DREaM event 4: Horizon Scanning


Dr Harry Woodroof from the Horizon Scanning Team within the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) presented a workshop session discussing horizon scanning on 25th April 2012 at the third DREaM workshop.

Dr Woodroof provided a preview of this session in a short interview.



You can also view this presentation on Slideshare.




Session Summary

Dr Harry Woodroof from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory explained that whilst the future is uncertain, all decisions are made about the future, so it is vital that decision makers gather information about the future to inform their decisions, for which they employ the technique of horizon scanning. His talk provided an overview of the work of Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) and the Horizon Scanning Centre to give a flavour of what is involved and how horizon scanning can be used in research.

Woodroof provided a formal definition of horizon scanning 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”

Whilst Woodroof acknowledged that this definition is not perfect, it is fairly widely used throughout government and beyond. He unpacked the definition for the workshop participants, emphasising the systematic nature of the method to differentiate it from simple crystal ball-gazing and the importance of considering both opportunities and risks. No plausible future is wholly good or wholly bad, so it is important to consider both opportunities and risks. He also noted that in order to understand the possible impact of anything new on the future, you have to understand the present, including any persistent problems or current trends. For this reason, historians are very useful in horizon scanning teams as they help you understand the present.

He moved on to discuss the knowledge mix in a research organisation and how horizon scanning fits into this mix. He emphasised the importance of a well-maintained library to help answer questions where the organisation already knows what the questions are and has access to the answers, but highlighted the problem encountered by large organisations – including government – who may not realise what they already know. In such instances, it is important to have strong internal networks. The role of horizon scanning in the knowledge mix is to help identify the “unknown unknowns” or unasked questions, where organisations may have blind spots.

He showed an animation by David Holland-Smith, which illustrates horizon scanning and the types of things one might see on the horizon. This identified different stages of horizon scanning, including defining the horizon you wish to scan, finding a tool to examine that horizon, then scanning for familiar things, potential risks, opportunities, and occasionally utterly bizarre things that make no sense at all, which if true could be very important. This illustration helped to demonstrate that horizon scanning is a means of finding what’s out there, even if we don’t know what to expect in advance, and is only valuable if it returns things that are not already known.

Woodroof moved on to discuss the paradox of “evidence-based policy” noting that policy is about the future and evidence is inherently in the past. He described four different approaches for informing policy decisions, which he felt were not as satisfactory as horizon scanning. In particular, he focussed on the tendency to rely on expert opinion to inform policy, citing Philip Tetlock’s 2005 study, which showed that individual experts rarely predict the future better than lay people, possibly because experts often over estimate how much they know.

Next, Woodroof described the science and technology horizon scanning at Dstl, where horizon scanning is used to prioritise the MoD’s own in house research programme, inform strategic corporate planning and improve the return on investment in research and development. He explained that they rely on information contained on the web as the fullest representation of the current state of human knowledge about non-defence science and technology development. Since they don’t necessarily know what they are looking for when they are scanning, they scan for words which indicate excitement to help identify developments that are causing excitement in the science and technology community. He recommended the Sigma Scan 2.0 website for those who wish to experiment in this area.

Woodroof assessed some of the shortcomings of this method, including the currency of material on the web (which may have been produced some time ago due to delay in publication), the lack of access to material that is not web published and the scope limitations of the method.

He concluded by providing two examples of UK Government policy reports which relied on horizon scanning, including a June 2009 update of the UK national security strategy and a 2006 HM Treasury report, both of which explicitly states that horizon scanning was a vital tool. He used these to drive home his final point: that horizon scanning has had demonstrable impact on some of the most serious issues any government faces.
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