Alex Roberts

28 March, 2017

Horizon Scanning and Innovation: Children or Parents of Change?

Our current blog series looks into the ways different organisations use foresight and Horizon Scanning within their current projects. To learn about the International Civil Society Centre’s foresight platform, visit the Scanning the Horizon page.

We live in a world of continuing and accelerating change. Our expectations about the future are likely to be challenged more and more by rapidly emerging realities which are significantly different from the status quo. How can organisations effectively operate when their environment keeps changing and the future is uncertain?

From the experience of the public sector, there are two processes that can help – Horizon Scanning and innovation.

  • Horizon Scanning (and strategic foresight more generally) can help us understand and consider different possible futures and reflect on how we engage with, and shape, emerging issues or trends.
  • The innovation process can help provide novel responses to problems that require new solutions.Innovate

Both processes are things that can help organisations faced with uncertainty and are thus both born of pressures introduced by accelerating change.

How do these two processes relate to each other?

Both processes share certain qualities. They are both acts of questioning the status quo and can challenge values, beliefs and notions of what is appropriate. They are both emergent, in that their results are uncertain and the process of doing them will change the initial understanding of the issues or problems. And they are both things that can feel less important than business-as-usual pressures, and consequently can be difficult for organisations to consistently resource and support.

They are also both strategic activities, in that they are fundamentally about purpose and intent. In a world of constant change it can be easy to fall into a habit of simply responding to change with what seems appropriate at the time. It can also be easy to engage with what’s ahead by trying to do what Riel Miller calls “colonising the future”, where we take our current values and assumptions and project them, trying to shape the future with our current understanding of the world. This can be dangerous because it can mean that we lose sight of what is it we are actually trying to achieve, what we value, and whether that is appropriate for a changed future.

Instead, it may be appropriate to reverse the process, to let the future influence the current state. We can use scenarios of the future to question whether our current values are the ones that are appropriate and suitable for a changing world. For instance, if we consider a scenario with advanced artificial intelligence, what might that say about our understanding of humanity, of art, of value and contribution? Are our values at the right level, or might we need to revisit what’s really important? Using a tool such as the five whys we might consider the question of employment and why we think it is important:

  • People need to work (why?)
  • Society needs products and services that only humans can provide (why?)
  • Humans can do things that machines cannot (why?)
  • Humans are special (why?)
  • Humans deserve to be valued.

Such an exercise might suggest that current closely held beliefs about the centrality of employment for human worth may not be appropriate, and that the more enduring and higher order value to guide policy is about the intrinsic worth of people. A different value set will then shape our intent, which will then shape our understanding of the problems and what is appropriate, which will then shape our choices and pathways through the innovation process, and in turn change how the future plays out. In this and other ways, a combination of Horizon Scanning and innovation can help an organisation respond to change in a way that is in keeping with a strategic intent and that does not lose sight of what matters.

It is also clear that Horizon Scanning can support the innovation process on a number of practical levels. We at the OECD are currently exploring some of these issues and the specific connections between Horizon Scanning and public sector innovation at different stages of the innovation process in its innovation lifecycle studies.

We, therefore, suggest that innovation and Horizon Scanning are essential interlinked processes for organisations seeking to be effective in a time of accelerating change.

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