Posts Tagged ‘emerging issues’

EFP Brief No. 225: FESTOS – Foresight of Evolving Security Threats Posed by Emerging Technologies

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012

New technologies can improve our quality of life greatly, but they may also have a “dark side”. The objectives of FESTOS were to identify and assess evolving security threats posed by the potential abuse of emerging technologies and new scientific knowledge, on the one hand, and propose means to reduce the likelihood of such threats, on the other. Looking ahead to the year 2030, this foresight study scanned the horizon of different fields of technology. Possible means of prevention and policy measures were studied in the context of trade-offs between security needs and the freedom of research and knowledge.

Emerging Technologies
Pose New Threats to Security

The FESTOS project (Foresight of Evolving Security Threats Posed by Emerging Technologies) identified and assessed evolving security threats caused by the abuse or inadequate use of emerging technologies and areas of applied research. Looking ahead to the year 2035, FESTOS scanned the horizon of fields such as nanotechnology, biotechnology, robotics, new materials, and information technology, as well as capabilities that might emerge from converging technologies.

FESTOS identified and evaluated these potential threats on the horizon. Based on this scanning, FESTOS stimulated “out of the box”, forward-looking thinking and constructed “threat scenarios”. Finally, FESTOS recommended policy guidelines designed to minimise the probability of these evolving security threats materialising. Possible means of prevention and policy measures were studied in the light of trade-offs between security needs and the freedom of research and knowledge while taking into account shifts in the public perception of threats and related security issues.

Three Pillars of the Project

FESTOS had three pillars:

  1. To identify new, potentially threatening technologies.
  2. To assess emerging threats and – based on a selected set of potential threats – to construct scenarios with appropriate early-warning indicators.
  3. To draft preparatory measures and policy guidelines.

As all foresight studies, FESTOS did not aim to predict the future. Instead, the project sought to raise awareness and initiate a debate among and between scientists and policy-makers about the possible “dark sides” of future technologies.

Technology Scanning

The FESTOS team carried out a horizon scanning of emerging technologies that might pose security threats in the future if these technologies are abused. Furthermore, an assessment of the potential threats was carried out. The first result was a structured description of around 80 “potentially threatening” technologies in the six fields listed above. The next step was to evaluate the threat aspects of 33 selected technologies by means of an international expert survey in which 280 experts participated. The collection of technologies was not intended to be exhaustive but to stimulate further discussions and provide a basis for the subsequent analysis. As such, it can serve as a “dynamic data bank” of potentially “abusable” technologies.

Determining the Nature and Severity of Threats

Subsequently, the results of the expert survey were analysed in terms of the likely time spans for the threats to materialise, prioritisation (relative impact of each technology), the nature and extent of the potential damages, as well as societal issues. This activity included ranking and selecting security threats for scenario construction. In methodological terms, the exercise included expert brainstorming sessions, a security assessment (including Ansoff filters and the STEEPV method), an analysis of the relevant signals of change and wild cards.

Scenario Development

Four narrative scenarios based on the identified security threats from emerging technologies were developed. The aim of the scenarios was to depict possible futures that take into account the social dimension and the interdependency of different impacts. In a scenario workshop, five methods and procedures were used: wild cards, security climates, futures wheel, security café for impact analysis and brainstorming.

Control and Prevention

The possible control of scientific knowledge to prevent unintended new security threats is a very sensitive issue in open democratic societies. FESTOS raised a debate on whether and how to control emerging science and technology developments in order to prevent abuse without slowing down the process of knowledge creation needed for innovation, progress and improving human life. Secondly, FESTOS analysed the problematic issue of controlled dissemination of scientific knowledge in the light of the inevitable trade-offs between security and freedom of research and knowledge creation. The methods used were an online survey of approximately 100 selected experts and representatives from various parts of society, followed by 5-10 semi structured in-depth interviews in each of the participating countries (Poland, Germany, Finland, UK and Israel) with selected key actors representing civil society and other relevant organisations, and, finally, an international workshop on control and prevention, with the participation of invited experts and representatives.


 Top Technology Threats and Threat Scenarios

Three Types of Potential Threats

Examination of the diverse technologies led to identifying three broad categories of potential threats: The first category is the disruption of certain technological applications for malicious purposes (for example, jamming communications in intelligent collision avoidance systems in transportation). The second category concerns the increased availability of technologies that once were confined to the military or to unique, heavily funded laboratories and were prohibitively expensive. The third category concerns surprising malicious uses of new technologies developed for completely different, beneficial and civilian purposes. The most interesting for FESTOS seemed to be the third category, where we found the most unexpected threats, signals of change or surprising “wild cards”.

