Posts Tagged ‘methodology’

EFP Brief No. 262: Transdisciplinary Foresight – Co-Creating Research Agendas Using Multi-Actor Engagement

Wednesday, June 8th, 2016

This brief provides methodological insights and lessons learned from experiences with a forward looking multi-actor engagement method that supplies policy advice for framework conditions of research and development (R&D): CIVISTI – Citizen Visions on Science, Technology and Innovation. This qualitative demand-side method cross-links knowledge of lay persons, experts and stakeholders. A national case study on the future of food illustrates the process with exemplary results.

Combining Knowledge

Results of futures studies are often controversial, divergent or even contradictory, and thus become contested (Grunwald 2014). As technological change is rapid, expert anticipation beyond short-term prediction is highly arbitrary. There is a need for broadening the (political) debate on socio-technological development since many actors within the current debate focus on expressing the promise of multiple added values – economic and social – of technological progress. Such a socio-technical imaginary may prescribe a future that seems attainable to the ones involved in the visioning process (Jasanoff/Kim 2009). However, other possible futures may then become less likely and shaping them could become more difficult. Here, engaging citizens as well as involving experts and stakeholders may serve for combining different types of knowledge to build desirable, socially robust futures.

Within this setting, it may be alleviating to ask how the future should look like, instead of merely developing deterministic models to predict how the future will be. Such desirable prospects may then serve as stimulant for the contemporary discourse on governing innovations actively and responsibly in terms of responding to societal needs and challenges.

Forward looking multi-actor engagement

In this brief we will present and discuss a forward looking multi-actor engagement method that allows for integrating different kinds of knowledge of multiple actor groups into Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) programme development.

CIVISTI – Citizen Visions on Science, Technology and Innovation

The transdisciplinary, qualitative foresight method CIVISTI is a demand-side approach that identifies societal demands for future developments. Applying the method creates a space where different actors can become mutually responsive to each other. Hereby, it supports what Warnke and Heimeriks (2008) describe as a continuous policy learning process that is not predetermined but open to foster the development of a system which may cope with future uncertainties. “The CIVISTI method is based upon the idea that the process of defining relevant and forward-looking research and innovation agendas could, in many respects, be improved by including consultations with citizens in their development. The method uses citizens’ concerns about societal development as a stepping stone for developing priorities in research programmes” (Engage 2020 2015).

Generally, the method relies on three recursive steps: (1) citizens develop visions of desirable futures, (2) experts elaborate recommendations on the basis of the visions, and (3) these results are then presented again to the citizens for validation before they are presented to addressees (Gudowsky 2012). The method was developed during an FP7 project (2008–2011), tested in seven countries and aimed at creating recommendations for European R&D policy, namely Horizon 2020 ( Afterwards, several adaptations to international, national and regional level as well as to different topics took place (e.g. Gudowsky/Sotoudeh 2015a, b). The design and organization of the creative vision building and assessment in the CIVISTI method allows for the integration of citizens’ tacit knowledge alongside experts’ and stakeholders’ knowledge into framing R&D agendas.

Case Study: Future Foods

The participatory foresight study “Future Foods for Men and Women” engaged citizens, experts and stakeholders to discuss the future of the (Austrian) food system (2013-2016). The study uncovered emerging issues and future challenges, including matters of food safety, production, processing, distribution and consumption, before elaborating scenarios which depict the main findings of the transdisciplinary process. Aimed at proactively shaping the long-term research program of the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Safety (AGES), results are also relevant to decision-makers in innovation and food policy as well as research and development experts and engineers (

In 2014 Citizens in four different regions in Austria developed visions of the food system with a view to a desirable future in 30 to 40 years. Information material was developed by the AGES communication team to inspire citizens to think about future food safety. Five creative workshops with 20 to 25 participants each took place in Vienna (twice), Linz, Graz and Innsbruck. Participants were chosen according to standardized criteria (age, education, occupation, sex, city/country residence) to achieve a composition of maximum heterogeneity. Based on values, hopes and fears incorporated in their visions, multidisciplinary teams of experts and stakeholders related to AGES formulated tangible recommendations for research programs. Visions and recommendations were then merged in scenarios to facilitate the communication of results to citizens and decision makers at a later stage. Scenarios were presented for validation and prioritization to ensure legitimacy of results. A final policy workshop engaged policy makers to ensure that results were applicable to current program building (see table 1).


Resource Conservation and Partial Self-Sufficiency

There are several intermediate results (e.g. visons, recommendations, scenarios), which can only be presented as excerpts. The analysis of visions showed that some similar topics were discussed in several forums. The topic of education and awareness has played an essential role not only in visions in all forums, but also in experts’ recommendations which are based on the visions.

Exemplary citizens’ vision

Vision title: “Production of food is not only based on economic profits”

Different areas of actions:

  1. Trade and production: new values for farming and production like sustainability, regional criteria, low overproduction, good distribution of the resources in all areas
  2. Consumer: personal responsibility, knowledge and social values are important
  3. Employees: max. 30 hours of work per week, more holidays
  4. Environment: resource-oriented, seasonal products

What are the benefits and advantages associated with the vision?

  • Food for more (all) people
  • Protection of environment and climate through organic farming
  • Local production will increase
  • Healthy food for the people

Themes and values to be considered that have been identified in this vision are: Regional cultivation, a critical look at global structures, new employment models, resolution of urban structures.

Exemplary experts’ recommendation

Experts’ recommendation that addressed this vision is named as “Paradigm Shift”:

The society learns to reduce consumption and do without over-sited grocery stores, etc.

We learn to use agricultural know-how and to take processing and preservation into account (away from greenhouse, agriculture that is too extensive). Challenges and issues to be addressed:

  • Paradigm shift for all operators (consumer, producer)
  • Solidarity as a prerequisite
  • Timeframes of the recommendations depend on environmental factors and natural disasters

Citizens’ visions and experts’ recommendations were used to build comprehensive scenarios for the years 2035 to 2050.

Scenario 1

This scenario describes “A paradigm shift by means of using the knowledge of resource conservation in agriculture.” The scenario is based on the following framework conditions:

  • Wide dissemination of agricultural know-how, knowledge of resource conservation, storage facilities and food preservation.
  • Partial self-sufficiency of cities with sufficient green areas by promoting “urban gardening”.
  • Redesign of urban areas suitable for agricultural use and governing of voluntary work.
  • Consumer awareness on protection of the environment through reduction of overconsumption of resources.

In this scenario two main situations compared with existing conditions are distinguished: Voluntary society (Scenario 1a) and strengthening governance of markets (Scenario 1b).

Scenario 2

This scenario is focussed on “consumers’ free choices supported by precise information on products in the free market. This scenario assumes the following framework conditions:

  • Global production
  • Advanced digitisation of product information
  • A focus on individual consumer’s self-determination

The impact of the scenarios’ framework conditions on the lives of two protagonists was illustrated in approximately 30 sub-scenarios. Citizens validated this set sub-scenarios as well as the scenarios itself. Based on this validation experts developed recommendations for research and policy (forthcoming).

Establishing Networks with Addressees as a Success Factor

A particular strength of the project was the close connection of the process to a large body of expertise, namely AGES. This guaranteed access to a group of experts and stakeholders who are directly involved in education, research and health security as well as policy, thus allowing for defining recommendations. As a result, experts were motivated to engage in interdisciplinary discussions, which in turn facilitated the interdisciplinary working phase and the expert/stakeholder workshop.

In order for the process to be able to connect different forms of knowledge, an essential criterion is for experts to have experience in transdisciplinary work and respect citizens’ visions as a basis for the process. Another strength are the main addressees of results, i.e. AGES itself, who closely collaborated within the process. Con-sequently, results are more likely to be considered and therefore have an impact on e.g. the long-term research agenda. This is especially important since a lack of close connection to relevant addressees can represent a major challenge to such a participatory process.

The key success factor is the design of creative and well-functioning communication at each phase. This case study held five citizen consultations in four different cities, which opened the possibility for optimization of the process and allowed for comparison of results based on the same information material and method. The method delivers new knowledge and cross-links different existing forms of knowledge, but should also be understood as a comprehensive communication method; as a result there is the need for sufficient resources, i.e. training of moderators, preparation of information material, time for assessing visions and recommendations. If these resources and competencies are not available, it may be more useful to work with small focus groups.


The presented method is further developed and applied within the project CIMULACT – Citizen and Multi-Actor Consultation on Horizon 2020 (, which aims at shaping EU as well as national science, technology and innovation policies through agenda setting based on societal needs by engaging more than 1000 citizens, several stakeholder groups as well as policy makers in 30 European countries.

