The Choice is Yours: Global Trends

When people think about the Intelligence Community, they often envision covert missions, classified documents and clandestine meet-ups. Of course, they’re not entirely wrong. We deal in secrets.

Our fundamental mission is to provide the United States’ national security leaders with the intelligence they need to make informed choices. Our customers are the diplomat, the warfighter, the policy maker, the president.

As such, it’s not every day that the public gets a chance to read the same IC products as the President of the United States. On Jan. 9, though, that’s just what happened with the release of the National Intelligence Council’s most recent Global Trends report.

The NIC’s Strategic Futures Group produces the Global Trends report every four years for the members of incoming administrations. Uniquely among intelligence products of this stature, the report is wholly unclassified. The Global Trends report is not only eagerly shared with a global public, its latest iteration was created with public input in mind.

“Paradox of Progress,” the sixth quadrennial Global Trends report, was released last month at an event at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., that brought together leading minds in global security, governance and the environment to discuss the prospects for our world. The title reflects the NIC’s assessment that technological and social progress, while generating positive advancements for humanity, also pose significant challenges to governance, the economy and global security.

Dr. Suzanne Fry, the director of the Strategic Futures Group, discusses the findings of the Global Trends report at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., Jan. 9. (photo by Brian Murphy, ODNI Public Affairs)

“There is significant volatility and uncertainty, but there are important choices before governments and societies to shape more distant futures,” said Dr. Suzanne Fry, the director of the SFG — and primary author of the report — in her remarks at the Newseum.


Global Trends has been shaping conversations both inside and beyond government for more than two decades, and each report is different. Intelligence analysts have to stretch a few different muscles to create an unclassified product completely from scratch.

“The secret to doing this right is to have a vision,” said Rich Engel, NIC Director of Analytic Outreach. “You have to make the decision up front to have an unclassified report.”

In his introductory letter to the report, Dr. Gregory Treverton, then-chairman of the NIC, stated, “Our intent is to encourage open and informed discussions about future risks and opportunities.”

As the team began to discover the trends, these were some of the original topic slides at the first discussion on Global Trends at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, in 2015. Everything from the environment to high-tech will influence our lives in the next 20 years.

“Global Trends is unclassified because those screens of secrets that dominate our daily work are not much help in peering out beyond a year or two,” wrote Dr. Treverton. “What is a help is reaching out not just to experts and government officials but also to students, women’s groups, entrepreneurs, transparency advocates, and beyond.”

The research to support this vision cannot be done in a vacuum. The NIC and SFG partnered with higher education, think tanks and other experts around the country. They also traveled around the world to get first-hand experiences and information from change makers of all stripes.

“The first thing we do,” said Dr. Fry, “is get out of Washington.”


As the director of the Strategic Futures Group, Dr. Fry is not only the report’s lead author, she is also the Global Trends project’s primary field agent.

Getting first-hand experience of how people live and govern is a critical component of this research. An expert can offer facts and statistics about how people work and live in another country, but until you’ve slogged through human waste in an alley en route to an interview wearing the requisite IC-approved black business suit (and Dr. Fry-approved three-inch heels), it isn’t quite real, according to Dr. Fry.

Where in the world is Dr. Fry’s team now? Maybe they’re in Greece or Turkey... or perhaps Jordan?

Over the past two years, Fry and her core team of about eight analysts have interviewed more than 2,500 individuals in 36 different countries, logging over 250,00 miles in the air. That’s the rough equivalent of circumnavigating the Earth ten times.

According to Dr. Treverton, “These interviews included senior officials and strategists, as well as business people, religious figures, civil society organizations, teachers, and students. We sought balance across age, gender, class, political and other perspectives.”

They traveled across nations and made sure to visit second- and third-tier cities. This provides a more complete picture of what life is like in another country. Fry said these meetings with people with varying worldviews and circumstances, particularly millennials, allowed the analysts to challenge some of their own assumptions.


Another way they started to project these trends?


That’s right, games. Analysts came together to do simulations — role playing analytic exercises — that encourage creativity. They form teams of subject matter experts to represent the perspectives and behavior of select international actors.

The SFG asks these subject matter experts — experts in particular regions or countries — to pretend they’re from another country and act in accordance with a set of facts or circumstances they are given. In a given situation, what would that nation do?

They employ a method called “path gaming.” This asks the groups to think ahead three to five years, and share their ideas an projections with the other “regions.” Then they listen to the projections of the other teams, and act accordingly with this new information to project the following five years, and so on through the 20-year time frame covered by each Global Trends report.

