The Brit Ministry of Defense looks at world’s future – it’s grim.

Strategic Trends is an independent view of the future produced by the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC) of the British Ministry of Defense.  I recommend reading it. 

This is the 3rd edition, “benchmarked” at December 2006 and released in February 2007.  “Strategic Trends” explores a range of potential outcomes over the next 30 years.  As with previous editions, the document has been placed in the public domain in order to generate debate and discussion. 

It is 106 pages, the “key findings on are pages 1 – 22.  The link to the summary page is here.

This is the most widely quoted article about this edition of Strategic Trends:  “Revolution, flashmobs, and brain chips. A grim vision of the future“, The Guardian, 8 April 2007.

The following is an excerpt from Admiral Parry’s forward, which gives the best statement of the futurists methodology that I have seen.  If more futurists would follow it we might gain a better view of what might lie ahead.

Excerpt from the foreword by Rear Admiral Chris Parry CBE, Director General of DCDC

In our analysis, we have tried to steer a measured course between the rocks of simplistic extrapolation from contemporary, emerging features and floating vague, meaningless generalizations and banalities about the future. Many commentators anchor themselves in the familiar present and, exploiting the latest fashion and a series of telling anecdotes, merely tell people what is already happening. Quite honestly, much of what we have to say, with regard to both continuities and discontinuities, does not have a conclusion or an ending, happy or otherwise, because, self-evidently, the future has not happened yet. What we offer are robust judgements across various alternative futures, which concentrate on the challenges of the most likely future themes.

Despite the tendency of some to confront the challenges of the future on their own terms without the context of history and human experience, I make no excuses for maintaining an intelligent dialogue with the past to make some sense of the future. As the great English historian Edward Gibbon reflected:

‘I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know no way of judging the future, but by the past’.

With this in mind, we have been realistic. The future is characterised by a bewildering number of variables and all trends inter-relate with each other and inter-react in dynamic ways; some judgements are based on uncertain and limited evidence, others rely on political decisions, which can be reversed or accelerated, and all are vulnerable to unforeseeable events and the vagaries of human action. I am, anyway, conscious that there is seldom any reward for those who get the future right. As John Gray has said:

‘People who worry about problems that others are not worrying about are irritating and are disparaged after the event. People who were right when others were wrong are even more irritating’.

We believe that the future will happen as a result of long-wave themes and developments that unite the past, the present and the future. However, one constant evident in history – the power of contingency and surprise – will continue to dominate our future, which will be influenced and punctuated by unexpected events, startling surprises, major discontinuities and the pervasive operation of chance. Quite apart from these considerations, people and countries will conduct themselves in accordance with their social and cultural characteristics and their perception of their historical experience and future prospects.

Therefore, this piece of work seeks to identify and examine likely patterns in order to suggest reasonable broad-order possibilities and potential outcomes, whose risks, effects and extremes it might be necessary to mitigate or avoid. It is necessarily a rational attempt at objective, dispassionate assessment, but I would ask readers to remember that, to paraphrase von Moltke, parts of our projected landscape are unlikely to survive first contact with the future, mainly and inconveniently because of the tendency of human beings to interfere with the scenery and to act and react in unforeseen, non-linear ways. Nor do similar causes lead to similar outcomes; things are just too complex, with a great many variables, decisions and actions that interact with human behaviour in an almost organic manner. Indeed, discontinuities, insecurities and volatilities seem to be proliferating all the time and future changes seem to be accelerating towards us at a faster rate than we might have expected.

Because of the difficulty of judging long-term outcomes in a rapidly changing world, our assessments are probability-based, rather than predictive; an exercise that is closer to establishing the odds on several runners winning a race, rather than gambling on a particular runner to win. Therefore, while we express clearly what we believe to be the most likely outcomes, we also provide assessments of lower probability alternatives. For example, a decline of confidence in globalized markets is possible and might cause international rivalries to intensify, increasing the risk of inter-state warfare. Therefore, while planning on the basis that major strategic powers have a shared interest in maintaining global economic stability remains reasonable, the need to understand the potential for conflict between them will persist.

The dynamic and fluid nature of the future strategic context demands that we also consider the potential for shocks that represent major discontinuities in what might rationally be divined. Most of the shocks that we have identified are based on plausible triggers: a mega-seismic disaster or the unintended outcomes of technological developments. Others, however, are highly conjectural, possibly appearing to some to verge on the fantastic. I would urge the reader, as a guard against scepticism, to consider in his/her own experience which shocks would have seemed likely 30 years ago.

I am aware that we may have overestimated the pace and effect of short-term change and underestimated the scale and nature of long-term change. My excuse is that it is difficult, indeed reckless, to imagine contexts that are fundamentally, rather than incrementally, different from the present, especially as the drivers of change are probably ones that have not been identified or understood yet. Consequently, we have sought the opinions of people who are expert in their specialist fields rather than those who profess to understand how the future will unfold.

Taken together, I believe that our work provides a complex, but readily discernible tapestry of outcomes, which should aid not only the Defence decision-maker, but also stimulate a wider audience.


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1 thought on “The Brit Ministry of Defense looks at world’s future – it’s grim.”

  1. Thanks for giving this document exposure as a lot of what UK MOD does is often lost in the global noise of “horizon-scanning” emanating from the US. I’ve been at a couple of Chris Parry’s briefings and always been impressed by his ability to communicate complex concepts and trajectories in clear and nuanced fashion. I hear he’s now transferred to Oxford University, possible St. Anthony’s College, although I could be wrong.

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