“The COVID 19 pandemic was really the catalyst for this new renaissance that we’re living in strategic foresight and there just couldn’t be a better time than now to be involved with that topic.”
In this episode, Lieutenant Colonel Jake Sotiriadis, Ph.D. and Senior Futurist and Chief of Strategic Foresight gives us a glimpse into the Strategic Foresight activities at the U.S. Air Force and the recently released Global Futures Report, which he co-authored with a team of outstanding foresight practitioners and experts. In addition, we’ll explore why we are currently in the midst of the golden age of Strategic Foresight and why – in that context – it’s high time to bring new job positions like a “Chief Futures Officer” to life. You don’t want to miss this episode.
Below you will find the full transcript for the episode.
The golden age of strategic foresight
Chris: Hi and welcome back to the Innovation Rockstar interviews. My name is Chris Mühlroth, and today I am honored to welcome Lieutenant Colonel Dr. Jake Sotiriadis, Senior Futurist and Chief of Strategic Foresight at the U.S. Air Force. In his role, Jake spans the nexus of disruptive technologies, geopolitical risk, intelligence, and alternative futures. He also holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Geopolitical Futures from the University of Hawaii at Manoa and various master's degrees from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, and the Air Command and Staff College. And in addition, Jake was the first officer of the Air Force serving in the role of Political Advisor Fellow at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin. And if there are a few minutes free in between, he is also a frequent keynote speaker, fluent English, Greek, German, and Spanish. Jake, thank you so much for joining us today. It is an honor having the opportunity to discuss with you today.
Jake: Thank you so much for inviting me. It's a real pleasure to be with you.
Chris: Now let's kick things off. Jake, can you take us on a quick journey through your career so far?
Jake: Absolutely. It's actually a bit ironic, but my career, in my opinion, actually began in Germany in 1998 when I was still a senior in high school. And that's when I came to Germany as an exchange student through the Congress Bundestag exchange program. And I lived with a German host family, finished my senior year of high school in Germany, made so many friends, traveled all over Europe. And it's really that trip that gave me the inspiration, I think, to get out and explore the world. It really set me in motion, building on my interests of history and political science and foreign policy, because I was able to live it, and I was able to see how interacting with different people really changes one's worldview. And so from there, I commissioned into the Air Force right out of college after I graduated from Norwich University. And I've served as an Air Force intelligence officer now for 18 years, so almost two decades. And I've had lots of experience with all sorts of intelligence operations, with air operations, everything from working with unmanned aerial vehicles to traditional intelligence analysis type functions. I've served multiple tours here on the staff at the Pentagon. And then in my current job, I am the Air Force's, as you mentioned, Senior Futurist, where my team develops methodologies that help our senior leadership build anticipatory thinking so that they can ultimately make better decisions. And I will tell you that today, in 2021, in the midst of everything that's happened in this pandemic, it is quite an interesting and fun and a very rewarding job. And we really love it.
Chris: Yeah, I bet that. And now you got me excited. You know, foresight or future studies is, as we all know, right, not predicting the future or fortune-telling, but it's rather an academic discipline, right, to foster, as you said, anticipatory thinking to aid decision-making. It's about identifying weak and emerging signals and sources, possible sources of disruption. And as I learned, foresight also differs from traditional trend analysis, primarily in the trend analysis, you know, typically extrapolates development taking place today, linearly, somewhat linearly into the future. But it tends to neglect deviations from that. Now, Jake, you know, given your background, I'm really curious. How did you become a futurist?
“So what people don't tell you is that historian or futurists are actually all closet historians. Historians make great futurists because they understand how things in the past have transpired, and they can make a connection to what's happening in the present environment.”
