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June 27, 2013

In last week’s post, we looked at the methodology used to characterise the various approaches to Horizon Scanning. This post uses this methodology to describe five public sector approaches to Horizon Scanning from: 

–      The “Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning” programme in Singapore

–      Australasian Joint Agencies Scanning Network

–      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.

 The core tool is described in a SESTI paper (Amanatidou et al 2012), which suggested a categorisation of Horizon Scanning tools in two ways.

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

 For each of these examples of horizon scanning activities, desk research – predominantly into the organisations’ websites – was supplemented by interviews with experts in each with the aim of:

  •  discussing their experience of what works and what does not in horizon scanning,  using the methodology outlined and
  • understanding the problems specific to the communication and use of each element of  horizon scanning.

  “Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning” (RAHS), Singapore  

 The Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning Programme was set up in 2004 to complement scenario planning. RAHS scans the horizon for weak signals of potential future shocks, and detects emergent threats and opportunities through a suite of technology-based methods and software.

 RAHS has activity in all 4 segments of the Horizon Scanning matrix:

 –          It organises the International Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning Symposium (IRAHSS) each 18 months, gathering experts together in person. RAHS team members also attend other conferences;

 –          Emerging technologies are identified, and if of interest will be explored further and a proposal for research produced. If accepted there is a workshop with a wider group, some with specific knowledge of the issue.  In this way issues can be explored in an on-going process, deepening understanding.  Similarly the impacts on Social changes and Economic systems will be explored.

 –          Text mining is used as an important enabling technology to extract and analyse themes from articles that the analysts have already categorised into the relevant domains on a quarterly basis. A “sentiment analysis tool”, Lexalytics, and other visualisation tools are then used to analyse these extracted information.

 –          Not much use is currently made of WiKis, but Twitter is used as a participatory tool within the technological community to ubiquitously share articles of interest. They use a Twitter hashtag to allow the members to tweet articles relevant to RAHS related technology and subsequently analyse these tweeted articles for future technological trends. 

 The use of technology allows many more articles to be searched and to expand the reach and scope of the research.

 Horizon Scanning fits into a 6-phase Foresight to Strategy Process:

  • Defining Focus
  • Environmental scanning
  • Sense-making
  • Developing Possible Futures
  • Designing Strategies
  • Monitoring. 

 RAHS produces a very brief daily scan product which is distributed to 3000 civil servants from Permanent Secretaries to the working level. Their aim is to “excite policymakers”  who do not have time to read a 20-page report, so RAHS produce short summaries with links to sources and articles should the reader wish to follow up.  In this way they can plant the seed of an idea which may develop over time.

 Australasian Joint Agencies Scanning Network (AJASN)

 AJASN was set up in 2005 and has now expanded to serve 22 agencies at Australian Commonwealth and State levels and in New Zealand.  The agencies cover a wide range of subjects: environment, infrastructure, industry and social. Also some universities and research groups are involved.

 The AJASN consists of a database of some 10,000 articles shared by the agencies, which is reviewed quarterly by them to identify anomalies and developments to produce a quarterly report. This report is socialised within the agencies by the AJASN representatives.  There also an annual report incorporating issues over the last 3 or 4 years.

 The papers in the database range from peer-reviewed articles to general media. They are selected by experts and representatives of the agencies, with each agency identifying 20/25 items per quarter – so about 300 papers per quarter. These cover early science developments, issues under debate rather than “settled” science.  AJASN adds a “synthesis” of these issues and a “so what?” comment.  There is also a twice yearly report back to a co-ordinating committee on science, which has senior people from the agencies on it.

 There is little automation currently within the process. There have been discussions about using text mining and Twitter searches, and there is a little of this through the media departments feeding in issues. 

 A key issue identified by the interviewee is how scanning affects policy. This depends on the “cultural conditions” – there is a claim of “evidence-based policy” but this is often interpreted narrowly with fringe issues disregarded. In the view of the interviewees, a good scanning/ policy system requires:

  • Policy-makers and strategic decision-makers to be clear about their assumptions
  • For them to be  open to challenge, to avoid being locked in to one view
  • To encourage a  diversity of views in the process in order to identify weaknesses in the  prevailing view.

