Horizon Scan

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Edited by Christine Keene

Overview

The practice of horizon scanning has its origin in the discipline of Futures Studies or Futurology, which is the systematic forecasting of the future from present trends in society. ‘Futures’, according to Wikipedia (n.d.), seeks to understand what is likely to continue and what could plausibly change. It postulates what is probable versus what is possible by researching and identifying current patterns. ‘Futures’ differs from short-term predictions and strategic planning in that it addresses time horizons that extend beyond 10 years from now.

‘Futures’ often refers to the “three P’s and a W”:

  • Possible future;
  • Probable future;
  • Preferable future; and
  • Wildcards.

Wildcards are low probability events with high impact, either positive or negative, and play very important roles in disaster planning and long range business projections.

Background

There are two schools of thought in ‘Futures’: one is more abstract and the other is of longer range.  The second of these is more pragmatic and quantitative. Horizon Scanning seems to belong to the second school.

Purpose

There are many techniques used in ‘Futures’ study. Some have been borrowed from other disciplines, such as economics and the social sciences. Some are more qualitative, such as reviewing of industry publications and dialogue with industry experts, while others are more quantitative, using numeric data and mathematical models.  Some examples include:

• Causal Layered Analysis (a four-layered examination of a trend, one layer following the next);
• Cross-Impact Analysis (a study of the mutual influence of events, using a mathematical probability matrix, often in conjunction with a Delphi analysis);
• Delphi Method (consensus among experts, via presentation and re-presentation by analyst of colleagues’ judgments – made anonymously – to each participant, until consensus is reached);
• Environmental Scanning (study of events, issues, and trends affecting a business, industry, or market);
• Growth and Envelope Curves (mapping data to reflect and to forecast trends – usually a function of time and the analyst’s judgment);
• Monitoring (keeping abreast of technologies as they develop);
• Morphological Analysis (breaks down existing solutions into elements, places elements in a matrix, then changes one element at a time with a view to increased efficiency);
• Network Analysis (a formalized extension of Monitoring – explores possible capabilities and systems that might result from current science research, and determines what research results are required to achieve a desired capability);
• Relevance Tree (a hierarchical arrangement of objectives and tasks);
• Scenarios (hypothetical views— usually presented three at a time —based on past experience and conjecture, generally extending 10-20+ yrs. into the future);
• Substitution Model (early recognition of the inevitability of technical obsolescence, requiring conformity to an S-shaped trend curve as new technology overtakes a market);
• Technology Forecasting (2 general methods: numeric data-based ‘fits’ to historical data or subjective judgmental forecasts of experts. Most appropriately applied to capabilities, not to specific characteristics of specific devices);
• Trend Extrapolation (may or may not rely on statistical procedure, meaning specific technical change cannot be predicted but the degree of technical change can be predicted).

Goes By

The term ‘Horizon Scanning’ is used broadly as an umbrella term to represent many of these widely divergent techniques. Of the techniques listed above, ‘Environmental Scanning’ best approximates ‘Horizon Scanning’, but strictly speaking, their meanings differ. ‘Environmental Scanning’ seeks to contribute to a global analysis, while ‘Horizon Scanning’ seeks to serve a single industry or sector.

Using the Technique

To date, it appears that ‘Horizon Scanning’ is used most often in the healthcare sector in the UK, the US and Canada.  It has been used to plan for an aging and longer-lived population, increasing healthcare delivery costs, and for training and workforce education.

Examples follow:
• The Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health describes their Environmental Scans as short reports that “support Canada’s health care decision making and policy development”, based on “ongoing literature scanning”.
• A Canadian Journal of Surgery paper describes Horizon Scanning as involving “regular searches of medical news, clinical literature and industry sources, as well as contact with biomedical researchers, industry and clinical experts”. This same report goes on to describe the results of an interview with a group of surgeons regarding their criteria for judging nascent technology, a study that might elsewhere be called a Delphi Analysis.
• The Centre for Workforce Intelligence in the UK describes their Horizon Scanning Method as a means of generating “high-quality intelligence to inform long-range workforce planning that meets the needs of patients …”. This is done by identifying ‘big picture challenges’ in a number of categories and engaging their stakeholders.
• A Horizon Scan for the UK’s Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform on the production of chemicals and developments in biocatalysis includes comprehensive and detailed analyses of a number of biochemical developments, sources and patents, a SWOT Analysis of chemical industry drivers and a modified Network Analysis for each identified trend.

Example:
The US Department of Health and Human Services published their Horizon Scanning Protocol last year. This document standardizes a system for identifying target technologies and innovations in health care, and for creating an inventory of those technologies that have the highest potential for impact. At the same time, the system avoids making predictions on future utilization and costs: it is only meant to guide planning and prioritization.

Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality Horizon Scanning Techniques Overview:

1) Daily broad scanning and lead selection by searchers for potential topic identification
2) Populating the “Initial Leads List” to develop topics
3) Topic nomination meetings and entry of topics into the system
4) Searches and profile development for Target Topics
5) Expert comment and ratings inputs for consideration of potential impact
6) Processes for determining inclusion in Potential High Impact Interventions report
7) Quantitative analysis and forecasting of selected topics
8) Topic monitoring, updating, and reassessment of potential impact
9) Archiving processes
10) Indexing and linking process

Resources and References
Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technology in Health. (n.d.). Environmental Scans. Retrieved from http://www.cadth.ca/en/products/environmental-scanning/environmental-scans

Horizon Scanning Centre. (n.d.). Methods. Retrieved from http://www.hsc.nihr.ac.uk/about-us/methods/

Future Studies. (n.d.) Wikipedia.  Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Futures_studies

Skibar, W. (2008). Assessment of current activity in the production of platform chemicals from renewable sources and horizon scan to forecast potential future developments in science and technology activity in biocatalysis. Retrieved from http://www.bis.gov.uk/files/file51235.pdf

Stafinski, T., Topfer, L., Zakariasen, K., & Menon, D. (2010). The role of surgeons in identifying emerging technologies for health technology assessment, Can J Surg, 53 (2): 86-92.

Student Wave.  (n.d.) Technological Forecasting. Retrieved from http://www.wiley.com/college/dec/meredith298298/resources/addtopics/addtopic_s_02a.html

U. S. Department of Health and Human Services: Agency for Health and Research Quality. (n.d.). Effective Healthcare Program.  Retrieved from http://www.effectivehealthcare.ahrq.gov