Foresight & Futures

How US Marines Use Sci-Fi to Prepare for the Future

On a cold February day in 2016, somewhere in a conference room in Quantico, VA, Lt. Col Patrick S. Kirchner of The United States Marine Corps, prepares for a meeting between 18 service members and professional sci-fi authors, including August Cole (Ghost Fleet), Chuck Gannon (Caine Riordan series) and Max Brooks (World War Z). Their task is to write stories about futures. These futures, also known as scenarios, were developed in collaboration with Atlantic Council’s (an international security think tank) The Art of the Future project, which is aimed at preparing the military for the challenges and uncertainties of long-term futures.

Thinking about the future is not new for the military. Scenario planning, war games and even the word strategy itself, has roots in the military. What is unique about The Art of the Future is that it focuses specifically on long-term futures, beyond 5-10 years, and uses the practice of futures studies (also known as strategic foresight) to do so. In the age of volatile technological, social and political change, trying to predict the future in such a long time horizon might seem counter intuitive, if not futile. But the goal of The Art of the Future, and futures studies in general, is to forecast several alternative futures and imagine potentialities, opportunities and vulnerabilities. Some of this work is rooted in current data and emerging facts; futurists call them weak signals. But much of it is based on imagination and creativity.

The challenge for many futurists is that the output of this work is usually very dense and technical; consisting of tens, if not hundreds of pages of data, analysis and scenario descriptions. This is why Lt. Col Krichner and his team decided to use the genre of sci-fi literature to make the content more approachable and inclusive. They announced a call among the USMC service members who were interested in creative writing. Eighteen of them were invited to a workshop where they brought to life the scenarios developed as part of the 2015 Marine Corps Security Environment Forecast: Futures 2030-2045. The report is open to the public and can be found here. The stories written by the service members and sci-fi authors and have recently been published.

Lt. Col Krichner shared his experiences from this project in the 2016 annual conference of the World Future Society. One of the key advantages of distributing futures work in a literary medium, is that the audience can engage with the underlying material on a more emotional and visceral level, while still grasping the technical detail of the future world. For example, in “Water is a Fightin’ Word,” we follow a future marine as he tries to navigate a hostile region with the help of a local child, in a complex political, tactical, and social environment. As you follow the marine on his mission, the story reveals the relationship between people, technology, politics and terrain, leading you to ponder the implications of this future world on the issues and decisions of the present.

Futures practice is a balancing act between technical expertise and creative thinking. Science fiction and futures can help us escape the weight of history and the pressure of the now, to imagine divergent possibilities and make them easier to understand, share and modify. Most importantly, stories about futures make the issues particular to human experiences and values, which helps create more intuitive knowledge about the world. These stories are not intended to replace more traditional tools like roadmaps and tactical plans, but they can help us avoid blind spots and disruptions by deliberately imagining them.

Sandjar Kozubaev is a futurist and experience strategist with Sparks Grove. You can following him on Twitter here.

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  • Fernando Rosario
    January 12, 2017 at 10:06 pm

    Interesting article. Many applicable tools and methods from military war-gaming that can be transferred to civilian practices.