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Horizon scanning as part of environment outlooks: a literature study

Oct 21, 2015
The Flemish government attempts to identify in good time all relevant contextual developments (horizon scanning). This enables us to accurately assess their impact on the environment(al policy). This study builds on the Megatrends report1 of the Flanders Environment Agency (VMM) and provides ways for the periodic monitoring of megatrends and other types of developments.

The Flanders Environment Agency commissioned Technum to study how horizon scanning is being approached in other (foreign) initiatives. The study provides concrete recommendations for the organisation of horizon scanning and its impact on policy.

Purpose and definition of horizon scanning

For environmental policy purposes, horizon scanning is often described as "the systematic examination of potential threats, opportunities and likely future developments including, but not restricted to, those at the margins of current thinking and planning. Horizon scanning may explore novel and unexpected issues, as well as persistent problems or trends" (Dalton, 2002)2.

The goal of horizon scanning is therefore (together with other foresight  activities) to prepare and support a resilient long-term (environmental) policy.

Three research questions

Technum studied three research questions. The answers to these questions should help MIRA (VMM) to further structure its horizon scanning activities:

  • What comparable and/or useful initiatives on horizon scanning for (environmental) policy are in place in Belgium and abroad, and what (working) definitions are used for this purpose?
  • How are these initiatives set up in terms of methodology, organisation and products?
  • For what purposes and how are the results of these initiatives used for policy support?

The first phase of the study consisted of a broad literature study of initiatives in other countries: what are these initiatives and how are they set up. In the second phase, case study research was conducted to analyse a number of the identified initiatives in greater detail via interviews with stakeholders and policy makers.


 The horizon scanning process comprises four steps:

link to figure Horizon scanning

Various initiatives showed that for the identification of subjects (step 1), specific attention is directed to so-called weak signals. These are emerging trends that bring risks and/or opportunities, but the impact and dynamics of which are as yet very difficult to assess.

During the analysis and selection of (the most) significant developments (steps 2 and 3), the relevance of the identified subjects is determined. This can be done internally by a team of analysts, but also by external experts. A wide range of methods exist for the implementation of horizon scanning (steps 1 to 3). A combination of methods is indicated in order to cover as wide a range of sources as possible and to achieve the most reliable results.

For reporting (step 4), the following recommendations were made:

  • A selection of a small number of very good insights is the most valuable.
  • A tiered reporting structure is a good way of providing sufficient information for each target group.
  • The results must be attractively represented for all target groups.

Relevance for policy

The study reveals a number of important findings about translation and integration into the policy process. The studied horizon scanning initiatives were generally part of a wider process, of foresight and the preparation of policy strategies. Horizon scanning has been included in the process precisely to allow less easily foreseeable, potential future developments to be (more) taken into account.

Water, air and the environment. These are the three domains in which VMM is active.

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Flanders Environment Agency (VMM) covers three main areas: water, air quality and climate (adaptation).