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Media & web mentions/coverage of recent Wikistrat International Grand Strategy Competition

Rounding up for the record the various sorts of coverage Wikistrat enjoyed over the course of the competition, I wanted to highlight the following:

Brian Hasbrouck over at Political Risk Explored wrote up his impressions of the first week, when - unsurprising to me as Head Judge - he cited the eventual winner Claremont Graduate University's entries as being the most impressive and eye-popping.  CGU played Pakistan 1.

One participant, Timothy Nunan, wrote a nice bit about how the game play allowed a bigger input role for those players with a more historical bent: 

While I’m normally not so big of a fan of “strategic studies” and much of the direction of the discipline of international relations, I find the collaborative aspect of the Wiki tremendously useful, and it’s certainly more interactive and a richer learning experience to have content up online instantly, rather than the turnaround time associated with sending out drafts of papers. Moreover, I feel that policy planning exercises tend to demand a deeper knowledge of history and national trajectories than what you’ll usually find in political science departments, with their quant-heavy focus, today. Certainly, your overall level of analysis can be more superficial than you might like it, but I find it a fun exercise to collaborate with others (something that takes place less frequently than it should in the academy), to try to show that historians, or more precisely people with a historical training, can have really intelligent stuff to add to foreign policy conversations . . .

Denise Magill at the Virtual Roundtable (a site that devotes a lot of attention to wikis), asked a question right out of my wrap-up analysis: "Would you pay $10,000 for your company's next big idea?" In effect, the grand strategy competition was an advertisement to governments about the validity of crowdsourcing new thinking on national policies, but the same holds true for corporations, and I'm not just talking about fishing for big new ideas.  Say you've got this initiative you're considering for emerging market X or developing region Y, but you need somebody to spin out all the possible permutations so you can iron out as many uncertainties in your approach as possible before committing resources.  Why not take $10k of what you're spending on traditional consulting and tap a truly wide network of experts with varying degrees of geographic and intellectual connectivity to the subject matter? Yes, you go to the deep subject matter experts for the guts of your thinking, but how to game out the surprises and the "inconceivables" that invariably pop up? On that score, you gain real safety in numbers - the wiki way.

Dave Algoso, a veteran international developmental aid professional, wrote a nice post that explored the whole vertical-versus-horizontal scenarios distinction. As a rule, professionals tend to obsess over the vertical "shocks," because such black swan events are so analytically sexy, but most of the resulting change actually comes in the low-and-slow horizontal ripples that emanate from such system perturbations.  Algoso sees Wikistrat's approach ably tapping into that more integrated perspective:

Wikistrat is attempting to operationalize this analytical framework. The knowledge and skills necessary to explore the effects are spread across disciplines throughout an organization. Attempts to bring interdisciplincary teams together can be effective, but are susceptible to inefficiencies. We also know that contextual knowledge is vitally important in development. A platform like Wikistrat may enable strategic planners to bring all this knowledge together in an effective way. If it does that, we may see much more effective interventions and better strategy coordination in the future.

Frankly, as Head Judge I saw that this was the hardest thing to get across to most participants: encouraging them to think about downstream consequences that arise from some catalytic event. Often it's not the direct linkage that is fruitfully explored, but rather the seemingly disconnected bit that suddenly looms with new strength as a result of the shock's impact on competing issues.  

Great example from the competition: when the "big one" (however defined) hits China and reorders a lot of the world's assumptions about that growth trajectory, arguably the most compelling shift will be the default rise of India to the top of the global ascendancy narrative. In that dynamic, the more disconnected India is from the triggering problem, the better.

Another eye-opener I cited from the competition: when big shocks to traditional oil-producing regions suddenly catapult the Arctic into the world's consciousness as the next great frontier on energy. Yes, it's been there in the background for years now, but eventually something comes along that gives it global urgency. That's an "inconceivable" (Arctic top Persian Gulf in focus?) that you can count on, the question being, What event triggers that shift in perception and who's best positioned to take advantage?

Institute of World Politics' competition participants

The Institute of World Politics issued a nice press release highlighting their two teams' efforts (as Turkey and Brazil). What was really great to hear was that the competition mirrored simulations run in several of the Institute's courses (Public Diplomacy and Political Warfare, Counterinsurgency, and National Security Policy Process). Participating students felt they were well prepared - and they were. Both teams finished in the Top 12 overall. Some nifty quotes:

The IWP teams are working hard, and gaining valuable experience through their extracurricular efforts.  Vilen Khlgatyan, an IWP student who has been working on articles about Turkey's regional future, has found that, "This competition has helped me further ingrain the idea that all facets of statecraft should be considered, as well as the many possible outcomes" . . . 

And recent graduate Gabriella Gervasio observes, "The Wikistrat exercise is truly the perfect ending to my education here at IWP.  It requires knowledge, expertise, and proper use of the elements of statecraft." 

This is exactly the sort of experience we sought to create: a leveraging of the most exciting and collaborative stuff going on in universities - just blown up to a far larger scale.  I mean, why shouldn't these institutions compete in the strategic realm just like they do in sports?

An Israeli newswire account on the competition had a similarly gratifying pair of participant quotes:

"The entire competition has been one of the most exciting intellectual exercises for me in a long time," said Roman Muzalevsky, the leader of the team from Yale, when reflecting on his experience over the course of the Competition. "I am certain I have learned more from this experience than the vast majority of classrooms I have ever been in," added Andrew Eccleston, a member of the team from the American Military University. While the prize was a strong incentive, most participants felt the experience of applying their theoretical knowledge and using Wikistrat’s innovative model was the real reward. 

