If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.
--Sir Francis Bacon
The Advancement of Learning
The Air Force is embarked on a mission to improve its long-range planning (see appendix A). An important aspect of that mission is to envision the future so the Air Force can position itself to provide the required capabilities. This chapter discusses how the Alternate Futures team derived visions of six alternate futures. To accomplish this, 2025 study participants analyzed current trends (see appendix B), studied the work and methods of respected futurists1 and scientists,2 and considered possible impacts of "wild cards"3 or surprises. This review provided a foundation from which to begin analyzing possible "drivers"-the factors which will drive major changes in the world over the next 30 years. The interactions of these drivers produced an infinite number of worlds; six were selected as the most interesting or stressful for the customer. Plausible histories and descriptions of unique features provided detail to these futures and linked them to today. This approach created viable futures which stepped beyond mere extrapolations of current trends. The steps of the alternate futures process are4
- selecting the drivers,
- defining the drivers,
- creating the strategic planning space,
- naming and selecting worlds of interest,
- describing the "nature of" and features of each world, and
- developing plausible histories.
Good strategic planning meets three requirements. First, the alternate futures created should adequately stress the systems of interest.5 Secondly, the alternate futures must contain sufficient detail and richness to be useful for planning. Finally, the vision of the future should be broad enough to ensure the entire range of challenges are adequately captured; in other words, ensure the customer is not surprised by the future.6
The first step in creating the alternate futures was identifying the drivers that would be most influential in shaping the future.7 Drivers are physical or virtual forces or vectors which are expected to be a significant cause of or contributor to change. A driver should also be beyond the strategic planner's (customer's) control-the customer's only viable option must be adaptation to the change produced by the driver.8 Correct driver selection was fundamental to creating alternate futures.
This process began with dividing the 225 study participants at the Air University (AU) into 14 seminars. Each seminar then used a combination of scientific and nonscientific methods to develop a list of potential drivers.9 The scientific methods involved analyzing various trends, conducting research on various topics, interviewing respected futurists and scientists, and completing affinity diagrams. The nonscientific methods involved creative thinking techniques10 such as brainstorming,11 "exploring,"12 and "artistry."13 All told, over 100 candidate drivers were generated by this process. One or two individuals were then nominated from each seminar to evaluate all of the potential drivers. These individuals comprised the 2025 Alternate Futures group.14
This group's initial task was to identify drivers that were relevant to the customer and would significantly impact the future. The group accomplished this task by using affinity diagrams to coalesce the initial list into a smaller number of drivers.15 A variety of quality concepts and brainstorming techniques narrowed the initial list to five major candidate drivers. These candidate drivers were the US world view, the environment and level of resources, economic forces, technology issues including proliferation, and the nature of global power.
The group's goal was to consolidate these five candidate drivers into three drivers.16 For three months, the Alternate Futures group extensively analyzed trend data, conducted research, brainstormed, and discussed the merits of these drivers. The study group determined economic forces could be expressed in a multifaceted driver which captures the essence of world power. The study group also concluded that the state of the environment and resources would be an important factor in the future, but not as relevant to air and space power as other drivers.17
The Alternate Futures team consolidated the definitions and elements of the three remaining categories to describe and name the drivers for this study. Part of this description included naming the dimensions, or poles, for each driver. Dimensions provide the direction for a driver's force-the extreme variations in how the driver could shape the future. The drivers are American World View, DTeK, and World Power Grid.
This driver describes the US perspective of the world, which determines the willingness and capability of the US to take the lead in international affairs. It can be influenced by world events, domestic politics, fiscal health, and societal problems such as crime and drug abuse. Its dimensions are Domestic and Global. If the American World View is Domestic, the US will focus on internal problems rather than involving itself in world affairs. A Global world view implies the US will seek a world leadership role.
TeK was defined as the ability to employ technology. DTeK describes the differential in the rate of growth in technological proliferation and sophistication.18 Its dimensions are Constrained and Exponentialn. In a world where DTeK is Constrained, technological advances occur at an evolutionary rate and few actors are able to exploit them. Exponentialn DTeK results in a world where many actors can exploit revolutionary breakthroughs across multiple scientific disciplines. New technologies may become obsolete even before being fielded.
This driver describes the generation, transmission, distribution, and control of political, military, economic, or informational power throughout the world. Its two dimensions are Concentrated and Dispersed. In a world where the power grid is Concentrated, there are few actors with the power and will to dominate others. A world with Dispersed power has thousands of actors (or even individuals) with the power and will to affect the rest of the world.
