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SXSW 2017

How The CIA Predicts The Future

Have you ever been to a Murder Mystery party? You know the ones: you’re given a persona to study ahead of the event – with all their quirks, back stories and opinions. You attend the party ‘in character’ alongside a whole host of ‘new’ acquaintances, and as the night progresses, you work out who the hypothetical killer is based on your story, the evolving situations and how you and your fellow partygoers react to the environment at hand.

Now imagine that instead of hunting a killer over the course of an evening, you were instead playing out the consequences of a hypothetical world event over months – say, the mass adoption of Bitcoin, or the introduction of flying cars. Could playing a game which simulates a future world help us predict what might happen in such an environment?

The CIA seem to think so, and in fact, this is exactly how they work out what threats they might have to combat as time moves on.

At SXSW, four CIA operatives gathered for the ‘Cloaks, Daggers & Dice: How the CIA Uses Games’ panel. After discussing the use of games to train intelligence officers and synthesize models of issues at hand, Rachel Grunspan, the CIA’s Chief Strategy Officer, moved on to discuss how the organisation uses games to predict the future.

“We want to model the world as realistically as possible”, she explained, while taking us through the process of selecting players relevant to the chosen simulation. For example, if the CIA were exploring the potential effect of smart cities might be on their work, they might choose a game in which there are a team of CEOs working to monetise the city, a team of hackers looking to take advantage of the multiple sensors and systems now active, and a team of policymakers looking to optimise how the city runs for the citizens. So the CIA will choose subject matter experts — ex-CEOs, ex-policy makers, maybe even ex-hackers — to join the teams and bring with them their real perspectives and experience.

Grunspan spoke about how they engineer the game so that innovation happens during play – they create a situation where all the teams are making plans, acting on them, reacting to one another, building upon each decision and change in the environment as quick as possible. They will ensure the personalities create dynamic interactions and throw in plenty of curveballs which might play on their strengths and weaknesses; again, ensuring the gameplay mimics real life as closely as possible. For instance, they might throw in the fact that someone’s wife has just given birth or that a parent has died, and ask the players to react accordingly to this new information. By doing so, they create the same types of pressure that people would be under collectively in a crisis.

So the CIA bring together these teams a few months in advance of the game. Each team won’t know which other teams exist, they will simply be asked to build out strategic objectives, goals and outlines which they might take given this new world they are existing in. After the teams have decided what they would do in this future environment and game day approaches, the CIA then plays the role of ‘air traffic control’ – watching the teams as they execute their plans and reporting back to them the consequences given the other teams’ behaviour, and throwing in the situational changes akin to real life as they go.

In the world of corporate innovation, we’ve seen an increasing hunger for ‘future-scaping’ and situational analysis of new technologies and consumer environments to inform current commercial practices. Workshops and sprints designed to investigate the future allow businesses to really explore what role they might play as the world around them moves on. The fact that the CIA are investing sums much greater than the standard corporate innovation budget to effectively ‘play’, shows the power of not simply writing trend decks and running a once-annual workshop, but instead fully investigating potential industry movements before it’s too late.

Of course, not every business can put on a Future Mystery party whenever they are seeking insights on what’s to come next, but what the CIA highlighted at SXSW was the importance of looking more broadly when making future decisions. It’s not just about the tech capability, but rather the vast human reaction to such a change in an evolving world.

Grunspan revealed that it’s usually the ‘bad guys’ who come out on top of the CIA games, but the objective is less of the ‘who would win’ variety and more about plotting what might happen in such a future, and discovering which current practices must be improved and built upon ahead of said change. “Complexity organically emerges, which is good as it gives rich insight, and illuminates abstract dynamic questions which we’re all trying to solve on a daily basis,” she concluded.

It seems games play roles much larger than entertainment at the US agency – the question is, how can other organisations play as magnificently?

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