Convergence Conversation: Strategic Foresight and the Intelligence Community with Jake Sotiriadis
Lt. Col. Jake Sotiriadis is the Director of Operations and Engagement for National Intelligence University’s Intel, Research, Education, and Solutions (IRES) Laboratory. He is also a member of the University’s research faculty. And his career as an Air Force intelligence officer spans nearly twenty years. During that time, Jake has created opportunities for senior leaders to understand the future risks and opportunities that exist at the nexus of disruptive technology and geopolitical risk. Passionate about anticipatory thinking, Jake founded the US Air Force’s Strategic Foresight and Futures Team in hopes of bringing foresight analytics to everyday decision making within the US Air Force.
Jake has a strong foundation in history, international relations, and the importance of understanding culture. He taps into this foundation to peer into the future and ask the important questions about what may happen and the options for action.
In this Convergence Conversation, Jake and I explore the importance of strategic foresight, what it means and how today’s leaders must incorporate this tool into their decision-making processes to manage risk and uncertainty.
Deb: Tell us about your journey so far.
Jake: I grew up in a Greek-American family, which gave me a strong cultural foundation. Growing up, I had a lot of influence from my parents and grandparents. All but one of my grandparents came over from Greece, and my dad was only four years old when he immigrated to the US.
My dad is an avid musician. It was his influence that started me playing piano at the age of five. And my grandfather had a Greek-American radio show every Sunday. We would go to church and afterwards go to the studio. I would sit and listen to him work. These important influences grounded me for my future profession. They gave me the foundation and taught me about my heritage. They also motivated me to learn the Greek language, which is helpful in doing political science work. When I talk about philosophy, being able to read Greek allows me to get to the root meanings of words that help describe the philosophy of almost everything.
I didn’t really have a military connection in my family. My grandfather had served briefly in the Hellenic army during World War II. Perhaps my fascination with the military came from growing up in New England. We lived on Boston’s north shore in proximity to a lot of history. Being able to go to Lexington Green to celebrate Patriot’s Day or visit the House of Seven Gables in Salem to read about Nathaniel Hawthorne contributed to my passion for history. I also started reading voraciously from a young age, mostly about the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. In 1989, Glory came out. The movie was about the 54th Massachusetts infantry and seeing the lives of the individuals during this period brought military history home to me. Then, for Christmas one year, my parents gave me the Time Life Civil War series.
At 17, I received the State Department Congress Bundestag scholarship to live with a German host family in a small German village of approximately 200 people and study German language and lifestyle. It was 1998, eight years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the country was still in transition. I was fortunate to see firsthand what this time in history really meant. We had heard about Eastern Europe, but it was from our American perspective. When you live there and get to know the people and speak with them, you get a whole new perspective of what it was like to live under the Communist regime. It was terrible in certain aspects, but they would also tell me that everybody had a job. They didn’t know what unemployment was. As things were changing, they didn’t know what they were going to do. There was a kind of security in their lives before the collapse. Understanding the different perspectives people had was really an invaluable lesson.
Maybe I had a romanticized vision of what military officers did in the Civil War, but I carried it with me as I started college. I went to Norwich University for undergrad, which is the Nation’s oldest private military university (founded in 1819) . I was commissioned as an Air Force officer in 2003. As a brand new captain, I got selected for an assignment as one of two intelligence briefers for the Chief of Staff and the Secretary of the Air Force in Washington. It ended up being one of the best positions I could have taken at the time. I was a sponge and learned so much. I had to show up to work at one o’clock in the morning to get all of the briefing materials ready from all over the world to brief leadership. I got to talk with some of our senior analysts and just do a lot of listening and learning, and then practicing communication in front of what was a tough audience. Those 18 months on the job almost felt kind of like getting a master’s degree.
Deb: When you look into the future, what are some of the key things that need to be considered or are being ignored?
Jake: I’m in a dream job right now. The National Intelligence University (NIU) has a unique role of being the center of academic life for our intelligence community. It’s the only federally funded, degree-granting institution that allows students to conduct classified/Top Secret research, as well as traditional academic research and disciplines. That in itself is a convergence and NIU is a special place. It is a privilege to not only teach about intelligence, but also to have a student body that’s composed of folks from the CIA, the FBI, the NGA—all the military services and across other parts of the government. It creates a wonderful learning environment that, frankly, is just probably more important than ever today.
One of the things we need to look at is the fact that we are really at a point of critical mass. The intelligence community has a lot of bureaucratic structure and organizational culture that is tied to Cold War-era thinking. Some of the basic functions like strategic warning and even just some of the analytical tradecraft harken back to what we did in the Cold War.