Placing the three drivers on the axes of a three-dimensional coordinate system creates the 2025 strategic planning space shown in figure 2-1.
The origin is the "low end" of all three drivers, with the tips of the axes denoted as the "high end" of each driver. One can use the strategic planning space to "place" a given alternate future for comparison to others. For example, a world with a Concentrated World Power Grid, Exponentialn DTeK, and Global American World View would be pushed (by all three drivers) towards the upper left front corner of the strategic planning space.
The technique of creating the strategic planning space by using the extremes of the drivers guarantees the alternate futures generated will be challenging and will achieve the metric of preventing surprises. Drivers pushed to the extremes produce the discontinuities and nonlinear effects absent from most long-range planning efforts. The alternate futures process corrects these planning deficiencies. For a detailed discussion of current Air Force long-range planning and recommended improvements, seeappendix A.
Selecting the alternate futures of greatest interest to the customer began with picking worlds at the extremes of the strategic planning space. This technique meets the primary challenge--describing a set of futures covering the full range of challenges and opportunities for future US air and space forces. Pushing all drivers to the extremes resulted in eight different futures for consideration (table 1 and fig. 2-2). The worlds selected are highlighted in bold.
Members of the 2025 Alternate Futures group individually analyzed all of the alternate futures and named them to create an image of what each future would be like. Discussions of all submitted names for the futures produced a consensus on names which best captured the essence of each world.
Selecting the most "interesting" worlds, those most relevant to the customer, was the next step in the process. Development of too few futures increases the chance of a future "surprise"--an unanticipated future trend. Selection of too many futures runs the risk of distorting the customer's focus-differences begin to blur, and worlds lose their unique identities as a basis for meaningful decisions. Following Schwartz's advice,19 the team selected the four worlds which provided the most stressful planning challenges: Gulliver's Travails, Zaibatsu, Digital Cacophony, and King Khan.20 Each face of the strategic planning space has two of these futures-a deliberate choice made to show that each driver was equally important in affecting the future. For example, selecting only one world, or no worlds, with a Domestic American world view would reduce or eliminate any inclusion of this possibility in the 2025 concept development and operational analysis.
The next step was to add flavor, enriching the worlds by providing substance to the vision describing each world and simultaneously ensuring internal consistency. The group accomplished this step by brainstorming the "Nature of X" for each selected future, where "X" ranges from politics to types of vacations. Such questions as: "What is the nature of economic activity or international politics in this world?" "How do people get their news?" "What do they do for entertainment?" and "What are their biggest hopes and fears?" all provide valuable detail to each world. Envisioning characteristics such as the kind of vacations an average person takes often provided insights on what life would be like in each world.
For instance, in the Exponentialn DTeK, individualistic and globally oriented world of Digital Cacophony, the average person dreams of taking a vacation cut off from this "wired world"--but fears being surprised by rapid, potentially catastrophic changes if he does so. This reveals something about the anxiety level inherent in Digital Cacophony. Several weeks of brainstorming, analysis, and discussion led to the production of a matrix outlining the different "nature of" features for each alternate future (see Appendix C).
Creating a plausible history-"backcasting" from the different futures back to 1996-was only possible after establishing a clear and detailed vision for each future. The Alternate Futures group divided up the worlds and brainstormed significant events or milestones, using data assembled on current trends where appropriate, which would lead to that future. For example, in Gulliver's Travails, the American World View became more Global following a major terrorist attack on the US early in the twenty-first century. This event, along with increasing concern for the global environment, was postulated to help produce a consensus that the US should act vigorously to promote stability abroad (Global US World View) despite the frustration of a Dispersed World Power Grid.
Each world's draft history was then checked and compared with the others. Were the events plausible? Did they remain consistent with their alternate futures-in other words, did they support or contradict the drivers acting on their world? This discussion led to several events' being modified or shifted between worlds to ensure they properly fit the alternate futures being created.
The Alternate Futures team briefed the alternate futures to all 2025 students, faculty, the executive committee,21 and civilian Advisors in January 1996, the midpoint of the study. The audiences thus included futurists, senior Air Force leadership, and the diverse backgrounds of the 2025 participants.22 This briefing contributed to the2025 project's ongoing creative process. Questions and comments provided by all audiences were used to sharpen the focus of the alternate futures. Meanwhile, the2025 writing groups used the futures to stimulate new concepts and technologies for development and began framing questions for how those concepts would be applied in the very different future operating environments.
