Last week I attended the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee evidence session on Government Horizon Scanning. It being my third day of work I was a bit puzzled by the topic, but once I realized what ‘’horizon scanning’’ is I began dreaming of Isaac Asimov’s Psychohistory

The problem at stake is simple to explain: decisions have to be taken today the results of which will only be seen many years down the road, and some decisions even regard situations that will happen only in the future (if at all). The solution is less straightforward. How can such decisions be effectively informed? How can we confidently plan for such contingencies? Well, horizon scanning!

© The Royal SocietyHorizon scanning is a form of “futures” work and often involves scenario planning, ie trying to imagine a ‘’what if’’ story covering several potential future situations. The future, however, does not always behave according to our expectations, as anyone who has tried betting on a football match knows well. Thus horizon scanning needs to be a dynamic and flexible process, capable of adapting and responding to unforeseen circumstances. For such scenarios to be anything more than science fiction it is important that they take into account as much of the available evidence as possible.

To this end it is useful to include many different points of view, such as those of academics, policy makers, industry representatives and the civil society. This includes the Royal Society. To improve the breadth and depth of the forecast it is important to include external information. The Royal Society, as well as other National Academies, can therefore play a vital role by drawing on their extensive Fellowships. Since the Society is independent and less buffeted by rapidly changing political circumstances, it can provide unbiased expert advice with a longer perspective than the Government which often has 5-years mandates.

What makes a good horizon scanning exercise? Horizon scanning is a tool for better thinking, and it is therefore effective if implemented as part of the policy making process and integrated in all sectors of policy decision making. Uncertainty is inherent to the forecasting process and cannot be eliminated but only reduced, so horizon scanning is less about making exact predictions and more about informing decisions.

Timing is also important for effective horizon scanning, as is relevance to current policy issues. A horizon scanning exercise regarding the future of education is better submitted before education reform is passed, if it is to have an impact. Submitting a preliminary draft is also a good idea to allow external input and stakeholder engagement.

A final question concerns measuring the effectiveness of horizon scanning. A good way could be asking the people who are impacted by the decisions informed that have resulted from the horizon scanning exercise, for example the relevant industries. They will often have a clearer idea of its consequences than those who designed or implemented it.

As Asimov’s Foundation series reminds us, the forecasted scenario might not happen as expected specifically because of the actions taken in response to the forecast. And given that forecasted scenarios are often not really pleasant, couldn’t being a self-defeating prophecy the best outcome of a successful horizon scanning?