Authors: Niklas Gudowsky    Mahshid Sotoudeh
Sponsors: FFG – Austrian Research Promotion Agency
Type: Methodological discussion
Organizer: Institute of Technology Assessment, Austrian Academy of Sciences, Vienna, Austria;
Duration: 03/2013 – 02/2016
Budget: € 250.000-300.000
Date of Brief: June 2016

Download EFP Brief No. 262: Transdisciplinary Foresight – Co-Creating Research Agendas Using Multi-Actor Engagement

Sources and References

Grunwald, A., 2014: Modes of orientation provided by futures studies: making sense of diversity and divergence. In: European Journal of Futures Research (2014), 15:30, DOI 10.1007/s40309-013-0030-5

Jasanoff, S.; Kim, S., 2009: Containing the Atom: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and Nuclear Power in the United States and South Korea. Minerva 47, (2009) pp. 119-146

Engage 2020 (2015) Citizen Visions on Science, Technology and Innovation (CIVISTI) in: Engage2020 – Tools and instruments for a better societal engagement in “Horizon 2020”, D3.2 Public Engagement Methods and Tools, p.32-37;, last accessed 21.02.2016

Gudowsky, N., Peissl, W., Sotoudeh, M., Bechtold, U., (2012) Forward-looking activities: incorporating citizens’ visions, Poiesis & Praxis, 9, pp. 101-123.

Gudowsky, Niklas; Sotoudeh, Mahshid (2015a) Citizens’ Visions on Active Assisted Living. In: Hayn, Dieter; Schreier, Günter; Ammenwerth, Elske; Hörbst, Alexander (Hrsg.), eHealth2015 – Health Informatics Meets eHealth; Amsterdam: IOS Press, S. 43-49.

Gudowsky, N.; Bechtold, U.; Capari, L.; Sotoudeh, M. (2015) Participatory Foresight – Experiences with a Qualitative Demand Side Approach. In: Technology Centre ASCR, (Hrsg.), The Next Horizon of Technology Assessment. Proceedings from the PACITA 2015 Conference in Berlin; Prague, S. 139-143 & S. 426.

Gudowsky, Niklas; Sotoudeh, Mahshid; Drott, Felice (2015b) Future foods – a transdisciplinary prospect of the (Austrian) food system. In: Faculty of Mechanical Engineering and Naval Architecture (Zagreb), (Hrsg.), Proceedings of the 10th Conference on Sustainable Development of Energy, Water and Environment Systems, S. 1-8.

Warnke, P., Heimeriks, G. (2008). Technology Foresight as Innovation Policy Instrument: Learning from Science and Technology Studies. In: Cagnin, C., Keenan, M., Johnston, R., Scapolo, F. and Barre, R. (Eds.): Future-Oriented Technology Analysis. Strategic Intelligence for an Innovative Economy. London: Springer, pp. 71−87

EFP Brief No. 218: Embedding Foresight in the Colombian Innovation System

Thursday, June 21st, 2012

This follow-up brief recapitulates the evaluation of the Colombian Technology Foresight Programme (CTFP). The foresight brief no. 119 (“Evaluating Foresight – The Colombian Case”) summarised the methodological aspects and principal focus of the framework on which the evaluation of the second cycle (2005 – 2008) of the CTFP was based. The objective of the present follow-up brief is to look back and summarise the implications of the evaluation of the CTFP by drawing on the key findings of the evaluation summary report. Concretely, it focuses on (1) the appropriateness and adaptation of the evaluation framework, as well as the effects for the spread of a foresight culture in Colombia that have been induced or stimulated by the evaluation of the CTFP and (2) the institutional mechanisms in support of the social appropriation of the CTFP’s output and results as well as the dissemination of the foresight knowledge generated by the CTFP to policy, industry and society as a whole.

Evaluation to Improve the Capacity for Learning

The development of Colombia’s Technology Foresight Programme (CTFP) has long been a reference point in the Latin American region. The CTFP is the first national foresight programme in Latin America that has been evaluated so far. The principal idea of the CTFP has been building a platform to create, distribute and utilise foresight knowledge in Colombia. It was intended to introduce new foci and new types of foresight practices and interventions in support of the strategic re-orientation of programmes and (sub-)sectors.

The focal point of the evaluation carried out in 2008 under the leadership of the University of Manchester was to reshape the objectives and activities of the second cycle of the CTFP (2005 – 2008). The conceptual framework of the evaluation was geared towards analysing foresight as a process.

This follow-up brief describes the methodological framework of the evaluation and discusses the learning process involved as well as the question whether the evaluation improved the aptitude for learning.

Evaluation of the CTFP

In Colombia, the evolution of long-term thinking in foresight has been largely driven by the role of COLCIENCIAS (Colombian Office of Science and Technology) as a node institution capable of facilitating inter-institutional alliances between various centres of excellence, on the one hand, and mobilising resources and engaging key stakeholders into a dynamic and self-reinforcing foresight learning process, on the other. Part and parcel of this learning process has been the comprehensive evaluation of the second cycle of the CTFP, which was geared towards identifying and supporting strategic sectors during the period between 2005 and 2008. Commissioned by COLCIENCIAS, the overall aim of the evaluation was to increase the CTFP’s capacity to shape and inform policy processes and actors.

Methodological Approach and Phases of the Evaluation Process

The evaluation of the CTFP was based on a methodological framework composed of a mix of seven diverse methods and activities that have been listed and described in some detail in the original foresight brief: (1) documentary analysis, (2) logic chart and indicators, (3) surveys, (4) interviews, (5) case studies, (6) benchmarking and (7) evaluation forum.

The evaluation process was divided in four phases:

Phase 1: Scoping – This phase had the principal objective to understand the main rationale of the evaluation process in order to design a coherent research process. The evaluation report states, “In addition to the traditional objectives of a Foresight programme evaluation (i.e. assessment of the impacts of the programme and the projects; assessment of the cost-effectiveness of the programme, and evaluation of the way in which Foresight is run in Colombia), COLCIENCIAS and SECAB [Secretaria Ejecutiva del Convenio Andres Bello] were particularly interested in identifying lessons and recommendations for the improvement of Foresight and horizon-scanning activities in the country.”

Phase 2: Understanding – This phase of the evaluation process was based on the collection of tacit and codified knowledge about the CTFP. “Tacit knowledge was collected through individual and group interviews with key stakeholders in COLCIENCIAS, other sponsors (e.g. ministries) and main stakeholders […]. Codified knowledge involved the compilation of major codified products (e.g. interim and final reports, books, journal publications and other important documents, such as individual project budgets and description of the programme’s expenses).”

Phase 3: Evaluating – This phase was based on a benchmarking of the CTFP against practices in other countries. The main objective here was to learn from other international best practices in establishing a national foresight initiative. The lessons shared from other countries included the UK, Malta, Russia, Spain and Hungary.

Phase 4: Learning – This phase involved conducting further analysis and preparing the final evaluation report.

Lessons Learned

The focus of the evaluation was on assessing what effects the second cycle had on policy and programme development. In particular, the impact of the CTFP on the design and of research policies was to be assessed as well as the effects of the CTFP on the promotion of national skills and the establishment of a national foresight culture in Colombia. In this sense, the evaluation was an important step towards synthesising the lessons derived from the national foresight exercise in terms of impact on skills, enhancement of capacities for strategic decision-making processes and policy design.

Key Findings of the CTFP Evaluation

The final report summarised the key findings of the report as follows:

(1) Regarding the overall objectives, the evaluation report states that the “CTFP objectives have been appropriate and successfully achieved. The programme has contributed to the creation of development visions and strategies for moving towards a knowledge-based society” through horizon-scanning and the building of foresight capacities in key sectors.

(2) As regards the value for money, the evaluation concluded that the CTFP achieved “a paradigm shift” by greatly contributing to the creation of a shared vision for “the productive transformation of Colombia into a knowledge-economy”. Furthermore, the evaluation states that the CTFP has begun to pay off since a diverse set of stakeholders have already adopted the vision brought forward by the CTFP in formulating their long-term objectives.

(3) Regarding the organisational structure of the CTFP, the evaluation observed that the institutional anchoring of the technical and decision-making groups in COLCIENCIAS during the second cycle notably “increased the CTFP’s capacity to shape and inform policy processes and actors. However, these changes also made the programme appear to be more of a COLCIENCIAS instrument than a national programme.”

(4) With respect to the approaches and mix of methods, the evaluation highlighted that “one original and effective feature of CTFP has been the combination of thee conceptual and methodological approaches: Foresight, horizon scanning and productive chain.”

