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“Not all who wander are lost”

April 18, 2018


Dr John Carney, Principal Scientist in the Systems Thinking and Consulting Group of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) recently wrote a blog on the Foresight section of the Government Office for Science website – “Ten Commandments of Horizon Scanning”. In this he sought to capture the critical factors for successful Horizon Scanning (HS) in a UK Government Department.  I’d say the lessons apply to HS for all organisations and are useful to practitioners and clients alike.

He points out that the term “Horizon Scanning” itself has a range of interpretations, and so a critical first thing to establish between practitioner and client is an actual definition and clarity of scope. In work that SAMI Consulting has done for Government clients, the term has been used to mean anything between “technology watch” and full scenario planning.

Clients need to understand early on that HS is not forecasting or prediction. Sometimes clients ask “what is your track record in getting your scenarios right?”  This misses the point: HS is aiming to bring new perceptions, to challenge set world-views and assumptions, and to open up strategy or policy-making to more options.  To achieve that you need to be looking in different places from the usual subject-matter sources, trying to find the novel and surprising “unasked questions”. “Not all who wander are lost” (attributed to JRR Tolkein).

In our experience, it’s also necessary to encourage scanning beyond the technology developments of the day.  AI, Big Data and the Internet of Things will of course have major impacts on almost every organisation, but they are not the only significant forces around – changing generational values, new economic structures, unstable geo-politics will all have profound impacts on the future.

Also, we’d argue that one needs to consider second- and third-order effects. A tool called “Futures Wheel”can be used to systematically explore these effects by explicitly identifying each effect and its further consequences. For example, climate change will have many effects, but if it leads to more efficient non-fossil fuel energy sources, what impact will that have on the economics and stability of oil-rich states? And then on migration and energy demand?  Especially if at the same time there is increased competition for scarce natural resources like water.

Dr Carney makes several very good points about the organisation and processes of HS.  You need a champion or sponsor; the need to retain scientific credibility (some, but not too many, wacky ideas);  the difficulties of being in a “challenge” function, conveying unpalatable views; sustaining the team.

We saw this last point ourselves when we worked with the Futures Council of Conference Board Europe. This was a group of futurists set up with over 30 members from companies across Europe. Five years later only six were still in the role – half the others had gone back to a line role, the rest became consultants focusing on foresight and futures. Sitting in the middle is hard.

Have a read of Dr Carney’s “Ten Commandments” – and let us know what you think.

Written by Huw Williams, SAMI Principal.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

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