How can we get a sense of the big picture in which our core question or issue is embedded? How do we identify the dynamic potential of our current situation? What are the constants and variables? How does change happen across micro and macro scales, short and long time horizons? How do we collect, filter, and collate aspects of the present that could be important for particular futures? Horizon scanning (aka environmental scanning) can help address such questions in a systematic yet exploratory manner.

Horizon scanning refers to a specific aptitude that enables a broad, active, curious, and pre-judgmental sensing of change as part of a continuous (life-long) practice. Horizon scanning is also a set of specific scanning techniques that can help to focus your futuring research. In horizon scanning you observe and track change from multiple points of view. While scanning, you pay attention to signals of change in the world around you. This practice can help you uncover patterns of change over time and anticipate how they might evolve to shape different futures. You observe, collect and track different signals of change, and collate them into bigger patterns of change, such as trends and driving forces.

“Almost all foresight work starts with or involves Horizon Scanning. 'Horizon, or Environmental, Scanning is the art of systematically exploring the external environment to better understand the nature and pace of change in that environment, and identify potential opportunities, challenges, and likely future developments”

Practical Foresight Guide

“Signals are things you encounter that can shed light on the future.”How to Future

Signals of change can be found all around you. In news, opinions, scientific discoveries, new technologies, products, services, social behaviours, cultural phenomena, design artefacts, visual memes, etc. You can think of signals of change as variables in a dynamic system.

Signals can have different strengths, frequencies, directions, lengths and spreads. The earliest signals point to possible but improbable changes (wild cards). Weak signals are early warnings that something is changing. Something that might not be reported much (yet), but could point to a major change in the future. They might appear on the fringes of your field of interest, in your peripheral vision or a random conversation. While scanning, it's worth keeping track of things that seem insignificant yet grab your attention, or strike you as peculiar but you're not sure why. The most unpredictable signals are the so called “wild cards”, or “black swan” events. These are events that are unlikely to happen, but when they do they can affect massive change.

Trends are tendencies and patterns of change. They describe what is changing, how this change happens, where and for whom the change is happening. Trends provide context for individual signals. This context sometimes only becomes apparent when clustering, synthesising or analysing multiple signals. Trends evolve over time and can be emerging, ongoing or declining. They co-exist and influence each other. They can converge and diverge, amplify and dampen each other's effects. Trends (and interactions between trends) can have wide reaching implications, depending on how the (parts of a) system responds to them. When researching change related to specific issues, it's worth noting down what implications a particular trend could have for these issues.

Here's an example of a Capturing and Refining Trends Canvas by Changeist

Driving forces of change aka megatrends are longer-term shifts with wider-reaching consequences. They shape trends and are the underlying causes of signals. They are observed over decades (or longer) and can have impact across most if not all sectors. Ideologies, political and economic systems, ecosystems, demographics, cultural values and other slow changing patterns can all be considered megatrends. These are the forces that are more stable than trends and signals, more certain and constant.

“Environmental scanning is a task of discovery. Good scanners do all kinds of things to look for clues about how the world is changing: read news, blogs, and listservs, watch TV and YouTube, travel, talk to people, visit factories, go to stores, attend events, and so on. Scanners work to discover leads, ideas, thought triggers, data suggesting a trend, and so on. Then they join with colleagues to talk about what they have found and what it means.”

Phases of horizon scanning:

  • Framing (understanding the need)
  • Planning (sources and methods)
  • Sourcing (monitor sources, perform searches, identify and collect information…)
  • Sorting (collating, synthesising, analysing)
  • Sense making (determine the relevance and implications)
  • Adapting (review and adjust the system)

An alternative description of these phases: FAFA (from integral futures)

  • Find: where and how to look for scanning hits
  • Analyse: use cross-level analysis (as well as causal layered analysis) to expand the interpretation of the resulting scanning hits
  • Frame: create a framework for organising insights from the scanning hits
  • Apply: use the insights to inform the subsequent phases of the project

Most curious people have some way of scanning different sources, it may be structured or more informal. In horizon scanning, it's important to be sufficiently critical of the sources, yet also sufficiently open minded to observe signals that don't agree with our worldview, or counter our arguments. Diversity of sources is key for horizon scanning, in order to get as broad picture of the landscape as possible.

  • Official reports (foresight, industry, policy, etc.) are useful to scan the macro environment (megatrends, driving forces)
  • Academic and Professional Journals are a rich resource of signals, trends and drivers
  • Professional news, conferences, periodicals, podcasts have good summaries of sector-specific topics and trends
  • News, current affairs, podcasts (local, national, global) are an ongoing source of signals on micro and macro scales
  • Blogs, podcasts and newsletters can be mined for signals and trends by people who know much more about specific topics than you would.
  • Social media where communities of interest emerge and a wider range of expert and non-expert signals can be found (scanning the scanners)
  • Information databases with opportunities to setup specific alerts and trackers.
  • Etc.

