizations, and especially neighborhoods, towns and cities that do most of the work, the scale and coverage of the emergency management community comprises a broad and complex network of interdependencies and overlapping vital interests.
Our goal is to engage this diverse community in a collective exploration of issues, trends, and other factors that could impact the future emergency management environment, and to support expanded strategic thinking and planning for the future. We intend to further this goal by participating actively, sharing our own questions, directions, concerns, and decisions, and helping bring together people from various disciplines to engage in the discussion.
The Big Questions
Three guiding questions to consider are:
(1) What are the drivers of change (e.g., demographics, climate change) that may “dial up” or “dial down” systemic risk in the future?
(2) What has the potential to transform emergency management in the future?
(3) What should we do now to better align our missions and capabilities to our future needs?
In the coming weeks FEMA will take steps to create space for collaboration and dialog on these issues across the emergency management community. We will facilitate engagement through various media, including workshops, online collaboration tools, individual meetings and conferences. More specifically, the first phase of key events will include three primary engagement opportunities:
· APRIL 14, 2010: Scoping Workshop
This workshop will include participants from a wide cross-section of the emergency management community, select subject matter experts in relevant academic areas, select federal agencies, and other key stakeholders. At this event participants will begin to identify, define, and refine key issues and drivers that may impact the future of emergency management.
· MAY 2010-JULY 2010: Online Collaboration
Diverse participants from many disciplines and fields will join in moderated discussion through easy-to-access, easy-to-use online communities. Dialog will focus on better understanding emerging trends and future directions in key issue areas, and the potential implications for emergency management.
· AUGUST 2010: Future Strategic Needs Workshop
This workshop will synthesize the results of the online collaboration, leverage expert contributions in each area, and consider key issues and drivers in combination, examining their implications. The result of this workshop will be an emergent picture of future strategic needs for the field of emergency management.
( You can find out more details by contacting the FEMA Office of Policy and Program Analysis.)
I am agnostic about the utility of spending too much time looking into the future, particularly in the surprise ridden warren of homeland security.
The planner in me hopes there are trends that can be identified and incorporated into strategic design and implementation.
The realist part of me considers underwear bombers, predictable hurricanes that were ignored, and fanatics awash with unreason and recalls the Yiddish proverb: Man plans; God laughs.
Peter Schwartz tells the following story in his book Inevitable Surprises:
Pierre Wack used to compare his [futures] work to the prediction of floods on the Ganges River in India. “From source to mouth,” he would say, “the Ganges is an extraordinary river, some 1500 miles long. If you notice extraordinarily heavy monsoon rains at the upper part of the basin, you can anticipate with certainty that within two days something extraordinary is going to happen at Rishikesh, at the foot of the Himalayas.” Three days later, he would add, one could expect a flood at Allahabad, which is southeast of Delhi; five days after that, one could expect a flood in Benares, at the river’s Delta. “Now, the people down here in Benares don’t know that this flood is on its way,” he would conclude, “but I do. Because I’ve been at this spring where it comes from. I’ve seen it! This is not fortune telling. This is not crystal ball gazing. This is merely describing future implications of something that has already happened.”
The people putting Wednesday’s meeting together have looked at analyses that purport to see the spring “at the upper part of the basin.” Those documents share a common view of “what has already happened: ” 10 trends and drivers shaping the future of emergency management and homeland security.
- U.S. Economic Strength
- Climate Change
- Rapid Technological Change
- Terrorism and Transnational Crime
- Proliferation of WMD
- Natural Resource Scarcity and Competition
- Weak/Failed States and Ungoverned Spaces
- Rise of New Powers/Weakening of U.S.
I hope to write more about these in future posts.
More than three dozen world leaders are talking about the possibility of reducing nuclear weapons. That seems very idealistic.
But I believe even the realist Lincoln would approve.
I think he would also support FEMA’s idealistic effort to help shape — if not create — the future of homeland security.
Clarification (4.13.10 @11:22 PST) — The person who provided me with the list of drivers suggests the following clarification: “The 10 trends and drivers you mention at the end of the post … are not emergency management/homeland security specific. They were common themes … found when reviewing futures literature from a variety of sources that mostly had a global/international flavor to them. The goal of the workshop tomorrow is to begin the process of identifying and defining what those drivers are for emergency management.”