One of the slides from the Global Trends launch event Jan. 9. 2017, provides a visual for how “path gaming” works, and how the further away from the present an analyst tries to project, the more paths and opportunities there will be.

Over two years, the NIC hosted approximately 70 separate analytic simulations or outreach events.

“The officers of the NIC are extraordinary — creative, capable, curious, funny, and so professional,” said Dr. Fry. “All of us saw in GT an opportunity to learn from the world and to improve our collective strategic analytic chops in the process.”


The SFG also sought to engage with new audiences closer to home. They went twice to South by Southwest Interactive, an Austin-based culture and tech festival that hosts tens of thousands of participants each year.

SXSW participants crowded into a conference room to talk about the Global Trends project in 2015.

The NIC’s first SXSW presentation in 2015 was the first-ever such presentation from the IC at the festival . They took their case to the public with a “core conversation” that launched the public engagement campaign. This campaign helped inform the NIC’s broad-strokes vision of the world of the next two decades.

Their second visit to the festival in 2016 had a panel featuring Fry and several others, including noted futurist David Brin. The SFG announced and published large chunks of their early results on Tumblr, a first for the report, and asked for even more feedback.

Memories from Texas

One of the requests Twitter and SXSW participants made was to drop the term “non-state actor” from the report’s lexicon. It was a challenge to stop thinking like a state.

In the end, the SFG did not drop the nomenclature, but the report did recognize the sentiment of the request.

Past iterations have focused on traditional elements of power, such as military spending or GDP. This cycle’s version identified that individuals, ideas and movements will have much more power than in years past to impact government and policy-making at all levels.

“We wanted to provoke a conversation about the changing nature of power,” said Treverton.


So what does this all amount to?

The report projects that the next five years will be marked by increasing global tensions within and among nations. “An ever-widening range of states, organizations, and empowered individuals will shape geopolitics,” says the report, and “it will be much harder to cooperate internationally and govern in ways publics expect.”

According to the NIC’s analysts, nations that are able to adapt to global change, rather than forcefully resist, will have the highest potential to maximize the benefits of rapid change. These “most resilient societies” will invest in infrastructure, knowledge and relationships to weather any coming storm.

The SFG team developed three accompanying scenarios by extrapolating from these broad projections. Here’s how they think next 20 years may unfold:

“ISLANDS” investigates how nations react to a restructuring of the global economy that leads to periods of slow or no growth. Political instability grows and populations ask their governments to turn inward and become more isolationist.

“ORBITS” explores a future of major power attempting to increase their own regional spheres of influence in light of the rise of nationalism. This increases the likelihood of interstate conflict and imagines a nuclear weapon used in anger.

“COMMUNITIES” shows how growing public expectations but diminishing capacity of national governments leads to creativity in public-private relationships. It emphasizes that NGOs and affinity groups may be nimbler and more adaptive to the challenges people may face.


Through all this, the power of the individual becomes ever clearer, with louder voices and more technology at their disposal than ever before to make the change they want to see. From Bangladesh and Brazil to Senegal and Singapore, the team found the insights of young people particularly enlightening.

“Our visits with students and youth were especially valuable — challenging us to see what could be,” says the report.

The team met with college students teaching orphaned children tech skills in Bangladesh, and high school students working with local government on mental health issues right here in the U.S. The SFG saw that our younger generations had a particular sense of personal responsibility.

Students try their new state-of-the-art computer equipment and software at the Al-Ahliyah junior secondary school in Karawang, West Java. This is part of a public-private partnership between the Government of Indonesia, the U.S. Government and seven private sector partners. (Photo from U.S. Agency for International Development.)

“Virtually all [we interviewed] saw themselves in some way responsible for the world to come — driving home our key finding that the choices and actions of individuals matter more now than ever.”

Human decisions will be the deciding factor for whatever future we experience. “This future, although dark, is not cast in stone,” said Dr. Fry. “There are choices before all of us.”


This iteration of Global Trends has been marked by public input, but it doesn’t stop with the publication of the report.

“Global Trends has such a huge global draw that we we wanted to have it livestreamed, and we made available the translations in the five major international languages,” said Dr. Fry. “We’re expecting to continue the conversation and keep facilitating this conversation globally.”

The SFG keeps taking its findings on the road, talking to think tanks and universities and other audiences.

Anyone can still comment on Global Trends on the Global Trends Tumblr page. The SFG is committed to following up on their projections and ensuring GT is a living effort.

“We offer [these findings] humbly, fully recognizing the audacity of the task and that we will have made errors,” says the report. “We believe, however, that sharing with the world our assessment of the near and more distant futures provides a starting point for a shared understanding of the risks and opportunities to come.”



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