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CIA 2020 Scenarios

The National Intelligence Council is a nominally-independent group of intelligence analysis and strategists who provide policy advice to the President (whether he listens to said advice is another story). Although most of the work they do is classified, they do occasionally produce open material available to everyone to read. This week they presented their scenarios for 15 years out, a document entitled Mapping the Global Future: Report of the National Intelligence Council's 2020 Project. The full text is available as HTML and as PDF. It's an interesting read: a well-structured set of scenarios that do an excellent job of completely missing the big picture -- a big picture which is implicit in the report's own supporting material.

The four scenarios -- Davos World, Pax Americana, A New Caliphate, and Cycle of Fear -- represent different visions of conflicts between "terrorism" and "globalization." The underlying themes of the scenarios are clear from their titles, and roughly boil down to whether globalization or terrorism "wins" and the degree of US domination of the system. Absent is any consideration of responses to globalization other than terrorism, or to an evolution of the nature of globalization (other than a bigger role for Asia). Also absent are any real signs of scientific or technological breakthroughs, decentralization as a model, the second superpower, the rise of developing nations (other than China), or indications that climate change and sustainability are concerns. In short, it's a set of scenarios of a changing world which forgot to include any real changes.

What makes this all the more striking is that the documentation for each scenario includes substantive data and analysis, often specifically discussing the key issues ignored by the scenarios themselves. Although the focus is primarily on economic globalization and conflict, there is useful information on demographic changes, the status of women (particularly with regards to education), the role of international institutions, even a mention of leapfrog development. If the scenario authors had actually used the given source material, the scenarios could have been a bold look at future possibilities, instead of reading like a rehash of The Lexus and the Olive Tree with a little Tom Clancy thrown in.

But even bad scenarios have value. As mentioned, the supporting material is well-presented, and is worthwhile reading for anyone wanting to think about what the next decade might hold; there will be few surprises for WorldChanging readers, but it's good to see various elements brought together. More importantly, the scenarios serve as triggers for "hey, what about..." observations, highlighting important drivers of future change by simply making their absence so conspicuous. In this way, the scenarios are a template; the real story of the future can be told by filling in the missing pieces.


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» De wereld in 2020 volgens de CIA from Ab logger
De CIA heeft een openbaar rapport gepubliceerd onder de titel ‘Mapping the Global Future: Report of the National Intelligence Council’s 2020 Project’. De CIA schetst vier scenario’s tot het jaar 2020: Davos World: De Aziatische ... [Read More]

Comments (8)

Stefan Jones:

"In short, it's a set of scenarios of a changing world which forgot to include any real changes."

I think the NIC knows its audiance. If they stick their necks out -- suggesting unfamiliar dangers or innovative policies -- they'll get dismissed as wackos.

For a while, after 9/11, the DOD and CIA and presumably others actively sought out SF writers to spin scenarios for them. I wonder what became of that.


It's quite hilarious to see the CIA write this kind of reports. Really, who on the planet still believes anything the CIA writes?

Not less than 5 European intelligence agencies warned the CIA about 9/11, the Europeans, Russians and Chinese knew about the non-existing WMD, the Euros know what's going on with Climate Change and the possible horrible geopolitical effects, etc...

So we must consider everything the CIA writes to be false, mediocre or simply wrong from the start -- until proven otherwise.

It's clear that this NIC has completely lost touch with reality.

No word about the rise of Asia and Europe, no word about environmental struggles, no word about the decline of power in the US.

In short, it's an amusing piece of work.


Um you didnt actauly read all the reports did you? In them they do in fact make it clear china will be a superpower and will be VERY big. They also talk about europe and concluded that it wont ebcome a superpower in the time frame because its gona be too busy dealing with its new members and the enormous cost of bringing them into the union.

One thing to also note this is JUST the stuff they were willing to air out in public. Less public reports are vastly more interesting and yet still are fairly easy to find.

As for 9/11 everyone "knew" ahead of time but no one actauly knew enough to have prevented 9 11 from happening. We knew for years highjackers were being trained but we didnt know an exact target and we didnt know the scope of the plan.

