A Director of the Present? Nowcasting Homeland Security’s Challenges


Dr. Nieto-Gomez is a strategist and futurist focused on the consequences of the accelerating pace of change in homeland security and policing environments.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld got in trouble in 2002, when he said this to justify the U.S. intervention in Iraq:

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know.  But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.  And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”

The press had a field day with what appeared to be an accidental tongue twister, similar to those commonly expressed by his boss, President George W. Bush, during press conferences.

That was not the case.

Instead, Sec. Rumsfeld had enunciated a heuristic mechanism well known among those who perform competitive analysis, called the “Johari Window” (Luft and Ingham 1961).

figure 1

Figure 1. The Johari Window model. (Luft and Ingham 1961)

As a model of future uncertainty management, a Johari Window approach is good because it proposes a set of techniques to deal with the different kinds of awareness blind spots. These techniques are based on two core behaviors: the obtention of feedback about self (or your organization) and the exploration of external unknowns.  After extrapolating these two behaviors to the grid of Figure 1, a new visualization emerges:

figure 2

Figure 2.  Exploration and feedback to increase awareness. (Luft and Ingham 1961)

The “mystery” box contains the unknown unknowns, and much has been written about them in recent times.  Taleb’s black swans (Taleb 2010) or Joshua Cooper Ramo’s Age of the Unthinkable (Ramo 2009) are two examples of how homeland security literature has dealt with the mystery quadrant of the Johari Window: the Rumsfeldian unknown unknowns.

Homeland security still faces important challenges to build public policies for that “mystery” quadrant.  I have discussed some of the challenges associated with dealing with unknown unknowns in past writings (Nieto-Gómez 2011).

Nevertheless, it is on the “hidden” box of the Johari Window that I want to concentrate now.  These are what I will call the knowable unknowns.

The knowable unknowns are different from the unknown unknowns in that our lack of knowledge is not due to the future nature of the relevant events, but it is instead produced by the lack of awareness of available data.

An effective method to confront this lack of awareness is what Hal Varian, chief economist of Google, calls nowcasting.  While multiple definitions of nowcasting exist, one is clearer than the others:

Nowcasting is the process of “predicting the present” (Choi and Varian 2012).

Given his own affiliation, it is not surprising that Varian’s methodologies and case studies are all based on the explanatory capabilities of Google trends (Choi and Varian 2012), but others have identified ways to deal with the knowable unknowns that do not require the use of any particular tool.

Peter Drucker, for example, famously said, years before Hal Varian had given nowcasting a name, that demographics is “the study of the future that has already happened.” (Drucker 1998) In his words:

“In human affairs political, social, economic, and business it is pointless to try to predict the future, let alone attempt to look ahead 75 years.  But it is possible and fruitful to identify major events that have already happened, irrevocably, and that therefore will have predictable effects in the next decade or two.  It is possible, in other words, to identify and prepare for the future that has already happened” (Drucker 1998).

Both Varian and Drucker conclude that while it is impossible to forecast the unknown unknowns, it is definitely possible to improve our capacity to nowcast the consequence of the knowable unknowns.

Important visible trends are shaping the homeland security strategic environment, but an institutional proactive effort to nowcast the present and reduce the hidden section of the Johari Window has never been a priority for homeland security policies.  The failure of imagination that the 9/11 commission report cautioned against (The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States 2001) is still present as nobody has the formal responsibility of institutionalizing imagination for homeland security by creating and deploying nowcasting methodologies.

Many examples exist of why this is a problem. Here are two.

Example 1.  Current immigration policies (and the policy debate surrounding them) are ignoring the arrival of automation to displace low skilled labor.

Nowhere in the actions of the U.S. federal government is it evident that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is aware that the labor market is undergoing a dramatic reconfiguration based on new technologies.  This is a salient homeland security issue because out of the five “official” missions stated by the Department of Homeland Security, two of them are directly tied to labor market management: manage borders and manage immigration (“The 2014 Quadrennial Homeland Security Review” 2014).

