On 30 September 2016, Future for Advanced Research and Studies (FARAS) hosted John A. Sweeney, the Deputy Director of the Center for Postnormal Policy and Future Studies at East-West University in Chicago, USA. The workshop analyzes the dynamics of Postnormal Times (PNT) and new methods with which security and intelligence agencies can approach threat analysis and risk assessment. John Sweeney initiated the lecture by stating that the future cannot be predicted, rather alternative futures can be forecasted. Accordingly, Postnormal Times (PNT) is a theoretical and methodological framework used to analyze and make sense of possibilities for the future in the present.
The concept of PNT was defined by Ziauddin Sardar, in a paper titled “Welcome to Postnormal Times” published in 2010, as "an in-between period where old orthodoxies are dying, new ones have yet to be born, and very few things seem to make sense." From a security and intelligence perspective, it is evident that the 21st Century is a different security space than the 20th Century (during the Cold War era). Even though some of the actors are relatively the same, the challenges, issues, and opportunities are new. In general, PNT is not about the actual conditions, but about perceptual conditions that impact the way future is perceived.
Currently, the world is dominated by globalization, acceleration in technology, and a variety of social and political spheres, which resembles a network. Today’s world proposes an ongoing debate concerning the new security and intelligence challenges to understanding network societies. PNT is composed of three Cs that forms its core, these are:
- Contradictions: Recent images of the world have pointed out contradicting social, economic systems. For example, according to Oxfam, in 2010, the world’s 388 richest people owned the same wealth as the poorest 50 per cent of the world’s population. In 2014 and 2015, the number dropped to 80 people and 62 people respectively. From security and intelligence perspective the way we approach such contradictions is essential. The speaker pointed out that inequalities in strained societies impose challenges to the security environment.
- Complexities: In a complex system relying on dealing with the implications rather than the issue itself can be disastrous. For example, in France and Belgium, poverty and the lack of immigrants’ integration in the society is directly correlated to radicalization. Accordingly, deploying more police officers, and reviewing previous security assessments, rather than the proper integration procedures of minorities and immigrants into the societies will not necessarily reduce terror attacks in those countries.
- Chaos: It can emerge in different ways, shapes, and forms. Chaos implies how an action of one person, who neither have authority nor power, can prompt a reaction elsewhere due to globalization and acceleration of networks. One negative example is the burning of the Quran by Pastor Terry Jones in the US that led to riots in Pakistan. On the other side, a positive example is how the attack on Malala Yousafzai became viral leading to her being an icon for equality in the right to access education. Security experts have been examining the “theory of virality” to understand chaos.
PNT emerges when the three Cs converge. As a result of their convergence, three new trends develop namely uncertainties, ignorance, and manufactured normalcy.
- Uncertainties: When uncertainties arise concerning the occurrence of an individual security challenge, security and intelligence agencies might not be adequately prepared for it. For example, despite the promptness of the Japanese government in dealing with the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, there are still some uncertainties regarding security agencies’ preparations for potential nuclear meltdowns in the future, especially in the light of the increasing number of nuclear reactors worldwide.
- Ignorance: Relates to what we do not know or choose not to know or deny. It relates to ownership of knowledge. Memory can be manipulated to sustain misconceptions, according to the speaker’s definition of ignorance. For example, during the 2016 primary, fact checkers discovered that 78 per cent of the things Trump said were false, yet there is still roughly 47 million Americans who will vote for him.
- Manufactured normalcy field: Ignorance shapes manufactured normalcy, which seeks comfort and familiarity even during the times of crises. It is a form of cultural and contextual programming. From a security and intelligence perspective, understanding the power of manufactured normalcy field in shaping views is essential. It is composed of norms and beliefs from the past and present, while it provides a line of sight of certain futures.
Understanding the phenomena of creep, burst and lag are to make sense of how things can become and escalate into a PNT state.
- Creep is slow gradually changing phenomena. The gradual increase in global average temperatures will lead to rising demands from different countries. For instance, China is investing heavily in farmlands in Africa, while the US is also investing in having military bases there. Thus, Africa could be a potential battleground continent for super powers in the future.
- When a creep reaches its crescendo, it bursts, symbolizing a short rapid peak. From a security-intelligence perspective, one burst occurred in June 2014 when ISIS reached its peak and declared itself a caliphate after controlling territories in 8 countries.
- Following the burst, one experiences post-normal lag. It points to the fact that when one witnesses a creep leading up to a burst, people do not tend to admit that there is a change because that signifies that they must change their approaches. For example, there are many climate change deniers in the US, despite the vast evidence on global warming.
Sweeney also goes on to explain the different levels of uncertainties and ignorance to help understand how to frame issues. Various concepts were discussed, including:
- The “black elephant” is described as something that is very likely (or something that is very clear) but for some reason, people do not see it or do not react to it. One example of a black elephant is the sea-level rise and how some governments are not preparing for this potential disaster. Another example is the refugee crisis in Europe and how the organizations in charge were not prepared even though the signs that something of the sort was going to happen were evident.
- The “black swan” are high impact events that are unanticipated and arrive out of the blue. For example, the Zika virus in the context of security. During the sudden explosion of cases of Zika Virus, it was reported that within a week the number of cases increased from 47 to 350 cases. Accordingly, during the Olympics, there were initiatives to combat the spread of the virus, but there were still unconnected areas that they still had to confront.
- The “black jellyfish” are series of small high impact events, that is familiar and accelerates all of a sudden forming a chaotic state. Jellyfish do a process called blooming when thousands of jellyfish cluster in a particular area driven in part by breeding or ocean occurrence affected by two forces, that is an oceanic temperature which is rising due to climate change, and the rising sea-levels.
Sweeney concluded the lecture by summarizing that, black elephants are what is obvious, yet most people do not see, while black swans are events that people wouldn’t think will happen, and black jellyfish is the chaotic state produced by small incidents. He further emphasized their importance in forecasting the future through the lens of security and intelligence.