The Complete Guide to Horizon Scanning


The Complete Guide to Horizon Scanning


One important trait that all successful organizations share is the ability to spot the signs of potential disruptive changes and adapt to the changes - or even better, take the lead in creating the change. In future studies, we call it horizon scanning (or environmental scanning). So, what is horizon scanning? And what are the benefits it brings to your organization? In this article I will answer those questions.

Have you seen Minority Report?

The movie, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise and Colin Farrell, depicts a futuristic world where crime is virtually eliminated from Washington D.C. thanks to an elite law-enforcing squad called PreCrime.

It has one of the most iconic scenes in movie history, in which Tom Cruise's character is standing in front of an interactive full-body screen. His hands dance across the screen, manoeuvring footages and piecing puzzles together. Piece by piece, a murder scene starts to form in front of his eyes.

But there is a twist: there was no murder. Not yet actually. PreCrime's sole purpose is to stop a crime before it happens in the future. The footages and images that we saw Cruise working on earlier are future visions, provided by three mutated humans who can see flashes of certain events in the future.

As the head of "PreCrime", Cruise's character is a specialist who can manoeuvre those future visions and determine where the crime scene is and the approximate time when it happens.

While most of the technologies shown in the film were a product of fiction, some were ahead of their time (facial recognition, personalized advertising, gesture recognition). However, the technique in which the character uses future clues to determine the occurrence of an event and its outcome is close to a popular technique used by future experts called horizon scanning.


 Let's make it clear: horizon scanning is not about predicting the future. It is a systematic process focusing on detecting the early signs of any potential developments. It helps researchers confirm or discredit existing phenomena as well as identify emerging trends that are on the margin of current thinking.

In today’s fast-paced world, things can become obsolete as quickly as they emerge. Horizon scanning aims to detect patterns or signals of coming disruptions that could have a transforming impact on our cities, the way we work, our communities, and our habits. The result of horizon scanning will help decision makers plan on how to exploit or mitigate these changes and secure the most positive outcome for their organization.

Finding those “early signs” requires meticulous desk research. And while the foresight experts don’t have a couple of mutated humans lying around and producing future predictions, they have an equivalently powerful tool to scan the future: the Internet.

There are thousands of entries on the Internet about future trends from government ministries and agencies, non-governmental organizations, international organizations and companies, research communities, and online and off-line databases and journals.

The researchers can map out a list of the most influential changes, work on a shared vision of the future and continue “scanning” new phenomena that might influence the future. 


Right off the bat, horizon scanning gives you a holistic view of the future trends: what is coming, what changes are going to benefit your organization, and what changes are going to be the disruptors. The overarching purpose of horizon scanning is to provide timely awareness of what is new or changing – to identify risks, as well as opportunities, that these phenomena can create.

Countless examples show that the lack of preparation for the disrupting trends can be fatal for businesses. Only 14 years ago, Blockbuster had over 9,000 retail stores all over the US and was angling to overtake Hollywood Video, its major national competitor. Fast-forward to 2018: there is only one Blockbuster store left in the entire country.

The fall of Blockbuster also coincided with the Internet evolution and the dominance of new streaming services, e.g. Netflix. The irony is that in 2000, Reed Hastings, the founder of Netflix, flew to the Blockbuster HQ and proposed a partnership in which Netflix would run Blockbuster’s brand online in exchange for some in-store promotion. He was turned down.

Here in Finland, we also have our own precautious story about a fallen giant who became overconfident and unable to adapt to changes.

Nokia may not be an unfamiliar name to you. The telecommunications giant was a force to be reckoned with in the 2000s. In 2007, the company had 40.4% of the mobile phone handset market share and 51% of the smartphone market share. It was the largest vendor in all regions, bar North America. For a time, Nokia was the beacon of mobile innovation.

