Strategic Foresight and Sci-Fi to Help Better Understand Future Threats

Olivier Desbiey

Olivier Desbiey

Olivier Desbiey is an Economist by training and explorer at the intersections of technology, social changes and public policy by passion. As AXA Deputy Head of Foresight, he scouts the horizon of emerging trends and weak signals to make sure short-term initiatives are grounded in longer-term perspective.

Current major trends suggest that digital technologies will continue to play a pivotal role in our lives. Does this necessarily mean that society will be exposed to greater cyber threats?

Strategic foresight considers that the potential balance of a future event depends on three aspects reflecting emerging trends and areas of uncertainty. Firstly, the current mega trends, such as geopolitical tensions or the competition between nation states and big tech companies. Secondly, the drivers of change, for example security- and privacy-by-design approaches and the increasing awareness of cyber-attacks. Thirdly, some major tensions regarding the dual use of technologies or how humans relate to technological tools.

These multiple forces could give rise to a variety of scenarios. A black swan event, with low probability and high consequences, could act as a trigger by accelerating awareness of these issues. For example, a ‘digital lockdown’ that would result from a global cyber incident could disrupt the way we currently think about the future. But for many specialists, the cyber elephant is already in the room, and some of the major challenges to come are very well illustrated… in science fiction.

Science fiction helps us build a vision of future cyber issues. Indeed, cyberpunk literature¹ and movies already dive into what cyber technologies could bring in the coming decades.

These take place in cyber space and blur the boundaries between virtual and reality. A typical breakdown of this boundary is the direct connection between the human brain and computer systems such as in The Matrix movie where the hero Neo tries to free the humans trapped in a virtual reality through cables linking their brains to intelligent machines; while the merging of human bodies with various technologies gives birth to cyborg figures, like the famous T-800 in Terminator.

1 Science Fiction in the Eighties, Gardner R. Dozois, The Washington Post, December 30, 1984

Science fiction cyberpunk literature, like climate-fiction, uses powerful narrative persuasion tools to raise awareness and help us understand what is really at stake.

Some cyberpunk fictions take place in dystopic worlds where computers and internet connectivity allow for corruption, warfare between companies and against nation states, with giant multinational corporations even replacing governments as centers of political, economic or military power. In these dystopian worlds, hacker figures often appear as saviors, and contrast with the negative image of hooded hacker figures surveying the dark web that is mostly portrayed in the news today.

Cyberpunk provides an extreme vision of the problems we know now: the world is dominated by computer programs, cyber warfare is easier and cheaper than physical warfare, and humans can get overwhelmed by the machines they created. Sci-fi also blends in and highlights other major trends, such as pollution, climate change, overpopulation or inequalities derived from the domination of machines.

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Since the Covid-19 outbreak, most foresight experts describe a “world after” characterized by repeated and complex crises.² This new set-up questions the way we should think about the future and emerging threats. Cyber risks crystallize this uncertainty and complexity and illustrate the limits of traditional forecasting tools where the future is projected as a logical continuity of the present. Science fiction for strategic foresight allows us to anticipate future cyber threats with ideas that regular frameworks might not otherwise imagine and helps to prepare for future scenarios and raise awareness.

Research shows that climate fiction, or cli-fi, can have significant positive effects on the readers’ climate change beliefs and attitudes, including that global warming will cause more natural disasters and poverty, as well as levels of worry, perceived importance, and the perceptions that global warming will harm them personally, as well as future generations.³ Many of these effects can be explained by narrative persuasion mechanisms that promote a sense of identification with the story characters and immersion into the world of the story.

Science fiction authors are also called upon to imagine and describe future threats that society could be exposed to, as the French military “Red Team”,⁴ made of sci-fi authors, exemplifies. Their mission is to provide out-of-the-box thinking and to come up with disruptive scenarios that anticipate how terrorist groups or hostile states might use advanced cyber technology in the future for example.

Disruptive scenarios and storytelling tools can help shift beliefs and attitudes regarding science and environmental issues, raise awareness and anticipate future threats we need to prepare for, now. The following article aims to do just that.

Science fiction builds a vision of future cyber issues in a manner that is complementary to more traditional forecasting tools.

3 Reading Environmental Literature Can Persuade on Climate, Gustavson et al., Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 2020