Resilience, Peace and Security

How can we prepare for the security threats of tomorrow?

Anja Kaspersen
Former Head of Geopolitics and International Security, World Economic Forum
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The security landscape is reshaping, influenced by pronounced and ongoing changes in technology, economics, society, politics and the environment. There is consequently a clear need to foster deeper understanding among decision-makers in government, business and civil society about the changing nature of the security context. By taking a forward looking approach to the task, we can begin to imagine significant changes in both the nature of security threats and the means to combat those threats. We can ‘think the unthinkable’, contemplating the ‘black swans of security’ that might emerge, in time to approach them proactively and avoid having to respond re-actively.

With this rationale, at the Annual Meeting 2015 in Davos, Switzerland, the World Economic Forum embarked upon what ultimately will be a multi-staged, year-long process of bringing together key players in the security sphere to consider the new approaches that will be required of stakeholders to prepare for the security threats of tomorrow. This first foresight workshop gathered 30 military leaders, security experts, international relations experts, intelligence experts, defence ministers, leaders of both international and regional organizations as well as business leaders and asked them to discuss how we might broaden the security debate so as to best prepare for the security landscape of the future.

Amongst the plausible alternative futures considered, two in particular consistently emerged as highly worrisome if they were to play out on a massive scale and for which these security leaders felt insufficiently prepared.

The first scenario describes a dystopian future where identity is driven by ideology, not nationality, as governments fail to meet citizens’ expectations, and a virulent mistrust of the political elite ensue. Ultimately these conditions result in the breakdown of the social contract between the state and its citizens and gives rise to asymmetric security concerns with well-armed, non-state actors against whom traditional combat operations and economic sanctions are not effective. Participants also noted the potential for a future in which there is a much larger underclass, including highly competent people left in search of meaning in life as jobs fade, creating vast, new targets for ideology-based recruitment.

The second scenario focuses on a future where all humans, man-made objects and physical structures are digitally connected and artificial intelligence has developed to outperform human intelligence. New technologies can give birth to new types of armaments. For example, as network connected technologies are integrated inside the body – for purposes of physical or cognitive enhancement – humans become hardwired into the network and can thus be added to the list of potential cyber-attack targets. Here, we would need to consider the trade-off between our security and privacy needs, as the management of this dilemma will have strong influence on the willingness of people to engage in a social contract with the nation state.

Taken together, these two potential future strands suggest we might be heading towards a world with a broad variety of new, unfamiliar non-state adversaries, technologically more advanced and empowered than ever.

Further plausible futures explored included the possibility for individuals and companies to cheaply and easily access space, a commons currently without borders or laws; for the East Asia and South China Sea disputes to increase nationalism among Asian states, compounding maritime tensions, leading to an overall collapse in Asian cooperation and potential inter-state conflict in the region; and for emerging economies failing to ‘emerge’ and/or exhibiting unexpected – or unpredictable – behavior as these nations try and find their place in a new world order.

Exploring these plausible future scenarios demonstrates the need to rethink how we approach and prepare for the security threats of tomorrow. For instance, protection of the individual from increasingly complex physical and virtual security threats requires an exceptional response from beyond the realms of national security. It requires inventing solutions for new problems and securing support for them and implementing them across governance levels – multilateral, national and local — across sectors – the public, private, and civil society – and across values and cultures. Impossible? Too big a hill to climb? Our collective fortunes depend on success so we might as well begin climbing. For as Mahatma Gandhi said, “the future depends on what you do today”.

To find out more about the World Economic Forum’s Strategic Foresight community, click here.

Authors: Kristel van der Elst is Senior Director and Head of Strategic Foresight at the World Economic Forum; Anja Kaspersen is Head of Geopolitics and International Security, at the World Economic Forum.

Image: Soldiers of the Eurocorps hold the European flag during a ceremony in front of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, June 30, 2014. REUTERS/Jean-Marc Loos

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Related topics:
Resilience, Peace and SecurityGlobal CooperationEquity, Diversity and InclusionCybersecurity
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