(5) Regarding implementation and aftercare of the second cycle, the evaluation stressed the need for an aftercare strategy in the Colombian foresight programme. If the key support institutions of the programme “were to consider implementing such a strategy, this would probably increase the ability of Foresight to inform policy and shape research priorities. At the same time, it would also allow sufficient time for new networks to exploit the momentum created and consolidate institutional alliances.”

(6) With regard to the CTFP’s contribution to the spread of a foresight culture in Colombia, the evaluation states: “Some stakeholders still see foresight as being exclusively expert-oriented.” Therefore, it was recommended “that the general public be encouraged to participate in projects and training courses. This would probably require alliances with the private and productive sectors, in order to increase the financial and implementation feasibility of large-scale courses and projects.”

(7) Concerning the presence and visibility of the CTFP, the evaluation states that “while CTFP stands up well alongside programmes conducted elsewhere, it has limited visibility in the international academic and professional literature.” A clear implication derived from this is “that all major reports should be […] made available on the internet, and more widely disseminated through, for example, conference presentations and articles in relevant publications.”

(8) With regard to the impacts related to science, technology and innovation (STI), the evaluation stated that out of a total of 24 projects and more than 30 capacity-building courses, “nine projects had positive impacts on public and private polices and strategies; six projects had positive impacts on the agendas of STI programmes and institutions; five projects had positive impacts on the consolidation of research groups; two projects had positive impacts on the consolidation of S&T capacities; and two projects had positive impacts on international projects.”

(9) Concerning policy recommendations and strategies, these have been highlighted as “fundamental elements of CTFP outputs”. According to the evaluation, “the most significant influence of the CTFP on public policy has been the work on the STI Vision 2019.” Moreover, the CTFP’s biotechnology project had a significant influence on the policies and research priorities of COLCIENCIAS’ National Biotechnology Programme.

Networking Key to Spreading Foresight Culture

The strengthening of networks was a central pillar for achieving the principal purpose of the CTFP. In this sense, the enlargement of inter-institutional networks was instrumental for the realisation of a strategy to spread a foresight culture in Colombia. On the side of the sponsors and organisers of the CTFP, building networks to facilitate the involvement of different expertises in support of an interdisciplinary approach to foresight in many fields and sectors was a vital aspect for all those who participated in the CTFP.

Dissemination Strategy Falls Short of Potential

The CTFP produced a large number of high-quality scientific outputs. However, the strategy to disseminate the preliminary and final results has pursued an approach not conducive to enhancing the international visibility of the CTFP as a best practice across the region. Moreover, in disseminating the new knowledge generated, there was a tendency to emphasise tangible over non-tangible outputs. Since the degree to which the newly produced knowledge contributes to the opening of new strategic options or the strategic re-orientation of sectors is an important success criteria for foresight, it is vital to embed this new knowledge in people’s and organisations’ practices. This requires that the dissemination of the results be tailored to different target groups, which also calls for different means of communication appropriate to the respective group. Although the CTFP delivered many tangible outputs, such as scientific publications (predominantly in Spanish), the approach chosen to disseminate the outputs and results remained far behind the possibilities of alternative approaches that could have enhanced the interaction between the different governmental and scientific communities or increased the international visibility of the CTFP as a best practice from which others could learn.

Methodological Progress Towards Context-sensitive Use of Methodology

The choice of the methods is the most distinctive feature of a foresight process. The evaluation of the CTFP stated that “an average CTFP study involved more than 10 methods, with more or less half of these being horizon-scanning techniques (including bibliometrics, trend extrapolation and patent analysis) and the other half related to Foresight and productive chain approaches (e.g. scenarios, brainstorming, stakeholders mapping, key technologies, morphological analysis, among others).” Regarding the use of foresight, the evaluation focused on the selection of methods but did not monitor how well the methods used lined up with the STI implementation environment, specifically in regard to strengthening capacities in support of policymaking in the area of science, technology and innovation with due regard to local concerns in Colombia. Therefore, a future monitoring or evaluation framework might also focus on adjusting or reconfiguring the methods applied to fit the foresight process needs in Colombia.

Towards Enhancing Colombia’s Foresight Capabilities

Given that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to evaluate foresight and that the evaluation of foresight activities cannot be carried out independently of the national context (Georghiou and Keenan, 2006), it is difficult to assess the interaction between foresight and evaluation with respect to the impact on policy instruments or the improvement of overall system coordination through strengthening linkages between innovation actors.

The concepts of effectiveness, efficiency, appropriateness and behavioural additionality on which the framework to evaluate the CTFP rests are key to understanding the focus of foresight activities that are carried out to reconfigure institutional set-ups and re-orient policy goals. Georghiou and Keenan (2006) state that the “[…] evaluation of foresight must include understanding of the interaction of foresight outputs with the strategic behaviour of policy and economic actors.” In this sense, the evaluation of the second cycle of the CTFP was an important step towards better understanding the drivers of the strategic behaviour on part of the key implementing institutions in the Colombian system. However, further advancing Colombia’s foresight capacities depends to a high degree on the institutionalisation of foresight in the Colombian context.

Improve Dissemination Through Alternative Communication Channels

According to the results of the evaluation of the second CTFP cycle, a key lesson that can be drawn refers to the appropriation of the insights gained from the foresight programme. Although the fact that the foresight programme was conducted by COLCIENCIAS was an important institutional driver, the lack of an aftercare strategy constitutes a weak point for the strategic influence of the foresight knowledge generated on the target groups and sectors. Therefore, an important recommendation to increase the future impact of the CTFP is that alternative dissemination and communication channels should be exploited to a greater extent. An improved dissemination strategy should also take into account the need for a stronger diversification of foresight capacity building in Colombia.

Towards Further Institutionalisation of Foresight in Colombia

The “shift from networks and individual exercises [….] to more institutionalisation towards centres of excellence“ is an important step to “take on responsibility for preserving knowledge and for allowing lessons learned to be carried forward in a long-term framework“ (Popper et al., 2010). In this sense, the evaluation revealed that a move away from the somewhat centralistic approach to anchor the foresight process in COLCIENCIAS towards a more effective institutional mechanism was a necessary step to better embed foresight in the Colombian STI system. COLCIENCIAS recent decision to institutionalise the foresight practices in the framework of the CTFP by establishing the Colombian Foresight Institute (COFI) at the Universidad del Valle (Cali) can be considered an important move to enhance the aptitude for learning and thus strengthen the contribution of foresight to reorienting the Colombian STI system. In this arrangement, multiple organisations will be able to conduct foresight.

Under the bottom line, we can conclude that the evaluation came at the appropriate time to develop recommendations on how the foresight outputs, results and knowledge generated during the second cycle of the CTFP could be better appropriated by the stakeholders and embedded in a broader strategic policy context. In particular, an improved dissemination strategy and the search for alternative ways of institutionalising foresight are central pillars for engaging future resources and a broad set of stakeholders in a dynamic and self-reinforcing learning process based on which a foresight culture can develop in line with the evolving STI policy system in the Colombian context.

Authors: Dirk Johann                                                                  
Sponsors: COLCIENCIAS (Colombian Office of Science and Technology)  
Type: Evaluation of Foresight Programme  
Geographic coverage: Colombia
Organizer: COLCIENCIAS (Colombian Office of Science and Technology)

PREST / Manchester Institute of Innovation Research (MIoIR), MBS, University of Manchester

Duration: 6–9 months Budget: € 40k Time Horizon: 2020 Date of Brief: May 2012

Download EFP Brief No 218_ Embedding Foresight in the Colombian Innovation System

Sources and References

Georghiou, L. and M. Keenan (2006), “Evaluation of National Foresight Activities: Assessing Rationale, Process and Impact”, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 73, 761-777

Popper, R., L. Georghiou, M. Keenan, I. Miles et al. (2010), Evaluating Foresight – Fully-fledged Evaluation of the Colombian Technology Foresight Programme (CTFP), Colombia: Universidad del Valle

EFP Brief No. 215: Institutionalisation of Constructive Nanotechnology Assessments: Challenges and Opportunities for Brazil and Portugal

Friday, May 25th, 2012

The main objective of this study is to explore possibilities of institutional capacity building for constructive technology assessment (CTA) of nanoscience and nanotechnology in Portugal and Brazil. In this project, CTA is understood as more than a specific methodology. It represents a family of approaches to broaden interaction among stakeholders and influence or modulate the design process. One of its tenets is to consider and promote reflexivity about ethical, legal and social issues, along with environmental, health and safety concerns early on and throughout the technology research and development process.