Jake: Well, that's a great question, because, you know, it wasn't something that I had necessarily set out to do. But I think it was a natural combination of my background having a real interest in history. So what people don't tell you is that historian or futurists are actually all closet historians. Historians make great futurists because they understand how things in the past have transpired, and they can make a connection to what's happening in the present environment. So I think that background combined with a lot of my international affairs experience, interest in policy issues, foreign policy, when I came to the University of Hawaii to be a research fellow in the Center for Future Studies and then pursue my doctoral degree there, it just all came together. But that wasn't the whole story. It was really when I came. So, I mean, I had been doing sort of futurist research my whole life, just not knowing it, but was able to bring it all together through my formal education at the University of Hawaii. But when I came to Washington for the second time and brought those skill sets at that right moment in time where there was a true need for it, I think that that's really where we took off. And we were able to build from scratch, from the ground up, our team of futurists who are doing really important work for our national security enterprise. And I think also beyond the Air Force, we're seeing so much interest from the private sector, from universities, from people in general who are excited about learning this new way of thinking.
Strategic foresight at the US Air Force
Chris: Yeah, that makes total sense. And Jake, you know, let's dive a bit deeper into the foresight processes of the US Air Force that you have been mentioning before. So how exactly do you practice strategic foresight today? Can you give us some insight into how you're organized and how you operate?
Jake: Absolutely. Well, number one, there's no magic wand. And to be honest, the foresight processes that we're using are not very different at all. In fact, they're based on what is out in the academic world if you were to take a course in strategic foresight. Primarily it's very influenced by what's called the Manoa School that was developed by Dr. Jim Dator at the University of Hawaii. Of course, based on my experience and having been a student and a research fellow there, it really, I think, is a great way to bring futures into the policy realm. Sometimes we need to be careful because when we're working in a policy type institution, we want to make sure that we can really tie the research that we're doing to something tangible. We need to understand because people's time, as we all know, is so limited. And if you're talking only about methodologies and research, it's very hard to make that connection when you have perhaps five minutes to make a point or to really bring out something. So what we're doing is exactly what you talked about. And that is using our internal talent to put together a horizon scanning database to understand today's weak signals and emerging trends, because truly the weak signals of today and these emerging trends that we're mapping out will become tomorrow's reality. And so it's important to listen to those weak signals. And that's something that sounds maybe very intuitive, but it's very difficult when you've got multiple email accounts, and you're running back and forth from different meetings, and you've got hearings and all sorts of things going on. It's so easy to get trapped by the immediacy of the now. And I think what we want to try to do is say, well, you can actually innovate now based off of this methodology. It's going to make your organization's strategy a better strategy because it helps you question your assumptions. It challenges the status quo. And if everybody agrees on one aspect, let's say of strategic planning, and they've said, well, this is exactly how the future will look. That should be a red flag. That should be a warning signal because we've seen too many instances where that's just not the case.
“We are using our internal talent to put together a horizon scanning database to understand today's weak signals and emerging trends, because truly the weak signals of today and these emerging trends that we're mapping out will become tomorrow's reality. And so it's important to listen to those weak signals.”
Chris: Yeah, I totally agree. And, you know, the more complex the world gets and all the information you can actually acquire through, as you mentioned, different channels, be it email, be it transcoding, tech scouting and all the environmental scanning techniques you also have, I think, you know, navigating through the noise and providing some guidance is becoming even more important over time. But what would you say? How would you describe the impact that performing strategic foresight has had on your organization and still has on your organization?
Jake: One of the things that I'm most proud of is the collaboration that we've been able to do not only internal to the Air Force and our Defense Department, but with the private sector, with so many universities who are keen to work with our team. We've learned from them. They've learned from us. It's been a real model for emulation, I think. And I think one of the biggest impacts we've had is taking a report that we published last year, and we can certainly publish a link for our viewers and listeners because it's a widely accessible report. It's been downloaded now thousands and thousands of times. But we've put this futures report, which looks at geopolitical competition after COVID or in a post-COVID world, into a virtual reality format, which really, in my opinion, is a game changer because it's charting a new course for how we consume information. How senior leaders will make decisions. It's wonderful to read a well-researched futures report that's 50 or 60 or maybe 100 pages long. But it's something entirely different to sit in front of or to have an immersive experience and actually live those scenarios, see what it looks like, see what they feel like, see what that environment sounds like, and then understand some of the implications of alternative futures to our strategic planning. That's the real value proposition to my mind.