Ten New Top Priority Threats

The threat analysis resulted in a prioritisation of the threatening technologies with respect to their potential for malicious use (combining the easiness of putting them to malicious use and the severity of the threat). The resulting top ten technologies are:

  1. Smart mobile phone mash-ups
  2. Internet of things (IoT)
  3. Cloud computing
  4. New gene transfer technologies
  5. Advanced artificial intelligence
  6. Synthetic biology
  7. Cyborg insects
  8. Energetic nanomaterials
  9. Radio-frequency identification (RFID)
  10. Autonomous & semi-autonomous mini robots

Furthermore, the intensity of the potential threat (i.e. the overall threat to several spheres of society according to the experts) posed by the ten most relevant technologies was prioritised:

  1. Advanced artificial intelligence
  2. Human enhancement
  3. Swarm robotics
  4. Cyborg insects
  5. Internet of things (IoT)
  6. Water-catalysing explosive reactions
  7. Future fuels and materials for nuclear technologies
  8. AI-based robot-human interaction
  9. Cloud computing
  10. Programmable matter

For the time scale 2015 – 2020, the following potential “wild card technologies” were identified (i.e. technologies with high severity threats and a low likelihood of actual abuse): swarm robotics, brain implants, water-catalysing explosive reactions, future fuels, self-replicating nano-assemblers, medical nano-robots, ultra-dense data storage, meta-materials with negative light refraction index and synthetic biology.

Four Scenarios for Threat Assessment

Four narrative scenarios for threat assessment and identification of indicators were produced:

Scenario 1: Cyber-insects Attack!

Swarms of cyber-insects attack people and animals.

Scenario 2: The Genetic Blackmailers

Individual DNA is misused for purposes of extortion.

Scenario 3: At the Flea Market

Intelligent everyday nanotechnology-based products can be set to self-destruct, which is triggered by a wireless signal.

Scenario 4: We’ll Change Your Mind…

A terrorist group uses a virus to change the behaviour of a portion of the population for a certain period of time.

Conflict between Security and Freedom of Research

With the aid of the expert survey and the interviews, the FESTOS team assessed the respondents’ perceptions of the awareness, acceptance and effectiveness of control and prevention measures. The results show that control and prevention measures exist, mostly in the fields of ICT and biotechnology. On the basis of the national reports on the participating countries’ security institutions, we can say that the main institutions engaged in control activities are governments, ministries and security agencies. Most of the control measures have a high or very high impact on scientific knowledge, especially the freedom of science, knowledge creation and dissemination. The experts consider media, including the Internet, to be a dangerous channel of dissemination. By contrast, the most accepted control measures are

  1. education curricula including programmes aiming to raise the awareness of potential threats,
  2. measures invented by the knowledge producer and
  3. measures developed by the media to limit the publication of sensitive knowledge.

Codes of conduct, internal guidelines (bottom-up approach) and legal regulations are perceived as the most effective control measures.


Policy Conclusions

Continuation of Horizon Scanning of Emerging Technologies

There is a need for networking, international cooperation and broader expert panels to evaluate emerging technologies continuously with respect to possible unintended effects relevant to security. More detailed technological evaluations are required in the short-term, and it was suggested that at least sixty to eighty technologies need to be evaluated. FESTOS provides a starting point to cover all the risks and work towards a EU risk strategy in different areas of science and technology. In addition, there is a need to cooperate much closer with the EU patent office and with patent agencies around the world. It is furthermore very important to secure financing in Horizon2020 to allow continuing the horizon scanning work carried out in FESTOS.

Academic Freedom in Democratic Societies and “Knowledge Control”

There is a tension between possible security dangers of technology R&D and academic freedom, and there seem to be only two “stronger” control measures that academics are willing to accept: internal guidelines in research organisations and codes of conduct. Codes of conduct are the preferred control mechanism in R&D.

Ethical Control and Codes of Conduct

Since science and technology is globalised and develops at a fast pace, we can only have ethical control if there are international codes of conduct, to be developed by international organisations. Scientists need to understand the consequences of their research, and this needs to be handled at an international level. There seems to be a difference between democratic and non-democratic countries in this respect. In democratic countries, there is less of a threat that scientists might develop technologies that will be misused. In societies that are more closed and lack democratic institutions, scientists tend to continue their research even if they are aware that their invention might pose a threat to security. In any event, industry has a massive influence, including the ability to effectively lobby for its interests. Some of could focus on safe researcher practices, codes of conduct etc. and assist in the creation of an international “control” environment.