While the scanning mostly happens in secondary sources as listed above, it is just as important to go out into the field and experience change first hand. This is of particular interest for spotting weak signals and cultural shifts.

  • Observe
    • train to direct your attention like a beam of light, from wide to narrow, focused to dispersed…
    • have your ambient awareness 'antenna' active whenever possible
    • for longer term changes in behaviours and environments, extended observational methods from ethnography and anthropology can be useful
  • Use multiple senses to notice and record the signals (photos, sound, video, objects, etc.)
  • Talk to people! Get to know their different points of view, expert or enthusiasts alike.
    • Ask questions. Don't attempt to fix things or offer solutions. Challenge your understanding and assumptions
    • Listen. Listen. Listen.
  • Directly experience contemporary cultural expressions to uncover emerging themes and intuitions
    • Art and design (objects, media, environments, performances, experiences…)
    • Books (fiction and non-fiction) and magazines
    • Films, TV series, documentaries
    • Social media like instagram, tiktok, youtube, etc.
  • Develop your own sensing network with an appropriate mix of specialists and generalists from different sectors and geographic regions.

While scanning, watch out for your own biases and for filter distortions by media and search engines. Select information that will give you a sense of the landscape in broad strokes. Keep your distance and hold back your reactions. Set your limits. Do not scan 24/7 but opt for 'smaller meals more regularly' (e.g. 30 minutes per day). For sources that have continuous feeds it can help to aggregate and categorise them in newsreader apps, link aggregation sites and the like.

“Thirteen rules for scanning by D. Jarvis:

  • The future is already here, you need to find it
  • Look for clues, not comprehensive evidence
  • Go deep, explore, focus broadly
  • Do not ignore evidence to the contrary, have an open mind
  • Take a global perspective
  • Look for the novel, unfamiliar and uninteresting
  • Look for interactions and combinations
  • Study history to understand the context
  • Make scanning an ongoing, integrated activity
  • Make scanning a shared, social process
  • Identify credible sources
  • Scanning should be relevant (to the organisation)
  • Get out from behind the computer - the future isn’t online:
    • The future is not yet written down, it is concentrated in people and places - find and engage with remarkable people
    • Learning journeys (seek out and learn from innovators and thinkers, have immersive experiences ('Finding the future: Why learning Journeys Give and Adaptive Edge,' Nicole-Anne Boyer)”

While you might spend time scanning sources to find out what is happening, sorting and structuring the gathered information is also important. It certainly helps to make sense of it all, to be able to answer the question “what does this tell me (about my topic of interest or possible future)?”

Keeping track of all the signals, trends and drivers is a craft, and often a personal or collective preference. If you're scanning alone, find a way to collect and curate links, documents, references, photographs and other materials in a way that makes sense to you, it could be something like a scanning journal, a spreadsheet or zettelkasten. Use this journal to collect signals, trends and driving forces in a consistent way (e.g. each entry can have a title, source, summary, category (STEEP), perceived impact and relevance) it can also help to ask if something is creating, confirming, responding to, or countering change (and why).

If you're scanning with a group of people, you'll benefit from using a shared system (online) where the material is accessible and searchable, and everyone involved can input, edit, tag or sort things in an agreed upon manner.

  • where and how do you bookmark, reference or store materials?
  • is there a shared document repository?
  • how do you take notes?
  • how will you keep your evidence, signals and trends together?
  • is there a need for a more structured database?
  • do you need a collective taxonomy specific to your area of interest? is it predefined or adhoc?
  • how will you map clusters of signals, trends and forces to help understand the landscape as a dynamic ecosystem?
  • do you need additional lenses or frameworks, such as:
    • STEEP(VD): Social, Technological, Environmental, Economic, Political, (Values), (Demographic)
    • DEGEST: Demography, Environment, Government, Economy, Society, Technology
    • PEST(LE): Political, Economic, Societal, Technological, (Legal), (Environmental)

Scanning and sorting usually involves dealing with “too much material”. The material could include sources that might not be directly relevant, things from unreliable sources, overly technical sources, or untested speculation alongside heavily verified sources. Synthesising the material, bringing together the loose ends, the unexpected signals, finding clusters, seeing connections, or correlations between signals, describing trends…

  • futurist_fieldguide/horizon_scanning.txt
  • Last modified: 2021-04-14 10:51
  • by nik