Clients will often be surprised at the breadth of ideas about emerging issues that academically-trained and professional futurists have on hand at any one time. This is, generally speaking, the result of most of us engaging in the habitual practice of scanning, which is simply reading through lots and lots and lots of stuff on an almost daily basis. Formally, this is to feed activities like emerging issues analysis, wherein we are identifying and framing new policy issues, technologies, and concepts that might mature in the future into important trends or drivers of change.
What is important here, at least as regards the “future-cool” factor of the ideas we can effortlessly toss out in cocktail party conversation (and yes, in serious workshop settings and client meetings as well!), is not just how much information we are continually trying to absorb, but also where that information is coming from. The source of the information, or rather where those sources sit along a curve of information sources matters a great deal.
Professional futurists often rely on the “s-curve” as a sort of thumbnail sketch with which to analyze and frame a number of things, chief among them the method of emerging issues analysis. Essentially, the s-curve helps in analyzing the maturity of an emerging issue. More than that, it helps with scanning and emerging issues analysis because it allows us to focus our search for the information we need in order to identify the issues in the first place.
A variety of phenomena can be plotted on s-curves, from the maturation of public policy issues to the development and diffusion of technology. In relation to this, we find that different types of information sources are more likely to have information (signals) about an issue depending on its current level of maturity. Earlier in something’s life cycle, the more fringe the information source; the later in its cycle, the more mainstream the source and the more unremarkable the coverage. Armed with this framework, futurists (and the client teams we sometimes train) can more effectively organize their activities and produce more informed analysis about potential emerging issues.
By way of example, we surveyed a number of colleagues and clients in the security sector about their top-of-mind information sources and asked them to plot them along the s-curve according to their impressions about the fringe vs. mainstream nature of the information. Essentially, where would they look if they were interested in deep foresight vs. what would they read if they were following much later-stage issues. A sampling of the results in presented in Figure 2, which also provides the framework for understanding the generic s-curve for emerging issues analysis.
The astute reader might note that some of the sources would seem to fit into a zone other than the one they are currently in. Partly this is simply the results of an initial survey pass. But partly this is because there is a bit of art to the scanning curve, e.g. information sources may actually fluctuate between two zones in terms of their reporting. On most days a source may be, let’s say, firmly in the Reactive Zone, but once in a while they might lock onto something that is clearly Innovation Zone in its maturity. Also, the division of the curve itself into different stages or zone is a guide rather than a strict and rigid framework. Decades past, with far fewer information sources and the costs of accessing that information generally much higher (to say nothing of the cost of producing that information), there was a much more stable and rigid division between information sources. Today those lines are more blurred, yet the overall framework continues to provide a great deal of value for those engaged in scanning and emerging issues analysis.
If you are interested in learning more about futures scanning and emerging issues analysis or if you are interested foresight training for your organization, then please contact us.
Information Management For The Intelligent Organization: The Art Of Scanning The Environment (Asis Monograph Series): A reference on scanning used by a number of professional futurists.