Project Assessment, Social Responsibility and Security by Design

It is highly desirable that the “dark side” is considered at the beginning of projects. Therefore, it is crucial to develop assessment criteria. It is more effective to build in design control measures during the design phases of the research than to turn to ethical assessment after the research is completed. Such an anticipatory approach results in “security by design”.

Networking: the Role of the State and the EU

Another critical element is “networking and networks”, which will be very important in the future. This aspect concerns how scientific organisations are networked to produce results for society. All innovations are based on knowledge, and we must develop knowledge-management systems to manage the dark sides as well. This requires an active role of the EU Commission and European Parliament.

The Role of Education

There is a need to educate students as early as possible about threats and security issues during their studies at university. Knowledge about these control dilemmas should be added to the universities’ curricula.

We also need early media training for children since they will encounter a number of challenges as they increasingly navigate an expanding digital universe. Such media proficiency is even more important since the digital universe can be unfamiliar or even unknown to their parents, who are “digital immigrants”.  The future “digital natives” can only cope and shape the digital universe if they are properly informed and know how to protect themselves.

Bottom-up vs. Top-down Approaches of Control

Actors and decision-makers, as they balance security needs, the requirements set by open democratic societies and the freedom of science, should take active measures against the possible dangers of the dark side of technologies. More promising than top-down measures are bottom-up proposals: Instead of legislation and coercive measures with rather questionable outcomes, the FESTOS team proposes to develop soft and optional measures. These measures, first of all, are based on self-regulation, self-control and the education of engineers and scientists. Codes of conduct, ethical guidelines and educational measures may initially be established on sub-state levels but must be developed into national, Europe-wide and global regimes. While self-regulation and education may be the means of choice in most cases, it has to be stressed that there are also exceptional cases, such as weapons of mass destruction, for instance. In these cases, there exist international regimes to regulate the prohibition of research and development of extremely dangerous technologies and, for the most part, the international community complies with the rules. An example is the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), which was the first multilateral disarmament treaty banning the production of an entire category of weapons.

FESTOS Consortium

The consortium of the project “Foresight of Evolving Security Threats Posed by Emerging Technologies” (FESTOS) consists of the following partners:

Interdisciplinary Centre for Technology Analysis and Forecasting (ICTAF) at Tel-Aviv University, Israel

Finland Futures Research Centre (FFRC), University of Turku, Finland

Centre for Technology and Society, Technical University of Berlin (TUB), Germany

Institute of Sociology (IS), University of Lodz, Poland

EFP Consulting (UK) Ltd, UK

Authors: Burkhard Auffermann

Aharon Hauptman

Sponsors: European Union DG Research
Type: European Union foresight
Organizer: ICTAF – Interdisciplinary Center for Technology Analysis and Forecasting,                                             Coordinator: Dr. Yair Sharan,
Duration: 2009 – 2011
Budget: € 824,552
Time Horizon: 2035
Date of Brief: February

Download: EFP-Brief-No.-225-FESTOS

Sources and References


EFP Brief No. 198: Weak Signals and Emerging Issues in Health

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

This foresight activity was conducted as part of the EU FP7 SESTI project (Scanning for Emerging Science and Technology Issues) aimed at developing a process that can be used to identify weak signals and emerging issues in a systematic, efficient and effective way. It also pursued the application and implementation of such techniques by contextualizing them and initiating discussions within the policy arena, thus linking them in a meaningful way to existing policy processes. To enhance the quality of the comparison of the different weak signal scanning approaches, the content domain was limited to signals that are precursors to changes in the research and innovation system. This policy brief reports on the approach and findings of the SESTI project on the health theme.

Demographics, New Technologies and Patient Empowerment

Countries have been facing increasing pressure on health service budgets due to a number of factors. This trend is projected to accelerate over the coming years, and countries are desperately looking for ways of limiting expenditure without reducing the quality of services or their accessibility.

The most significant factors driving the change are:

  • Demographic and societal change. The ageing population has profound implications for the cost of health and social services.
  • Health informatics and telemedicine. ICT is changing the face of healthcare. ICT systems are revolutionising information sharing between health professionals, for example through the development of seamless electronic patient records. This requires the implementation, maintenance and upgrading of a sophisticated infrastructure with all the investment that this entails.
  • New health technologies. New pharmaceuticals and techniques are continually being developed leading to a broader range of treatments applied on a routine basis resulting in additional medical costs. But new health technologies can also contribute to decreasing costs, at least in the mid to long run. Better early diagnostics (enabling cures at an early stage), self-monitoring of health functions, robotic assistance (enabling the elderly to live on their own for a longer time or assisting medical and nursing personnel) and modern prosthetics (enabling disabled people to work more efficiently) can improve efficiency and reduce costs over time (Braun et al 2009, p 22).