The 2025 charter was to provide "out of the box," maverick thinking to cover the fullest possible range of outcomes and open up new perspectives for long range planners to consider.23 The four original alternate futures achieved this by pushing each of the drivers to extremes and exploring the results. Following the initial briefing, the Alternate Futures team was asked to develop two additional worlds.24
The first new world, Halfs and Half-Naughts, originated conceptually from a future where the drivers were not at their extreme dimensions. The 2025 executive committee asked for a future world created by using the common themes threaded through the other worlds. Halfs and Half-Naughts demonstrates the flexibility of the alternate futures methodology. The drivers were set to their "midpoints," producing a future which bears some similarity to all of the original worlds yet stands on its own as a complete and consistent world.25
The USAF chief of staff requested 2015 Crossroads to serve as a bridge from today to 2025. This request created a world where the US is faced with some strategic decisions in 2015--in essence, a "fork in the road." While 2015 Crossroads begins with a future close to (but not identical to) Gulliver's Travails, decisions by the US and other actors at the crossroads could send it straight towards Gulliver's Travails or divert it towards a Pax Americana or King Khan-like future. This exercise also demonstrated that the Alternate Futures methodology can easily be applied to different time periods.
The next six chapters provide more detail on each alternate future-the histories, actors, politics, technology, and the nature of conflict in each world, as well as some of the military capabilities necessary to succeed in these operating environments. The final chapter closes with some conclusions and recommendations for future use of this product, both within and beyond the 2025 study.
- Several futurists briefed the 2025 participants. Among these were Dr. John Anderson, Dr. Peter Bishop, Mr. Carl Builder, Dr. (Col) Joseph Engelbrecht, Dr. Grant Hammond, Dr. Armin Ludwig, Ms. Christine MacNulty, Mr. Gary Sycalik, Dr. David Sorenson, Dr. George Stein, Col Richard Szafranski, and Mr. Alvin Toffler. Additional insights on creating futures were provided by Joe Haldemann (writer), Robert Justman (television producer), and Ed Neumeier (screen writer).
- Other scientists who briefed the 2025 participants included Dr. Arnold A. Barnes, Dr. Paul J. Berenson, Dr. Peter F. Bytherow, Dr. Gregory H. Canavan, Dr. Stephen E. Cross, Dr. (Maj) Gregg Gunsch, Dr. Charles B. Hogge, Dr. Robert L. Jeanne, Dr. Gilbert G. Kuperman, Dr. James T. Kavich, Dr. Martin Libicki, Dr. Gene McCall, Dr. Dennis Meadows, Dr. Gregory Parnell, Dr. Stephen Rogers, Col Pete Worden, and Dr. Eli Zimet.
- Wild cards are revolutionary events with a low probability of occurrence but a very high impact. Although some wild cards (like a major asteroid impact) are so catastrophic that military planning becomes irrelevant, it is necessary to raise the possibility that different wild cards can occur and provide a framework from which to assess evolving events. Furthermore, the inclusion of wild cards provides the discontinuous events that are not predictable via simple extrapolations of current trends. See John L. Petersen, The Road to 2015: Profiles of the Future (Corte Madera, Calif.: Waite Group Press, 1994), 287-337; and Gary Sycalik, "Wildcards," briefing to 2025 participants, Air War College, Maxwell AFB, Ala., 6 September 1995.
- Prior to the 2025 project, no one had attempted to define and describe how to create alternate futures sufficiently to teach the process to a large group. Based onSPACECAST 2020 experience, the 2025 project leaders decided that the methodology was so important to preparing officers for studying the future that the process needed to be taught to all 2025 participants. To accomplish this, the research and study directors defined the terms and steps of the process, then created a curriculum of presentations and exercises that enabled teams of participants to help create alternate futures. This approach resulted in the first set of curriculum materials for teaching the process and several hundred trained futurists. Twenty-four volunteers continued the process to create the futures described in this work.
- The systems of interest in this study use the concepts and technologies described in the other 2025 white papers.
- Peter C. Bishop, "Long-Term Forecasting," briefing to 2025 participants, Air War College, Maxwell AFB, Ala., 13 September 1995.
- Peter Schwartz, The Art of the Long View (New York: Currency Doubleday, 1991), 106. Schwartz refers to drivers as "driving forces."
- Ibid., 113.
