COVID-19, a major failure of intelligence, is an opportunity for Canada to promote international collaboration in Foresight and Early Warning

In the aftermath of Covid-19, and even as it winds down, Canada faces the challenge and opportunity to strengthen its strategic intelligence and foresight capabilities.

The Covid-19 pandemic represents a devastating failure of intelligence. Comparable failures may be found in war, in terrorism, and in nature (climate change effects, for example, including widespread forest fires). Though pandemics have recurred at intervals throughout history, they have almost never been anticipated or forecast in time for appropriate authorities to do anything about them –- to prepare for, prevent or mitigate their effects. When intelligence failures like 9/11 were analysed in recent years, a pandemic like Covid-19 was mentioned frequently as one very worrying future possibility.

The Covid-19 pandemic has had immense impact across the globe. Its effects and aftermath will dominate economic and sociopolitical governance for years. The world is on the verge of a paradigm shift. Treasuries have faced enormous expenditure shocks in short order, to alleviate workers’ hardships. National health systems have dealt with unplanned shortages of medical equipment, supplies, hospital capacities. Norms for daily life and interpersonal behaviour have changed almost overnight. Citizens’ expectations of government have changed, as have governmental priorities at all levels. Impacts have been felt throughout Canadian society, in all sectors, governmental, private, public, and around the world.

The economic constraints alone that will follow Covid-19, for Canada and many other nations, will demand clarity in long-term priorities — political, fiscal, governmental, private sector and public — in contrast to the short-term political horizons dictated by electoral cycles. In the aftermath of Covid-19, and even as it winds down, Canada faces the challenge and opportunity to strengthen its strategic intelligence and foresight capabilities, particularly by adding health intelligence to its panoply of intelligence weapons, and by working to broker improved collaboration with other nations to forecast future change, both positive and negative, and to watch for key indicators of change.

The Finnish Parliaments Committee on the Future has been operating for over 25 years and deserves close attention from Canada as a potential partner and exemplar.

In recent years, many government departments and agencies, and many of the most successful private sector corporations, have implemented various versions of Foresight and/or Strategic Intelligence and/or Early Warning methodologies in order to identify the most important changes they are likely to encounter in their future marketplace or sphere of activity, whether positive or negative, and to watch for early indicators of such changes. These activities may be referred to, generally, as intelligence. As I have written elsewhere, I see intelligence, in its various guises, as a corporate endeavour to forecast change, whether positive (opportunity) or negative (threat), in time to do something about it.

In a 2015 TED talk, Bill Gates stirred public awareness of the risks posed by the pending threat of an emergent respiratory virus causing a pandemic. More recently, in a 22 March 2020 follow-up TED conversation, Gates reviewed the current pandemic, giving important insights into the research priorities of the Gates Foundation, and of its collaboration with other funders, private and public, research agencies and governments. He noted that his own priority concern has now shifted from climate to the pandemic, and stressed that collaboration, across sectors and amongst nations, is key to beating Covid-19. International collaboration is already highly visible in the search for a Covid-19 vaccine, as the World Health Organization coordinates and supports vaccine research in over 50 countries.

Health intelligence, in Canada and most other nations, has not been formally recognized, developed and organized in the same ways as other intelligence disciplines, such as those tasked in government to provide foreign, military, financial, scientific, security or criminal intelligence, for example. In both government and non-government sectors, an impressive range of new intelligence capabilities have been developing, including Competitive Intelligence, Business Intelligence, Foresight and Strategic Early Warning. Alongside these developments, a new discipline called Knowledge Management emerged in the 1980s and, under the influence of ongoing technological progress, morphed into “Big Data” and Artificial Intelligence.

In recent decades, practitioners in the various intelligence fields have learned to learn from one another, about how to improve analytic techniques, for example, and how to maintain the crucial relationship between collectors and analysts of intelligence, on one hand, and their decision-making clients on the other. The ongoing need to work on these issues is not unique to Canada. In the USA, for example, a recent article in Foreign Policy on the coronavirus crisis reported that former National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger once said, after an intelligence community warning went unrecognized, “You warned me, but you didn’t convince me.”

Intelligence is not well understood by most Canadians, partly because little effort is made to inform the public about its utility and value. Nonetheless, Canada’s collective intelligence capability is impressive and well recognized among its international allies. Unfortunately, the term “intelligence” invokes for many a need for secrecy and thus obscures the benefits accruing from it. Secrecy is of course necessary when sources and methods must be protected, and when important decisions supported by intelligence must not be revealed until implemented. But secrecy should not preclude greater public awareness of intelligence activities, achievements and future value.

For me, as a widely experienced intelligence analyst, manager, trainer and teacher, now retired and actively engaged in study and discussion of international affairs (largely through the Canadian International Council), the considerations set out above lead to the following recommendations:

Firstly, as Covid-19 winds down, Canada should develop a unified national capability for Strategic Foresight and Intelligence for Early Warning. This capability should draw on the experience and expertise to be found in the full range of Canadian intelligence activities, and should especially include Health Intelligence.

Second, the group, agency or authority tasked to develop and implement this capability should be mandated to forecast those changes most likely to affect, whether positively or negatively, Canada’s national security, well-being and role in the world, over at least a ten-year future, and to update its forecasts continuously. These forecasts should address a wide range of domains, not only health but all those subjects already covered by Canada’s intelligence and foresight activities.

Next, the same group should identify, watch for and report key indicators of change, so that other appropriate agencies and authorities (decision-makers) may develop action plans to avoid, mitigate or exploit forecast changes. Reports on change indicators should be produced at regular intervals and disseminated widely.

Finally, Canada should actively encourage and support other nations to develop similar early warning capabilities and to collaborate with one another in identifying forecast changes, key indicator lists and watch mechanisms.

Implementation of these recommendations, as part of the new foreign policy program that will emerge from the foreign policy review to be undertaken by the Canadian International Council, will position Canada as a broker of international change that will benefit the people of the world.

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Alan Breakspear served in CSE, PCO, TBS and CSIS, primarily in intelligence collection and analysis, and in the private sector to provide training and services in stratic intelligence and early warning. Since retiring to Victoria BC, he has been active primarily in CIC and in golf.