Issue-centred Scanning and Exploratory Scanning

During the project, two different approaches to identify new emerging issues were followed: issue-centred scanning and exploratory scanning.

Issue-centred Scanning

In this approach, the project team foresight experts systematically conducted searches for signals that could indicate potential emerging issues. The scan tapped various digital sources, such as scientific journals, newspapers, policy papers, reports and statistical data books.

This approach provides valuable information and is a very useful technique for identifying emerging issues but has the drawback that it may miss the so-called unknown unknowns, although individual scanners may stumble upon them during the scanning activity.

The manual search for potential emerging issues followed two main lines:

  1. The first focused on selecting potential emerging issues that may be relevant to the topic being researched, using material from the national horizon scanning exercises.
  2. The second is based on a more open search on the Internet, using key questions and phrases as search strings constructed by the experts based on the kind of issues one may expect in the subject area.

The method delivered a useful set of emerging issues that were used as input for the workshops held later during the project.

Exploratory Scanning

In the exploratory approach, the foresight experts examined a variety of digital sources of information and screened them for weak signals using automated text-mining tools. The advantage of this approach is that it does not rely on an expert for identifying topics and that it should be more effective in identifying novel issues outside the perception of policymakers and expert communities.

While the concept of a bottom-up approach using automated techniques appears attractive, in practice we found that the difficulty of clustering the raw data posed an obstacle to successfully identifying emerging issues. Thus, the further development of the text mining tools would be necessary before this technique could be applied reliably in practice.

Refining the Set of Early Warning Signals

The scanning exercise produced a long set of early warning signals. This list was then refined through an assessment exercise where the underlying issues as well as the impact and uncertainty of the signals were considered. There was also a first appraisal of the reliability of the signals. The signals were clustered in different ways, taking into consideration the content dimension (keywords, areas and topics) as well as significance and granularity.

Visualisation tools, such as tag clouds, were employed to help identify keywords and provide a basis for discussion. Keywords may be either single words or phrases (e.g., health care, regenerative medicine).

The processing involved the following six steps:

  1. Clustering of weak signals
  2. Assessing the significance of clusters
  3. Framing of connected weak signals
  4. Tentative modelling of emerging issues
  5. Comparison with results of previous foresight exercises
  6. Selection of significant emerging issues.


Following the conclusion of the scanning and processing phases by the SESTI team, a workshop was held to present and discuss the project results with a variety of stakeholders, including national policymakers, thematic experts, EC officials and delegates from the private sector. A workshop paper was prepared and circulated to the workshop participants beforehand as background material for the meetings.

The workshop was structured according to the following format:

  • Setting the scene: presentation on the thematic background by a member of the SESTI team;
  • Emerging issues: presentation of the results of the SESTI scanning activities;
  • Discussion: open floor discussion on the emerging issues presented;
  • Voting on the issues by the participants on four criteria: impact, plausibility, novelty and policy implications.

Personalisation, Diversification and Individual Accountability

The scanning exercise identified a number of emerging issues of which the following five were highlighted as being the most prominent.

Diversification in Medicine

A wide range of new offerings beyond conventional medicine and outside the public health system have sprung up in recent years. Diminishing trust in conventional medicine, the debate on cultural diversity in medicine and the increasing use of complementary and alternative medicine may lead to new requirements with regard to regulation. This field encompasses a number of therapies including herbalism, meditation, acupuncture, yoga, hypnosis, biofeedback and traditional Chinese medicine. A growing number of people in Europe (more than 100 million) are turning to complementary and alternative medicine for disorders they feel cannot be treated with conventional therapy.

Mental Health in an Ageing Society

Advances in medicine means that humans are living longer than ever before. However, for the individual this may prove to be a mixed blessing since the quality of life of the elderly is often compromised due to frailty, reduced mobility, dependence on medication, financial limitations and loneliness in the twilight years. One in four older adults lives with depression, anxiety or other significant mental health disorders. In many EU member states the suicide rate among the elderly is higher than that for any other age group.

This aspect of the ageing population has been overshadowed by the economic perspective related to the pension problem and rising healthcare bill. The psychosocial consequences of an ageing society and the related problems are not widely known.