Responsible Development of Nanotechnologies

A variety of science and technology studies (STS) and policy statements have highlighted the critical need for more effective mechanisms to assess emerging technologies as part of a ‘responsible development’ of new technologies (e.g. Macnaghten et al. 2005). Nanoscience and nanotechnology (N&N) offers many opportunities to implement such a responsible development paradigm in the context of emerging technologies. The constructive technology assessment (CTA) model is regarded by many as one of the most effective approaches to implementing such a paradigm, as it considers ethical, legal and social issues (ELSI) and environmental, health and safety (EHS) concerns in the early stages of development, thus avoiding risky and undesirable outcomes (for further details, see: Schot & Rip 1997).

The ‘Irresponsible’ Catch-up Process

While many of the leading countries in N&N research have explicit directives and initiatives to consider ELSI and EHS aspects in the early stages of N&N research and development (R&D), most peripheral and semi-peripheral countries have made few efforts to promote more ex ante and democratic technology assessments. This seems to be true in the case of Brazil and Portugal as well where, despite government support of N&N research, there is a complete lack of institutionalised programmes and/or initiatives related to CTAs. Moreover, surveys to assess the public understanding and acceptance of science and technology in Brazil and Portugal have shown a societal demand for more accountability and democratic participation in S&T development.

Objectives and Methodology: Institutions and Institutionalisations

The main objective of this study is to characterise the kinds of policies and institutions that are responsible for implementing and sustaining mechanisms of CTA of N&N in the UK, US and Netherlands as well as the existing N&N policies and institutions in Brazil and Portugal in order to understand how to further promote CTA in Brazil and Portugal. More specifically, this work aims at (1) describing the main policies and institutions that perform CTA (or comparable models) in the UK, US and Netherlands; (2) characterising the main policies and institutions responsible for N&N development in Brazil and Portugal; (3) identifying key institutional factors driving successful initiatives that could be implemented in Portugal and Brazil; and finally, (4) proposing ways or sites where CTA might be better institutionalised in Brazil and Portugal.

The methodology of this study followed a qualitative, inductive approach, based on literature reviews and content analysis of grey literature (governmental and non-governmental reports and publications, news, websites, etc.). The complete PhD research, however, includes laboratory ethnographies and semi-structured interviews. Data from the latter are not presented here.

Technology Assessment Arrangements in International Comparison

The United States: the Pioneer

While the US pioneered the establishment of parliamentary technology assessment agencies, there is a strong methodological tradition restricting technology assessment (TA) to an expert-driven analysis of technologies that are already in the production and dissemination phase. This was the case for the Office of Technology Assessment – OTA (active from 1972 to 1995). It was heavily criticised for its ineffectiveness, which was attributed to its political bias and the time required to deliver the assessment reports, which usually arrived too late for effective regulation. Today, the Government Accountability Office (GAO – 2000 to present) carries out almost the same tasks.

In regard to the main federal policies for N&N, there are directives that explicitly require including ELSI and EHS concerns in the early stage of development. The National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), implemented since 2001, reserves funds for research concerning the early assessment of N&N risks and impacts, and the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act (2003) legally supports the initiative and corroborates its vision.

These policies have resulted in the funding of many research projects aimed at CTA and the creation of institutions designed to research and implement such activities. For example, the National Science Foundation has funded the creation of the Nanotechnology in Society Network, which pursues research and promotes CTA and similar activities, such as Real Time Technology Assessment (Guston and Sarewitz 2001) and Midstream Modulation (Fisher et al. 2006). The institutes funded are on the leading edge of global research concerning EHS and ELSI of N&N, for instance the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University, the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at the University of California and the Nano Center at the University of South Carolina.

In addition, there are strong non-governmental institutions, like the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Loka Institute, that have lobbied policymakers to implement CTA activities related to N&N development.

The United Kingdom: Policy Learning

The British parliamentary agency for scientific and technological policy advice, the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), has been active since 1989.

One of the most important guideposts for global policy-making in N&N has been the British Royal Society (RS) and Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) report ‘Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies: Opportunities and Uncertainties’ of 2004. The British government appears to have considered the arguments presented in this study by one of the most prestigious academies in the world. This has been attributed to a kind of ‘institutional trauma’, or a legitimacy crisis, caused by the government’s previous reactions to the biotechnology controversies and the BSE crisis. One year later, in 2005, the government’s response to the RS and RAE report was published. Among the many recommendations, they agreed on the necessity to promote public engagement in the upstream phase of the technological development. Since then, the government agency Sciencewise-ERC has designed and coordinated activities for an ‘upstream public engagement’ on nano, such as the Nanodialogues, the Nanotechnology Engagement Group and the Nanojury.

Another important endeavour reflecting the will, not only of the public but also of the private sector, to shape R&D activities into more socially robust arrangements is the development of the code of conduct for nanoresearch by the Royal Society along with the Insight Investment and Nanotechnology Industries Association (NIA).

The Netherlands: Birthplace of CTA

The Netherlands is the place of birth of the CTA approach. It was first applied in the late 1980s and 90s at the NOTA – Netherlands Office for Technology Assessment, which is now called the Rathenau Institute. It still promotes TA activities and public engagement in science and technology issues. The Dutch model has been acknowledged as a successful approach to TA, as it recognizes the importance of deepening the understanding of the co-production of science, technology and society for the responsible governance of emerging technologies.

The main national policy, called NanoNed, is organised by a consortium of universities and industries. One of the main activities of the NanoNed programme is technology assessment, which explicitly refers to the CTA paradigm. It is coordinated by one of the developers of this approach, Dr. Arie Rip. NanoNed has provided 2-3% of the total funding for CTA activities. The TA enterprise is mostly conducted by PhD projects oriented exclusively to the analysis of the co-evolution of science, technology and society and concerned with issues such as nanotechnology and sustainability, risk and responsibility, and methods to map the sociotechnical dynamics of N&N. The programme also supports researchers in the field of N&N to include a component of TA in their work. There are also recurrent interactive workshops and other feedback activities.

Portugal: Vitalising Science

Portugal has recently elected a new government, which has not yet published the new policy for the N&N sector. So far, the strategy has not taken the form of a specific program for nanotechnology, but there is an evident orientation to pursue innovation in the N&N sector. There are two national laboratories concerned specifically with nano R&D and many other N&N projects among 26 similar institutes. The main focus of the government’s action plan has been to establish the Iberian Nanotechnology Laboratory (INL). It is a partnership with Spain, with the goal of gathering highly qualified international experts to advance research at the frontier of N&N.

There is no governmental office for technology assessment. Although there were some foresight exercises for policy decisions, usually the technical controversies have been addressed by ad hoc commissions. Still, Portuguese and German researchers of future-oriented technological analysis have created a PhD programme in technology assessment in 2009, hosted at the University of Lisbon.

The Ministry of Science and Technology and High Education has one strong programme of science communication, the ‘Ciência Viva’ (Live Science). Although its goal is to develop a national ‘scientific culture’, it mostly promotes traditional activities of scientific education and communication and so far has not stimulated public deliberative activities.

Brazil: Emerging Concerns

Brazil has a specific federal government programme for nanotechnology, the PNN (Programa Nacional de Nanotecnologia), which has created several networks in N&N specific areas. Although the necessity to research the impact of emerging nanotechnologies is mentioned in the programme, it does not consider their assessment in the early stage of development. For example, the government agency for industrial development has promoted a prospective study of nanotechnology suggesting that ELSI and EHS issues should be addressed only in the final stage of technology development. Still, the Ministry of Development, Industry and Trade promotes the Nanotechnology Competitiveness Forum, which organises periodic open meetings dedicated to discussing N&N and orienting policymakers accordingly. Many of the issues raised by the participants deal with risks and regulation of nano research and products.

Although there is no parliamentary technology assessment agency, there is some government-sponsored research on technology assessment. For example, the Ministry of Health has a specific programme for TA. There is also a National Technical Commission, consisting mostly of experts but also of civil society representatives, responsible for assessing and regulating new biotechnologies.

Since 2005, there exists an institutionalised network named RENANOSOMA (Nanotechnology, Society and Environment) that promotes discussion and public communication about N&N. It was initially funded by the government agency for S&T, CNPq (National Counsel of Technological and Scientific Development). Unfortunately the funding was not renewed. Based on the efforts of the individual researchers involved, it has continued its activities with a very restricted budget and limited outreach.