Undocumented migration is impacted more by changes in job market conditions than by any forward enforcement by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

As machines replace undocumented workers and low skilled U.S. citizens without distinction (Purdy 2016) (Taylor 2016), many of the foundational tenets of our labor-based immigration policies need to be rethought, as we rethink, at the same time, the role of labor in American society (Stern 2016).

Other nations have nowcasted this and are reacting accordingly through experimental policies.  Canada, the Netherlands, Spain and Finland are all considering models of Universal Basic Income (Dubner 2016) to respond to the impact of technological innovation in labor environments.

While late compared to other nations, there is also a nascent debate about Universal Basic Income emerging in the United States.  It would be a mistake to ignore that Universal Income discussions, where they have occurred, have always triggered alterity fears vis-a-vis undocumented immigrant populations from poor countries as they are framed as incompatible with an expansion of the safety net (McArdle 2013).

Therefore, migration management (a homeland security mission) and the changes in labor markets due to technological innovation cannot be treated as two separate topics.

These are not future events.  Instead, they are visible trajectories for which the future impact to society is still uncertain (unknown unknowns) but their existence is not (knowable unknowns).

Nowcasting current trends in no way requires a forecast or prediction of the shape or depth of changes to come.  From a nowcasting perspective, it is enough to be able to explain, understand and react more rapidly to present trends.

Example 2.  There is no justification to ignore key systemic changes already happening in the structure of the war on drugs.

  1. The war on drugs is becoming a drone war.  Like other conflicts taking advantage of autonomous systems, cartels have effectively deployed drone technology for their own benefit (Neagle 2015).
  2. At the same time, the war on drugs has been a manned submarine challenge for years, and now low cost unmanned semisubmersibles are a reality (Senke, n.d.).

On the one hand, drug cartels have demonstrated true innovation capacities to develop semisubmersible and fully submersible technologies (Nieto-Gomez 2016).  On the other hand, DHS in general and the U.S. Coast Guard in particular are still ill-prepared to confront submersible threats (Davis 2013).

Failing to prepare for a shift in the war on drugs towards unmanned submarine technologies would be a failure of nowcasting: a failure of imagination.  All the relevant trends are already present so there is no need to anticipate the future.  Investments in submarine interdiction are expensive and will take time, and cartels are rapid deployers of technology with existing capabilities in that field.

Conclusion: A Director of the Present

In recent times, both DHS and the Department of Defense (DoD) have tried to open offices in Silicon Valley.  DHS announced one in 2015 that never materialized (“Silicon Valley Office. Homeland Security” 2016) and DoD opened the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) roughly at the same time.

Both offices could have been, but failed to be, the institutional nowcasters both departments urgently need.  The DHS office was never allowed to be born, and DIUx has already been victim of congressional politics, diluting its effort (“New Defense Innovation Unit’s Future at Risk – Law360” 2016).

There is no better place to create nowcasting capabilities than Silicon Valley because it is the trend-spotting capital of the world.  What finance is to Wall Street, trend disruption is to Silicon Valley.

While Sweden has officially created the cabinet position of Secretary of the Future (Brancaccio 2016), a more urgent need is for DHS to pivot its efforts in Silicon Valley towards the creation of a Director of the Present.

A DHS Silicon Valley office should avoid becoming one more research and development center, or even a venture capital fund for DHS.  Instead, such an office is in a unique position to frame itself as a remote outpost in innovationland; an embassy to predict and explain the present by  creating the much needed nowcasting capacities DHS needs, as it  institutionalizes imagination the way the 9/11 commission report recommended.

Forecasting the future would be useful.  Nevertheless, I am advocating here for a more achievable policy objective: reducing some of the dangerous delays that exist today in homeland security policies by building institutional capacity to “predict the present,” thereby decreasing the amount of homeland security knowable unknowns.


Brancaccio, David. 2016. “Meet Sweden’s Secretary of the Future.” May 10. http://www.marketplace.org/2016/05/02/economy/secretary-future/sweden-secretary-future-america.

Choi, Hyunyoung, and Hal Varian. 2012. “Predicting the Present with Google Trends.” The Economic Record 88 (June). Blackwell Publishing Ltd: 2–9.

