I’ve been trying to determine what ‘horizon scanning’ actually means. In doing so, I’ve dug out some definitions of the term over the years and come up with a shorter definition of the term for further discussion.  Doing such a basic analysis shows that what used to be a term for a form of futures analysis has now become a term for futures analysis.

But, before, I go into the definition, I thought it was a useful declare that I have some biases on this subject.  So I’ve done my best to declare them consciously, hopefully without letting them taint my subsequent analysis and the definition I’ve formed.

My Bias

I worked as an editor for a project called the Global Strategic Trends programme from 2007-2014.   This is a programme of long-term ‘futures analysis’ or ‘horizon scanning’, that has been undertaken by the UK Ministry of Defence since 2001.  So, as far as I’m aware, my conscious biases are:

  1. I worked on the GST programme from 2007-2014.  In my time I contributed and edited Global Strategic Trends Edition 4 and associated products, such as the South Asia survey.   In this role I used a range of futures analysis, of which ‘horizon scanning’ was one.
  2. I left the UK MOD to start ‘Simplexity_UK’.  This is an analysis company that uses open data, data visualization and creative techniques to think about the future in ways that are both more imaginative but also with a degree of quantitative analysis.
  3. At Simplexity, we are currently extracting all of the trend data contained in a wide variety of futures outputs from 2001.  This activity is allowing us to compile a rough history of futures analysis over the past 15 years. I’ll cover the detailed analysis in further posts as the data is added to the Open Futures project.

What is horizon scanning?

To go back to the main question, I’ve assembled a few definitions of horizon scanning is and arranged them chronologically.


The Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) defined horizon scanning as:

“The systematic examination of potential threats, opportunities and likely future developments which are at the margins of current thinking and planning. Futures research may explore novel and unexpected issues, as well as persistent problems or trends. Overall, futures research is intended to improve the robustness of Defra’s policies and evidence base.” (Defra, 2002)

The website elaborates further:

“Horizon scanning is a distinct futures methodology and is generally not used to describe the discipline of futures as a whole. Instead horizon scanning is the act of gathering new insights that may point us towards affirming or discrediting existing trends and developments as well as identify new and emerging trends and developments which are on the margins of our current thinking, but which will impact on our lives in the future.”


In 2009, the UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory had an established Horizon scanning function.  This took a definition of Horizon scanning from the Office of Science and Innovation:

This is perhaps more generic than the specific technique but, in its context, it was used by DSTL for focusing on science and technology.


Following the Jon Day review of cross-government horizon scanning, horizon scanning was defined as:

“A systematic examination of information to identify potential threats, risks, emerging issues and opportunities, beyond the Parliamentary term, allowing for better preparedness and the incorporation of mitigation and exploitation into the policy making process.”

In contrast to the 2002 Defra definition – this was when horizon scanning, started to have a wider application than a distinct futures methodology.

“Horizon scanning is used as an overall term for analysing the future: considering how emerging trends and developments might potentially affect current policy and practice. This helps policy makers in government to take a longer-term strategic approach, and makes present policy more resilient to future uncertainty. In developing policy, horizon scanning can help policy makers to develop new insights and to think ‘outside the box’.”


This definition of horizon scanning was recently taken further by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee – which in April 2014, published ‘Government Horizon scanning: Ninth Report of Session 2013-2014′  defined it as:

“Horizon scanning, in its broadest sense, is an attempt to systematically imagine the future in order to better plan a response. In the absence of a crystal ball, it can help organisations to detect signals, identify trends and think more inventively about what the future might hold, enabling them to capitalise on opportunities and better mitigate threats. It is a crucial activity for any organisation tasked with long-term decision-making.”

It took the definition further to say:

‘The Government describes horizon scanning as “an overall term for analysing the future”.It states that it is used to consider “how emerging trends and developments might potentially affect current policy and practice”, so that policy-makers can “take a longer- term strategic approach” and develop policies that are “more resilient to future uncertainty.”’

Today, May 2014

Bringing things to the present, since the publication of Horizon scanning in government, the UK has a specific way of describing ‘Futures Analysis’ as ‘horizon scanning’.  This is a very basic analysis and my hypothesis is pretty ‘light’ at this stage.  But, it gives me something to start discussions. Taking all of the descriptions above could we simplify to produce the following, basic definition of what ‘horizon scanning’ means to the UK?

Horizon scanning = ‘A process for analyzing the future that determines and tests hypotheses on long-term* trends, risks and opportunities of potential strategic** significance.

*Long term = anything more than 5 years away.

**Strategic = Board/Cabinet Level

I’ve added the *’s for long term and strategic because, without a description of what these terms relate to, it is difficult, especially in a system as a complex as Whitehall to determine who is a ‘decision maker’.  Clear, distinct definitions, can help with this as, with being clear on the timelines that you are looking to.  Producing a simple definition of horizon scanning, for me at least, makes it easier to understand what everyone is saying when they describe horizon scanning, at least in the UK?  But, if you go anywhere else in the world, they’ll probably mean something different by it, and it will probably be a bit easier to understand.

If this works as a definition, it then provides a good start point to look at how the subject has evolved (looking at its history) and where it could go in the future?

1 Comment