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Barry Hughes’ global forecasting research is shedding light on the future of our world

"We know sometimes that things are likely to happen, but we really don't know when," says Professor Barry Hughes, who developed the IFs program to forecast the future. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Whoever the next U.S. president will be, he is about to face a set of unprecedented challenges. Ensuring the nation’s energy security, easing the stress the U.S. puts on the global environment, and dealing with a number of prickly foreign policy situations are only a few of the momentous problems the future holder of the world’s most powerful job will have to tackle.

Confronting these issues one by one would be difficult enough, but the fact that they are all intertwined complicates things to a point where forecasting how different policy decisions might play out quickly becomes too overwhelming for a human brain.

Luckily, researchers have developed complex computer models that can simulate a wide range of scenarios to give us some ideas as to where different paths might take us. Over the past couple of months a select group of modelers have been busy running such simulations for the upcoming quadrennial National Intelligence Council report that will lie on the next president’s desk when he walks into the Oval Office in January.

One of the key players in this group is DU Evans Professor Barry Hughes, a faculty member at the University’s Korbel School of International Studies. Hughes is the creator of International Futures (IFs), a computer simulation that helps analyze and forecast global trends and developments.

IFs is one of the most sophisticated global modeling systems ever developed. It has served as the foundation for a variety of influential government projects, including the United Nations Environmental Programme’s Global Environmental Outlook 4 report and the European Commission’s TERRA project. And since 2004, the National Intelligence Council-the government entity charged with providing foreign policy advice to the president and senior policy makers-has relied on IFs for global briefings that try to look 15 years into the future.


Looking ahead

IFs takes on one of the most fundamental challenges that world leaders, and the rest of us, face every day: “We cannot know the future,” Hughes says, “but we must act as if we did.”

All our choices—whether to drive a GM Hummer or a Toyota Prius, whether to vote for a Democratic or a Republican presidential nominee—shape our future. That’s why no one makes decisions without making forecasts, Hughes says.

“Even when you get up in the morning and decide how to dress you are making a forecast of what you are going to be doing that day,” he says.

The same is true in the world of policy making, where decisions can have monumental consequences and developing informed forecasts becomes essential, Hughes says. “The better the tools are with which we can think about the future,” he adds, “the better we can make our forecasts and the better decisions we might make.”

What makes IFs a first-rate tool for thinking about the world’s future is the fact that it integrates all the major components that dominate global development: sociopolitical and economic factors, population, agriculture, energy, technology and environmental issues. All of these different areas are connected, and a shift in one can set off a cascade of changes that will ripple through the others.

By simulating long-term developments, looking as far into the future as the year 2100, IFs allows users to analyze current trends and to explore what might lie ahead. But Hughes is quick to point out that neither his nor any other model is a crystal ball that can predict the future. Instead, he says, “It helps us think about the dynamics of change.”

Hughes developed IFs in the 1970s, inspired by a colleague who was a member of the Club of Rome, a global think-tank that deals with international issues. He originally intended the model to be an educational tool for his students, first at Case Western Reserve University and later at DU.

Working with the model helped students understand global developments, so Hughes kept improving it by adding more and more components. By the late 1990s, IFs, now in its fifth generation, had grown so sophisticated that policymakers and analysts from high-profile institutions devoted to strategic thinking became interested in it.

“One of the great strengths of IFs is that it integrates a variety of topics, such as population, economics and resources,” says Dale Rothman, a senior researcher at the International Institute for Sustainable Development in Canada. “Most other models only deal either with one or the other. For example, a demographic model will just assume things about the economy and other areas, but IFs represents and integrates all of them.”

By tapping into data compiled from 182 countries since 1960, Hughes and his team of researchers and students have furnished IFs with nearly 1,000 variables, ranging from HIV infection rates to atmospheric carbon dioxide levels to fossil fuel use. And by researching and analyzing past developments and trends, Hughes and his team have teased out the various relationships between these variables and built them into the model.

At first glance some of the connections may seem fairly straightforward. For example, a burgeoning world population will eat increasing amounts of food and burn through energy resources more quickly. That will have consequences for the global environment and economies, which, in turn, may trigger policy and market changes.

But the underlying patterns are incredibly complex, and not all linkages are immediately obvious. The recent push toward biofuels and its connection to the surge in food prices is one example, Hughes says. Concerns over steadily climbing energy prices and dependence on Middle Eastern oil have triggered a growing diversion of crops, such as corn, to ethanol fuel. Shortly thereafter, food prices started to skyrocket, sparking a crisis that touched off riots from Haiti to Egypt. But “no one expected the run-up of food prices to be this dramatic, and right now I don’t think anyone has a very good grasp on what’s causing it,” Hughes says.