Davis, Donald. 2013. “The Submersible Threat to Maritime Homeland Security.” Edited by Rodrigo Nieto-Gomez. Naval Postgraduate School. http://calhoun.nps.edu/handle/10945/37609.

Drucker, Peter. 1998. “The Future That Has Already Happened.” The Futurist Magazine. November. http://iranscope.ghandchi.com/Anthology/Drucker-Future.htm.

Dubner, Stephen. 2016. Is the World Ready for a Guaranteed Basic Income? – Freakonomics. Podcast. Freakonomics. http://freakonomics.com/podcast/mincome/.

Luft, J., and H. Ingham. 1961. “The Johari Window: A Graphic Model of Awareness in Interpersonal Relations.” Human Relations Training News. convivendo.net. http://www.convivendo.net/wp-content/uploads/2009/05/johari-window-articolo-originale.pdf.

McArdle, Megan. 2013. “Four Reasons a Guaranteed Income Won’t Work.” Bloomberg View. December 4. http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2013-12-04/four-reasons-a-guaranteed-income-won-t-work.

Neagle, Colin. 2015. “Drug-Delivery Drones Are More Common than You’d Think.” Network World. January 22. http://www.networkworld.com/article/2874200/opensource-subnet/drug-delivery-drones-are-more-common-than-you-d-think.html.

“New Defense Innovation Unit’s Future At Risk – Law360.” 2016. Accessed September 4. http://www.law360.com/articles/820446/new-defense-innovation-unit-s-future-at-risk.

Nieto-Gómez, R. 2011. “Preventing the Next 9/10: The Homeland Security Challenges of Technological Evolution and Convergence in the Next Ten Years.” Homeland Security Affairs. search.proquest.com. http://search.proquest.com/openview/386f00e3ae3c55f06abcc67b2f9045b1/1?pq-origsite=gscholar.

Nieto-Gomez, Rodrigo. 2016. “Stigmergy at the Edge: Adversarial Stigmergy in the War on Drugs.” Cognitive Systems Research 38: 31–40.

Purdy, Chase. 2016. “Vermont Dairies Are Replacing Undocumented Workers with Robots.” Quartz. Accessed September 4. http://qz.com/768995/vermont-dairies-are-replacing-undocumented-workers-with-robots/.

Ramo, Joshua Cooper. 2009. The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us And What We Can Do About It. Hachette UK.

Senke, Bill. n.d. “Low-Cost Unmanned Underwater & Semi-Submersible Vehicles for Reconnaissance & Surveillance.” http://www.dtic.mil/ndia/2012targets/TSenke.pdf.

“Silicon Valley Office. Homeland Security.” 2016. Accessed September 3. https://www.dhs.gov/science-and-technology/blog/2015/10/14/silicon-valley-office.

Stern, Andy. 2016. Raising the Floor: How a Universal Basic Income Can Renew Our Economy and Rebuild the American Dream. PublicAffairs.

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. 2010. The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable Fragility”. Random House.

Taylor, Kate. 2016. “The CEO of McDonald’s Says He Won’t Replace Workers With Robots.” Slate Magazine. May 27. http://www.slate.com/blogs/business_insider/2016/05/27/mcdonald_s_ceo_says_chain_will_use_robots_in_the_future.html.

The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. 2001. US Independent Agencies and Commissions.

“The 2014 Quadrennial Homeland Security Review.” 2014. https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/2014-qhsr-final-508.pdf.

About the Author

Dr. Rodrigo Nieto-Gomez is a research professor and futurist at the National Security Affairs Department and at the Center for Homeland Defense and Security at the Naval Postgraduate School and he is also a certified facilitator for the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST).

For a decade, Dr. Nieto-Gomez has taught hundreds of high-ranking law enforcement, military, and homeland security leaders how to create and execute strategies to transform their agencies to meet the requirements of rapidly changing environments and threat profiles.  Dr. Rodrigo Nieto-Gomez obtained his PhD in Geopolitics from the University of Paris.

2 thoughts on “A Director of the Present? Nowcasting Homeland Security’s Challenges”

  1. Eye opening. This is advice that should be given to local public safety and public health organizations as well. Are such departments innovative enough to nowcast innovation?

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