Techniques- Horizon Scanning

Strategic Futures Analysis Techniques: Horizon Scanning

The term horizon scanning is often used to describe the overall process of strategic futures thinking. It is also a specific futures technique which has been defined as… “the systematic examination of potential threats, opportunities and likely developments including but not restricted to those at the margins of current thinking and planning. Horizon scanning may explore novel and unexpected issues as well as persistent problems or trends.” (Chief Scientist’s Advisors Committee)

This section focuses on horizon scanning as a futures technique. It is a structured approach for collecting evidence and insights to look beyond a single expected future to a range of possible futures. It can be a self contained exercise; an ongoing scanning activity; or part of the initial data gathering for a strategic futures programme. In all cases it is important to:

  • Look ahead – gathering information beyond the usual timescales;
  • Look across – extend beyond the usual sources of data and consult people with different perspective and expertise; and
  • Look around – beyond the usual cultures and technologies, including the important developments that may be occurring at the boundaries between them.

These data are generally combined in a database to allow analysis and supporting evidence. An example of a data structure can be seen in the supporting page for the Seven Questions.

Horizon scanning methods range from manual to increasingly automated approaches and also involve varying levels of participation, as shown below:

A useful framework for horizon scanning is the ‘Three Horizons Model’. This looks at the strength of influences over time of difference issues. There will be those that dominate now but are likely to be replaced over time by factors of increasing influence. There are also the weak signals of longer term influences. It is important to look closely for these in any scanning exercise as they help to anticipate longer term disruptive changes.

The time horizon is an important factor in planning any horizon scanning activity. It will be determined by the objectives of the scan and the pace of change of the issues being considered. For example, work on forestry is likely to require a longer time horizon than mobile telecommunications.

Typical stages of a horizon scan include:

  • Understand the audience perspective – this should include a clear understanding of the objectives and scope; time horizon and stakeholder engagement
  1. Compilation of existing scanning outputs – there are many published scan and on-line scanning data bases, such as
  2. Supplementary scanning – There are likely to be gaps in existing scans. It is also important to realise that areas covered by an existing scan may well need updating and the implication and importance of the issues identified could have changed.
  3. Review – The process for the analysis of these data will depend on the approach and type of participation. This can often involve a workshop.
  4. Classification and analysis – To determine the potential impact of trends and issues and the likelihood of them occurring.
  5. Synthesis – Most scanning databases will hold a large amount of data. It is important that this is reported in a form that can be readily assimilated by the ‘clients’ for the scan.


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