However, the downfall of Nokia began in the late 2000s and the beginning of the 2010s when the company opted against adopting the iOS and Android systems, and instead ran its flagship mobile device, Nokia N8, on Symbian^3. The decision has proven to be costly for the company as Symbian quickly became outdated and difficult for developers after the advent of iOS and Android.

It’s needed to emphasize that horizon scanning is not a fool-proof method that can predict the future. But at the very least, it allows early discussions to start on the intended and unintended effects of future developments. It is the preliminary set of evidence that allows bridging the gap between evidence-informed decision making and anticipatory thinking.

Imagine that your organisation is a ship cruising across a vast ocean. Horizon scanning is the radar identifying the hidden icebergs that can wreck your ship. You, as the ship captain or the first mate, have the responsibility to deduct information from the radar to steer the ship into the right direction. 

Despite the benefits of horizon scanning, this method is still not widely adopted by the majority of 



 Horizon scanning is a heavily data-driven activity requiring a meticulous process of collecting information and evidence, interpreting and validating the findings, and using them to make informed decisions and policies.

The amount of information available can be overwhelming for any organization. And that’s not all. The next challenge is validating the data gathered to find the valuable information. On the surface, this daunting task looks like finding a needle in a haystack.

The EU’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) has outlined a set of issues that have to be addressed before making a horizon scan. This list is by no means the “golden standard” of horizon scanning methodology, but it provides essential guidance for organizations for creating a robust methodology.

Define the characteristics of useful information for horizon scanning

Before even starting to gather new information, we have to identify that the information we are gathering is (a) relevant to our business and (b) is going to make an impact. According to the JRC’s report, some characteristics of the information are those that:

· Attract attention (trending stories, etc.)

· Put existing scenarios under pressure

· Are potentially disruptive

· Show how existing things evolve

· Give parallels from other sectors

· Give new applications for existing technology and ideas

· Indicate change or no change when other developments would have raised expectations of change

· Are against conventional wisdom

Make sure that the information sources are reliable

As mentioned before, horizon scanning is an evidence-based foresight method. It’s not about predicting the future – the value of horizon scanning is to display new perspectives, challenge assumptions and provide more options.

Horizon scanning practitioners must do their best to avoid what I call “information bias” – where you only look for what you want to see. Diversity and a wide range of information are important for a horizon scanning activity to be effective. 

The JRF reports suggest that practitioners should count on highly reputable publications, scientific reports, patents, and archives as primary sources. Crowdsourcing information, social media, alerts from different fields, conversations and debates are other sources that can support diversity.

Interpret the given information

The vast amount of information needed for implementing horizon scanning means that it is almost impossible for any researchers to validate it alone. Most modern methods consist of AI automated tools alongside human scanners.

There is still debate on whether or not the task of pulling and interpreting the information should be given solely to AI. On the one hand, it would save researchers a tremendous amount of time and efforts not to do horizon scanning. On the other hand, in spite of the progress of AI, automated searches still provide a lot of rubbish and few gems. There are still some nuances in terms of defining key factors that only human researchers can exercise.

The best combination could be that of an intelligent filtering tool to quickly collect relevant information and human intelligence to refine that pool of useful information.

Another important point, when it comes to practising horizon scanning, is that researchers should avoid restricting the work to scanning only one domain. Business owners and managers might fall into the trap of only paying attention to the main domain of activity in the organization because it is where the bread and butter is. However, changes from outside your operational field may make an impact and disrupt your industry as well.

Horizon scanning must be a collective effort of experts from different facets of the organization. It would take constant modification and several rounds of discussion to be perfect. Even after you have created the horizon scanning radar, the work does not stop there. 

 Make continuous assessments

 With every new development, there will be new information, new insights, new connections made – in this sense, the horizon scanning never ends. Therefore, a point has to be chosen where the results are deemed of sufficient value and quality to be communicated to the relevant contacts. At the same time, if the process is sufficiently embedded in the structure, these results will be analysed and studied in more details in other parts of the organization. 

Do you need a comprehensive tool to help you set up your horizon scanning radar? Check out Futures Platform.