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Horizon Scanning as strategic tool

Horizon scanning is a process that seeks to identify the earliest indications of a potentially disruptive issue, but also tracks transformations of already established phenomena or trends. It is the art of systematically scanning the external environment for evidence of emerging issues and a practice that seeks to inform decision-making, by creating a patterned awareness of both potential opportunities and challenges.

Horizon Scanning is an evidence-based method, based in observations, for understanding indicators of change and possible futures. The observations collect, compare and evaluate a wide range of signals – including new and emerging trends, technologies, values, products, concepts, companies, services and ideas – in order to identify what’s happening now and what could be emerging tomorrow.

It is a process that seeks to identify the earliest indications of a potentially disruptive issue, but also tracks transformations of already established phenomena or trends. It is the art of systematically scanning the external environment for evidence of emerging issues and a practice that seeks to inform decision-making, by creating a patterned awareness of both potential opportunities and challenges.

Below is a selection of 16 Horizon Scans affecting governments, businesses and society.


Sustainable wind power at a low cost

Google X is looking to change the energy game entirely with its acquisition of “Makani”, a moonshot project that creates energy kites. The energy kites are launched from the ground station by rotors, tethered by conductive wires, and are guided by a smart system along the most efficient flight path. The kite can reach higher altitudes than traditional wind turbines, and thus generates up to 50% more energy. Wind power currently makes up just 3% of the world’s energy and there is limited suitable land for wind turbines, which are complex and expensive. “Makani”, however, generates more power at a lower cost, since the ground stations are so much smaller than traditional wind turbines, and can be placed in multiple locations, including off-shore, rural, or isolated communities. For countries like India and China, with exploding populations, increasing energy needs and bound by a commitment to lower their emissions, “Makani” may become the low-cost alternative to coal. The project also has the support of the US Department for Energy.


Reducing food waste and tackling social issues simultaneously

Denmark’s first social supermarket opened its doors to the public. “WeFood” is the brainchild of Folkekirken’s Noedhjaelp, an aid and development organisation and leader in second hand clothing and furniture stores. The supermarket, which will be run by volunteers, will stock goods that are no longer saleable in regular grocery stores – dented boxes, less-than-perfect fruit and vegetables, and items with crooked labels – at low prices. The concept has three main aims: to reduce food waste, to supply low-income earners with a budget-friendly grocery option and to help tackle world hunger by redirecting all profits to its aid programs in developing countries. Similar concepts exist in Vienna and London. Folkekirkens Noedhjaelp expect a mix of customers – some will shop there for budget reasons, others will be drawn to the ethics of cutting food waste, and some will like the idea of supporting aid programs through their grocery shopping. “WeFood” not only tackle social issues, but also feeds into a growing trend for “everyday activism”.


Using big data to predict social movements and urban renewal

Researchers from Cambridge University have found a new use for the mountains of data created by Foursquare and Twitter in London. They analyzed 500,000 tweets and Foursquare check-ins from 2010, along with “deprivation scores”, and compared these to the situation in 2015. This allowed them to draw up a picture of London, and identify the areas most likely to become gentrified in the near future. This new approach provides support for the notion that clever use of big data can facilitate an understanding of social and economic phenomena, including predicting future movements such as gentrification. Gentrification of an area has a big impact on house prices, and so the ability to better predict which areas will undergo the process next will be particularly important for developers, investors, and planners.


Cultivating food with vertical agriculture, aeroponics, and aquaponics

London-based company Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners explores the idea of urban farming with its innovative concept of the vertical “Skyfarm”. Each level of the tower-like structure is dedicated to a specific planting method, from aquaponics and aeroponics, to the more common soil-based agriculture. In this way, “Skyfarms” enable the growth of crops and fish together in a self-contained, re-circulating ecosystem. The structure would be made with a bamboo frame, and optimized for solar exposure and efficient water distribution. Unlike conventional farming methods, it grows food vertically, not horizontally, thus requiring far less area. Moreover, it relies solely on the energy that it produces itself. The structure can also be altered for use in different climates. Though “Skyfarms” are best suited for dense urban regions, they can also be used in rural areas with scarce or low quality soil. The towers could be scaled up or down depending on the location, and geometry can also be adapted depending on sunlight availability.