Institutional and Policy Similarities

“Best Practice” Countries

In all countries, it is possible to identify in the policy discourses a commitment to improve and widen direct democratic governance. Moreover, there is know-how and a tradition of parliamentary and other kinds of technology assessment. There is a deep collaboration within private and public R&D institutions. Every country also has a strong STS institution of some kind. The latter, along with influential non- or semi-governmental institutions, such as the think-tank DEMOS, lobby for policy decisions to promote a more responsible innovation process, especially by advocating the role of public engagement in the early process of R&D.

Some analysts identify not only a trauma from recent S&T controversies but also perceive the advance of the knowledge society paradigm and the need to address social concerns as inevitable to assure best economic outcomes (Thorpe 2010).

TA activities are mostly promoted within the academic environment and are funded by national government agencies. The exception is the UK where upstream public engagement activities are directly promoted by governmental agencies.

Although the institutional arrangements may vary, governments have adopted the ‘responsibility paradigm’, either in the form of research institutions concerned with public engagement and the foresight of technology impacts at the early phase of development or by stimulating the integration of a TA component in core areas of N&N research.

Portugal and Brazil Lagging Behind

Both Portugal and Brazil have never had a permanent or general parliamentary technology assessment institution, which may indicate a lack of human resources qualified for the task. Even though both countries have made efforts to foster cooperation between industry and academia to improve innovation capacity, R&D in the field of nanotechnology so far has mostly been done by public institutions.

Although the Brazilian programme for science and technology has specific directives on social inclusion, there is a common orientation in the policy discourse to the linear model of innovation and the deficit model of the public understanding of science, with little concern about public engagement in S&T. This goes along with a centralised top-down approach in S&T policymaking and a weak influence of STS scholars on S&T policy, despite the high quality of research and significant results of particular initiatives.

Both countries have increased the effort to catch up in terms of scientific and technological capacities, especially by stimulating more private R&D and fomenting collaboration among public and private institutions. They have a common history of brain drain and technological dependence along with weak connections between universities and industries. Finally, most of the research on nanotechnology, even in nanoparticles and nanostructured materials, is in its initial stages although they have already developed some patents and products.

Steps toward CTA in Portugal and Brazil

The obvious sites for CTA activities are the public institutions where nano R&D is already going on. Here there is a need for incentives for more collaboration between social and natural scientists in the R&D laboratories and other settings. In this sense, PhD projects focused on assessing emerging nanotechnologies – as the way much of the activities are done in the NanoNed programme – seems to be an adequate and viable path of initiating a culture of CTA. This approach does not require much funding, and it engages transdisciplinary collaboration between social and natural scientists.

In Portugal, for example, there could be an integrated technology assessment department at the INL and other national laboratories, ideally coordinated by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT).

In Brazil, TA could be added as a mandatory element to the statutes of all the National Institutes of Science and Technology (networks of researchers organised around specific scientific topics). The present policy obligates these institutes to promote science communication, but they usually proceed according to the deficit model of the public understanding of science, that is, they engage in a one-way type of communication.

Of course, there should be more (or any) funding for academic projects focused on nano CTA, ideally inside the N&N institutes. This could not only provide qualified human resources and scientific data but it could contribute to fomenting more reflexivity among N&N researchers.

Big programmes of public engagement in nanotechnologies, such as those promoted in the UK, do not seem feasible in a short time horizon. The limited budget and the historical apathy of Brazilian and Portuguese citizens in terms of engaging in S&T controversies are evidence to a lack of institutional support.

Final Remarks

The information presented here reflects the early results of an in-depth study. The recommendations and suggestions above are not based on primary data or extensive sociotechnical analysis. Nonetheless, the study has already made clear the relevance of answering the following questions: How is the concept of responsible innovation of nanotechnology understood among policymakers, developers and interested civil society members? What are the perceptions and understandings of different stakeholder groups in Portugal and Brazil about CTA approaches? What are the particular methodological needs of CTA in the realities of these two countries? In what specific N&N sub-sectors is CTA more urgently needed? Finally, how feasible is the implementation of CTA in Brazil and Portugal in the short-term?

Authors: Paulo Fonseca                         ;
Sponsors: Scholarship from Monesia – Mobility Network Europe South America: An Institutional Approach – EC/EACEA; advisor: Dr. Tiago Santos Pereira
Type: Comparative and Analytical Study
Organizer: Center for Social Studies, Faculty of Economics – University of Coimbra
Duration: 2010-2013 Budget: N/A Time Horizon: ~2015 Date of Brief: Feb 2012  


Download EFP Brief No. 215_Institutionalisation of CTA-Portugal and Brazil

Sources and References

British Royal Society (RS) and Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) (2005). Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies: Opportunities and Uncertainties. London: RS&RAE

Guston, D. H., & Sarewitz, D. (2001). Real Time Technolgy Assessment. Technology in Society, 23(4), 1-17.

Fisher, E., Mahajan, R. L., & Mitcham, C. (2006). Midstream Modulation of Technology: Governance From Within. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 26(6), 485-496.

Macnaghten, P., Kearnes, M., & Wynne, B. (2005). Nanotechnology, Governance, and Public Deliberation: What Role for the Social Sciences? Science Communication, 27(2), 1-24.

Schot, J., & Rip, A. (1997). The past and future of constructive technology assessment. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 54(2-3), 251-268;

Thorpe, C. (2010). Participation as Post-Fordist Politics: Demos, New Labour, and Science Policy. Minerva, 48(4), 389-411.

EFP Brief No. 212: Tech Mining

Tuesday, May 1st, 2012

The main purpose of the exercise is the development of new methods to discover patterns that new technologies follow and the opportunities they offer for innovation. This brief attempts to foster a new understanding of the mechanisms generating innovations. It presents a methodology to identify future technology opportunities based on text mining of scientific and technological databases. Assisting priority or agenda setting, the method could be useful for technology managers and corporate decision-makers in planning and allocating R&D resources.

New Methods to Anticipate Opportunities around Technologies

The analysis of new technologies has been of interest for many years. The increase in disruptive innovations and scientific research in recent years is driving institutions and also companies to develop methodologies for identifying technologies of the future. However, it is necessary to develop methods suitable for discovering the patterns according to which these technologies are likely to evolve. This will make it possible to convert them into opportunities for innovation as an essential prerequisite for maintaining competitiveness in the long-term.

Scientific and specifically patents databases are generally regarded as precursors of future or ongoing technological developments. Therefore, the analysis of such databases should enable identifying certain technology gaps that potentially could be transformed into opportunities.

Against this background, the project “How to anticipate opportunities around technologies” moves towards understanding the mechanisms generating innovations.

This exercise was designed and launched in light of the need to foster and accelerate scientific and technological innovation. Scientific publications and patent records are analysed as the empirical basis of the study. Experts are then asked to comment on the results of the analysis. The methodology applied to monitor new technologies uses the tech-mining approach and a combination of quantitative analysis and expert knowledge.

We will demonstrate how this instrument allows anticipating opportunities around technologies drawing on examples from two different industrial sectors. The methodology has been developed working with data from two different technological fields in order to compare and validate results. The two technology fields are waste recycling and “non-woven” textiles and their applications.

The project is running from 2010 until the end of 2012. The application to the waste recycling sector is financed through the SAIOTEK programme of the Basque Ministry of Industry, Trade and Tourism.

Quantitative Databases and Qualitative Knowledge

The exercise deals with the identification of opportunities based on scientific articles and patent information, using quantitative methods to process the information and expert knowledge for assessing it. The main goal is to identify the most important factors influencing the development of a new technology and to understand the mechanisms generating innovation.

The project team is comprised of researchers from the Industrial Engineering and Management Departments of the two technical universities University of the Basque Country and The University of Valencia and the R&D centre TECNALIA. The collaborating R&D centre has been granted the right to make first use of this research.  

Tapping into the Scientific Knowledge Base

The exercise is divided into two phases. In Phase I, the technologies were defined in order to analyse the scientific knowledge in the respective technology field and outline the technology landscape using the knowledge contained in articles and patents databases. We applied the tech-mining approach in the first step, then used a cross-correlation matrix and finally performed principal component analyses (PCA). This resulted in visualisations of the technology sectors where it is possible to determine gaps around technologies. Figure 1 shows the characteristics of the scientific information analysed for the waste recycling sector.

Assessing Emerging Technologies

In Phase II, we will use qualitative techniques in order to assess the potential for the emerging technology gaps found. These interim results will be discussed with the experts (“bottom up”) to identify potential opportunities. The R&D centre will contribute upon request. They will play a key role particularly in identifying opportunities in the last phase. Previous works in this field were considered as well (see references).

