Katell Le Goulven

11 April, 2017

Informed Action in an Age of Uncertainty: Can Horizon Scanning Play a Role?

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.

In early 2015, as Ebola was still ravaging West Africa, and markets experienced high volatility, our unit at UNICEF began our annual predications blog by announcing an end to predictability.  At least in this we were correct: volatility has only amplified since and, in retrospect, 2015 seems like a more stable time.

In reaction to this context of rapid change, UNICEF’s Policy Planning Unit sought to systematise our use of methodologies to anticipate emerging trends—both those with negative and positive potential. One such methodology is Horizon Scanning, which involves scanning a wide variety of information sources for trends and clustering them according to predefined categories.  At UNICEF, we use STEEP + H categories (Social, Technological, Environmental, Economic, Political + Humanitarian). Horizon Scanning allows us to pick up on so-called weak signals that might be pointing to the next mega-trend. However, identification of emerging trends is not the same as taking action.  Indeed, a classic bottleneck of Horizon Scanning work in large organisations is the “and-then-what?” phase. Using concrete illustrations where our scanning exercises had impact and helped spur innovation, here are a few lessons that we hope can initiate a discussion with other organisations developing similar functions:

Get your message out there. UNICEF has over 12,000 staff members located in 190 countries.  In order for any of them to take action on our work, they have to know about it.  Over the years we have developed a number of knowledge products with various formats and degrees of analytical depth. We recommend having a range of options to share your Scanning work—some can be written analysis (e.g. our Horizons, a quarterly digest on trends affecting children) and some can be conversational (e.g our Conversation with Thought Leaders series involving senior management). In general, we know that colleagues don’t always have time to read heavy reports. We try to keep it short and fun, with links to further analysis.

High-level support matters. In 2015, UNICEF’s Executive Office asked us to explore the use of unconditional cash transfers in emergency settings. Our work consisted in identifying peripheral trends affecting the role, household and systemic impact, and operational modality of cash transfers.  For example, one line of inquiry was related to trends in digital money that were revolutionising access to finance, from bitcoin to GiveDirectly to Tencent. We proposed solutions that would leverage these trends to define new financing modalities, allowing for instance direct peer-to-peer transfers for emergency affected populations. Having high-level buy-in from the beginning made it easier to convene colleagues from across UNICEF to gather existing knowledge and experience, test our initial ideas, and get the early buy-in required to turn them into action.

Share_Info_DandI“Anchors” within the organisation are needed to translate Scanning into action. The team that scans cannot always, or even usually, be the team that takes action.  In the case of the cash transfers study, three teams took the ideas forward: the global emergencies team, the social policy team and the innovation team. For instance, the innovation team took the lead in initiating private sector partnerships to improve the delivery and monitoring of cash transfer programming at a global level while the social policy team of UNICEF Jordan took the lead at field level by initiating action around each of the ideas presented in the paper.

Absorbing the risk/learning curve is key. In some instances, the Scanning team may absorb some of the initial risks and uncertainty associated with new ideas. Early 2009, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, UNICEF Scanning function started engaging in conversations on the need to use real time data to monitor the impacts of the crisis on the most vulnerable, and was instrumental in the creation of the UN’s Global Impact and Vulnerability Alert System that later became the big data initiative UN Global Pulse. UNICEF’s engagement in Global Pulse activities was originally led by the scanning team working closely with the innovation team to better understand the risks and opportunities associated with the data revolution. Eventually that function was anchored in the innovation team. Monitoring the advances of big data and machine learning, the scanning function initiated another round of conversations inside UNICEF in 2014, led UNICEF’s engagement in the Secretary General’s Independent Expert Advisory Group on the Data Revolution for Sustainable Development, and used that opportunity to ignite the development of UNICEF’s new data strategy, later anchored in the Division of Data, Research and Policy.

The need to “bring it home”.  People who do Horizon Scanning develop an ability to “connect the dots”—i.e., to see and understand how different elements can impact each other. When flagging emerging issues, the Scanning team should spell out their potential relevance to the work of busy decision makers throughout the organisation, and be clear about why they should care. For instance, in our work around the rise of automation and artificial intelligence in the labour market (not directly within UNICEF’s mandate), we make the connections to the education system, which needs adapt to focus on skills like creative problem solving that cannot be replicated by machines (well within UNICEF’s mandate).

Patience. The goal of Scanning is to keep up with the pace of change.  But that may not always be possible. Game-changing innovation based on emerging trends should be understood as a long game—it often requires organisational culture shifts, steep learning curves, and new skill sets.  Seeing impact at scale may take some time. For example, we initiated our work on the new data landscapes in 2009 (what we now refer to as the “data revolution”), and only last year we saw this translated into the development of a new UNICEF data strategy.

Here we have focused on lessons from where we have seen Horizon Scanning make the needle move. Of course, issues we surface aren’t always translated into action. Often, blockers to action are essentially the opposite of our lessons of success. When we have not found an anchor or clear business owner within the organisation, we have not seen action. When we have not made the connections to UNICEF’s bottom line as loudly or as clearly as we should have, we have not seen action.

One additional issue stands out: for an organisation such as UNICEF, which has an emergency, life-saving mandate as well as a longer term development mandate, we have seen that the opportunity cost of managing the rising number of protracted crisis is often the actions which have a 5 – 10 year view. As an organisation, we fully understand that failure to anticipate will leave us ill prepared for new crises.  What we face is a question of trade-offs and balancing acts. We actively seek, therefore, not only new methodologies for understanding new risks and opportunities, but also new operational modalities for taking action. This brings us outside of Horizon Scanning and into other key areas of work—e.g. longer-term financing mechanisms, or strengthening resilience programming.

As we continue to learn, we look forward to sharing experiences with other organisations engaged in similar activities.  Please feel free to share your lessons and views on ours!

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