Horizon Scanning and Vigilance Concerning Changes: Discontinuities, Emerging Issues and Weak Signals

Horizon scanning is the phase of gathering future-related knowledge, which is the first stage of the larger foresight process. It is about being vigilant concerning the changes in one’s environment. The main focus in this category of Futures intelligence is on discontinuities, emerging issues, and weak signals of change.

January 27, 2021, Tuomo Kuosa

This is the fourth part of our Futures Intelligence blog series, which discusses the creation, use and categories of futures intelligence.  

Read the first introductory article, the second article on Trends, Megatrends and Change Drivers, and the third one on Scenarios to get a comprehensive view of Futures Intelligence.

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Horizon scanning and being vigilant – An overview

The value of horizon scanning increases in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous VUCA world. The main objective of horizon scanning is to be vigilant concerning changes by identifying discontinuities, emerging issues and other signals of change. 

Another primary goal is to get a comprehensive futures-oriented overview of the topic at hand. To achieve this, gathering other forms of impactful futures knowledge, such as social and technological phenomena, trend-based knowledge, drivers, scenarios, and wild cards, is highly important. 

As shown in Figure 1, horizon scanning and vigilance concerning changes rely little on analysing historical knowledge. They focus instead on the present time, providing discoveries, intelligence or changing stats.  

This third category of Futures Intelligence is also relatively low in objectivity. This is because horizon scanning primarily seeks to gather knowledge on novel changes in social phenomena, which are quite often ambiguous by nature. 

Finding any relevant knowledge about such phenomena changes, or even about their existence and boundaries so that they could be named in the first place, requires qualitative analysis, reasoning, falsification and concluding, all of which are prone to subjective thinking.    


horizon scanning
Figure 1: Horizon scanning – The third type of Futures Intelligence © Futures Platform 2020​​​​​


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Discontinuities are changes in trends, which can be, for example, previously seen developments in social or technological phenomena. They are culminations, breaks, or decisive turning points at which a significant historical event or change occurs. 

Discontinuities can be either expected or unexpected accelerations, slowdowns or total cessations of the known path of developments. In most cases, they cannot be forecasted from historical knowledge, except for mathematical modelling of, e.g., bifurcation or avalanche point. 

On the contrary, discontinuities can usually be reasoned only by humans, and hypotheses of potential discontinuities can be analysed, for example, with trend development models and confidence intervals in mathematical trend-extrapolations


Emerging issues

Emerging issues are novel things that are just beginning to form, potentially driving change in the working environment. They are new by definition, meaning that they don’t have history. Emerging issues may also be called embryos, seeds of change, infant, incubating or germinating issues or phenomena. 

According to futurist Pentti Malaska’s funnel model, there is always a dominant mode of production in the market. It is first in an extensive growth phase, meaning that all suppliers can flourish as there is more demand than supply.  

At some point, the growing market starts to get saturated, and the competition intensifies. Suppliers start looking for new ways to differentiate, urging them to become more productive.  

The answer to this is a new technology or production mode, an “embryo” that is very small, weak and unknown at the beginning. Once this new embryo proves profitable to businesses, it becomes attractive to the market.  

Next, this embryo or emerging issue starts to obtain investments and generate new business models until it becomes the new dominant production mode, leaving the former dominant production mode in its shadow.     

Malaska’s model discusses such macro-level paradigm shifts in production modes of the market. But the same logic applies to smaller-scale shifts as well. There can even be several emerging issues competing simultaneously within the same system. 

Both discontinuities and emerging issues are more or less surprising changes in the course of the prevailing development. Neither can usually be calculated solely from historical knowledge. The difference between these two is that emerging issues are novel things without previous history, while seemingly similar discontinuities may recur in time. 


Weak signals, strong signals and phenomena

Weak signals are early signs of potential discontinuities and emerging issues, such as new technologies that are still in the infant phase. 

They are not public knowledge yet, meaning that only a small group of people are aware of their potential. When media and the larger public become aware of a weak signal, they turn into strong signals. Both weak and strong signals may grow into trends or drivers, fade away, or act as early warnings to wild cards. 

Besides the most impactful discontinuities, emerging issues and weak signals, horizon scanning also seeks to identify and prioritise other types of phenomena that are highly important for understanding the issue under study.  

These other phenomena may cover, for example, various types of trend-based knowledge, drivers, scenarios and wild cards. This second objective of horizon scanning is essentially what we call comprehensive futures intelligence. 


Horizon scanning in practice

Figure 2 illustrates the concept of horizon scanning: The white area is one’s field or industry which one usually knows well. The circles within this area are changes that are in the process of being formed. The bigger the circle, the bigger of a driver of change or discontinuity it is. The middle-sized circles are a bit smaller discontinuities or larger emerging issues, whereas the small circles are weak signals, strong signals or very early stage emerging issues. 

Figure 2: Horizon scanning 


Some changes, discontinuities and emerging issues in the field or industry are endogenous, but usually, most of the truly impactful changes first emerge somewhere else. 

At any given time, there are thousands, or even tens of thousands, emerging issues out there, the existence of which is not yet known to the larger public. The smaller group of emerging issues, those that are publicly discussed, are still so numerous that one can’t be possibly aware of all of them. 

A signal that first appears very small and distant, such as the Covid-19 virus that was initially considered a minor medical issue in China, may quickly grow into a big driver with significant global, cross-industry impacts. The red circle in Figure 2 represents this stage. 


The benefits of horizon scanning for organisations

Future is continually in flux. The changes happening today are reflected in the changing environment of the future. By remaining vigilant of the present changes, organisations can prepare for multiple future scenarios and seize innovation opportunities ahead of time. 

Horizon scanning helps organisations navigate the VUCA world confidently. It provides a comprehensive, systematic and long-term overview of all impactful futures knowledge in one’s operating environment and gives organisations the agility to continuously assess risks, opportunities and accordingly re-prioritise. 

If organisations rely only on historical data, the understanding of future implications of any plan or decision remains deficient, leading to avoidable risks and lost opportunities. The more the future is explored, the less unknown unknowns there are. 

In its most advanced form, futures intelligence creation is a continuous system that produces high-quality, future-oriented information to all stakeholders and decision-makers. 

Continuous horizon scanning and futures intelligence efforts keep the Future Situational Awareness of organisations anchored in the latest developments, ensuring that all decision-making takes into account multiple possible futures scenarios.  

Set up a continuous Futures Intelligence system in your organisation and engage your team with the help of a digital collaborative foresight solution. Contact us - our foresight experts will be happy to get you started. 



This is the fourth article of our five-part blog series on Futures Intelligence. Read the other articles and learn more about Futures Intelligence: 



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