M Nirmala, Senior Writer

Spotting signals to divine future risks

Dr Oliver Markley's work as a futurist is about preparing for tomorrow's trouble today.

He gets a handle on what's to come by sponging up data and looking for early warning signs of disruptive shocks. He then suggests ways of lessening the risks.

Dr Markley, 77, completed his three-month teaching stint as a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in May.

His course on futures studies was a module in the think-tank's Master of Science (Strategic Studies) programme. The silver-haired don uses the metaphor of a bus journey to explain futures studies.

Picture a bus filled with people of different backgrounds travelling along a road. Some family members. Some people who know and like each other. Some strangers. Some people who even dislike each other.

Suddenly, the road ahead of the bus disappears.

"The driver does not know what to do. If he keeps on going, the bus will go over the cliff. Wouldn't it be nice to have a bird's eye view of the whole event? That is what futures study is," he says.

"It's about making wise decisions in the present time. You need to spot signals on future problems that are volatile, ambiguous and complex."

Complex problems could be related to everything from climate change to financial crises and the swift growth of the Internet.

Today's extreme weather events such as a major flood, for example, no longer affect just one country.

In 2011, Thailand experienced its worst flooding in 70 years, leaving 680 people dead and causing US$46.5 billion (S$58 billion) worth of damage to property. The floods affected several key industrial estates, and caused a breakdown in global supply of parts for cars, computers, electronics and optical instruments.

The shutdown of Japanese carmaker Honda's parts plant in Ayutthaya hit its production worldwide.

Dr Markley, who has more than 40 years' experience in the futures field, says: "Because of the complex nature of problems, it is impossible to predict what is going to occur. You can only think of possible, probable and feared futures.

"You then have to assess the risks and mitigate them."

Staying ahead

HE BELONGS to an international group of more than 4,000 futurists who are not snake oil salesmen but professionals who use rigorous analysis in their work.

To identify possibilities and risks, for example, people from different backgrounds are grouped together. They are encouraged to think creatively about an issue, but there is one strict rule - no one is allowed to criticise an idea as this could damage the process of seeking new insights.

Groups also play simulation games, just like war games where real soldiers become actors in a mock battle. This helps soldiers understand what actual combat is like and helps generals test alternative strategies and tactics they may later use.

Another strategy is to use mathematical equations to represent complex systems. The mathematical models are uploaded on a computer to simulate the behaviour of a system under different conditions. For example, a model of the US economy could be used to show the possible effects of a 10 per cent increase in taxes.

Using some of these methods, researchers at a government think-tank, Risk Assessment And Horizon Scanning, wrote in their publication last year that a study had been done on the possibility of an earthquake hitting Singapore in the next few decades.

According to geologists, a giant earthquake might occur near the islands of West Sumatra. Its magnitude of 8.8 - worse than the one in Sichuan, China, in 2008 - could damage medium- and high-rise buildings built on soft soil in Singapore.

Seismic monitoring by the National Environmental Agency will enable it to alert the relevant agencies within seconds. The police, for example, will then be able to provide regular updates to the public.

To plan for strategies such as retrofitting possibly unstable buildings, engineering analyses and lab tests are done on these buildings to see if they can withstand earthquake tremors.

When doing futures work, Dr Markley says, people are the biggest obstacle because many rule out the likelihood of a problem occurring even when presented with facts and scenarios.

"Some will say it's not credible or deny it. Some have even said warnings on global warming are bunk science," he says.

Trained as an engineer in San Diego State University and Stanford University in the early 1960s, he branched into psychology and has relied on this discipline for his work in futures studies. He obtained his master's and PhD in social psychology in Northwestern University in the US. Among the groups he has done futures work for in the United States are the Nasa Johnson Space Centre, Texas Instruments and Apple.

Building expertise

THOUGH not a counter-terrorism expert, Dr Markley sees terrorism as a risk area that can be studied the same way as failures in governance or income disparities.

"Terrorism is a risk area, just like other problems like military threats, political instability or ecological disasters," he says.

Professor Kumar Ramakrishna, head of Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS), says Dr Markley's methods introduce students to fresh ways of conceptualising future trends and security threats.

"It provides another way of thinking about the evolution of the terrorist threat, which perhaps traditional approaches may not necessarily deal with."

To raise the number of futurists in Singapore, a workshop to design a futures studies course was held in 2007 by the National Security Coordination Secretariat at RSIS. It was added in 2008 to the RSIS master's programme.

Dr Markley says Singapore made a head start in preparing for futures studies in the 1990s.

It joined global organisations dealing with the subject and the Government set up the Risk Assessment And Horizon Scanning (RAHS) unit in 2004 and launched the Centre for Strategic Futures in 2009.

Singapore, he believes, can show the way ahead in a world that lacks clear ideas on moving forward.

"The more I understand Singapore and how its leaders like Mr Lee Kuan Yew led this country, the more I'm convinced that it can contribute to the present vacuum of great ideas on the future," he says.

"At the core of this search for ideas are the qualities of integrity, honesty and transparency. Singapore has an abundant store of these qualities,'' he adds.


This is the second part of a five-part series on experts in Singapore studying the future.

Tomorrow: A study of the changing Singapore society.