Hélène Lavoix: Using the Internet to Prevent Conflict

Many businesses and organisations try to identify trends and threats. For independent political scientist Dr Hélène Lavoix, it is a necessity for social good, and Paper.li is a useful tool.

Hélène identifies possible risks facing the global population to help prevent wars or disasters. She researches often hidden threats using various tools including a weekly Paper.li to scan the global horizon for anything that may create dangerous tipping points and dailies for more specific problems. Her consultancy, Red (team) Analysis, based in Paris, designs methods, trains and researches reports for clients on topics ranging from the future of energy to social unrest and conflict.

How did you become interested in scanning for threats to the world?

Initially, I specialized in finance in France, but then went to live in Cambodia, right after the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement. I discovered the terrible aftermath of war and genocide. It was a shock to see maimed children and adults, child soldiers, utter poverty and fear — and in contrast the incredible generosity and spirit of the Cambodian people.

I decided to try, as much as I could, to contribute to preventing wars. I did an MSc in the International Politics of Asia at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, worked as an analyst for the European Commission, and went back to SOAS for a PhD.

As an independent political scientist, I try to bridge the worlds of science and policy-making to help prevent conflict — first through early-warning systems then through strategic foresight and warnings on all issues. Threats to society may come from very diverse problems.

What does the name Red (team) Analysis signify?

Starting with the 2008 crisis, it became clear to me that, in our democratic countries, citizens must become more aware of the challenges the world faces. So I created a blog to explain and promote strategic foresight and warning (SF&W).

The name is inspired by Red Team activity or Red Teaming, used initially in the military to simulate the activity of opponents in war-games or other threatening situations. Red teaming allows for being “politically incorrect”, playing the devil’s advocate, and using alternative hypotheses.

Why do we all need to care about foresight and warning? Can people become involved in warning and planning?

Basically, it is crucial for survival; it is inbuilt in a more or less developed form within all living species.

Rainy day by solidetherTo take a very simple and innocuous example: when you get dressed in the morning, you anticipate the weather, what your day will be like, who you will meet, and you choose chose the best outfit for this coming day. This is foreseeing possible futures, and using the warnings delivered by your agenda and the weather forecast.

You can find this same idea throughout society. Many companies and businesses do it, chief among them oil companies, insurance and re-insurance companies and banks (although most often without the warning component).

The type I specialise in is national security, which is also usually practised by defence ministries or intelligence services — foreseeing and warning about threats that could endanger the life and survival of a country and its citizens or opportunities that could enhance security.

We really need to care because, if we do not, then the future will impose itself upon us and we will be unprepared.

As citizens, we are the true rulers of our democratic nation-states. When we vote we only delegate our powers to other citizens who represent us. To act as enlightened citizens, we also need to be aware of what the future will hold, anticipate changes, and make sure warnings about those changes exist and are delivered to the right people.

Not everyone needs to be an expert but many people understand a lot in their own work and walk of life and can help SF&W practitioners.

Your Paper.li is an experiment in crowdsourcing horizon scanning.  What do you hope to achieve with this?

Horizon scanning means identifying all “weak signals” (tiny elements, symptoms, hunches) that could signify a new threat or opportunity is emerging. It allows us to follow existing issues and catch emerging ones.

I tried The Red (team) Analysis Weekly as an experiment as I was testing various tools on the web to facilitate and improve SF&W work.

As the result was very positive I decided to continue publishing it every week. My focus is national security, which is very broad: all threats and opportunities that could endanger the security of countries and citizens. Paper.li allows the curation of what so many people throughout the world understand and notice. It is perfect for horizon scanning because of its incredibly broad collection of information and analysis.

It also helps overcome biases and ignorance. Maybe someone somewhere has posted something that I did not know about and would never have thought of, but that meets my criteria (the key words I entered in my Paper.li settings) and so it is captured.

Hélène Lavoix, political scientistAs such, Paper.li is a fantastic tool to harness collective knowledge. I still need to edit the publication each week to remove a few irrelevant or repeated articles but, in general, I find the result excellent. I highly recommend using it for horizon scanning, whatever the issue you are working on.

I have now started a new series of dailies, The Sigils, that will progressively go online, and each will focus on a specific issue or problem, starting with The Water Sigils for global water security.

What is on the horizon that you would like to see addressed?

We are living a very challenging period so risks abound. These times can also be a tremendous opportunity if we work together to bring out the best in ourselves in terms of creativity, understanding, imagination, genius, stamina, willpower, organization, cooperation … But for this to happen we must first analyse what lies ahead without fear and complacency.

The most encompassing and interconnected challenges we face are, first, environmental or ecosystem changes. They include climate change, water issues, loss of biodiversity, and severe problems related to energy and food security.

Beyond direct dangers, we are also in a phase of deep and multi-level transition: there is high international tension, the financial crisis, public deficit, the emergence of new opposition movements etc. Those lead to specific domestic tensions in many countries.

They also imply that we must, most probably, revise our socio-political models and — more difficult — our world views, to create new adapted systems of governance.

What steps would you personally like to take?

I would like to be able to create, or participate in the creation of, an SF&W department within a university, for teaching and research. There is so much that we need to understand better, and we need to do it in a multi-disciplinary fashion using the latest advances in all sciences.

Rainy day photo by solidether on flickr

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