The Global Futures Report
Chris: Wow. And I think this is a world's first, isn't it? I've never heard of an alternative futures report or any futures report actually being projected in the virtual space and virtual reality and having not somebody read the report but actually immerse into these alternative scenarios. That sounds awesome. Let me know when I can do it. I definitely want to try it out. And maybe we can spend a few minutes on the Global Futures Report itself. As you mentioned, the report is all about alternative futures of geopolitical competition in a post-COVID-19 world. And by the way, the report, I guess, is unclassified, right? So it's available publicly. So let's jump right in. I mean, what alternative futures can we envision for a post-COVID-19 world? Can you give us a glimpse of the contents of that report?
Jake: Absolutely. So just sort of snapshot. What we did, the way that the report is structured, I think it's pretty exciting, because it gives you right up front four global scenarios that concern the entire world. What would a 2035 world look like through the lens of a continued growth scenario, a systemic collapse, perhaps a systemic transformation or perhaps a discipline scenario? And the report will give everybody a bit more detail into what all of those scenarios mean and why we pick those titles and the purpose that they serve. But it really, I think, is a way to change the way that we think and just disrupts, frankly, some of our conclusions that we have about the future and how the future can defy accepted probabilities. But then the report also gives us a very specific look in a wide range of areas, range, anything from competition in space, competition for autonomous systems, China's Belt and Road Initiative, new fault lines, geopolitical fault lines in the Middle East, things like disinformation campaigns, malign influence campaigns. So all of those issues are in the report, and they're covered as horizon scanning themselves. And each of those sections also has four scenarios. So if you're really interested in transatlantic relations, which I'm sure for this audience is something of keen interest, there are four scenarios. I actually authored that section on transatlantic relations. And we look at a wide range of possibilities. Some things we've already seen play out. As a matter of fact, things like the European Union's initiative now for bio data sharing and consolidating all that type of information. We talked about that in June 2020. But let me say the point of the report is not to be right. We are not trying to predict the future and futurists do not predict the future. That's very important to underscore. What we're trying to do is take these weak signals that we see today and look out based off of an analytic methodology and ask those difficult questions. Would we be ready to face any of these four potential scenarios? Are we making the right decisions today? Are our conclusions sound? Would we need to make different investments? Would you need to maybe divest from something? So that's really what we're looking at doing. It's a way of disrupting how we think. And it's not as important to pick, you know, to do sort of a predictive analysis. That's a different type of analysis and an important one, but not necessarily what futurists are doing.
“The point of the report is not to be right. We are not trying to predict the future. What we're trying to do is take these weak signals that we see today and look out based off of an analytic methodology and ask those difficult questions. It's a way of disrupting how we think.”
Chris: I absolutely agree on that one. And thanks for the overview of the contents of the report. By the way, what was the most surprising thing or the most surprising fact in your report? What would you say?
Jake: I'm not sure if there'd be any one surprising fact that people would see in the report. I think probably the biggest takeaway that people see is, that just a short while before the pandemic happened, we would have been talking if we had been having this conversation, we would have been talking about all of the chaos in the Middle East because there was a very, very serious geopolitical situation happening. Some news outlets were talking about the potential for World War Three, but you know how quickly that went away. And all of a sudden, we all turned towards the pandemic, which, by the way, many, many people had been talking about. And so it isn't that the pandemic was completely unforeseeable. There were so many people talking and writing about this kind of thing. But the question was not if we knew that a pandemic was coming. It was if the systems, if the bureaucracies, if we as individuals were able to process that type of catastrophic event. And I think if there's anything that we've learned from that and frankly, the value proposition of our report, it's that we cannot rest on the status quo as the norm for future planning. We have to have a better way of envisioning these alternative futures. And we have to constantly iterate and question our assumptions, question, you know, sort of that common line of thinking. Because if we don't, we see how events will catch up with us. And the future truly belongs to those who prepare for it.
“If there's anything that we've learned is from the pandemic, is that we cannot rest on the status quo as the norm for future planning. We have to have a better way of envisioning these alternative futures. Because if we don't, we see how events will catch up with us. And the future truly belongs to those who prepare for it.”
