Horizon scanning is a term that appeared in the early years of the 21st century and is not well-defined, being at once a tool part of the whole foresight process and a way to label this entire process (Habbeger, 2009).* We shall here consider horizon scanning as a specific tool and contrast it to monitoring, in a practical way, i.e. trying to devise the best way to accomplish each task for the best possible foresight and warning, stressing difficulties and challenges and possible ways to move forward. The scans and monitoring done here, within the framework of the Red (Team) Analysis Society, are at once samples of applied methodology, ensuring coherence between reflection and practice and real tools on real-life issues.
Horizon scanning and monitoring: definitions
Scanning allows for the identification of potential new themes or meta-issues and issues, that will then need to be analysed in-depth. Horizon scanning looks thus for weak signals indicating the emergence of new meta-issues and issues. A scan must adopt the largest possible scope for the core question under watch.
The idea of horizon scanning is built upon older ideas and methods such as “environmental scanning,” “strategic foresight” and “indications and warning” (also labelled “strategic warning” and “warning intelligence” see Grabo, 2004). Actually, as underlined by Glenn and Gordon, “’environmental scanning’ is the term most futurists used in the 1960-1970s, but as the environmental movement grew, some thought the term might only refer to systems to monitor changes in the natural environment due to human actions. To avoid this confusion, some have called them ‘Futures Scanning Systems’, ‘Early Warning Systems’ and ‘Futures Intelligence Systems’.” ‘Strategic warning’ and related terms are used notably by the military to avoid strategic surprises (e.g. Pearl Harbour).
Horizon scanning was notably popularised (to a point as the whole anticipation field is still largely known only to specialists) by its use in the denomination of various governments’ offices, such as the UK Horizon Scanning Centre created in 2004 after a call for developing such centres of excellence across government (Habbeger, 2009, p.14), or Singapore’s Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning programme, launched in 2005 (Lavoix, 2010). The way the idea was made fashionable also contributed to the confusion surrounding its meaning.
Monitoring is part of the strategic warning process. It is well documented in the literature on intelligence, warning and strategic surprise as it has been formally practised since at least WWII and as intelligence studies are now a constituted body of knowledge and a discipline. For more readings, one shall consult the bibliography of reference on intelligence related matters, J. Ransom Clark’s Bibliography on the Literature of Intelligence, notably the section on strategic warning.
Monitoring issues will allow for the identification of warning problems. Surveillance of those problems will then be done through adequate models and related indicators. If we use the example of energy as meta-issue, then issues could be “oil security,” “peak oil,” “peak uranium,” “the volatility of oil prices,” “the politics of energy between Europe and Russia,” and problems the more specific “Gasprom policies,” “the Keystone pipeline,” etc…
Both monitoring and surveillance lead the collection of necessary information, as defined by the model and related indicators.
Scanning and monitoring in practice
Here our main scan is The Red (Team) Analysis Weekly (in short The Weekly) and it is focused upon national security in its largest understanding.* It is one of the device through which new emerging issues that must be put on a watch are identified. The Sigils are both specific scans and monitoring of issues.
In practice, scanning may be seen as included in monitoring and most of the time the same process and the same tools may be used for scanning and for the first steps of monitoring.
First, although a scan is the first step of any analysis, and thus assumes that no understanding or little understanding of the question exists, actually this is only an appearance. Try to make the exercise mentally: if you start looking for something, even in the loosest way, to do that you need to have an idea, even minimal, of what you are looking for. What happens is that, unconsciously, you rely on a cognitive model. This cognitive model is implicit. Thus, to scan the horizon you already use a model, even if it is a very imperfect one. Monitoring is also grounded in a model, but one that has been made explicit, that has been improved and refined through the process of analysis. Thus both horizon scanning and monitoring are similar. Their difference, here, resides actually in the sophistication of the model used, not in the actual process utilised to do scanning or the first steps of the monitoring. Hence, scanning and monitoring can utilise most often the same of tool or support.
Second, the definition of a scan suggests that it should only identify weak signals. However, to select beforehand signals according to their strength – assuming this is possible – would be counter-productive and in some cases impossible. Indeed, a strong signal for an issue can also, sometimes, be a weak signal of emergence for something else. Thus, when gathering signals through a scan that aims at identifying emerging meta-issues and issues, it is desirable to be as broad and encompassing as possible. Similarly, monitoring of an issue and surveillance of a problem may also pick upon signals of novel issues emerging.
Last but not least, because of various biases, both analysts and clients, decision-makers and policy-makers are often unable to see, identify, and consider some signals “below the horizon.” They will be able to accept those signals only when they are “above the horizon,” which means when they are much stronger, as exemplified in the post on timeliness. The position of the signal below or above the horizon, or the needed strength of the signal to be seen and accepted will vary according to person. It is thus not practically desirable to try sorting out signals according to their strength too early in the process.
In the case of monitoring and surveillance, it is crucial to also sort the indications according to a timeline that warns us of the evolution of the issue under watch, and that will allow for the warning and its delivery (note that the tools used here do not allow for this timeline to appear explicitly. However, at least mentally, each indication or signal, or group of indications and signals may be positioned on their corresponding timelines – a plural is used as indications and signals can feed into different dynamics for various issues).
Is this a sufficient reason to definitely separate scanning and monitoring? The strength of a signal in horizon scanning may be seen as nothing else that an indication of the movement of change on a timeline: if the signal is weak, then the situation is far from the actual occurrence of an event or phenomenon, if the signal is strong then one is close to it. A scan would thus be an instance of monitoring, where only indications leading to judgements according to which an event will not happen soon but nevertheless deserve to be put under watch are selected. However, as we saw that it is not desirable or possible to sieve through signals according to their strength, then the latter vision of a scan is idealistic and impractical.
Practically, at the end of the process, a scan will thus gives us signals of varying strength. It thus corresponds to the first stage of monitoring (and surveillance) before judgements related to the signification of the signal or indication in terms of timelines are made.
I really welcome comments and exchanges on your experience, as through dialogue we shall be able to accelerate progress towards better practice.
* The debate on national security is rich and features many authors. For a brief summary and references to the many outstanding scholars who inform it, see, among others, Helene Lavoix “Enabling Security for the 21st Century: Intelligence & Strategic Foresight and Warning,” RSIS Working Paper No. 207, August 2010.
1st edition of this article: 22 June 2012. This is the 2d edition.
Featured image: U.S. Navy by tpsdave. CC0 Public Domain
Gordon, Theodore J. and Jerome C. Glenn, “ENVIRONMENTAL SCANNING,” The Millennium Project: Futures Research Methodology, Version 3.0, Ed. Jerome C. Glenn and Theodore J. 2009, Chapter 2.
Grabo, Cynthia M., Anticipating Surprise: Analysis for Strategic Warning, edited by Jan Goldman, (Lanham MD: University Press of America, May 2004).
Habbegger, Beat, Horizon Scanning in Government: Concept, Country Experiences, and Models for Switzerland, Center for Security Studies (CSS), ETH Zurich, 2009.
Lavoix, Helene, What makes foresight actionable: the cases of Singapore and Finland. (U.S. Department of State commissioned report, December 2010).
Lavoix, Helene, “Enabling Security for the 21st Century: Intelligence & Strategic Foresight and Warning,” RSIS Working Paper No. 207, August 2010.