Foresight Training Manual: Module 1 - Introduction to Foresight

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Policy Horizons Canada

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How to use this manual

Alternate PDF format (5 pages, 2.2 MB): 2016-271-how_to_use-eng.pdf



1. To build foresight literacy in general and to explain the Horizons Foresight Method in particular. As foresight research is still relatively new in the Canadian government, this guide was written in part to address a gap in foresight literacy among government analysts.1 It will address how foresight research differs from other social science research methods and how foresight findings could complement other knowledge currently informing the policymaking process. The primary focus, however, is on understanding the foresight method practised at Horizons. It further clarifies the purpose of Horizons’ foresight studies and describes how analysts can use the findings in their own work. We believe incorporating more foresight thinking into the government policy-making process could lead to more robust policies.

2. To build foresight capacity within Horizons, the federal government and other organizations. This guide is also a facilitation toolkit for staff at Horizons and others interested in practising the Horizons Foresight Method (or parts of it) in their own organizations. For those new to foresight, the manual provides a detailed description of the concepts and processes. The manual is also modular, so facilitators can build their own events. They can select the presentations, facilitation activities, handouts and posters they want and then customize the package to suit the time available, number of participants, topic and foresight experience of the group. Facilitation design takes time. By providing detailed steps for facilitation and addressing foresight learning goals (such as how to define a weak signal), we aim to give foresight facilitators some starting material to help them plan. For experienced facilitators especially, this should allow more time to explore the subject matter that may be generated: to consider questions like “what kind of assumptions do I think participants might generate?” and “what system elements are they likely to identify?” Horizons analysts in particular need to be able to handle a variety of subject matter, ready for a conversation about, for example, labour markets, energy or governance. Subject matter familiarity, while not always essential, helps facilitators draw out participants’ aha moments.


For readers simply interested in building some foresight literacy and knowledge of the Horizons Foresight Method, we suggest reading the overviews on their own. They introduce the reader to core concepts in foresight and summarize activities used at Horizons without getting into specifics of workshops. For more detail, consult the foresight presentations and speaking notes, which were also written as a conceptual guide to the Horizons Foresight Method.

For readers interested in developing their scanning and foresight capacity (and perhaps that of their colleagues), we suggest reading either the full manual or the relevant modules in entirety. While most analysts will not have the mandate or capacity to deliver a full foresight study, they can leverage a few activities in the guide to great benefit. In particular, the assumptions, scanning and systems modules offer ways to inject a little foresight activity, even for those with little experience with foresight or facilitation.



  • An overview document – A primer with a general description of module concepts as they fit into foresight, a summary of exercises and sources for more information.
  • A presentation with speaking notes – Each presentation was designed to introduce the concepts developed in the practical workshop activities. It offers general slides and speaking points that can be customized to suit different foresight training events. Each presentation is comprehensive and contains more slides and speaking points than a presenter would likely want to deliver at one time. It is recommended that experienced presenters also spend some time generating their own examples relevant to their subject matter/audience.
  • A facilitator’s guide – Each facilitator’s guide provides step-by-step instructions for facilitated scanning and foresight exercises that are frequently used at Horizons. It includes conceptual descriptions, logistical reminders and tips for success. Those trying the activity for the first time can read through the guide to familiarize themselves with it. Experienced foresight facilitators can review the facilitator’s guide to save some time in planning their event. In particular, we recommend adopting the “agenda at glance” as a template and filling in key points, drawing on the suggested annotated agenda, the facilitator’s own experience and the needs of the group. The timing, materials checklist and conceptual descriptions are all suggestions for the facilitator to review. We hope it will be a useful prompt for questions every facilitator should consider when planning an event (e.g. What kind of introduction is needed? Will the group participate in breakout sessions? Do I need assistants? Have I allotted enough time for each exercise, given the number of participants? Do I want to get feedback at the end of the exercise?).
  • Posters, sample questionnaires and handouts – These serve as aids to support the meeting and reduce the time needed to prepare materials.
  • Tip sheets – These provide pointers to help scanning and foresight analysts.

1 Readers interested in learning more about the field of foresight generally (beyond the Horizons Foresight Method) might consider the following books: The Art of the Long View (Schwartz), Futuring: The Exploration of the Future(Cornish), Thinking about the Future: Guidelines for Strategic Foresight (Bishop and Hines), 4 Steps to the Future(Richard A. K. Lum), and Foresight Infused Strategy (Maree Conway). In a government context, some other online foresight guides include The FOR-LEARN Online Foresight Guide (European Commission), The GCPSE Foresight: The Manual (UNDP), and The Futures Toolkit (UK government).