I think the real excitement came in the act of competing. It's one thing to crank a paper and get a good grade, and I made that effort by giving each team's sixteen entries an initial grade where, quite frankly, I judged them strictly on how many boxes they checked and how well they checked them - relative to other teams from that country (when applicable). At first, like in any course, the grades were lower because the content was weaker, and I struggled a bit not to grade too harshly. But the longer the competition went and the vast majority figured out "the ropes," it got a lot harder for me not to give everybody solid initial grades. Near the end, I was searching for ways to nick points here and there: that's how consistently solid everyone was becoming.

But if all we had done was that, we wouldn't have elevated the play - or excitement.  It would have been collaborative, yes, but not truly competitive. So the first straight-up grade was like your initial pool grade: it determined which tier of competition you'd ultimately be ranked within. All the super top grades went into the same bin, for example, and then it became the top China entry versus the top Pakistan entry versus . . .. So yeah, you might get an initial grade of 95, but then the question became, could that grade hold up when rank-ordered against the other 95s?  In the end, then, your overall grade reflected your team's consistent effort to outwork, out-think and out-strategize everybody else - just like in the real world. And I think it was that definitive outcome that really fired the competitive juices.

Find a nice bit here from the University of Sussex celebrating how well their fielded team played North Korea - which they did.  I was surprised by how imaginative the team was with a country that seemingly has so little wiggle room.  But that is one of the joys of a strategic planning exercise like this.  As one Sussex player put it: 

North Korea is a Cold War legacy in the 21st century, and it was stimulating imagining the future of this isolated country in a globalising world.

Naturally, top bragging rights went to the overall winner, Claremont Graduate University, and the university was justifiably proud about its winning team:

Comprising CGU's team were: Benjamin Acosta, PhD student in comparative politics and cultural studies; Steven Childs, PhD candidate in world and comparative politics; Sean Gera, PhD student in world politics; Byron Ramirez, PhD student in political science and economics; and Piotr Zagorowski, PhD student in world politics.

The team bested rivals from the University of Oxford, University of Cambridge, Georgetown University, Ohio State University, Yale University, New York University and other top schools.

Childs said the CGU team's victory is a testament to the university's emphasis on transdisciplinary education and the political methods courses found in SPE’s [School of Politics and Economics] curriculum.  Rather than examine the issues in isolation, the CGU team tackled the challenges of the contest with a broad range of thought and academic expertise.

"This emphasizes the strength in CGU's approach to education," Childs said. "I'm really proud of our team."

Here's another nice press piece on Ramirez alone.

It was a joy to grade CGU's work, but what really won it for them was their innate ability to follow the directions to the letter. They really plumbed the depths of each assignment, whether it was figuring out Pakistan's national interests, or casting a regional trajectory, or running down the horizontal scenarios from a series of vertical shocks. They really explored each analytic assignment to the fullest and stayed on topic throughout - an extraordinary display of discipline that was reflected in their high-content/low-fat output.

And that's a great take-away from the competition: it's easy to assume that the interdisciplinary approach necessarily results in tons of excess and unhelpful verbiage, because it so often does - when not properly channeled. But what the CGU did was simply wonderful: clear and concise cross-linking of subject areas that won the team the top ranking in "use of the wiki," which I thought was highly emblematic of their overall win.

On a side note, I thought it was cool of U. Kentucky's Robert Farley (fellow - and well respected - World Politics Review columnist) to note how well Wikistrat's platform played on Apple's iPad, which the U.of K. team used in its performance as Japan 1 team.  Being so on-top-of-things ("research, remaining connected with the rest of the team, and monitoring the competition") was crucial for the Patterson School of Diplomacy crew, because the other Japan team (played by actual Japanese) had to drop out due to a real-world political crisis back home. That left the Patterson team somewhat "orphaned," meaning they needed to compare themselves more vigorously with other country teams to make sure they were pushing the envelope sufficiently. Based on that sort of extra effort, I awarded the Kentucky team the prize for being the best "single."

Like I've noted previously, the competition was a great source of new ideas. Nick Ottens over at Atlantic Sentinel generated a trio of posts concerning three of the best:

And, of course, I myself pillaged what I could for two Time Battleland posts ("Why US Withdrawal from Afghanistan Would Stabilize Pakistan" and "Russia Will Someday Be Forced to Outsource its Security"). I also bagged a World Politics Review column out of the highly innovative (and #2 finisher overall) Oxford team that played European Union 2 ("A Post-NATO Europe Should Look East").  History Guy Tom Wade did similarly with his post on Global Cities, and this site's original webmaster Critt Jarvis posited an even bolder extrapolation to planning "model cities" in Honduras using the Wikistrat many-brains-tackling-the-problem approach.

All good stuff that I thought was worth recompiling here, but what really sticks in my mind coming out of the competition was how so many of the student-participants - even the ones that didn't necessarily win anything - walked away with such a nice impression of Wikistrat as a place to ply their craft.  As one relatively experienced participant put it in a follow-up debrief: 

Wikistrat, its strengths and flaws notwithstanding, is the most realistic depiction of strategic analysis in the intelligence community.

As someone who has evaluated big command post exercises in various military commands (PACOM, SOUTHCOM, etc.), that's a great compliment to receive, so I take my hat off to everyone who participated and especially to the Wikistrat team that managed the competition throughout.  As proof-of-concept experiments go, this was fantastically gratifying.

Reader Comments (1)

What I find encouraging is that all those bright young men and women are preparing themselves for such meaningful work. Two of my wife's brightest students (Madame O'Connor's French Club Stars) grabbed their undergraduate degrees and headed for Wall Street. Big money, long hours staring at computer screens, and absolutely no rewards for the mind or the soul. Both have since gone back to school and picked up graduate degrees so that they can teach. Making Madame very proud.

Good worthwhile stuff.

August 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTed O'Connor

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