Policy Makers And Strategy Practitioners Now Rely Heavily On Horizon Scanning To Make Informed Decisions That Anticipate Future Developments

by Bruce Braes

The importance of horizon scanning is increasingly being acknowledged by both the public and private sectors. As a result of this, the process is now having an even greater impact on strategic planning, risk management and policy development across both the commercial and governmental arenas. The Government, for example, has recognised the strategic value which this innovative approach can provide and has established its own horizon scanning unit.

Horizon scanning is also providing significant benefit in the context of research prioritisation, with the increased level of scanning activity we are witnessing providing innovative outputs which are helping to influence not only ongoing but also future research projects. Policymakers and strategy practitioners now rely heavily on horizon scanning to make informed decisions that anticipate future developments.

Looking At The Future The study of the future has come a long way since the creation of the ODSTERS by AT&T in the early 1980s. So what is horizon scanning? Horizon scanning is a process which is undertaken to help us better understand changes in risk and the velocity of that change, and furthermore, to identify the indicators for that change. The process is supported by peer assessment and benchmarking in an effort to identify potential opportunities, challenges and likely future developments that will impact upon our organisations. In 2002, the UK’s Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs(Defra)[i] defined the process of horizon scanning as: “The systematic examination of potential threats, opportunities and likely future developments which are at the margins of current thinking and planning.”

The objectives of horizon scanning can be summarised as follows:

  • Detect – trends, situations and events
  • Identify – opportunities, risks, threats and challenges
  • Determine – strengths and limitations
  • Provide – platform for informed decision-making

Horizon scanning combines intelligence and evidence-based processes which are carried out in an attempt to understand future developments. For this process to be successful there are certain requirements that must be met. For example, horizon scanning requires ‘thinking outside of the box’ and the removal of pre-conceptions, and it must be driven primarily by a desire to discover something new. Access to numerous sources, ideas and challenges is essential, as is the ability to look beyond personal and organisational comfort zones, specialisations and environments.

If conducted effectively, horizon scanning provides us with the ability to recognise and identify risk and the opportunities associated with them in a timely and well­ structured manner.