These are the kinds of questions that IFs can help answer. Hughes explains that the model splits crops between three different purposes: human food, animal feed and industrial use. People have always put some crops to industrial use—for example, as clothing fiber, Hughes says. “But that we now also produce ethanol from crops means that less of them are available for food or feed and for the increased demand in these areas.”

So, Hughes built a lever into the model that allows users to divert more crop production into industrial use. He also linked the lever to rising energy prices because, he says, “As oil prices rise, more crops are diverted into ethanol. If oil prices fall again, the presumption is that less will be diverted because it will become less economical.”

The increasing wealth that has helped put more food on tables in China and India has also played a role, adding to the pressure on food supplies. The list of connections goes on and on and forms an extremely tangled web of if-then rules. By incorporating all of them, IFs allows users not only to understand current developments but also to forecast where they could lead.


Future scenarios

Such analyses are at the heart of the reports that the National Intelligence Council hands over to the U.S. president at the beginning of every new term, so it comes as no surprise that IFs has started to play a central role in creating these reports.

Hughes and his team used IFs for Mapping the Global Future, which the National Intelligence Council published and gave to the second Bush administration in 2004, and the team is now working on the upcoming report Global Trends 2025 for the next president.

Based on current trends, the reports look at various fictional possible futures. “We are always thinking in terms of alternatives rather than just one single scenario,” Hughes says. These scenarios take into account not only issues related to global economies, resources and the environment, but also potential political unrest and conflict.

But if and when a country is likely to descend into violence is tough to forecast, Hughes says. Paying attention to gradual developments, such as subtle regional shifts in population patterns, can give some indications. Unusually high proportions of 15- to 29-year-olds within a society, for example, can increase the risk of conflict by causing job shortages that foster breeding grounds for revolution and terrorism. A number of Middle Eastern countries will continue to see this “youth bulge” phenomenon in coming decades, Hughes says.

Other political changes, such as democratization, are also heavily involved in shaping the future. One of the most important questions being considered right now, Hughes says, is what will happen when China overtakes the United States as the most powerful nation. Historically, he notes, almost all such power transitions have been marked by war.

IFs can help illuminate that question by looking at the political structure of the two countries. “With one or two partial exceptions, there have not really been wars between democratic countries, so the hope is that democratization proceeds rapidly enough in China so that by the time they really take their commanding position on the world stage, we will be at that point,” Hughes says.

One of the drivers of democratization is education, which China has heavily invested in. Another indicator is income level. “In general, a rule of thumb is that once you have reached $7,000 per capita in a democracy, you don’t fall back,” he says. IFs lets users look at these numbers and helps forecast where they likely will go in the future.

Hughes cautions, though, that forecasts of political and social changes can be crude. “We know sometimes that things are likely to happen, but we really don’t know when. For example, the democratization of China is highly probable because of the rapid economic advance and the educational conditions, but we wouldn’t ever say ‘It will happen on January 1 of 2009.'”

Working with a model that incorporates such a large variety of topics requires input from a spectrum of different disciplines. That’s why Hughes has assembled a team of researchers and graduate students who come from a number of different areas, with backgrounds ranging from computer science and physics to geology and political science. And just like the model, the team is global, with members working anywhere from Central America to Europe and Asia.

The team keeps growing right along with interest in IFs, Hughes says. Recently, the work received a $7.45 million boost from investor and philanthropist Frederick Pardee. Part of the funding will help build the Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures, which will be constructed adjoining DU’s Cherrington Hall. The remainder will support the IFs team while it develops a series of volumes that look at issues related to development. The series is patterned after the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Reports but will, unlike the U.N. volumes, also contain forecasts. The first report, to be published this October, looks at global poverty reduction; subsequent volumes will deal with global education, global health, infrastructure and governance.

Working for such organizations as the National Intelligence Council and the United Nations has ensured a continuous stream of funding for the model over the past decades. That not only allowed Hughes to keep improving on IFs but also enabled him to keep making IFs freely available to anyone who would like to use it. (Both a downloadable and an online version of IFs are available on Hughes’ Web site.)

“My rule is that whenever I work with a new group, such as the U.S. intelligence community for example, nothing can be classified and nothing can be proprietary,” Hughes says. “Any changes that we make to the model to help that group have to stay in the model for everybody to use. That’s part of my philosophy.”


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