Having a decent look at the present and the past is always a good starting point for any futurological expedition. In popular terms horizon scanning might simply be called ‘trend watching’. The goal of this exercise is to scan the horizon of past and present to see what trends or signals are pointing towards future change. Borrowed from the analytical branch of futurology, this exercise can be somewhat brainy and cerebral, but revealing nevertheless. Elements sprouting from a horizon scan can be used as points of departure for other exercises (most notably to determine the parameters for The Axes (p. ), our corner-stone method for imagining outlines and basic concepts of new worlds or possible futures.
Listing drivers of change
Ask the group what drivers of change might affect the future. Ask them to think of new trends and signals that they observe around them. (Trends are big changes that can affect the world on a massive scale. Weak signals are micro-changes that you can notice around you, or have maybe even only heard about.) Ask the participants to list aspects of the present that seem more prone to change than others. (We don't know how these aspects will change yet, but we can see that they will…)
Listing these elements can be done individually or in group, with participants shouting out to someone noting down the list.
Futurists hired by corporations or policy makers can spend months doing (often very analytical) research to determine what the trends really are, and how they are developing precisely. Often these researchers need to make sure that what they are pointing to are 'known' and 'measurable' tendencies. However, we can equally work with presumptions, things that we consider true based on our believes and intuitions (be they implicit or explicit). Presumptions are part of life, the future will be full of people acting upon presumptions, so why not embrace them in our futurological endeavours?
Layering and classifying
Once the list has been compiled, an optional next step can be to layer or to classify it. This is where things get even more brainy. The two methods below are possible ways to go about this task, but please feel free to invent your own system of classification.
STEEP Classification System
This is a way to classify different types of trends or drivers of change according to a common method or typology. Try to place all the elements of your list into one of these categories: Social / Technological / Economical / Environmental / Political. It can be interesting to see where the group tends to cluster many post-its.
If in the first step of this exercise the participants have difficulties coming up with trends and signals, you can also use these categories to help them get started: what are current trends in the social realm, the technological realm… and so on.
Again, feel free to invent your own classification system.
CLA: Causal Layered Analysis
Borrowed from ‘critical futures’ or ‘decolonial futures’, this is a way to look deeper into the layers of larger trends and tendencies. Start by putting all the elements from the list you compiled in the previous step into one of these four layers. Then try to fill in the gaps.
- Litany: First look at what problems we complain about. See what is portrayed in media, what you observe around you… (This mostly comes up easily, it's the easy step in the process.)
- Causes & systems: Try to go a layer 'deeper' and see what causes these problems. Here we list the underlying systems that cause the problems (a kind of DIY systemic analysis).
- Worldviews: Still a layer deeper, we try to see what worldviews are embedded in the systems. (Often these worldviews are taken for granted.)
- Myths & Emotions: This is the bottom layer in the model, where we list what underlying myths and emotions seem to be playing a role.
CLA can also be used as a scenario-building technique, and help you build scenarios from the bottom up. (“If I want x to be different” (e.g. ban fear > promote trust): build-up a new line from bottom to top layer: Myth > Worldview > Systems > Litany (so, end up by writing a media report from the future you are imagining – what kind of news do you hear in the media in this scenario?)
CLA - STEEP
If you're really into brainy stuff, you are welcome to insist and to combine the two methods mentioned above in a single matrix. This would result in a scheme like the one below.
One possible way to conclude a session of horizon scanning is to let the group pick out the trends or signals of change that could have an important influence on their Core Q (p. ).
Should you be moving on next to invent possible futures using The Axes (p. ) method, it's useful to end the session by picking two 'critical uncertainties' (trends, signals or drivers of change that seem important but are also unpredictable). You can use the method of 'Sociomertry' to let the group decide what drivers or signals seem most important and most uncertain.
After learning it, we used this method in several workshops and sessions. It's very brainy and easily provokes headaches, but also has the merit of gradually guiding groups into becoming more aware of the present and the possible different futures it holds. In our experience horizon scanning may be useful as a kind of compost layer upon which the further process can grow.
On the other hand, on some occasions we found the method way too brainy and analytical and as a result the energy in the room plummeted way below an acceptable threshold. Or we simply noticed that some members of the group completely gave up. Trying to keep the basic principles and aims of the method in mind, we invented more active ways to spice up the exercise, for example by combining it with a walk outside where couples of participants list trends and signs of change, etc. There's also the Hunting for Weak Signals (p. ) exercise, which is set in the future –but we can also bring it back to the present and ask participants to go walking and hunt for signals of change in the reality around them during a walk.
Maja Kuzmanovic thought us how to scan horizons during her workshop 'The Art of Futuring' at PAF (Saint-Erme - FR) in February 2019. During the workshop Maja mentioned she learned the Causal Layered Analysis from ‘critical futures’ or ‘decolonial futures’ - and the principle of 'critical uncertainties' was taken from Global Business Network/GBU and Shell. She also mentioned the book ‘The Art of the Long View' in this respect.