The Tech-mining Methodology

The foresight method developed in this analysis is innovative because it combines qualitative knowledge and quantitative data allowing the conclusions from the individual analysis to converge into a variety of industrial scenarios. Figure 2 shows an outline of the methodology. It retrieves and downloads the information on these two sectors using the Derwent Patents and Environmental Abstracts databases. The downloaded information is analysed using text mining techniques.

In recent years, text mining has been an expanding area. The introduction of natural language techniques that use semantic algorithms combined with the most advanced statistical techniques, such as multivariate analysis or cluster analysis, have become powerful tools for discovering and visualising the knowledge contained in scientific literature.

Identifying Innovative Investment Opportunities

Phase I of the project has been completed; the major socio-economic trends have been identified and the results disseminated as a paper to the international community exemplifying the analysis for the waste recycling sector. At this point in the project, the main findings, for instance on new technologies in waste recycling, can already be utilised by innovative companies.

One of the analyses was to determine the year in which the descriptor appeared for the first time (see Figure 3). The results allowed us to assess the new terms, such as “detritivores” or “allelopathy” in 2009, which belong to the biotechnological field. These terms, which we call weak signals, only appear once or twice.

Biotechnological terms surfaced as we mined titles and terms in abstract in databases for 2010. These particular trends are also recognisable within the International Patent Classification IPCs for this period.

We are working on creating multiple technological maps. For example, there have been several analyses of the patent applications downloaded from the Derwent database. Figure 3 shows a result obtained after the cross-correlation of the individuals (patents) in a two dimensional space according to similarity of the International Patent Classification limited to four digits, ergo according to their technological contents. IPC is used to assign them to a similar technology group. Then we used the maps to identify patent clusters and areas where patents are lacking. The green ellipses drawn in Figure 3 represent the gaps where there are no patents.

In a further step, we screened and investigated the patents adjacent to each gap to determine the meaning of the patent gaps. The objective was to analyse the emergence of each gap and evaluate certain indicators that we expected to tell us whether the gap represents a technologically valuable area or not.

Qualitative indicators were defined such that the density of the gap measures the average number of claim items of adjacent patents and the half-life of the patents in the vicinity of the gap while allowing to evaluate the documents on patents on the gap borders in terms of how they relate to the most up-to-date keywords.

In order to establish a methodology to analyse the emerging technologies, we determined the year when the keywords, i.e. the descriptor, appeared for first time, as mentioned above. It is possible to classify these keywords into two types: keywords of emerging or declining frequency. By comparing, we can contrast the number of keywords by years between the different gaps. In essence, this procedure allowed us to measure emerging technologies through the keywords found in the patents surrounding the gap.

In the field of non-wovens, the tech-mining methodology allowed us to identify several emerging technology trends, among others the increasing use of nanotechnologies in the patented inventions.

During Phase II, we will validate the methodology. An advance in research requires the participation of experts in the field of waste recycling and non-woven textiles who can assess the articles in terms of newly found references. The opinion of the experts about the potential impact of newly identified technologies will allow us to determine the most innovative areas of work.

Bio- and Nanotechnology Innovations for Waste Recycling and Non-woven Sectors

The main contribution of this study to research policy is that it provides a methodology to identify new and emerging technologies leading to innovations. An institutional policy encouraging the tendencies identified should be able to increase regional competitiveness.

Our analyses support decision-making through understanding how innovations are generated, enabling decision-makers to anticipate and address the challenges identified and the emerging weak signals. Furthermore, once the project is completed, we will have applied our method to two practical cases from the waste recycling and non-woven sectors. With these examples, we want to demonstrate how the methodology suggested can be applied to anticipate opportunities.

The method could be particularly useful for technology managers and corporate decision-makers in order to plan and allocate R&D resources. Governments and regional development agencies could also use it to improve innovation policies in terms of planning and decision-making.

However, in many cases, new technologies are a necessary but not a sufficient condition for successful innovations. A wide range of non-technical factors are relevant as well (demand, regulations etc.). For successful implementation, it will be necessary to identify the innovation pathways.

We believe that in a context of increasing uncertainty and financial constraints, these results show that foresight methodologies such as tech-mining offer a positive return on investment for policy and decision-makers.

Authors: Rosa Mª Rio-Belver1

Ernesto Cilleruelo2

Fernando Palop3

Sponsors: Departamento de Industria, Innovación, comercio y turismo – Basque Government – Programa SAIOTEK
Type: Sectoral forward looking analysis
Organizer: 1University of the Basque Country UPV/EHU, C/ Nieves Cano 12, SP-01006 Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain

2University of the Basque Country UPV/EHU, Almed. Urquijo s/n, SP-48030 Bilbao, Spain

3Universidad Politécnica de Valencia, Camino de Vera s/n, SP-46022 Valencia, Spain

Duration: 2010-2011 Budget: 45,000 € Time Horizon: 2012 Date of Brief: March 2011  


Download EFP Brief No. 212_Tech_Mining

Sources and References

Cozzens, S.; Gatchair, S.; Kang, J.; Kim, K.; Lee, H.J. ; Ordoñez, G.; Porter, A. (2010): Emerging Technologies: quantitative identification and measurement. Technology Analysis & Strategic Management 22 (3): 361-376.

Belver, R.; Carrasco, E. (2007) Tools for strategic business decisions: Technology maps. The 4th International Scientific Conference “Business and Management.Vilnius, Lithuania 5-6 October. Selected Papers. Vilnius Gediminas Technical University Publishing House “Technika”, 2007, 299-303.

Huang, L.; Porter, A.; Guo, Y. (2009): Exploring a Systematic Technology Forecasting Approach for New & Emerging Sciences & Technologies: A Case Study of Nano-enhanced Biosensors, in Proceedings of the Atlanta Conference on Science and Innovation Policy. Georgia Tech University, Atlanta, USA, 2–3 October.

Lee, S.; Yoon, B.; Park, Y. (2009): An Approach to Discovering New Technology Opportunities: Keyword-based Patent Map Approach. Technovation 29: 481–497. doi:10.1016/j.technovation.2008.10.006

Porter, A.; Newman, N. (2011): Mining external R&D. Technovation 31 (4): 171-176, doi: 10.1016/j.technovation.2011.01.001

Porter, A.; Kongthon, A.; Chyi, L. (2002): Research Profiling: Improving the Literature Review. Scientometrics 53 (3): 351–370. doi:10.1023/A:1014873029258

Rio, R.; Cilleruelo, E. (2010): Discovering technologies using techmining: the case of waste recycling. The 6th International Scientific Conference “Business and Management 2010. Vilnius, Lithuania 13-14 May. Selected Papers. Vilnius Gediminas Technical University Publishing House “Technika”, Vilnius, 2010, 950-955.. doi:10.3846/bm.2010.127

Rio, R.; Larrañaga, J.; Elizagarate, F. (2008): Patentalava. Dynamics of Innovation Strategies and their Relationship with the Evolution of Patents. The Alava province case, in The 5th International Scientific Conference “Business and Management”. Vilnius, Lithuania, 5–6 October. Selected papers. Vilnius: Technika, 475–480.

Yun, Y.; Akers, L.; Klose, T.; Barcelon, C. (2008): Text Mining and Visualization Tools – Impressions of Emerging Capabilities, World Patent Information 30: 280–293. doi:10.1016/j.wpi.2008.01.007

Zhu, D.; Porter, A. L. (2002): Automated Extraction and Visualization of Information for Technological Intelligence and Forecasting, Technological Forecasting and Social Change 69: 495–506. doi:10.1016/S0040-1625(01)00157-3

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:

EFP Brief No. 195: Influence of Foresight on Public Policy in Flanders

Friday, September 30th, 2011

This brief presents the findings of a research project aimed at understanding the influence of policy-oriented foresight on public policy in Flanders. A foresight identifying six strategic clusters for technology and innovation policy in Flanders is analysed. The results of this analysis show that the foresight-oriented technology assessment (FTA) did have a significant impact on the policy process, but the greater effect might prove to be in its role as a reference point for future FTAs, which will then give shape to long-term technology and innovation policy in Flanders.

Assessing the Impact of Foresight

Policy-oriented foresight or foresight in a public policy context is aimed at supporting the decision-making process. By anticipating as much as possible different, alternative developments, it seeks to contribute to effective long-term decision-making. The policy process itself, however, is non-linear and often depends on temporary “policy windows” (Kingdon, 1995), which leave the specific role of exercises aimed at strengthening the evidence base of public action a little unclear. This is also the case for policy-oriented foresight.