We’re at this inflection point today where we must adapt to the digital age that we live in. At the same time, we have to guard against equating the future solely with technology. It’s a very difficult tightrope and a trap we’ve often fallen into. Whenever we want to talk about the future, we automatically just think about high tech developments. Of course, imagination is key to thinking about the future and we don’t want to stifle that, but it’s equally important to teach people how to think and consider how the future is going to defy our accepted probabilities. It’s possible that the most ridiculous and far-fetched option or scenario we develop will be one that we’re going to have to deal with.
Deb: You started your personal story about the importance of culture. How does the understanding of different cultures and people factor into imagining different futures?
Jake: It’s all interrelated. We need to understand the complex world we live in as well as the power of culture to affect global developments. It’s often said that culture eats strategy for breakfast. We can’t operate in a vacuum and ignore all the breakthrough technologies that we have and the ones that will bring disruptive change for us in the future. For example, we’re going to have to figure out how we create or match the skill sets of tomorrow with how we’re training people today. It’s a difficult thing to be able to try to project what will be needed once we have these disruptive technologies.
I also think that there is a human-centric piece that we can’t lose sight of as we embrace and develop research technology. I call this idea developing a cognitive operating system. When we talk about a cognitive operating system, it’s what you think of traditionally as an operating system that you have on your computer. It’s constantly functioning in the background and you often don’t even know or realize that it’s there. What we tend to want today is an application solution that can do whatever we want to do or know. But an app doesn’t necessarily do good foresight work. Human thinking does.
To do good foresight you need to be able to take pieces from multiple domains and bring them together to ask ‘what if?’.
You want to have the technological piece that considers disruptive technology. You need the culture and the socioeconomic pieces that work together to find where those touch points are to frame where a particular issue is, how it’s occurring, how it’s developing, and how those touch points may (or may not) affect your organization’s core mission. That’s where I think we’ve lost our way a bit. We are tending to just make this a big tech bet. We look at things like Joint, All Domain Command, and Control and think that we have to network all of our old legacy platforms. But if we just digitally connect everything without doing the necessary cognitive upgrade, we’re going to make mistakes for the future.
Deb: How does the cognitive operating systems idea change how we do intelligence?
Jake: I had an old boss of mine who used to say there are only two outcomes in Washington, DC—policy successes and intelligence failures. In many cases, it’s very easy for politicians and government officials to attribute a policy shortcoming to an intelligence failure. Number one, because the public doesn’t have the benefit of seeing what was reported.
We can’t ignore the intelligence-policy nexus. There are libraries filled with books on this, but we need to be careful to have processes in the government that clearly delineate roles and responsibilities. The intelligence function is an advisory function, not a policy making function. There’s a dynamic between making sound advice with the best possible estimates, projections, and analysis. Ultimately, policymakers and politicians have the responsibility to either act on that information or to dismiss it. It’s not an irreconcilable outcome, but we have to be careful because we often hear about things being an intelligence failure when they weren’t. It’s not a black and white issue in many cases and the public should be cognizant of this.
The intelligence community is filled with thousands of very bright, smart, patriotic Americans. They go to work every day to do a difficult job, in many cases under difficult circumstances. Their work matters. It’s such a privilege to be able to interact and to teach them.
I’ve written about an idea I call ‘hegemonic narcissism.’ We can get to a point in foreign policy where a country gets so wrapped up in its own vision of itself that it becomes narcissistic about how the world should be. When you combine this tunnel vision with the media, public opinion, and the view of the elites, it creates a resonance that often leads to very flawed policy outcomes. I would submit that hegemonic narcissism is at the core of the issue in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and many other places. It goes back many years before 9-11. It’s this idea that we should be in the business of promoting democracy abroad. The proof is in the pudding. Societies that have no shared history, common values, or ethnic identity may not see the value of democracy the way we do. Heterogeneous societies don’t make a great case for democracy promotion.
We tend to think of intelligence as a set of information or critical facts that we might know about an adversary. That might include patterns of behavior, or maybe even cultural information that we’re using to analyze our leadership. I would argue the unprecedented complexity of today’s world and all of the multifaceted challenges that we face moves us away from the current definition of intelligence to encompass new areas that we haven’t necessarily had to cover in the past, such as climate change.
There also are transnational dynamics that must be considered. What’s going to happen when we reach this new revolution of artificial intelligence? What will it usher in? The power of quantum processors, the future of data and encryption, the future of privacy and the digital literacy we are going to need, not only in the intelligence community, but in our everyday citizens. We have to consider what’s going to happen when we have national security and intelligence encompassing bio hegemony and bio supremacy or questions such as these. We tend to classify issues and developments according to how our bureaucracy is organized instead of what’s happening in the actual environment. That’s just the function of bureaucracy sometimes.