Obesity: the Global Epidemic Marches On

It is estimated that in excess of one billion adults are overweight, and that at least 300 million of them are clinically obese. Obesity has reached epidemic proportions and has been a major contributor to the global burden of chronic disease and disability. Within Europe, obesity affects 20-30% of adults, and a cause of particular concern is the increase in obesity rates among the young.

Rising obesity is the result of a combination of factors – increasing affluence leading to abundance of food, poor consumption habits due to a hectic routine, and a sedentary lifestyle. To combat obesity we need to recognise and address these realities, yet a number of endeavours aimed at raising public awareness and encouraging a healthier lifestyle appear to have had a limited effect. The problem calls for a new impetus and for a broader approach in the fight against obesity.

Is Prevention Better Than Cure? Re-prioritising Health Research

Most medical research funding is channelled into ways of treating disorders rather then towards methods of preventing disease. Whilst nobody would contest the remarkable progress and medical discoveries that have been made in recent years, new pharmaceuticals and treatments have contributed to a spiralling healthcare bill. Rising citizen expectations and an ageing society have placed further demands on healthcare services, and most countries are facing major challenges in terms of its sustainability.

The time may be ripe for radically rethinking health research strategy. Social interventions at policy level have a high impact on health and may become of great interest to public health policy. Nevertheless, the outcome cannot be measured in the same way that the outcome of clinical trials or health behaviour interventions on individuals can be measured.

Personalised Medicine

Personalised medicine is an approach that tailors interventions to individual variations in risk and treatment response. Although medicine has long made efforts to achieve this goal, recent advances and falling costs in genomics are beginning to make this concept a reality.

Pharmacogenomics may also provide an opportunity for an increased range of medicines. A number of drugs fail to obtain regulatory approval because they have a negative side effect on a small part of the population. This reduces the range of available medicines and pushes up the costs of research. If the genetic element could be incorporated into the testing and licensing procedure, it would be possible to develop many more drugs provided that these would be prescribed on the basis of successful genetic tests only.

As the cost of genetic testing continues to fall, it may be generally available as early as 2014. The recent developments raise questions about regulatory policy, technology assessment, and especially the financing and organisation of medical innovation.

Changing Demand for Health Services May Reduce Costs

The workshop proved invaluable in bringing together a variety of perspectives representing different interests, including academia, the public sector, the private sector and civil society. This collective knowledge ensured an interesting and balanced discussion and helped impart a certain degree of validity and legitimacy to the results.

The workshop conclusions are summarised below according to the issues introduced above.

Diversification in Medicine

The growing popularity of complementary and alternative medicine could lead to a demand for a diverse mix of medical services in the future. The regulation of practitioners may need to be extended to include those practicing alternative medicine. This speciality may provide opportunities for reducing the public healthcare bill.

Mental Health in an Ageing Society

The increasing incidence of mental health problems among the elderly is a looming problem that could have a significant impact both in terms of demand for medical services as well as in a wider social context. There are very significant policy implications and the matter deserves further consideration.


Increasing incidence of obesity and the limited success of current attempts to address the problem demand a new impetus and a broader approach. Alternative measures could include additional regulation of the food industry and regulatory constraints on marketing by the fast food industry.

Re-prioritising Health Research

New pharmaceuticals and treatments have contributed to a spiralling healthcare bill, and in many countries, future sustainability is a challenge. The time may be ripe for radically rethinking health research strategy with an increased focus on preventive solutions.

Personalised Treatment

Widespread personalised medicine is believed to have a significant impact on the future treatment of individuals. Its increasing significance is considered a plausible prospect for the future as pharmacogenetic knowledge grows and costs continue to fall. Pharmacogenomics also provides a mechanism for improvements in the pharmaceutical regulatory regime leading to a broader range and lower cost of drugs.

Authors: Petra Schaper-Rinkel            

Ozcan Saritas                          

Brian Warrington                   

Victor van Rij                           

Sponsors: EU Commission
Type: EU-level single issue foresight exercise
Organizer: FP7 SESTI Project Coordinator: TNO, Maurits Butter  
Duration: Oct 08 – Mar 11 Budget: N/A Time Horizon: 2025 Date of Brief: April 2011  


Download EFP Brief No. 198_Weak Signals Health

Sources and References

For more information, visit the project website at

Amanatidou et al. (2011). “On concepts and Methods in Horizon Scanning: Lessons from Initiating Policy Dialogues on Emerging Issues.” Fourth International Seville Conference on Future-Oriented Technology Analysis (FTA)
Seville, 12-13 May 2011

Braun et al. (2009). EFMN. Special issue on healthcare. Healthy ageing and the future of public healthcare systems, Brussels 2009

Kopelman, P. (2010). “Foresight Report: the obesity challenge ahead.” Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 69(1): 80‐85.