The literature on foresight contains many studies that identify factors for success. However, little empirical evidence is available that policy actors actually use the outputs of foresight exercises aimed at supporting policy decisions.

Based on the factors for success found in the foresight literature, our research project analysed three case studies. The first case examined was a foresight identifying six strategic clusters for technology and innovation policy in Flanders. This brief assesses whether and how the foresight influenced the Flemish government’s policy decisions. The analysis of influence was informed by the evaluation literature since studies on foresight rarely address this question.

The first section of this brief provides insight into different aspects of the foresight research in this particular case. The assessment of the influence of the foresight in the second section is followed by a first set of recommendations on how to improve the relationship between policy-oriented foresight and public policy.

Foresight in Flanders

The Flemish Council for Science and Innovation (VRWI) conducted a foresight on innovation and technology in Flanders from 2005 to 2006. The VRWI is a strategic advisory council in the policy domain of science and innovation. It advises the Flemish government on its science and technology policies either in a proactive manner or at the government’s request. The council is a multi-actor arena where different stakeholders in the field of science and innovation meet. These stakeholders mostly have an industrial background, but they also include scientists from universities or representatives from other knowledge institutions in Flanders as well as government representatives from the administrative or political level. The VRWI operates as a ‘boundary organization’ (Guston, 2001) between science, politics and society; this will prove important for the influence of the foresight exercise that the organisation conducted on public policy in Flanders.

Approach towards Technology & Innovation

The foresight was set up in 2005 at the VRWI’s own initiative. It aimed at “providing a long-term reference point for technology and innovation in Flanders” (Smits et al. 2006:10). The starting point for the study can be traced back as far as 1997 when the VRWI and other key stakeholders in the technology and innovation field felt the need to gain more insight into the scientific, economic and societal developments that might possibly influence the welfare and well-being of the citizenry in Flanders. Together with a group of university researchers, a process was organised to develop an appropriate methodology that would serve to assess this problem. Methodological inspiration was found in foresights from Japan and Germany as well as those conducted at the European level.

Initially, the foresight had been designed as a rather broad exercise, addressing different societal, economic and scientific problems. However, this broad focus was not retained. The VRWI had initiated the foresight proactively, but upon further consultation with stakeholders, among them political actors, the scope of the study was narrowed down to focus on technology and innovation. Central to the analysis were those developments in the science, technology and innovation field necessary for Flanders to remain competitive both within the European area and the globalised world.

Once the focus on technology and innovation had been established, the different steps to conduct the foresight were put in practice. The VRWI took the lead while cooperating closely with the scientific research group that had developed the methodological approach.


The foresight was conducted in three consecutive steps, leading to the formulation of specific policy priorities for six sectors (or clusters) of technology and innovation in Flanders. The third step was the actual foresight. There, the future was assessed with a medium-term horizon of about ten years, i.e. 2015. As will be elaborated below, the study was highly participative and intensive.

In a first phase, a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) was conducted on the different sectors in the technology and innovation field in Flanders.

The second phase of the study consisted of linking the results of the SWOT analysis with those of a broader European foresight. Based on this synthesis, a high-level group of experts (the ‘captains of industry’ in Flanders) identified six strategic clusters for technology and innovation in Flanders. These cover a broad range of technological and innovative domains and are clustered on a thematic base. The six strategic clusters that were identified by the high-level group in this second phase are

  • Transport, logistics and services supply chain management
  • ICT and services in health care
  • Health care prevention and treatment; food and agriculture
  • New materials, especially nanotechnology, and the manufacturing industry
  • ICT for socio-economic innovation
  • Energy and environment for the services and manufacturing industry

The first two phases took about a year to be completed. The selective expert consultation at the end of phase two set the stage for a broader consultation of experts via the Delphi method in the third phase. This final phase was framed in terms of the six strategic clusters identified. The actors consulted were all R&D experts in the field of technology and innovation in Flanders. In total, 130 R&D experts participated in the third phase of the study, which took six months to be completed. The experts were divided along the six strategic clusters identified and, using the Delphi method, were asked to assess 160 possible future developments as well as the current and future capacities in the field in Flanders.

Via two or more rounds of discussion, a consensus was reached between the experts in each of the strategic clusters. They identified 30 specific priorities in technology and innovation. Additionally, 85 of the 130 experts agreed to evaluate factors critical for the achievement of these priorities. The VRWI Council then validated these results and formulated specific recommendations for the different stakeholders: universities, industry and government. These recommendations were of particular importance to the latter. A more detailed account on the role of government within a broader technology and innovation context and the use of the results of the study is provided in the next section.

Diffusion of Results among a Wide Range of Actors

The foresight was captured in two reports. Firstly, a summary report introduces the 30 priorities, the factors for success and the set of recommendations. Secondly, a more technical report elaborates upon the foresight process itself. It provides a detailed account of the three phases that constitute the foresight.

Additionally, the Council and its president took specific action to promote the results of the study among a broad range of actors. They did this by presentations and road shows to diffuse the results. An important step in this respect was to engage the support of universities and industry not only before and during the foresight process but also after the foresight was completed. This assured diffusion of the results among a first and important set of stakeholders. A third important stakeholder, government, was much less intensely involved in the foresight. Diffusion of the results of the study among political and administrative actors is, however, an important factor for the foresight to have an impact on technology and innovation in Flanders. The next section assesses to what extent this was accomplished.

Influence on Public Policy in Flanders

Did the foresight influence the Flemish government’s strategic decision-making on technology and innovation? To answer this question, we must first consider the concept of influence itself. Moreover, we must describe the broader technology and innovation policy context in Flanders before we can adequately address the question of influence on policy there. These are the issues we will now turn to.

A Framework for Assessing Policy Influence

From the perspective of policy actors, influence of evidence on policy can be viewed as knowledge utilisation. There are three dimensions for the analysis of influence on policy: source, intention and moment. This brief focuses in particular on the first dimension of influence: the source of influence.

The source of influence of foresight on policy can be product-related or process-related. Product-related influence is the influence of the output of foresight, i.e. the results of the study presented in a report. The results of foresight can influence policy in different ways. We differentiate between four types of product-related influence:

  • Direct instrumental influence is reflected in official policy documents.
  • Conceptual influence is seen as “enlightenment” (Weiss, 1980) of policy makers.
  • Agenda-setting influence means that new topics can be discerned, which were previously not under the attention of policy makers.
  • Political-strategic influence takes place when political actors legitimise or oppose government actions based on the study’s results.

The foresight can also have a significant process-related influence on policy and policy actors. The involvement of political or administrative actors at an early stage of the process might promote a more future-oriented view on policy or a better understanding of the possible added value of foresight for policy. Indirectly, this process-related influence might enhance the product-related use of foresight since it makes policy actors more receptive to its outcomes.

Importance of the Specific Policy Context

From a historical perspective, technology and innovation policy in Flanders can be characterised as predominantly technology-pushed or supply-driven. Policy ‘demand’ was and is to a large extent adapted to industrial and scientific ‘supply’. In other words, technology and innovation policy in Flanders is usually developed bottom up. Public funding is mostly responsive to the R&D policy of industrial actors and of universities. It is to a much lesser extent coordinated (let alone steered) by government within a broader strategic framework. The foresight tried to provide such a strategic framework by identifying future technology and innovation priorities. Via its recommendations, it also assigned a specific role to the Flemish government for the framework to be implemented. In principle, the Flemish government could assume different roles, ranging from a hands-off and encouraging position (bottom-up policy approach) to a hands-on and actively steering role (top down). The latter is in order when the task at hand requires making strategic policy choices and taking the necessary actions to enable them.

Assuming that the foresight served as necessary input for establishing a strategic framework on technology and innovation in Flanders, the involvement of a broad range of stakeholders was not only a logical consequence in a supply-driven policy domain. More importantly, it secured the necessary stakeholder support for implementing the priorities–which is especially critical when the strategic priorities are defined by a hands-on, steering government.

Policy Influence Analysed in Documents

The influence of the foresight on public policy was analysed through a thorough document analysis and interviews. The document analysis included strategic policy documents, policy briefs, white papers, parliamentary documents etc. The interviews were carried out with political and administrative stakeholders as well as members of the VRWI responsible for the study.

Challenge-driven Innovation Approach Inspired by Foresight Exercise

At first, the report had no influence on public policy. The foresight report was published in 2007, at the end of the then Flemish government’s legislative period when policy directions had already been decided upon. The policies in place were further enacted toward the end of the legislature. Later on, however, the results of the foresight eventually significantly influenced public policy in Flanders in several ways.

