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by Kelsey Wharton
June 29, 2015
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Using foresight to tackle wicked problems

Our world is full of “wicked problems” – so called not because they are evil but because of their mind-boggling complexity. These problems are difficult to understand, and even more difficult—if not impossible—to solve. Climate change, and its effects on the limited resources we need to survive, is one of the wicked problems we face today.

Droughts, floods, increased temperature and other effects associated with climate change can further limit resources and intensify conflicts to control them. This can create a domino effect starting with geo-physical changes and resulting in social and political effects such as migration, disease outbreak and spread, and political instability. Each of these outcomes could have significant impact on our national security.

Anticipating the impacts of climate change on national security was recently identified as a top priority by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). Last year, the DoD published the “2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap,” which states, “Rising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, and more extreme weather events will intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict.”

“The tide of war and peace often turns on water, as is the case with the conflict in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)….Without water security, water often becomes a strategic target in war, either as a potential weapon or as a symbol of political legitimacy,” writes Rhett Larson, associate professor of law in the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, in a Huffington Post article, War and Water.

Iraq and Syria lack water security, or access to water of sufficient quality and quantity, which is a crucial requirement for peace and stability, Larson notes.

Climate change and its effects on global landscapes and human welfare create exceptional complexities for policy makers. A new research partnership called the Foresight Initiative is developing tools to inform decision makers as they confront wicked problems such as the web of climate change, water security and national security.

Nadya Bliss is the Foresight Initiative's principal investigator and director of ASU's Global Security Initiative.

Nadya Bliss is the Foresight Initiative's principal investigator and director of ASU's Global Security Initiative.

“Foresight represents a new way of thinking,” says Nadya Bliss, a lead researcher on the project. “It’s about a new way of thinking about problems, new ways of engaging multiple disciplines, and new ways of engaging multiple agencies.”

The initiative is supported by a $20 million, five-year cooperative agreement from the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) and represents a partnership between ASU, NGA and three national laboratories: Argonne, Oak Ridge and Pacific Northwest.

The researchers will examine how climate change affects resources, specifically water, and subsequently contributes to political and social unrest. Then they will create a suite of decision-making modules that policy makers can use to understand, anticipate and mitigate national security risks associated with climate change, with a focus on water security. The modules will include advanced data analysis, simulation and visualization.

Wicked problems require nimble problem-solvers from multiple disciplines, which is why three investigators lead ASU’s team. Nadya Bliss, director of ASU’s Global Security Initiative, coordinates the initiative. Dave White, associate professor in the School of Community Resources and Development and director of the Decision Center for a Desert City, coordinates two working groups. One focuses on modeling and simulation and the other focuses on engaging stakeholders. Ross Maciejewski, assistant professor in the School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering, is leading the data visualization and collaborative decision-making platforms.

The team includes 12 other ASU researchers from departments across the university, including the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

ASU is already known as a leader in complex decision making through its Decision Theater Network. The network provides high-performance modeling, analysis and simulation tools to guide stakeholders in the choices they make. It is most well-known for the “drum,” an immersive, interactive visualization and simulation environment complete with seven-screen, panoramic, high-definition displays. The original Decision Theater is located on ASU’s Tempe Campus. In 2013, ASU launched a second Decision Theater at the McCain Institute for International Leadership in Washington, D.C.

The Decision Theater Network actively engages researchers and leaders to visualize solutions to complex problems. Associate professor Dave White is the director of the Decision Center for a Desert City.The Decision Theater Network actively engages researchers and leaders to visualize solutions to complex problems. Associate professor Dave White is the director of the Decision Center for a Desert City.

“Our aim is to have foresight, to have anticipation, and think deliberately about the future and how global environmental change may impact things like food, energy and water systems in countries around the world,” White says. “We are thinking about how those impacts could then create issues related to things like human migration, political instability and other social issues that could create problems for the United States.”

Making the invisible visible
To create tools to navigate the complex decision-space associated with these issues, the researchers will collect and analyze vast data sets. The data will range from climate models and satellite land-use surveys to television and web media as well as social media such as Twitter feeds. Combining these different data types will yield new insights about climate, its effects on people’s daily lives and the potential impact to political uncertainty.

“Frequently for climate and population data you don’t have true microlevel data so you don’t know what’s occurring at the meter or mile resolution,” says Maciejewski. “But if we can use social sensors (like social media) as proxies for microresolution climate and population data, then that can help us.”

Social media data also sheds light on how people are reacting to the effects of climate change and potential responses, such as the construction of a new dam or proposed water restrictions.