Mossialos, E., Dixon, A., Figueras, J. and Kutzin, J. (Eds.) (2002). “Funding Healthcare: Option for Europe.” Open University Press, Buckingham.

Office of Science and Technology (OST) (2001). “Healthcare 2020, Report of the Foresight Healthcare Panel.” Department of Trade and Industry, London, available at:

Saritas, O. and Keenan, M. (2004). “Broken promises and/ or techno dreams? The future of health and social services in Europe.” foresight, vol. 6, issue 5, 281-291.

EFP Brief No. 197: Scanning for Emerging Science and Technology Issues

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

The Scanning for Emerging Science and Technology Issues (SESTI) project was about identifying “emerging issues” that could have a potentially significant impact on society by 2030, are still not sufficiently recognised by policy makers, and to which policy makers should (perhaps) pay more attention. The overall objectives were to research the added value of weak signal scanning, develop and improve the theoretical concept of weak signals, assess the strengths and weaknesses of several scanning methods (exploratory and evaluative), identify emerging issues and ways of creating awareness among the policy community.

Weak Signals for Research Policy

Often societal developments are highly influenced by unlikely events with low probability but high impact. These so-called “weak signals” are not clear-cut and are only rarely discussed in the policy arena (or not at all). Although it is generally accepted that early warning to these weak signals is an important input to policy making, the development of approaches and methods to identify them and feed them into the policy process are still in the early stages. Apart from more traditional approaches, which are still useful in dealing with these “weak signals”, the developments in ICT offer new opportunities for efficient and effective identification methods.

An essential characteristic of “weak signals” is the combination of low probability and high potential impact. Normally these “weak signals” are not discussed in mainstream policy settings, let alone addressed by policy.

However, they need to be anticipated to ensure quick and adequate responses to benefit from opportunities given and/or counteract undesired impact.

On the one hand, an accelerating pace of scientific discoveries opens up new opportunities for developing innovative new products and services. The early detection of “weak signals” in scientific areas with potentially large impact on innovation is one crucial element of the project effort.

On the other hand, Europe is likely to be confronted in the future with new sets of socio-economic challenges. Several of these challenges are already under discussion today while others remain vague and uncertain. In this respect, there is equally a need to look ahead and identify possible future trends and socio-economic challenges with a high impact.

The Scanning for Emerging Science and Technology Issues (SESTI) project aimed at combining research in the field of “weak signals” in order to determine and assess what approaches and methods can be used for policy purposes and to identify the future of research in case studies and show how the results of research can be made usable for policy.

The SESTI project was mainly financed by the European Union in the Seventh Framework Programme under the Social Sciences and Humanities theme. The consortium involved in the collaborative effort consisted of the following parties: the Austrian Institute of Technology, the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies, the Malta Council for Science and Technology, the Manchester Institute of Innovation Research, and the Dutch TNO Strategies for the Information Society group.

Weak Signals as Early Warning System

The overall goal of the project was to contribute to the development of an effective transnational system for the early identification of weak signals of emerging issues that will have an impact on Europe. In the project, two research questions were central: (1) What new foresight approaches can be used to identify “weak signals” in a systematic, efficient and effective way, and how can they be made operational? (2) How can “weak signals” be systematically linked to policy processes to have an impact?

Another objective of the study was to evaluate the answers to the research questions stated above in a practical situation to enhance usability. For this purpose, the case of the future of research was chosen, leading to the following research questions: (1) What are the weak signals at the interface between scientific discovery, emerging fields of innovation and societal needs in Europe? (2) What national and global developments in business, research and society have a high potential impact on the research infrastructure, and what will happen if they are not addressed by policy?

Specific issues were selected on the basis of set criteria that gave priority to:

  • Topics that are not currently addressed by EU policy or FP7 or are addressed in a limited way.
  • Topics with a long-term orientation (2030) and having no “owner” in the European Policy arena.
  • Topics that have relative low probability and potentially high impact.

Innovative Tools for Scanning & Communicating Weak Signals

The overall strategy of the project was to balance content development, methodological insights in “weak signal” identification and actual use of information by the user (policy) community, which again may lead to new insights for the operationalisation of methods.

The general organisation of the project is visualised in the diagram:

In the following text, the different aspects of the project shown in the diagram will be discussed summarily.

