Anticipating wild cards in world affairs

An article in the latest The Futurist magazine (January-February 2008) summarizes an essay by Peter Schwartz & Doug Randall about wild cards in world affairs. (For futurists, a wild card is something that was thought to be a low-probability, but high-impact, event. Example: the collapse of the Soviet Union.) Some of the “strategic surprises” they see on the horizon that world leaders need to contemplate:

“The warning signs are there if one’s eyes are open to them,” Schwartz & Randall write. “The world’s business and government leaders will be immeasurably better off if they carefully consider how these scenarios could come to pass and act today to create maneuvering room for the radically different world that these game-changing events could create.”

The Futurist summarized “Ahead of the Curve: Anticipating Strategic Surprise,” by Peter Schwartz & Doug Randall, an essay in Blindside: How to Anticipate Forcing Events and Wild Cards in Global Politics, edited by Francis Fukuyama (Brookings Institution, 2007).

Wild cards have been covered several times in The Futurist. In the July-August 1997 edition, author John L. Petersen said the following wild-card events may or may not materialize, but they fit the definition and show the great variety of things that can happen in the not-too-distant future:

(Remember, these were presented 10 years ago, in 1997.)

  • human cloning is perfected
  • worldwide epidemic
  • a no-carbon economy
  • self-aware machine intelligence is developed
  • altruism outbreak
  • nuclear terrorists attack the U.S.
  • electromagnetic field disrupts global communications
  • cold fusion is perfected by a developing country
  • birth defects are eliminated
  • U.S. economy fails
  • rise of an American dictator
  • collapse of the sperm count

Earlier, John D. Rockfellow listed the following wild cards in the January-February 1994 issue of The Futurist:

  • The re-annexation of Hong Kong by China
  • Europe could dismantle the nation-state in favor of a strong regional representation in the European Community
  • a no-carbon economy may also become a factor with concerns about the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere

Some of those older wild-card predictions no longer seem so wild, such as terrorist attacks on the U.S., a worldwide epidemic (think: avian flu) and sharp reductions in the carbon economy. And, of course, China’s takeover of Hong Kong happened in 1997.

Finally, I’ll add another geopolitical angle to this discussion, the 2007 Failed States Index, from Foreign Policy magazine. These are the 20 most unstable countries in the world — vulnerable not only to falling apart themselves but also causing significant problems for the rest of the world.

  1. Sudan
  2. Iraq
  3. Somalia
  4. Zimbabwe
  5. Chad
  6. Ivory Coast
  7. Congo
  8. Afghanistan
  9. Guinea
  10. Central African Republic
  11. Haiti
  12. Pakistan
  13. North Korea
  14. Burma
  15. Uganda
  16. Bangladesh
  17. Nigeria
  18. Ethiopia
  19. Burundi
  20. Timore-Leste

Out of the Blue: Wild Cards and Other Big Future Surprises, by John L. Petersen
Seek out the gadflies, the iconoclasts, the mavericks
The difference between futurists and regular consultants
Calls for a breakup even louder in Belgium
The extinction timeline
Edward Cornish wrote about wild cards in the July-August 2003 issue of The Futurist. An abstract:

Futurists have a special term for surprising, startling events that have important consequences: wild cards. Wild cards have the power to completely upset many things and radically change many people’s thinking and planning. The more extraordinary the surprise event, the more it qualifies as a wild card surprise in terms of upsetting expectations. Wild cards are not always bad; in fact, they can be extremely beneficial, such as unexpectedly inheriting a large amount of money. Any sudden occupational success may also function as a wild card, because it opens extraordinary new opportunities and changes one’s relationship to other people. Wild cards are, by definition, unexpected, but that does not mean that they rarely happen. They are exceptional in the sense that they are unusual. In most wild-card events, the developments and conditions that foreshadow the surprise happening can be identified.

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