Cameron Thies is professor and director of the School of Politics and Global Studies. He is leading a team of political scientists at ASU focusing on political instability as part of the Foresight Initiative.

“We can never predict human behavior with certainty,” he says. “But we can begin to understand the various factors that, if perturbed, may lead to changes in political instability. The kinds of decision-making tools we will develop will allow people to see what would happen if the temperature in an area increases, or the availability of river water decreased, and so on. This would allow decision-makers to run different scenarios, thus allowing them to plan for the different contingencies that arise.”

Communicating varied and complex data to a variety of stakeholders with different skill sets is a challenge. This is why the initiative will create place-based narratives, stories that could include short video or audio clips and can help to present complex data in a relatable way.

This map of Africa explores the relationship between non-violent conflict, violence against the public, and riots and protests. It identifies areas with similar levels of conflict by type. Yellow indicates areas with no conflicts. Red areas have low levels of non-violent conflict and riots/protests. The purple areas show mid-level violent conflict. Blue regions tend toward high levels of violent conflict and riots/protests. Clustering the data in this way allows researchers to begin exploring hypotheses on root causes and effects.This map of Africa explores the relationship between non-violent conflict, violence against the public, and riots and protests. It identifies areas with similar levels of conflict by type. Yellow indicates areas with no conflicts. Red areas have low levels of non-violent conflict and riots/protests. The purple areas show mid-level violent conflict. Blue regions tend toward high levels of violent conflict and riots/protests. Clustering the data in this way allows researchers to begin exploring hypotheses on root causes and effects.

Images also help tell the story. When large amounts of data are collected, finding relationships between events, locations and time can be challenging. Combining visualization and analytics techniques can help “make the invisible visible.”

The initiative is taking advantage of ASU’s transdisciplinary structure and the diversity of the assembled team. The researchers’ ability to work across disciplines impressed NGA and is also greatly valued by the ASU team members.

“I come from a technology-focused background and haven’t interacted in any seriousness with social scientists and researchers from humanities in other fields,” says Bliss. “Working with people outside of the technology discipline has opened up my mind in ways I didn't think would be possible; it allows you to think in a different way. As a generally curious person, the work at the edges of disciplines, to me, is one of the most exciting things on this initiative.”

“[Working with colleagues outside my discipline] is the most challenging and most rewarding part of the whole project,” adds White. “It develops my ability to communicate and create informed work of my own that considers different aspects, innovations and new ways of thinking. That helps me conduct better science in my home discipline. If you’re not constantly challenging and thinking, ‘Am I doing this in a way that is the most innovative, the most contemporary?’ then it can be easy to stagnate within a university.”

In addition, Bliss says that ASU also stood out to the NGA because of the university’s commitment to conducting research of public value.

“Foresight is a canonical New American University project,” says Bliss, referencing ASU’s vision for transforming higher education. “It exemplifies the elements of breaking the disciplinary boundaries, changing the way people think in an agency, creating public good and impact and building an education program.”

Ross Maciejewski, assistant professor in the School of Computing, Informatics and Decisions Systems Engineering, is leading the data visualization and collaborative decision-making platforms. Photo by Jessica HochreiterRoss Maciejewski, assistant professor in the School of Computing, Informatics and Decisions Systems Engineering, is leading the data visualization and collaborative decision-making platforms. Photo by Jessica Hochreiter

Decision makers of the future
A key element of the Foresight Initiative is translating the research into educating current and future decision makers. The project is creating new connections between stakeholders in the security and intelligence agencies like the DoD and NGA and emergency response and development agencies such as FEMA, USAID and the World Bank.

The tools created through the Foresight Initiative can potentially link the work of these agencies in new ways, and will be applicable to other wicked problems today and in the future.

“Over the long term the idea is to create a suite of interoperable building block tools that can be deployed in many different environments, including decision theater-like environments at NGA and the national labs,” says White. “Ultimately, the idea would be that aspects of these tools could be utilized on desktop computer or even tablets so that you could pull up components of a workflow or a challenge.”

ASU’s School of Geographical Science and Urban Planning is developing a new master’s degree based on the initiative’s research and focused on developing geo-narratives. The first class of students is expected to begin study in fall 2016. The degree material will be partially online, making it accessible to students working in the intelligence community, such as NGA employees.

By connecting decision makers across disciplines and developing tools to navigate complex issues, the Foresight Initiative is building a foundation for addressing the increasingly “wicked” nature of our global challenges and educating the leaders who will rise to meet these challenges.

The School of Community Resources and Development is an academic unit of the College of Public Service and Community Solutions. The School of Computing, Informatics and Decisions Systems Engineering is an academic unit of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.