The WikiHub

One of the cornerstones of the project was the WikiHub. This Internet website provided the backbone to the communication infrastructure, both internally and externally. The WikiHub fulfilled two functions: it served as a communication and a scanning tool. The information collected would be integrated into the WikiHub acting as a pool of weak signals that could be edited by the different partners responsible for the various scanning activities as well as by external users.

Scanning for Emerging Issues

The objective of this work package was to scan the environment for weak signals and emerging issues. An important base for this would be the joint database of the coordination group of national horizon scanning, which was initiated by the Forsociety ERA Net. The methods used included input from national foresight representatives and initiatives, Internet scans, literature scans, participatory conferences, electronic surveys and interviews with visionaries.

Processing Information

The objective of this work package was to process the information collected in the scanning activities. As this was still fragmented information stemming from different sources, it needed to be processed to achieve a coherent structure. The information collected was processed in a first stage by one of the project partners for discussion at workshops. During two workshops general futures experts were involved. They selected 50 emerging issues for further analysis based on an input document containing a long list of issues describing them from a global perspective.

In-depth Analysis

The major objective of this work package was to research in depth selected emerging issues creating more background information to initiate a discussion in the policy arena. The selected issues were further investigated using desk research, interviews and an internal expert workshop oriented towards creating new (contextual) information. For each issue, a horizon scan discussion document was drawn up, describing in depth the respective issue, to serve as a basis for the discussions at the transnational (and potential national) workshops.

Transnational Workshops

The results of the in-depth analysis of the emerging issues selected were presented to international stakeholders to evaluate the potential impact and create momentum to address and elaborate the issue. These results, together with the horizon scan discussion document, were presented at an EU-level workshop that was organised for EU representatives from different areas and also involved experts in the field to discuss the issue.

Selecting Signals for Further Assessment

An advisory commission played a large role in the selection of the signals to be further assessed. All signals identified would be assessed with a semi-quantitative indicator scheme to be developed during the start up phase.

Knowledge Dissemination

This work package aimed at facilitating the effective dissemination of knowledge generated through the project and sought to ensure that strategic intelligence and information would reach relevant stakeholders, in particular policy-makers and those responsible for implementing policies.

At the end of the project, a two-day conference was held to present, discuss and assess the results of the project as well as enhance the functioning of the network.

Policy Implications: Going Beyond Conventional Approaches

The weak signals and emerging issues that were identified in the SESTI project were divided into three categories: health, energy and cognitive enhancement. The final SESTI conference discussed all three categories2. In the following, we describe each of these categories in turn and show policy implications.

Weak Signals and Emerging Issues in Health

An ageing society, longer life expectancy, advances in medical technologies and new medicines are leading to spiralling costs and putting unprecedented pressures on the provision of healthcare services throughout Europe.

Using the techniques developed earlier in the project, the SESTI team identified a number of emerging issues of which the five listed below were selected for discussion during a workshop held in Brussels in November 2010. The workshop was attended by thematic experts as well as national and EC policy-makers.

Diversification in medicine. A wide range of new offerings beyond conventional medicine and outside the public health system has sprung up in recent years. Emerging technologies may lead to new approaches, alternative methods are gaining more attention, and new health related service markets are emerging.

Mental health in an ageing society. Advances in medicine mean that humans are living longer than ever before. However, the quality of life of the elderly is often compromised due to frailty, reduced mobility, dependence on medication, financial limitations and loneliness in the twilight years.

2 Details on the final conference can be found on the SESTI website:

Obesity: The global epidemic marches on. It is estimated that in excess of one billion adults are overweight, at least 300 million of whom are clinically obese. Obesity has reached epidemic proportions and is a major contributor to the global burden of chronic disease and disability.

Is prevention better than cure? Re-prioritising health research. It is a fact that a number of simple preventive measures, such as consumption of nutritious foods, better personal hygiene and sanitation, both when handling food and during medical treatment, have contributed significantly to improved levels of health.

Personalised treatment. The response of an individual to a medicinal drug may depend on a number of factors, such as gender, age and the genetic makeup of that individual. Personalised medicine is a health care approach that tailors interventions to individual genetic variation in risk and treatment response.

Weak Signals and Emerging Issues in Energy

The development of secure, cost-effective and environmentally friendly sources of energy has become one of the greatest and most pressing challenges facing humankind.

The SESTI team again applied the techniques developed in the course of the project to identify emerging issues in the field of energy. The following five were selected for discussion during the Brussels workshop with experts and policymakers in November 2010.