Chris: Right. And, you know, I've been discussing some of these aspects, especially around the pandemic. In a previous episode with Kara Cunzeman from the Aerospace Corporation, you know, I asked her just about her opinion if she thinks, you know, if COVID-19 actually was a black swan event or not. What would be your take on the question?
Jake: Yeah, so Kara is wonderful, and she authored actually our section of the report on competition in space. And so we're so happy to work with her and always seek her opinion on space issues. Yeah, I don't think the pandemic was a black swan at all. As I mentioned before, it was something that was very foreseeable. But as with so many issues, and this is a challenge, I think, for futurists, but also for decision makers, there are so many weak signals. There are so many emerging trends out there. And that's really where the talent, I think, of your strategic foresight practitioners comes in is you have to understand what is, you know, what's important and what isn't. You have to be able to make a distinction. You have to be able to really look at some of these issues in terms of where they fall on what we call an S curve. Is it in the foresight zone? Is it something that's already being talked about? Or is it truly new? Is it truly something that we haven't covered yet and a phenomenon that we aren't ready to grapple with? And so I think that's a very difficult thing to do. But on the flip side, we also have to help our organizations develop their aspirational futures. And so this is, I think, that futures and strategic foresight, in addition to being a great tool for strategic planning and for questioning our assumptions. It's actually very useful in corporate visioning and ensuring that, you know, doing this kind of workshop, doing this process, understanding every individual's buy-in to those aspirational futures and where they fit in. That is very, very important. So I don't, but I don't think that the pandemic at all was a black swan.
“The real challenge for futurists, but also for decision makers, is that there are so many challenges, so many weak signals and emerging trends out there. And that's really where the talent of your strategic foresight practitioners comes in. You have to understand what's important and what isn't.”
Chris: Yeah, I would totally agree. And having that said, you know, some may argue that, you know, strategic foresight methods and processes in the public sector may differ quite a bit from corporate foresight methods and processes in the private sector. And I'm not sure, you know, what my answer to this or what my judgment on this aspect would be. Do you feel the same? Do you think, you know, public is actually performing foresight methods and processes differently than the private sector? And if so, why is that the case? Or do you see the possibility, you know, for both sectors to actually work together, collaborate and learn from each other? What's your take on this?
Jake: I think that there are certain differences just based on the nature of the work. I think when we talk about something as so critical as national security, there's a different approach that's required. And there's certainly a difference in scale and scope when we're talking about complicated national security matters. At the same time, a lot of the underlying methods and approaches that we use in terms of how we do our analysis, I think are very similar to what I've seen in my interactions. And when I talk with my colleagues in the private sector, there's some basic underlying fundamentals of futures that don't change. But I think, you know, organizations are different or culture matters. When we talk about strategic foresight and organizational culture certainly plays a major role in how organizations see themselves. That's actually something foresight can help us with is giving our organization sort of an internal look at what it should be, maybe what it isn't, what it wants to be. And I think that's a very important value proposition when we talk about that. Some of the toolkits what we're seeing now is just an incredible opportunity through private sector partnerships to take advantage of some AI based platforms that are able to help us just go through massive amounts of data and help us sift through work that would have taken individuals much, much longer. And we're really only hitting we're just at the tip of the iceberg here where there's so much more potential to be able to unlock that collaboration. And so that's why I think bringing the private sector in the public sector together in these kinds of efforts is a win-win for everybody. And one of the other goals, I think, in writing our report was not only to put out the product, but was really to demonstrate that we are able to bring together a diverse group of thinkers who all wanted to contribute. Into making this vision of a post COVID-19 world a better one and believed in what we were doing. And so I think, again, we're really just getting started. And I will say there's a bright future for this type of collaboration.
“When we talk about strategic foresight and organizational culture certainly plays a major role in how organizations see themselves. That's actually something foresight can help us with is giving our organization sort of an internal look at what it should be, maybe what it isn't, what it wants to be.”