Growing socio-economic stratification and the emergence of new classes

The unnecessariate is a growing segment of individuals who are considered to be left behind by society because they do not hold any knowledge, property, or ability, which the centres of power value. As society changes so change the knowledge, resources, and abilities it requires for economic growth. An agrarian society requires farm workers, industrial societies need factory workers, and future societies may not need workers at all. As societies’ need for low skill labor diminishes with technological displacement and a growing knowledge economy, the unnecessariat will likely expand. One consequence of the unnessicariate is the creation and proliferation of a socially undesirable and economically inept class – a group that represents a significant policy challenge for many municipalities globally. Recognising the potential socio-economic impacts of this phenomenon is an important step in establishing a discourse that works towards innovative solutions, particularly as the pace of change further accelerates.


Decentralised politics with real-time feedback

The Flux Party of Australia is a political group that is campaigning on a radical plan to influence the future of politics and “upgrade democracy”. It has no policies and no platform, and instead, relies on members of the public voting yes or no on each bill before parliament via the Flux app, which would instruct the party’s senator how to vote. The party was founded by Max Kaye and Nathan Spataro and uses blockchain technology to run their app – a decentralised a system for managing data where transactions are recorded on a public, digital ledger. It begins with a level of direct democracy, where every single voter is given a vote on any particular issue. Yet, they can skip votes, save up votes to have greater influence over issues they care about, or trade them with others. The approach grants voters more influence over their politicians in between elections, and allows them to support individual issues rather than broad political ideologies or platforms they had no input on. The party believes the future of politics will be defined by real-time feedback.


Independent contractors with shared security and the ability to issue labour market signals

City council in Seattle unanimously adopted legislation that allows Uber drivers in the city to form a collective bargaining unit that in many ways resembles a union. The result, called a “Driver Representative Organisation” addresses recent concerns of drivers, who found themselves without leverage in the negotiation of wages and standards. The micro-entrepreneur – individuals that choose their own hours and work multiple positions – has effectively lacked bargaining power. This decision changes the bargaining dynamic of the independent contractor in the labor market, by allowing them to redefine their collective status. A new form of union is reminiscent of the “Shared Security” concept. The worker relations and public image of gig-economy companies stand to benefit greatly from an increased capability of micro-entrepreneurs to issue labor market signals. If workers can collectively signal preference for one structure over the other, in a city specific setting, the companies can attenuate their offerings appropriately.


Industrial metabolism that sees manufactured products recycled for high quality materials

The world’s first assembly line, ascribed to the Ford Motor Company in 1913, had a big impact on global manufacturing methods. Apart from the production of automobiles, it was adopted by many other manufacturing industries. A follow-up idea called “lean production” was developed by the Japanese years later. But a whole new way of thinking about what the assembly line should be able to do is emerging. Considering the sustainability of production and the assembly line culture, the concept of a disassembly line has emerged. It has been developed to some extent in Europe. The idea is to design and manufacture products in such a way that if you take them apart, all the parts are recyclable. What is important is to recycle them in such a way that the metals and the plastics and the other materials are not degraded. You want the same high-quality materials, refined again out of these parts, so that you can endlessly recycle them. In the future, the need for disassembly might be just as important as assembly.


Millennials are beginning to change the stock market

Stock markets are starting to reflect millennials’ changing priorities and lifestyles. In the past, traditional retailers and assets such as properties had tended to dominate stock markets. Yet, Bloomberg reports that experiences trump these sorts of material possessions for the generation born between 1980 and 2000. As a result, things like travel and leisure shares are starting to outperform traditional retailers. In February 2016, the factor by which the leisure sector outperformed the retail sector in US and European indexes reached its highest point since 2011. The strong performance of pub operators, low-cost airlines, ski-operators and accommodation sharing platforms confirm this. The importance of an immaterial lifestyle that is based on experiences, authenticity and fun is pushing markets to uncover economic value in staging such experiences rather than providing products or services.