Many years before 9 11 remember the gov required nuke plants to be able to withstand a 747 being crashed into the containment dome..

The pentagon was being refurbed to withstand such a strike or a massive truck bomb.. they expected something might happen and were working on preventing the damage. They just couldnt see the exact target and before 9 11 they didnt have the publics willingness to deal with measures to keep all flights safe enough to have prevented 9 11 AND thats why it happend. We made it happen not the gov not the cia not the pres we did by being too stupid and lazy as to notice that hey our insistence on quick easy cheap and private flight left us extremely open to danger.

I saw a presentation on this report at the CIA last spring, and while I'm not fan of the CIA's traditions, I was fairly impressed.

First of all I got the distinct impression that there are a lot of well-meaning geeks working at the CIA who are rather put upon by the wider culture, and more pertitinently, the Pentagon, etc. There was a definitely an air woundedness in the place---a "hey, us middle guys tried to tell you this war wasn't going to work out and was pointless, and now you're making us the patsy" kind of sensibility.

Secondly, they seemed pretty clear on the reports limitations, and if you think about how difficult quantitatively modelling anything as complex as the future is, you have to give them a little credit. From what I recall they essentially started from current economic and military data, and current growth rates, and extrapolated out, allowing for second derivatives at best. The kinds of things Cascio is wondering about--technological change, other responses, etc--would provide all kinds of interesting inflection points, but where would you stick them in the model, especially such a big model? SF writers and futurist's imaginings are all very good, but some kind of quantitative base to sit it all on is not unhelpful. The key would be to not rely too much on either.

Saheli, bear in mind that scenario planning is not quantitative modeling. It's a wholly-different, inherently qualitative process (it's also something I've done professionally for about a decade). Scenarios are not predictions or even projections of the future, they're plausible what-ifs, meant to be used to windtunnel strategic decisions of the present. The point isn't getting the date of the first nanoassembler system correct (although that's always welcome), it's playing through the implications of what happens when that nanoassembler system comes online.

What bothered me about the scenarios was that, judging by the published framing material, the working group clearly was thinking about much deeper issues than the scenarios themselves let on.

As it happened, in early 2001 I was working for a consulting company that had a brief discussion with a CIA group about helping them improve their internal reporting mechanisms. While the discussions didn't result in work -- for a variety of reasons -- it was an early glimpse into just how broken the CIA had become. As Saheli suggests, there are/were many lower-level analysts who were watching the right things, but couldn't get their reports passed up the line without being massaged and reworded and streamlined into meaninglessness.

Looking at the report every so shallowly now, I'm thinking that this is in fact an example of exactly that kind of massaging into meaningless. I.e. the people who made the presentation to me and my classmates probably had little control of how their fairly interesting baby later got used by bureaucrats further down in the pipeline. Either that, or I was shown something else entirely. :-) Have to read more. . ..

Mindy Contrera:

While most of the report plays it safe, they do go on a limb to make a few detailed predictions. One of the ones that surprised me is that an economic flatline is predicted for Germany, due to a presumed inability to assimilate enough immigrants into their economic mainstream. By contrast, strong economic growth is predicted for France but this is at the cost of introducing migrant workers with a different value system and therefore possible future political friction.

The report rests on the basic assumption that economic growth is a function of a country's young population. But... what if it becomes fashionable for young French/EU people to work in Germany? What if it suddenly dawns on German retirees that they can move to a solar-powered house in Spain to insulate themselves from pension-robbing changes in energy prices? What if productivity growth someday becomes less a matter of local population and more of a loosening of constraints, such as at borders, of bandwidth restrictions, freedom of expression, freedom to share ideas? What if patents are replaced by a no-hassle open system that more effectively incents innovators without requiring profit-robbing legal costs as long as the parties in question are within the EU? What if the basic assumption is flipped on its head and old people, not young people, become the more valuable economic commodity?

Some significant things could happen in the next 16 years that could invalidate some of the most basic assumptions of the report. This is not something that the control freaks will want to hear. Well, better go, I hear the black helicopters coming again...


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