The Future of strategic foresight
Chris: There is most certainly. And then, you know, when referring to your report, as you just did before, I personally believe it is very informative, and I can only recommend, you know, everyone to take a look at it. And as mentioned earlier, the report is unclassified and therefore it's publicly available. Jake, where and how to get the report?
Jake: Sure. People can go to www.afwic.af.mil, and they are able to see the report on our website.
Chris: Great. Thanks. And of course, we will, you know, added the link to the show notes of this episode. Now, Jake, coming from the report now that I have you here, maybe we can also talk a bit about the future of strategic foresight itself. And as we have already been discussing in the beginning, of course, the higher the uncertainty, the higher the need for strategic foresight to foster anticipatory thinking, support strategic decision-making. According to your personal opinion, what do you think the future of strategic foresight will look like maybe in the next five to 10 years from now?
Jake: Well, I will tell you, I think that we will look back 10 years from now or five years from now, and we will say without question that the COVID-19 pandemic was really the catalyst for this new Renaissance that we're living of strategic foresight. I mean, there just couldn't be a better time now to be involved with strategic foresight than the time we're living in. Now, I will say, I mean, we lament the great human cost and the loss of life that's taken place during this time. And it's been so difficult for all of us, for our children who are maybe going to virtual school, for so many of us who can't see relatives, who can't go to their places of worship. We all understand the disruption. But on the flip side, this opportunity that's been presented now, I think where we've given the whole world has been given a mental reset, if you will. And just a wider acceptability of this kind of thinking, I think is unprecedented. So I think you're going to start seeing in short order corporations that now have everything from a chief diversity officer to a chief learning officer to a chief wellness officer. I would not be surprised if corporations began adding a chief futures officer or chief futurist to the C-suite. That's something that I think perhaps the security establishment is going to be looking into as well. And I think that the recognition that this is a skill set that is in high demand and can truly make a difference. Because we don't want to just add things to create more offices. We want to add something that truly brings value, that makes our organization better, that helps us do our job better. But I think that's something that we would be able to look toward in five to 10 years. I think more programs, more academic programs, and more interest in academic programs, because there already is incredible interest now. I've just seen this last year. So many people have reached out. So many people have expressed interest in following this line of study. But I would imagine you'll see universities also adopting more of these kinds of classes, combining this type of work with some great work in design thinking that's already out there with game theory. Even aspects of political science and political psychology. There are so many interesting parts to this equation. So I do think where we are living a renaissance, and we're just getting started. And it's in one sense, we're actually reintroducing strategic foresight to many people. Because really, we shouldn't forget that the discipline itself was developed here in the United States after the Second World War. And it was used for a lot of the strategic planning. And it's just ebbed and flowed over the last decades. But now I think we're coming to a place of recognition of how truly important it is.
“I would not be surprised if corporations began adding a chief futures officer or chief futurist to the C-suite. That's something that I think perhaps the security establishment is going to be looking into as well.”
Chris: Yes, absolutely. And as we talk about the renaissance of strategic foresight. And by the way, I think the rise of the chief futurist officer would definitely make a good title for exciting research and exciting article going forward. But despite that, since we talk about the renaissance, will, and also should strategic foresight prevail in the private and public sector? I think you already made a statement on that one. But what could be a possible step forward into the future? How should public and maybe also private organizations position themselves on this topic? One idea certainly might be the introduction of a chief futurist officer or chief futurist officer or whatever. But what can private and public organizations do in addition to embrace the topic and to position themselves early for the next decade?
Jake: Well, I think we have to recognize that organizations would do well by seeing the potential that their workforce has. I mean, we all each individual has within ourselves an innate nature and innate ability to think or imagine how the future could be different. That's nothing very complicated. So the question is, are we giving our colleagues the proper tools and toolkits to be able to bring out that potential and harness their valued thought in their day-to-day work? Part of that has to do with the fact that today we're much more concerned with immediate solutions, instant gratification. Everything needs to become a smartphone app, right? Otherwise, we won't pay attention to it. But what we should be doing instead is, we should be creating what I call a cognitive operating system. And that is the model moving forward that I think we need to follow. And the cognitive operating system really is asking us to see the interconnectivity of events, understand, you know, to challenge our status quo, challenge our assumptions, and then embrace complexity in our thinking. Not recognizing that something is complicated, but true complexity, understanding that there is a multi-source causality to a particular issue, that it's not just a point A to point B solution. So building towards that cognitive operating system, whether that's in the private sector, whether that's in the public sector, the model will be different depending on the needs of the organization and the individuals. But I think overall that is one important step to take to realizing that sort of renaissance we're talking about of strategic foresight.