First, there is reference to its results in official strategic policy documents, such as the broader strategic framework project “Flanders in Action” set up by the Flemish government to make Flanders a frontrunner region in the social as well as in the economic domain. This emphasis on the strategic level was translated into the Flemish government’s policy note 2009-2014 on innovation policy and the related policy briefs and actions. More recently, in May 2011, the Flemish government approved a conceptual brief giving shape to a more hands-on strategic approach in technology and innovation in Flanders. The focus on a ‘challenge-driven innovation’ approach is particularly inspired by the strategic orientation provided in the foresight. Moreover, the establishment of innovation nodes can be traced back, among others, to the strategic clusters defined by the foresight in 2007. It therefore seems fair to say that the foresight has had an important direct instrumental influence on public policy in Flanders.

The study is also well known among a broad range of actors in the policy domain. Especially the first two phases of the study (SWOT and relative positioning of Flanders in Europe) have served as a knowledge base for political and administrative actors in government, marking an important conceptual influence of the foresight.

When we consider the study’s influence on the political agenda, political attention seems to have been mostly directed toward the perceived need to make strategic choices for the domain. This need was addressed in the foresight and played a key role in conducting the exercise. Contrary to a predominantly hands-off approach in the past, the government now has come to consider, accept and implement a more demand-driven approach when deciding on innovation policy at the strategic level.

Thus, we can discern an important, directly instrumental and conceptual influence on policy in terms of agenda-setting. This is a medium-term influence, i.e. the effects are observed three to five years after the study was published. By contrast, there does not seem to have been any politically strategic influence.

Process-related Trade-off for Technology & Innovation Actors

Additionally, the foresight has also had an important process-related influence. It is considered an important first exercise of its kind in the policy domain since it was aimed, quite explicitly, at bringing about a strategic, long-term vision and making policy choices in technology and innovation in Flanders. It has introduced a certain dynamic among the actors in the policy domain itself. Several actors indicate, for example, that a follow-up foresight is necessary to develop an adequate long-term strategic policy in the domain of technology and innovation since this foresight dates from 2006 with a horizon of 2015.

Authors: Ellen Fobé                            

Marleen Brans                      

Sponsors: Flemish government: Policy Research Centre – Governmental Organization in Flanders 2007-2011
Type: Assessment of influence of foresight on public policy
Organizer: Research project: Evidence-based policy-making: matching supply and demand of quantitative policy information and foresight. Project supervisor: Prof. Dr. Marleen Brans; researcher: Ellen Fobé
Duration: 2010-2011 Budget: N/A Time Horizon: 2007-2011 Date of Brief: June 2011  


Download EFP Brief No. 195_Influence_of_Foresight

Sources and References

Project link and research themes of the Policy Research Centre – Governmental Organization in Flanders



  • Guston, D. (2000): Between politics and science: assuring the integrity and productivity of research. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  • Kingdon, J.W. (1995): Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policies. Second edition, Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
  • Smits, E., Ratinckx, E. & Thoen, V. (2006): Technology and innovation in Flanders: priorities. Brussels: Flemish Council for Science and Innovation.
  • Weiss, C. (1980): Knowledge creep and decision accretion. Knowledge: Creation, Diffusion, Utilization 1(3), pp.381-404.

EFP Brief No. 180: Emergence and Design in Foresight Methods

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

This paper focuses on an analysis of the Millennium Project’s “Futures Research Methodology – Version 3.0” report with the aim of making it more meaningful and useful particularly for foresight practitioners but also for users in general. The compilation of future methodologies is assessed in terms of the understanding of the nature of systems implied in the method and what it suggests as the best means of influencing systems. The analysis aims at improving our understand-ing of the wide range of knowledge, practices and assumptions these methods convey and enhancing our ability to learn about futures and expand our horizons of futures knowledge.

The Decision-making Landscape

The following analysis of the Millennium Project’s “Fu-tures Research Methodology – Version 3.0” starts from the claim that much of the sensitivity of an organisation derives from its members and their ability to flexibly apply different theories and methods. Practitioners need to pay more attention to theory and understand how the theory and the methods they use significantly influence the way they perceive their environment and the outcomes of strategic processes.

Figure 1 describes the landscape in which foresight methods are used. The figure identifies four distinct types of landscapes, two of which – engineering ap-proaches and systems thinking – have a long history, find widespread use and currently dominate thinking and practice in strategic management. The other two – mathematical complexity and social complexity – are not yet widely used and represent both a contrasting and a complementary view of how the future emerges.

Let me first clarify the differences in the basic assump-tions between these four approaches: The vertical di-mension looks at the nature of the possible ways of understanding systems and the horizontal one at the means of controlling or directing that system. In the vertical dimension, design is contrasted with emer-gence: engineering approaches and systems thinking represent design, and mathematical complexity and social complexity stand for more emergent processes.

How sense-making is accomplished and what kinds of solutions are provided in moving across time and space is at the heart of the model of analysis. By design, we mean the ability of a manager, expert or researcher to stand outside the system and design the system as a whole. In case of emergent systems, the system cannot be understood or managed as a whole by a manager, expert and researcher, or by anyone at all for that matter, because the system emerges through the interac-tion of actors who act on the basis of local knowledge and their own principles. In the horizontal dimension, we contrast rules that reduce ambiguity with heuristics that provide direction while allowing for a degree of ambiguity that can adapt to different and changing contexts. There is a design element to emergent sys-tems but not in the same way as in the case of designed systems. That is to say, there are various ways to influence the evolution of emergent systems, but they can-not be deliberately controlled or directed by any single actor or group of actors.

Communicating the Properties of the Methods

We can take the next step by placing the methods in the sense-making model (Figure 2 below). The model works as an effective communication tool capable of delivering a large amount of information about the methodology of Futures Research Methodology – Ver-sion 3.0, the properties of each method as well as the relationships between the methods. The analysis reveals that most of the methods pre-sented in Futures Research Methodology – Version 3.0 are designed to reduce ambiguity. They concentrate on knowing, or to be more precise, on providing more knowledge to a decision-making process. Most of the methods adopt a position outside the system in order to bring new information into the system. Other types of frequently used methods are those that seek to create an awareness of possible futures and what they con-vey. The embedded conception of causality, of how things happen, is that there is an actor capable of dis-covering the causalities and designing interventions that will lead to a desirable future.

There are methods that explicitly or implicitly rely on different causal assumptions about how things happen. The methods placed in the upper half of the model share the belief that things happen through the (local) interaction of agents. The movement towards a future is seen to depend on the other actors, the adaptive moves of a single actor influencing other actors’ strate-gies by creating new possibilities and constraints. Comparing the number of methods found in the upper part of the model to the number in the lower section, this approach would seem to be less popular among futurists than its design counterpart. However, some methods are constructed with the aim of reducing am-biguity and simulating emergent options. The smallest number of methods lies in the social complexity square indicating that there are few methods trying to provide direction in a not always orderly environment while allowing for some degree of ambiguity.

Next Steps towards More Conscious Strategies

We assume that the qualities of a method derive at least partly from assumptions about the basic nature of organisational life. The answers to these assumptions reveal three important properties of each method: how the method stands in respect to whether or how much managers are or should be in control, how ordered or chaotic the landscape where the actions take place is or will be, and finally what the means offered for shap-ing the future are.

It is perhaps correct to claim that methods presented in the lower left-hand square of Figure 1 are or have be-come well known and that they are also relatively easy to use. In the upper left-hand square, the methods are much more sophisticated; they often require some mathematical background and programming skills. Despite their sophistication, there exist some serious doubts concerning their capability of offering anything other than engineering approaches. In the lower right-hand square, systems approaches handle ambiguity better than more design-orientated approaches and offer more stability than emergent approaches but only work well in conditions where there are a limited number of interactions and the system can be designed. Finally, in the upper right-hand square, social complexity is presented as a field of possibility not yet fully utilized. It has not been widely adopted because its main strength is limited to dealing with poorly understood emergent, nonlinear phenomena and providing explanations and an understanding of a system’s direction in the absence of control of that system.

One more argument can be added to the ones pre-sented so far, namely that the business environment is becoming ever more complex. And one conclusion to be drawn from this should be that companies need to shift from ambiguity reducing strategies to ambiguity absorb-ing ones. All this calls for developing theoretical and methodological tools very different from those we use today. Such a shift would require incorporating emer-gence into our understanding of strategic processes and the possibility of a new kind of order arising from, or being found hidden within, complex phenomena, i.e. an order based on the tools and methods by which people make and unmake ordered and unordered worlds.

Download EFP Brief No. 180_Emergence and Design in Foresight Methods

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