An economy moving towards self-actualisation

Post-scarcity refers to a tech-driven world where our basic human needs are fulfilled instantly and abundantly. This replaces the current economic paradigm that is based on the notion of resource scarcity and resource competition. Knowledge and information is already abundant by the virtue of mobile devices. Meanwhile, technological leaps such as 3D printing, modified and lab-produced livestock, AI, and robotics make innovation and digital transformation vital for organizational survival. This changes our basic needs and wants and underpins the move towards a post-scarcity scenario. Larger proportions of the global population will find themselves at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Self-actualisation and personal potential will characterize our needs rather than physiological needs of air, food, sleep, and water. This inherently changes not only the global economy but will force companies to abandon traditional business models.


Creating a common reputation language in order to boost trust and transparency

Entire businesses, industries, and even economies are built on the notion of hyper-accountability in an era where reputation is more important than ever. Reputation has always been important when doing businesses, from local businesses serving communities, to global enterprises operating across international borders. Open and transparent ratings and profiles are essential components of an app-enabled and global 21st century economy. Accountability measures such as ratings offer a way to reduce complexity, eliminate anonymity, and operate within a “global village” with confidence. Ratings can be a beneficial tool to add security to transactions by enabling us to connect with others, share knowledge, products, and services. Ratings represent a simplified social language that makes it possible for different cultures to interact in a given context. More and more, businesses will be required to build mechanisms for transparency and accountability into their public relations or reputation management strategy.


Amazon expands its grocery business with new convenience stores

Would you buy milk, meat and vegetables from the internet? Amazon is pushing deeper into the offline grocery business: The world leading online retailer plans to build small convenience stores as well as to offer curbside pickup for online orders. “The new stores are designed to capture the large share of people who prefer to pick out their products, or bring home their groceries on the way from work”, as the Wall Street Journal stated. It is superfluous to say that the grocery market is huge: Groceries account for approx. a fifth of all the money spent by consumers. Although the online grocery market is still at the very beginning, Morgan Stanley Research estimates that “the online grocery market could more than double to over $42 billion this year”. The battle for the market’s leading position has caused a competitive race between various large retailers like Wal Mart and Kroger in recent years.


Swedish tax breaks for repairing old stuff

In Sweden, two parties have proposed a law introducing tax breaks for repairing recyclable goods and increasing taxes for unrepairable goods. Goods possibly affected by the new legislation range from shoes to bicycles to washing machines. On the one hand, regular taxes on repairs of certain goods are cut from 25% to 12% and Swedes can deduct half the labor cost of appliance repairs from their income tax. On the other hand, the politicians propose to implement a “chemical tax” on substances which are hard to recycle. This should increase the prices for new products. At the same time, with the implementation of the new law, a marketing campaign should support the effect of the new legislation. The debates about repairing, recycling, and closed loops are not new and this is closely related to the term of “peak stuff”, which describes the decreasing demand for new, products in Western societies. Interestingly, the Swedish company IKEA has already announced that they will increasingly build a circular loop of products to facilitate repairing and recycling.


Automated systems for urban cultivation

The innovators behind “Biopod” have created the first smart micro-habitat for consumers. It is a unit that is controlled over the internet and uses automated systems and mobile technology to sustain a specified environment inside. This provides an opportunity to create special types of customised conditions inside the unit that allows users to grow and cultivate a variety of different crops and animals, such as herbs, vegetables, rodents, and fish. The product is to be used for two purposes: private use and education. It aligns with the urbanization and small space living trends, and enables users to sustain a garden or other habitat in the home – for consumption or as a leisure activity. At the same time, the possibility to create several different environments is a significant tool that can be used to teach individuals about creating and sustaining ecosystems, or applied in wider educational settings.


Solar streetlights working to absorb urban pollution

The “Eco-mushroom” is a streetlamp design. The solar powered streetlamps are specifically designed for high-pollution areas. At the top of the lamp, surrounding air is sucked into an air purifier and CO2 is absorbed. Clean air is released at an effective height for human breathing further down the lamppost. Each lamp has a monitoring system, which sends indications and alerts about its operation to a monitoring station. The “Eco-mushroom” has been submitted as a concept and gained some recognition among platforms dedicated to design in urban planning. The transport sector – particularly road transport exhaust – is among the largest contributors to air pollution. Declines in health and climate change are some of the key consequences to air pollution, particularly as dense urban regions grow. The integration of air purification into streetlamps illustrates how such devices can be integrated into the urban environment without being an obstacle.

Written by Anne Dencker Bædkel, futurist at The Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies.
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