Chris: Yeah, absolutely. And I think this is a great mission to be on. And yeah, you know, I'm really excited, Jake, to see how this all plays out in the midterm future and definitely see the opportunity of embracing complexity somewhat. And, you know, past discussions that I had also hinted towards, you know, the necessity to have a bit more, you know, skills in the area of data literacy, for example, right? So obviously if you have signals coming from so many different sources, and you have to differentiate between what is a weak signal, what is an emerging trend, what is actually something that might play out on a bigger scale, I think it's getting even harder and more complex to not only collect all this information, but also to evaluate it to make sure you're drawing the right conclusions. You are not only collecting the dots, you're connecting the dots. So this is definitely calling for maybe a new role, maybe a new era of foresight. And I think, you know, embracing that kind of complexity and change is maybe a first step for not even on the private but also public organizations to say, well, okay, this is what we can do. And let's now, you know, try to organize our teams and our future thinking around that. So thanks for that statement. I think this is really, really an important mission that you are on. I mean, we've almost reached the end of this episode, but you know, there is one last question that I'm very curious to hear the answer to. It's a bit of an unusual question, but yeah, let's see. Now, looking back on your career in your role as a Senior Futurist and Chief of Strategic Foresight, what would you say was your most, let's say, impressive Innovation Rockstar moment to date, if you can call it an innovation moment?
Jake: Yeah, I mean, I think I would say number one, you know, and this is always it's always a team effort. It's always bringing people together, I think is such an important thing to do and harnessing that talent. But I would say really the fact that we were able to create our team, and we were able to fill that critical need, we were able to create our strategic foresight and futures team within our Air Force Futures office, within our directorate at the Pentagon. Because we did this, you know, we had, if you will, the foresight to make that recommendation well before the pandemic had happened. And so we were already starting to look at a lot of critical issues and understand how important it is to think about the future differently, especially when we talk about something as important as national security. And so I'm proud of the fact that we were able to do that and also that we had leadership, and we had leaders, senior leaders in our department that were able to do that. And so that was a two-way street. That trust was there. They gave us the flexibility. They gave us the room to experiment, which I'm grateful for. And on the flip side, when that critical moment in history came, we, I feel very pleased to say that, we were able to help the organization at least deal with some of the fallout and think differently about how we could approach that difficult question of what should our next steps be and how we should approach that. And so I think that that's a really important thing after the pandemic. How will this affect our national security? How will this affect the Air Force that we want to have? And then ultimately partner with other organizations within the United States and then also abroad in really answering that question ‘How do we make global futures for the planet that are more aspirational?’.
Chris: That is a really inspiring statement at the end of the interview. And you know, Jake, thank you so much for the fantastic interview and your insights into your mission and thought leadership on strategic foresight. It definitely was a pleasure to listen to you. Thanks so much for having me. And to our audience, if you want to dive deeper into the topic of strategic foresight scenarios or alternative futures in general, I encourage you to read through the Global Futures Report Jake and I discussed in this episode. And of course, we will link to it in the show notes of this episode. And for any other topics, feel free to drop us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org. Now that's it for this episode. Thanks for joining. See you in the next episode. Bye-bye.
Find here the Global Futures Report.
About the authors
Dr. Christian Mühlroth is the host of the Innovation Rockstars podcast and CEO of ITONICS. Lieutenant Colonel Dr. Jake Sotiriadis is Senior Futurist and Chief of Strategic Foresight at the U.S. Air Force.
The Innovation Rockstars podcast is a production of ITONICS, provider of the world’s leading Operating System for Innovation. Do you also have an inspiring story to tell about innovation, foresight, strategy or growth? Then shoot us a note!
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