Fires of the future: AFA summit deals with projecting natural disasters in the area

This was one of many grim scenes throughout the Black Forest area east of the Air Force Academy during the fire last June, but now a group of “future-casters” is hoping to have a better understanding of natural disasters before they strike again.

This was one of many grim scenes throughout the Black Forest area east of the Air Force Academy during the fire last June, but now a group of “future-casters” is hoping to have a better understanding of natural disasters before they strike again.

When people think of futurism, they often envision abstract design or dystopian fiction. But at the U.S. Air Force Academy, the term represents something relative to reality for many Coloradans: the future of wildfires.

The Academy’s Center for Innovation last week hosted the first conference of a series on natural disaster projection and preparedness. The small summit, which took place Feb. 13-14 in Arnold Hall, was wildfire-themed and attended by more than 30 industry experts and first responders from the Academy, Intel Corporation, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, NASA, FEMA and many local entities.

“It’s very important to us when we are doing this sort of modeling to have locals, first responders and to have people who were on the front lines,” said Bryan David Johnson, Intel’s resident futurist.

The effort is aimed at projecting possible threats and how they may manifest themselves 10 years into the future. Johnson has become somewhat of a guru in the art of future-casting, as the process has come to be known. According to Johnson, who led the event, future-casting is a way to “look out and think about our future of catastrophes” and what such an experience might be like.

“We are always going to have earthquakes, tornadoes, wildfires and hurricanes — it is an inevitability,” he said. “So how can we use this process to take control and to bring together government agencies, the military, high-tech companies and experts and say, ‘Let’s think forward about what is the future that we want and what is the future we want to avoid, and use this process to take very specific steps.’ ”

Hitting the links

Linkages between Intel Corp. and the Air Force Academy were forged long ago, with both sides reaping the benefits of educational partnerships and collaborative efforts that have since been created.

The conference itself was, in part, a byproduct of that relationship.

Johnson explained that when the wildfires around Colorado Springs burned during the summer of 2013, one AFA cadet came to mind: Eric Bonick.

“Cadet Bonick was identified very early on as being very good at this, and I can tell you that he is very, very good at this,” Johnson said about Bonick, a junior military studies major. “We started working together last summer, taking it and applying it to work going on in the nation’s defense but also these large catastrophes as well.”

When planning the conference series, Bonick and Johnson discussed the pervasive issue plaguing the region, and the decision was made to co-host the first event at the Academy.

Bonick, originally from California, was one of a handful of cadets sent by the Center of Innovation to be part of a Cadet Summer Research Project at Intel. While students were parceled out among various disciplines at the large corporation, Bonick was paired with the futurists.

He said it has provided him with an invaluable perspective to carry into the field.

“It was almost to the point of where it was life-changing to my experience here as a cadet,” Bonick said. “Going out there opened up every single door to the outside world that you do not see on the military side — getting to sit in with all of these different people and seeing all these experts from across the world talk about their perspectives and where things are going. … I love this kind of stuff, and I never thought I would have the opportunity to do this now.”

During his time at Intel, Bonick worked side-by-side with Johnson to hone his future-casting skills, in hopes he might apply them in his future career as well as give him a leg up at the Academy.

Bonick also recently started teaching courses in futurism that deal with “nuclear proliferation and how that is going to look 10 years out and what the U.S. response should be looking like in specific countries and regions,” he said.

There are currently around 45 students enrolled in the three “threat-casting” classes.

The cadets plan to use their findings as a case study that will provide future students with example materials on futurist topics, Bonick said.

The nature of things

During the two-day gathering, nearly a dozen industry experts and leaders addressed the group — some by Skype, others in person — with their own takes on planning for 2024.

While some discussed the proliferation of artificial intelligence and how new technologies might help monitor and respond to emergencies, others focused on the fires themselves, and why they seem to be on the rise.

By gathering individual interpretations of disaster and disaster relief, the group created a mosaic of wildfire understanding that cut across a number of industries and disciplines: technology, government, environmentalism, military and health care, just to name a few.

For example:

• Pete Kelsey, technical account manager at Autodesk Inc., discussed his company’s role in producing software that allows users to map and model entire regions and create various disaster scenarios in order to determine what the best response method might be.

• Desiree Matel-Anderson, former chief innovation advisor for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, spoke on the need for realtime information gathered by systems on the ground, in the air and in space.

• Tim Persons, chief scientist for the U.S. Government Accountability Office, said that the government must work to develop strategies that will help those in need as fast as possible while maintaining a healthy respect for issues related to privacy.

• Dr. Stephen Pyne, an author known for his wildlife expertise, Skyped from Australia to talk about the history of wildfires and how they have evolved since the advent of industry.

Said and done

The conference ultimately produced templates Johnson said will be used to compile a document of import: one that will inform a more in-depth public discussion on wildfire preparedness in the Pikes Peak region.

“The hope is that this will start a dialogue between FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security and the local community,” Lt. Col. Greg Bennett, the Center’s deputy director, said in a USAFA news release. “We want to explore ways to approach this differently — how to do a better job.”

Much like Intel’s Tomorrow Project (a futurist program that uses science fiction as its voice), the document ideally will allow surrounding communities to take steps to ensure a safer, better future.

In the introduction to Intel’s 2011 Tomorrow Project anthology, Johnson wrote about his belief that there is no predestination, and individuals have the biggest role in shaping for themselves (in the vein of Joe Strummer) a future unwritten:

“The future is not written. The future is made every day by the actions of people. Because of this I have always believed that everyone should be an active participant in the future. If we are all making it and we are all going to live in it then why not do something about it individually.”