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June 20, 2013

A recent study completed for the EU Research and Innovation Directorate looked at a number of different approaches to Horizon Scanning adopted by both public and private sector organisations. In this, the first of three posts, we look at the methodology used to characterise the various approaches. Later posts will cover describe the approaches of five public sector organisations and then five private sector ones.

The EU Future Programme 7 funded a consortium called SESTI – Scanning for Emerging Science and Technology Issues to explore Horizon Scanning. SESTI defined Horizon Scanning as: “. . . the systematic examination of potential (future) problems, threats, opportunities and likely future developments, including those at the margins of current thinking and planning. A SESTI paper (Amanatidou et al 2012), suggested a categorisation of Horizon Scanning tools in two ways (see Figure 1):

• by the level of participation
• and by the extent to which automated processes are used.

Figure 1 – Horizon Scanning matrix (Amanatidou et al 2012)

Horizon Scanning places great emphasis on building a holistic framework where the output of scanning can be effectively incorporated into building the vision and into strategic planning. It is generally a key task of the first phase of a Foresight programme.

Another SESTI paper proposed a series of definitions for elements of Horizon Scanning:

Early warning signals (EWS)
A frequently used term for an important element of Horizon Scanning is “early warning signal” or “faint” or “weak” signals. These are “warnings (external or internal), events and developments that are still too incomplete to permit an accurate estimation of their impact and/or to determine their complete responses”.

These are by nature ambiguous and controversial, and typically hidden
among the “noise” in the prevailing sense-making paradigm. Most Horizon Scanning approaches attempt to capture a wide range of EWS in an effort to ensure that what may emerge as significant issues are not overlooked.

Many EWS are naturally contentious – Horizon Scanning approaches should make clear the degree of common agreement or dispute. Early warning signals are only meaningful when they are evaluated in the context of both their emergence and their evolution, as a part of a pattern along with other early warning signals.

Wild Cards
Wild cards are high impact, low probability events. They may be physical events (meteorite impact), or social ones (fall of the Berlin Wall). They may be preceded by EWS, but generally if so the signals are very weak indeed. Wild cards generally alter the fundamentals, and create new trajectories.

Wild cards are closely linked with the “Black Swans” concept popularised by Taleb. The distinction is simply that a Black Swan is an event that could not be predicted in advance, whilst a wild card by definition is identified if not actually predicted.

Trends are extrapolations of historical data to the future using statistical/ mathematical models. Being based on statistical information, trends are relatively predictable and predetermined. They could generally be regarded as “the base case” forecast, which may be thrown off course by wild cards and EWS that come to pass. Over-reliance on trends is a major cause of forecasting failure, sometimes known as “driving by the rear-view mirror”.

Social trends may be less deterministic, and require a judgement as to whether a new trend is emerging – eg in fashion, politics or lifestyle choices.

“Hypes” are over-enthusiasm, or excessive publicity around a certain topic, excessive advertising or making exaggerated claims (ie can be genuinely believed or deliberately misleading). Gartner Group defined a “hype cycle” – Figure 2 below. Gartner suggest that the Hype Cycle methodology gives a view of how a technology or application will evolve over time.

Figure 2 – Gartner “Hype cycle”

It is unclear how the approach helps distinguish “technology triggers” that meet or exceed expectation and those that do not; forecasting errors could occur in either direction. It may however be helpful to recognise that despite failing to achieve the hyped expectations, an innovation may in fact be perfectly useful in a more niche role.

Emerging issues
The concept of “emerging issues” is less well-defined. It is more often context-dependent, being related to specific policy concerns. Generally these are taken to represent more fundamental, deep-seated changes operating over a long time horizon.

Discourse tells something about the level on which the topic is discussed within the relevant community. In particular we can distinguish between:

– the severity of controversy, which may also tell us something about the uncertainty
– how large a part of the target community is actively involved.

These definitions give us a framework for discussing alternative approaches to Horizon Scanning. In practical situations, there may be problems with precisely assessing which category a particular piece of information falls into, but nonetheless the general approach is helpful.

In the next post, we will describe five public sector approaches to Horizon Scanning from:
– The “Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning” programme in Singapore
– Australasian Joint Agencies Scanning
– Metafore from The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies
– iKnown from The Innovation, Foresight & Horizon Scanning Community; and
– SigmaScan run by the Horizon Scanning Centre,in BIS.

(Written by Huw Williams)

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