- Dr. Abby Gray of the Air Command and Staff College faculty has expressed concern regarding the "reproducibility" of the drivers identified by the Alternate Futures group. The drivers were identified by systematically using the Alternate Futures process presented to the 2025 participants by Col Joseph A. Engelbrecht, Jr., Ph.D., the 2025 research director. Although this process does not guarantee identification of a unique set of drivers, the process does heuristically generate a set of drivers accepted by the decision maker as being important to the organization and satisfying all the requirements for drivers. The Alternate Futures team recognizes the combination of art and science required to envision the future.
- Similar techniques were used in SPACECAST 2020--see Air University SPACECAST 2020 Into the Future: The World of 2020 and Alternate Futures (Maxwell AFB, Ala.: Air University Press, 1994), 4.
- For specific brainstorming techniques see Susan Holmes and Judy Ballance, The Quality Approach, Second Edition (Maxwell AFB, Ala.: Air Force Quality Institute, 1993). See also John P. Geis II, Total Quality Management, Squadron Officer School Textbook, Maxwell AFB, Ala., 1995.
- For a complete description of how to "explore" see Roger von Oech, A Kick in the Seat of the Pants (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1986), 23-54.
- For a complete description of "artistry" see Oech, 55-88.
- The membership of this group consisted of those named in the acknowledgments and the named authors of this paper.
- Holmes, 33-35.
- Narrowing the number of drivers is helpful in three ways. First, it forces concentration down to those items most important to the customer. Second, reducing the number of drivers forces one to reach past several trends to find the unifying themes behind them, lending additional insights into the future. Third, three drivers are easy to display graphically, which makes the strategic planning space easier to comprehend.
- Environmental and resource factors were captured in the other drivers or their interactions. For instance, proliferating DTeK can produce technologies that mitigate environmental damage while simultaneously unleashing unexpected effects. On the other hand, the World Power Grid can be influenced by the control of scarce resources.
- Charles Thomas of The Futures Group, who (along with Joseph Engelbrecht) developed the first alternate futures for US security forecasting in the USAF Innovation Study, cautions against using technology itself as a driver. While it previously was used frequently by his firm, Thomas has found that most firms use technology as an instrument to adapt to a changing environment. As an external reviewer for 2025, however, Thomas endorsed the more complex notion of DTeK as a driver which captures growth, proliferation, and leverage of technology. This richer overview of technologies’ effects on society is a driving force beyond the control of planners and decision makers. Interview, 14 February 1996.
- Schwartz, 233.
- The other futures had interesting features, but were considered to be less stressful operating environments. Star Trek implies a World Power Grid which has coalesced in a single world culture and society, with high technology ameliorating many of the world’s physical problems. A nice future to live in, but not a stressful operating environment for the military. Gulliver’s Travails is more challenging than Pax Americana, where the US has the will and ability to keep world order. Byte! produced a world of small, high-tech "virtual villages" which more or less stay separate from each other. The team selected Zaibatsu to showcase working within and around multinational corporations as the de facto successor to nation states. King Khan provided all the problems of Hooverville, with the presence of a dominant foreign superpower as an additional challenge.
- The 2025 executive committee included the vice commanders of all USAF major commands (MAJCOM), all of whom were major or lieutenant generals heavily involved in conducting day-to-day military operations and making key budgetary decisions for their commands.
- Briefings were also presented to many audiences outside of the 2025 project between January and April 1996, providing additional feedback from diverse perspectives. The briefing schedule for 2025 included the following: 2025 students (3 January 1996), executive committee (10 January 1996), National Reconnaissance Office (22 January 1996), Eighth Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation (22 January 1996), The Honorable Newt Gingrich (10 February 1996), Gen Ron Fogleman, USAF chief of staff (13 February 1996), Connections Wargaming Conference (7 March 1996), VAdm Arthur Cebrowski, JCS J-6 (7 March 1996), USAF Academy faculty members (13 March 1996), and participants of the Education in the Information Age Conference (18 April 1996).
- Verbal conversation between Gen Ron Fogleman, Air Force chief of staff, and Lt Gen Jay Kelley, Air University commander.
- The Alternate Futures team includes the authors of this paper. Other members of the larger Alternate Futures group began working on other white paper research teams following the 3 January 1996 briefing to all 2025 participants.
- Expert futurists, including those who reviewed the 2025 alternate futures, cautioned against providing a "center of the box" world that many could misinterpret as a "most likely future." Schwartz, 233, specifically warned that viewing any given scenario as "most likely" tends to be viewed by customers as a single-point forecast, losing all of the advantages of using multiple futures.