A Storied Tradition of Peering into the Future
To commemorate the 60th anniversary of the RAND Corporation, which was established as a nonprofit institution in 1948, stories about “RAND Then and Now” will appear in RAND Review through 2008.
RAND is known mostly for influential studies that address pressing policy issues. But RAND also has a history of thinking broadly about what the future holds. Such what-if thinking isn’t about predicting the future; it’s about building on a foundation of present knowledge and extrapolating from it to envision the future implications.
From Calculator to Computer
“The computer will touch men everywhere and in every way, almost on a minute-to-minute basis. Every man will communicate through a computer whatever he does. It will change and reshape his life, modify his career, and force him to accept a life of continuous change.”
Not that profound today, but when electrical engineer Willis Ware wrote these words at RAND in 1966, computers were still the esoteric playthings of scientists and so large they took up entire rooms. In a series of papers in the 1960s, Ware built his case for the future of computers from the ground up, laying down the logical underpinnings from what was then known. On that basis, he predicted — with stunning prescience — that, for example, personal computing services would emerge, and “a small computer may conceivably become another appliance” in the home.
More broadly, he speculated on the uses of computers in business, education, health care, criminal justice, communications, and research — uses that we all take for granted today. He also began to ponder computer issues that bedevil us today: “With so much available information around,” he warned four decades ago, “we may encounter an invasion of privacy problem.”
From Wired to Connected
The information revolution that Ware foresaw is upon us, and RAND researchers have continued to look at what lies ahead as a result. In pioneering work that began in the 1990s, political scientist David Ronfeldt argued that the information revolution was leading to the rise of network forms of organization, with extraordinary implications for how societies are organized and conflicts are conducted. He charted four evolutionary phases of social organization — first tribes, then hierarchical institutions, then markets, and now networks — recognizing that all four operate concurrently today.
From that theoretical basis, in 1996 he and RAND colleague John Arquilla foresaw, with eerie accuracy, the near-term rise of terrorist groups that would organize themselves less as tight-knit hierarchies than as sprawling networks that would employ “swarming” strategies characteristic of “netwar.” The world knows what happened five years later.
In more encouraging terms, Ronfeldt in 2002 pointed to the long-term emergence of a new, network-based realm of governance. “Over the long term (decades), new policymaking mechanisms will evolve for joint communication, coordination, and collaboration among government, business, and civil-society actors. Today, it is often said that ‘government’ or ‘the market’ is the solution. In time, it may well be said that ‘the network’ is the solution.”
From 2006 to 2020
Information technology might lead us down the path foreseen by Ronfeldt, but a number of other technologies — biotechnology, nanotechnology, and materials technology — will also have a direct impact on the future. How will these trends play out worldwide?
In 2006, a RAND research team led by physicist Richard Silberglitt looked at 29 countries across the spectrum of scientific advancement (from low to high) and assessed their abilities to implement 16 key technology applications by 2020. Among the applications considered were wearable computers, pervasive sensor networks, tissues grown to replace human body parts, vastly improved surgical procedures, cheap solar energy, rural wireless communications, and genetically modified crops.
“Scientifically advanced countries — such as the United States, Germany, and Japan — will be able to implement all key technology applications,” the team concluded. “But countries that are not scientifically advanced will have to develop significant capacity and motivation before barriers to technology implementation can be overcome.”
Harkening back to Ware, the team noted that controversial issues inherent in certain technologies would engender public debate and strongly influence technology implementation. For example, radio-frequency identification tagging had already raised privacy concerns.
Institutionalizing the Idiosyncratic
While such what-if thinking has always thrived in the RAND environment, it has been idiosyncratic, driven either by the inclinations of researchers or by the particular needs of projects. However, starting in 2001 — with the establishment of the RAND Frederick S. Pardee Center for Longer Range Global Policy and the Future Human Condition — RAND began to “institutionalize the idiosyncratic.”
The RAND Pardee Center aims to enhance the overall future quality and condition of human life by aggressively disseminating and applying new methods for long-term policy analysis in a wide variety of policy areas in which the methods are needed most.
Whether it is global warming, genetic engineering, or sustainable growth, the Pardee Center is premised on the idea that many of today’s choices will significantly influence the course of the 21st century. Using new approaches to computer-aided what-if thinking and policy design, the center’s researchers seek to examine a vast range of plausible futures and to craft near-term, often adaptive, strategies that can succeed reasonably well across a wide array of possible future scenarios. In other words, the researchers have shifted the question from “What will the future bring?” to “How can we act today to be consistent with our future interests?”
Pardee Center researchers argue that their new analytic methods, enabled by the same modern computers foreseen decades earlier, could transform our ability to reason systematically about the long-term future. Indeed, Ware made this point more than 40 years ago, when he declared: “The computer will be the most important tool ever available for the conduct of research.”
It isn’t about predicting the future; it’s about building on a foundation of present knowledge and extrapolating from it to envision the future implications.
The Advent of Netwar, John Arquilla, David Ronfeldt, RAND/MR-789-OSD, 1996, 127 pp., ISBN 978-0-8330-2414-5.
The Computer in Your Future, Willis H. Ware, RAND/P-3626, 1967, 47 pp.
Future Computer Technology and Its Impact, Willis H. Ware, RAND/P-3279, 1966, 29 pp.
The Global Technology Revolution 2020, In-Depth Analyses: Bio/Nano/Materials/Information Trends, Drivers, Barriers, and Social Implications, Richard Silberglitt, Philip S. Anton, David R. Howell, Anny Wong, Natalie Gassman, Brian A. Jackson, Eric Landree, Shari Lawrence Pfleeger, Elaine M. Newton, Felicia Wu, RAND/TR-303-NIC, 2006, 314 pp., ISBN 978-0-8330-3975-0.
A Long Look Ahead: NGOs, Networks, and Future Social Evolution, David Ronfeldt, RAND/RP-1169, 2005, 10 pp.
RAND and the Information Evolution: A History in Essays and Vignettes, Willis H. Ware, RAND/CP-537-RC, 2008, ISBN 978-0-8330-4454-9.
Shaping the Next One Hundred Years: New Methods for Quantitative, Long-Term Policy Analysis, Robert Lempert, Stephen W. Popper, Steven C. Bankes, RAND/MR-1626-RPC, 2003, 210 pp., ISBN 978-0-8330-3275-1.