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THE TEN COMMANDMENTS OF HORIZON SCANNING

By Dr. John Carney


Note from the author: This blog presents a candid view of the lessons learned carrying out Horizon Scanning within a UK Government Department, and does not represent policy.


Back in 2012, I gave a talk called the “Ten Commandments of Horizon Scanning” at the UK’s Operational Research Society. It was a personal perspective based upon my own experiences of carrying out and leading Horizon Scanning[1] activities the preceding two years.


At the time, UK government-led horizon scanning was experiencing something of a resurgence given a perception that some significant geopolitical shocks (e.g., the Arab Spring and the rapid economic rise in Asia) had not been sufficiently well anticipated. In looking back at where we had fallen short, I created a set of ten commandments which have stood the test of time and cover the full gamut of purpose, communication, the scanning process itself, stakeholder engagement and impact.


  1. Don’t think that horizon scanning is about predicting the future – This is a common misconception. The value of horizon scanning is in using it to change mind-sets, challenge assumptions and provide more options.


  1. Don’t look for ‘what you know or want’ – Scanning is not the same as searching. This may seem contradictory, but it is one of the hardest commandments to get your mind around as either a practitioner or a client. Horizon scanning is more about asking the ‘unasked questions’ or identifying the “unknown unknowns” (after Donald Rumsfeld).


  1. Don’t negate the need for a champion or dedicated client – The major challenge for horizon scanning is in overcoming cultural resistance. A supportive and influential stakeholder is a great help – but choose wisely (if you can) and manage expectations accordingly.


  1. Don’t forget to sustain the evidence base – A systematic and comprehensive scanning process provides a degree of (scientific) robustness, which is important for credibility.


  1. Don’t think that there is any consistent understanding of what Horizon Scanning is about – There is a lack of a common understanding within the Horizon Scanning and Futures community with no consistent application of language. The various disciplines that have contributed to Horizon Scanning have resulted in a variety of views of what it is. Furthermore, the inconsistency of application means the term “horizon scanning” is widely used and, in many cases, misused. 


  1. Don’t be afraid to challenge your own way of doing things – There is no magic (or agreed) recipe for how to do horizon scanning but watch out for thinking that the way that you do it is the best and only way. Asking other teams to review your work is a great way to introduce new approaches and views to your horizon scanning activities.


  1. Don’t forget ‘the team’ – Use a dedicated cadre of ‘generalists’, ideally recruited from very different academic backgrounds (including the arts and the sciences). Consider the wider team too. Externals to your own area or consultants can often present an uncomfortable conclusion more effectively.


  1. Don’t negate the need for impact – Focus on describing the implications of your analysis (the “so what”) rather than the process or detailed content. Also remember that uncertainty and risk (or opportunity) are not the same thing.


  1. Don’t expect to be thanked or enjoy it too much – Horizon scanning can be challenging and at times you may feel like you are in the front-line of a war zone. The most important contribution a futures project makes is likely to be an invisible one.


  1. Don’t give up the day job – For some, horizon scanning may become a full-time or even life-long profession, but for most it can be a useful adjunct to a more mainstream activity. Be wary that horizon scanning can at times seem like a cult but treat it not as a single bullet but one tool useful of many in the Futures armoury.


Bringing us up-to-date (2024), horizon scanning should be seen as an integral part of the Foresight process and since this blog was originally written, although signal identification remains the essential activity for us, we look at Futures and Foresight in a far more holistic manner. However, at heart I remain an old-fashioned purist, possibly as a reaction the pervasive ingress of ‘AI’ information scrapers as we cannot rely on machinery alone but need to be able to abstract our findings into succinct and compelling narratives that we can share with others. Infographics, creative stories, slick presentations and video nasties or niceties all have their place but there remains room within the tool box for the well-articulated and truly novel ‘needle in a haystack.’


CALL TO ACTION

If you disagree with the commandments or have new ones of your own to add to the list, please contact the author atjcarney@dstl.gov.uk.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

A version of this article appeared as a blog on the UK Government’s Office of Science’s website. The author is very grateful to the whole UK Government’s Futures Community for providing the stimulus for this note.


 

Dr. John Carney is an experienced Futures Practitioner and scientist working within UK Government in the area of emerging science and technology (S&T). Carney has led the Dstl Futures Community of Practice, with cross organisational involvement over the last decade or more and as an enthusiastic facilitator is a strong proponent for participative Futures methods.  John recently designed and led a year-long project-based development scheme for Scientists in the area of S&T Futures and has led on the application of creative writing methods for Futures within his organisation. Previously John has been Head of Knowledge Management, Lead Consultant for the pan UK Defence Organisational Learning Strategy, Organisational Lead for Industrial and Academic Co-ordination and Team Leader for S&T Horizon Scanning.

John has recently been given a Lifetime achievement award for his work on Futures, although it should be recognised that he feels far from dead yet!


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