 Metafore  (“Meta”) 

 Metafore began at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies (HCSS) in 2007, focussed on security foresight for Dutch government agencies. Research (Tetlock 2005), had shown that ”expert” pundits failed to produce forecasts much better than the average, so the team looked at consensus forecasts (“wisdom of crowds”), with web-crawling and text-mining the preferred approaches.

 The traditional manual approach was supplemented by “Sema-Dyson” (semantic innovator) which permanently scans a variety of different online sources for foresight-related studies and insights using targeted searches (with general search terms such as “trends”, “scenarios”) set up on Google News, EU Media Monitor etc.

 These results are fed into the Metafore-database on a regular basis. A combination of both manual and semi-automated analytic methods then allows one to identify emerging strategic issues from these various sources and to synthesise and present the bandwidth of views on these issues in a visually intuitive way.  The database has now grown to some 4000 studies.

 The manual scanning side continues with manual coding for a strategic monitoring of the futures of conflict. This covers a smaller set of studies, but looks at those in Chinese, Arabic, Russian as well as English. Studies are coded showing origins as well as content.  This is labour intensive but maintains important cultural differences.

 There is an increasing range of visualisation tools which can capture the changing importance of various topics over time.

 4. iKNOW  

iKnow – the Innovation, Foresight & Horizon Scanning Community – is a EU-funded foresight research aimed at interconnecting Knowledge on issues and developments potentially shaking or shaping the future of science, technology and innovation. Its key objective is to develop and pilot conceptual and methodological frameworks to identify, classify, cluster and analyse wild cards and weak signals. iKNOW’s international and multi-disciplinary team was led by Dr Rafael Popper of the University of Manchester.

 iKnow began is 2007 (it is now closed awaiting the next cycle) and records over 2000 papers (focused on Wild cards and weak signals) mapped by its active members in its “iBank” of issues, also called WI-WE Bank

 iKnow uses some crowd-sourcing techniques to generate content, but it can be hard to manage the quality of this.  The perception of the interviewee is that its web-based approach tends to be inward-looking – debates within the scanning community – and it is hard to get decision-makers directly involved. Generally it is more junior people who seem to access the site.

 5. Sigmascan   (UKSS)

 The Sigma Scan was set up in 2005 with the UK Government’s Horizon Scanning Centre, aimed at policy-makers across government.  It is a searchable set of brief papers exploring potential future issues and trends over the next 50 years which may have an impact on UK public policy. The papers cover a wide range of subjects, from climate science to social science, space exploration, economics and human rights.

 Sigma Scan draws on material from more than 6000 document sources – from scientific journals to futurists’ blogs – and interviews with 300 leading thinkers. This has been condensed into unique insights on the issues policymakers will face in the future, as around 250 Scan Papers written by experts sifting through published papers, and pulling out themes and issues and mapping them. The emphasis is on identifying multiple sources.. The Scan Papers are used in workshops with senior government officials and gurus to promote better awareness of different potential futures in government policy-making.

 Papers are classified in a standard way (political, economic, social, technological, environmental) with sub-classifications (eg values). Criteria such as Impact, Likelihood, Controversy, Where, When and How Fast are scored. Papers are searchable by criteria and keywords

There is no automation within the process. It is a judgement based approach with feedback; a systematic inductive process. There is a good breadth of generalist input, synthesising the views of experts.

 There are no filters or limits to the scope of the reviews; so they may include “wacky” ideas, and are typically stimulating. The papers are well-written in a journalistic style that is easy to read for non-experts. Authors stand apart from the subject, assessing the multiple sources for each paper. Sigma Scan covers most of the elements of Horizon Scanning SESTI defined (eg wild cards, EWS).