Hybrid nuclear energy. Energy from nuclear fission reactors remains a controversial topic. Nuclear fusion promises a virtually limitless supply of clean energy without the problem of hazardous by-products but remains stubbornly a promise in the future. Recent developments in the form of hybrid fission and fusion reactors might reduce the timeframe within which nuclear plants could become a viable source of clean energy.

Renewable energy from the desert. Large-scale generation of electricity from solar energy requires a large land area coupled with long hours of high-intensity sunlight. The deserts of the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) countries fit this requirement admirably. Large concentrated plants could generate electricity that could then be transported to European countries using high-voltage DC cables. A small percentage of the total desert area would be sufficient to provide energy for the whole of Europe.

Biofuels, biomass and biomimicry. The production of ethanol and other biofuels from crops has already become an important source of renewable energy in the transport sector. However, current yield in terms of quantity of fuel per unit of land area is still too low to make this a viable option for large-scale energy generation. Crop-based biofuels compete with food crops for arable land and can affect the availability and price of grain. Genetic engineering offers the possibility of achieving significant improvements in yield, which calls for further research in this area.

Unknown risks of the hydrogen economy: A recent initiative to combat global warming involves the use of solar energy to generate hydrogen, which may then be used to drive fuel cells to generate electricity in electric cars. One possible risk relates to the leakage of hydrogen into the atmosphere. Since hydrogen is lighter than air, any leaked hydrogen would probably rise through the atmosphere and reach the stratosphere. Here it can react with ozone, producing water vapour, which may increase the size and frequency of polar stratospheric clouds or increase the ozone hole. Since hydrogen is very scarce in the atmosphere, even relatively minor amounts of the gas may have a significant impact on the weather.

Digging deeper and farther: Diminishing existing oil and gas reserves have extended exploration into more hostile and challenging environments. Despite proper precautions, accidents are bound to happen and advances in drilling technology appear to have outstripped the ability to plug a leaking oil well at extreme depth.

Weak Signals and Emerging Issues in Cognitive Enhancement

Human enhancement is a field of growing interest in different communities. It is an umbrella term used to describe the expansion of physical or cognitive abilities of individuals. It can be temporary (e.g., using pharmaceuticals) or permanent (e.g., surgery, implants), and can be applied as a therapeutic measure (to correct a deficiency or impairment) or as an improvement. The term is also sometimes used to refer to measures aimed at increasing the life span of an individual.

Cognitive enhancement is a form of human enhancement that may be defined as the amplification or extension of core capacities of the mind through improvement or augmentation of internal or external information processing systems.

During a workshop held in Brussels in June 2010, a number of issues related to cognitive enhancement were identified that deserve special attention from policymakers. Among the issues discussed were the need for interdisciplinary research and political regulation.

Interdisciplinary research: Many of the developments in cognitive enhancement are expected from interdisciplinary research. From the proponents’ point of view, the promotion of such research requires national and European research programmes specifically designed for this purpose.

Regulatory needs: Many of the topics under development have profound ethical and legal implications and raise questions regarding the need for regulation or guidelines in areas not addressed by existing legislation, such as the use of products affecting the brain, the combination of living organs with technology, or privacy issues caused by ICT implants.

Authors: Effie Amanatidou, Vicente Carabias-Barcelo, Miriam Leis, Ozcan Saritas, Petra Schaper-Rinkel, Bas van Schoonhoven, Victor van Rij, Brian Warrington
Sponsors: European Commission, FP7 SSH Programme
Type: Weak signal scanning for the European region
Organizer: SESTI Consortium, Maurits Butter
Duration: 10/2008-3/2010 Budget: 730k € Time Horizon: 2030 Date of Brief: July 2011


Download EFP Brief No. 197_Scanning for Emerging Science and Technology Issues

Sources and Further Reading

Butter et al., 2010, Cognitive Enhancement Workshop: Weak Signals and Emerging Issues for European Policy, SESTI deliverable D 7.7 (1), obtained from SESTI website:

Butter et al., 2011, Scanning for early recognition of emerging issues; dealing with the unexpected. An operational framework for the identification and assessment of new future developments, SESTI deliverable D 6.2 (2), obtained from SESTI website:

Butter et al., 2010, Energy Workshop: Weak Signals and Emerging Issues for European Policy, SESTI deliverable D 7.7 (3), obtained from SESTI website:

Butter et al., 2010, Health Workshop: Weak Signals and Emerging Issues for European Policy, SESTI deliverable D 7.7 (4), obtained from SESTI website: