Scanning and Foresight

We anticipate emerging policy challenges and opportunities in a rapidly changing and complex world. Through scanning and foresight we monitor and explore social, economic, environmental, and technological changes in Canada and around the world. We then look at how these changes may come together in the future.

Each year we examine a theme or set of related topics. The results of this work are communicated through our MetaScan, foresight projects as well as other publications. These help federal organizations to take a holistic, longer-term approach while they are dealing with their short-term priorities.

What is Scanning and Foresight?

  • Scanning identifies changes in the domestic and international environments that could affect government policy and programs.
  • Foresight explores how these changes may evolve and interact to create new policy challenges and opportunities.

It can be challenging for organizations to address longer-term policy issues when faced with many pressing short-term priorities. We use these processes to help in that regard. We use them to identify issues that could shape the policy agenda over the longer term.

We are not trying to predict the future, but to explore the range of plausible futures that may emerge. This information can be used by federal organizations to develop policies and strategies that mitigate threats and take advantage of opportunities.

We are experimenting with scanning and foresight processes. Our current process is designed for a policy environment where the focus is on testing assumptions, understanding the system and identifying emerging challenges and surprises.   


Figure 1: The Horizons Foresight Method

The Horizons Foresight Method

Preliminary Step: Frame the problem. There is often pressure to frame the topic of a foresight study in very narrow terms. People think it will be easier to do a small, contained study. In most cases this will help you understand the expected future, but not identify the surprises that will disrupt the system. Generally speaking, you should include the pathways and systems that are the context for your topic. The framing of the problem may change as you learn more about the multiple pathways through which drivers could impact the system.

Step 1: Surface current assumptions. Before any foresight activities start, the Horizons Foresight Method identifies the current, commonly held assumptions about the issue or problem under study. These are the core assumptions that are shaping public policy and public dialogue on the issue. These assumptions are collected at the outset through interviews and research and then put aside, to be tested for robustness later in the process.

Step 2: Scan for weak signals. Scanning identifies changes in the domestic and international environments that could have significant implications for the issue and the system in which it is embedded. This can involve literature reviews and interviews, which try to surface and probe the mental models of people who have knowledge of the system. The focus is on finding weak signals that could indicate a significant change is possible or underway. Weak signals that appear to have a significant potential for disruption are further developed into insights. Insightful scanning is the foundation of effective foresight.

Step 3: Map the system. The study participants and invited experts each draw a picture of their mental model of the system. These maps can range from simple process diagrams to complex causal loop diagrams. An attempt is made to develop a group system map that includes the elements where participants think significant change is possible.

Step 4: Select change drivers. All the insights from the scanning phase are reviewed, and those that appear to have a significant, disruptive impact on at least one of the elements in the system map are chosen as change drivers for the scenario exercise. At this stage, cascade diagrams are used to explore the potential second, third, and fourth order impacts of the drivers, and cross-impact analysis is used to explore how the chosen drivers and insights could interact with each other to add new information about how the system could evolve.

Step 5: Develop scenarios. For each scenario, an archetype and scenario logic are customized to explore strategically useful futures. The state of each driver and insight is deduced from the scenario logic. Then the state of each system element is deduced from all of the preceding steps. At this point the participants can see what the system could look like under the given conditions. These end-state scenarios offer a vivid snapshot of the key system elements for each future.

Step 6: Test assumptions and identify challenges. Guided visualization is used to immerse participants in each scenario. Participants are asked to identify challenges and opportunities for which current policies and institutions are not prepared. Finally the current assumptions (from step 1) are tested against each scenario for their robustness. Weak assumptions are revised to be more robust.

For more information on our foresight and scanning process please have a look at our foresight manual