 The relationship between Horizon Scanning and Foresight Processes can be challenging. If they are too far apart, then policy-makers may miss issues that were flagged; but if they are too close then the scanning may become limited by the policy-makers perceptions.  There needs to be a “firewall” between the two, but with good communication.


 Each of the approaches was mapped onto the SESTI model described in the last posting and illustrated in Fig 1 below.

 EFFLA PUBLIC Figure 1 – Mapping of approaches onto HS matrix

“Expert-based” Horizon Scanning approaches currently predominate. Semi-automated methods are emerging and are likely to extend to cover a wide range of developments, signals and patterns more cost-effectively. These include text-mining, language parsing, and visualisation tools. RAHS is unique in operating in all four segments.

 Wiki and Twitter scanning are surprisingly currently under-developed. More developments can be expected here, probably using generic search tools.

 The manual scanning element will remain important to:

–      focus on high-value issues and integration with policy;

–      identify relevance to decision-makers

–      bring imagination and creativity

 Other observations from the interviews

Most of the interviewees commented on the problems of communicating with policy-makers and decision-makers. Getting sufficient engagement in the process is a challenge, because of time constraints and policy focus. Some distance is required to ensure that sufficiently novel ideas are considered (and value added), yet ideas that are too far from the mainstream can be seen as irrelevant.

 Ways suggested to overcome this included:

 –      Better structured papers which flag “trigger” issues or alerts

 –      “Co-creation” of future vision

–      Getting diversity into the discussions, rather than have them dominated by one view – transparency is essential

 –      Explicitly accepting that the implications for resources  makes this inherently a political process

 –      Making Horizon Scanning a more publicly visible activity, commenting on issues openly and broadly eg in the media; talking with the public and stakeholders, who then will themselves influence policy in a complete information circuit.


 Content Collection

a) There is clearly a lot of scanning activity already happening, so there is no real need to duplicate it.

 b)  Technology has a valuable role to play in gathering information together, as do networks of experts (eg the UK Future Analysts Network).

 c) There are always challenges in ensuring that information is objectively neutral – there may be some inherent political bias even at the scanning phase. This fact must be accepted and the impact minimised by identifying all the sources.

 Content Collation

a) Putting structure onto the information risks the content becoming goal-oriented (ie relating to a specific issue defined) as opposed to being neutral.

 b) The structure should ideally allow the identification of “early indicators” or triggers to issue alerts.


a) The use of some semi-automated tools permits a wider scope of information search. This study identified two approaches (Metafore and Lexalytics), but there are likely to be many more.

 b) Wiki and Twitter are only just beginning to be used in the scanning community – there is scope to exploit these tools more.

 c) There are many developments in analytical tools around “Big Data”, which could assist scanning.  Also, graphical presentation of information through GIS adds an extra dimension to the presentation of content and better visualisation tools are emerging.

 d) Social networks generally will become more influential.  Crowd sourcing will emerge as a way of engaging a wider range of experts.


 a) Careful consideration should be given to what communication “products” are produced. There is a need to balance information overload with pertinent and timely inputs.  “Products” should range from daily email news feeds that people can sign up for, through to major set-piece conferences.

 b) The key, as RAHS suggest, is to “Excite policymakers”. That requires making the output mean something to the audience.

 c) Alternative forms of communication such as video, music and immersive environments will enhance engagement with the content. The design of the physical space used is important for meetings, provoking ideas, images of the future etc: for example, a place like future focus @ dti.


 It is clear that we can expect an increasing use of semi-automated tools within the Horizon Scanning process, as they permit a wider scope of information search and a degree of avoidance of expert bias.

But throughout the study, interviewees have been consistent that deciding what signals will emerge from the noise has to come through debate and conflict. The human involvement will remain key to focus on high-value issues and integration with policy; to identify relevance to decision-makers; and to bring imagination and creativity.

 Ideally, the overall Horizon Scanning process should have activities in each of the four segments of the Horizon Scanning matrix: both manual and semi-automated techniques and both participatory and non-participatory ones. Each adds its unique value to the overall process.


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