We need to do a better job with understanding where the important convergences are happening. We also need to clarify how we can bring together people to teach how to understand the touchpoints and interconnectivity of events. This approach requires that we look from a complexity and a systems perspective to understand the variables that have to interact. We’ve seen too many times that the world doesn’t work the way we envision it. We need to fight our way through this challenging time.
It’s going to be a heavy lift because it’s trying to affect a major change in how we think. Changing our current thought processes is number one. At NIU, we are introducing the idea of collaborating across multiple perspectives to a broader audience. It is an important way to affect change and demonstrate tangible results in a collaborative environment. The experiences will stay with those individuals as they go back to their own respective organizations in the intelligence community and government. It’s important that we have that environment for engagement and collaboration. We live in a four-dimensional world, but we still are giving people one dimensional products to read. So how are we going to ask them to imagine something different if we can’t show them how?
An issue near and dear to my heart is the need for more foresight education and more foresight-based policy in our government. Future-proofing policy or running major policy decisions through a foresight-based methodology is important to being able to do more due diligence on major issues and implications. Even if we’re coming up with what might seem like far-fetched or improbable answers, it’s critical to do that hard work and ask whether we would be prepared to implement solutions. It breaks my heart to see us making so many mistakes, spending so much money and sacrificing human lives because of poor decision-making. I think the US could benefit from a strategic foresight office at the national level, which could bring all of this together and at least offer a different perspective.
It is interesting, today Greece is one of the few countries in Europe that has a strategic foresight capability with an actual foresight team in the prime minister’s office. It has been interesting talking through different methodological approaches with the Greek government’s office. The professional and personal connections have all come together full circle for me. A convergence for me.
Deb: What is the reason Greece has adopted foresight?
Jake: There’s a general initiative from the European Commission, which has its own commissioner for foresight. They are encouraging all of the individual European governments to create foresight teams or branches. It places emphasis on strategic planning and looking at things from a different perspective. For example, if you look at Greece’s neighborhood in the Eastern Mediterranean, you can see climate change being a real issue. Especially with all of the recent fires, Turkey’s aggressive foreign policy in the region, the ongoing conflict in Syria, and all of the refugee issues, and the energy politics, we have a situation where this is probably the best time in history to jump in with both feet on a foresight team.
Deb: What’s your greatest hope for the future?
Jake: My greatest hope for the future is what I see in my kids. I have two boys that are eight and six right now. They’ve had to deal with more than I ever had to when I was their age, including the pandemic and being out of school for over a year. They’re all over their laptops like champs and are fully immersed in this new world. I’m interested to see how that’s going to affect them as they get older. But the curiosity that they bring with them every day to always learn something new is impressive. I’m optimistic that this upcoming generation will avoid some of the mistakes we have made and grow up with a different worldview and different set of norms than we have in the past. I think they’ve got a very bright future, which makes me happy and optimistic.
It’s important for them to have a sense of their own heritage so they understand where they came from and they understand that growing up in the United States of America is a privilege they are lucky to have. It’s important for me to help them understand the sacrifices that were made by their great grandparents and grandparents, who came to this country with nothing. They saw opportunities, took advantage of them, worked hard, and taught their kids to love the country, to respect it, and to respect others. I’m trying to give them this connection. To be grateful to live in amazing country like the United States. Once all the craziness settles down, it’s important to be able to travel with them so they experience more of the world and understand what makes it tick. It will wire their brains to see how everything comes together and allows them to be more introspective about themselves.
Jake reminds us that our hopes, dreams, desires, and basic needs make up a human system that binds people together. This has always been the case. Our connections are real even though the complex, connected global environment we live in continues to evolve through the decades. Because we are so hyperconnected, the potential for sweeping consequences and disruptive impacts grows exponentially.
Interrelated systems like culture, politics, economics, environmental issues, and business shape our collective and individual lives. Many of these systems seem to operate outside of our control or input. We evaluate the results of our interactions with these various systems. As we do, we often find that the results of our interactions with human systems are not what we expected and maybe not what we desired. The one thing we do know, is that our lack of insight limits our ability to assess possible outcomes before we make a final decision. It’s human nature to strive to manage our lives a little better so we can create some stability and be able to envision control over our cause and effect. This desire requires a cognitive operating system overlay within our organizations to help bring foresight about the future to improvetoday’s decision-making.
Deborah Westphal is a leader in future-focused strategy. In her book Convergence, she leverages more than 30 years of experience helping the world’s most innovative business and government leaders to challenge biases, ignite ideas, and build connections. She delivers this rich insight with an empathetic and thought-provoking writing style to chart a path for readers. Throughout the book, personal stories and historical examples highlight convergences that span the globe, impacting everything from global supply chains to climate change, and reshaping the future of business, technology, and humanity everywhere.Get your copy of Convergence here.