Module 1: An Overview of the Horizons Foresight Method

Alternate PDF Format (8 pages, 421 KB): 2016-271-overview-eng.pdf

Module 1: Introduction to Foresight

An Overview of the Horizons Foresight Method and the Inner Game of Foresight

Humans have an amazing capacity to imagine the future, and most foresight tools use this capacity but don’t explicitly support it. The Horizons Foresight Method puts this power to model and visualize at the centre of the foresight process. This paper describes foresight in general terms, the inner game of foresight, the steps in the Horizons Foresight Method and some of the practical issues that arise when using it. The Horizons Foresight Method was designed to inform policy development on complex public policy problems in a rigorous and systematic way. It examines the issue or focus of a foresight study in the context of the larger system that shapes it.

1. What is foresight?

At Horizons, the objective of foresight is to explore plausible, alternative futures and identify the challenges and opportunities that may emerge. Foresight helps us understand the forces shaping a system, how the system could evolve and what surprises could arise. This analysis provides a valuable context for the development of policies and strategies that are robust across a range of plausible futures. It also provides a solid foundation for vision-building.

Foresight helps governments adapt to a rapidly changing world. In forward-looking organizations, foresight provides a powerful context for policy development, strategic planning, decision-making and even audit and evaluation. The longer timeframe enables organizations to anticipate and prepare for tomorrow’s problems and not just react to yesterday’s problems. Foresight can also support innovation by exploring how problems could evolve, thereby improving effectiveness and reducing unintended consequences. The objective of foresight is not to predict the future, but to prepare strategies that are robust across a range of plausible futures.

Foresight is often confused with forecasting. Forecasting does try to predict the future. It takes data from the past and extrapolates it into the future using a variety of tools, from statistics to simulations. Expert judgements about the underlying assumptions play a very large role in the design and operation of these tools. Forecasting helps users understand the present and the most likely future (often with upper and lower limits). However, at a time when the underlying systems are changing in fundamental ways, users of forecasting should take care to confirm that the supporting assumptions are still correct.

Horizon scanning is an essential initial step in foresight. It is an organized process that searches for weak signals—signs that something new is occurring that could disrupt the system in unexpected ways. Often, the disruptive change comes from places where analysts are not looking. But the changes may be known to frontline workers, early adopters, critical thinkers, etc. Great scanning provides the evidence for insightful foresight. Then, foresight explores how the weak signals interact with the system in unexpected ways to create surprises.

It is worth noting that most individuals and organizations focus their attention and scanning on the expected future—that is, the high probability, high impact developments that could disrupt their operations. These developments are often in the media and part of the everyday public and policy dialogue. It is important for organizations to address these issues, and many organizations are very good at it. However, developments that are perceived to have low or unknown probability and potentially high impact are often discounted or ignored. Policy analysts see them as tomorrow’s problems or as lying beyond the scope of the study or the mandate of the organization because they cannot see the pathways through which the weak signals disrupt their system. These are the developments that scanning should reveal.

Foresight is an academic discipline that draws on many other fields and is rooted in systems thinking. As a result, there are many tools in the futurist’s tool box.1 It is common for people to open the tool box and create a workshop, and while the workshop is often creative, it is not strategically useful. As a result, foresight is frequently criticized or discounted as a useful activity. Putting the pieces together in a useful way requires skill that can only come from experience. Rafael Popper highlighted the challenge: “So far the selection of foresight methods has been dominated by the intuition, insight, impulsiveness and—sometimes—inexperience or irresponsibility of practitioners and organisers.”2 Ultimately, there is a need for rigor in this work. There are a number of formal foresight methods3 that assemble a selection of tools to serve different purposes. Most of these formal methods were developed for technological forecasting or business purposes. The Horizons Foresight Method contains all of the steps to explore the future of a policy issue in a rigorous, systematic and participatory fashion. One of the unique features of the Horizons Foresight Method is that it deliberately harnesses our natural mental capacity to model the future.

2. The inner game of foresight

Carl Pribram, a famous neuropsychologist, said we can learn a lot about the mind by observing it in action.4 He described mental processes as having a holographic/contextual quality. Humans can recall “pictures” in our minds and replay “movies” from our past experience. We can also create and manipulate pictures and models of completely new ideas in our minds. Indeed, humans use this capacity to practice a primitive version of foresight when doing tasks like extrapolation, impact assessment and scenarios on simple problems in our minds. Over the years, many foresight practitioners (e.g. Wak,5 Sengi6 ) have talked about the central role of mental models in foresight but have not explicitly brought them into the process. The Horizons Foresight Method works directly with participants’ mental models to strengthen and take advantage of this inner game of foresight. Here are some of the ways the Horizons Foresight Method works with our natural capacity to improve foresight:

  • Work with people's mental models. There is a branch of cognitive science that explores the role of mental models in thinking.7 According to this set of theories, “the mind constructs small-scale models of reality that it uses to anticipate events, to reason, and to underlie explanation… Mental models have a structure that corresponds to the structure of what they represent. They are akin to architects’ models of buildings, to molecular biologists’ models of complex molecules, and to physicists’ diagrams of particle interactions… Everyday reasoning depends on the simulation of events in mental models.”8 According to this theory, the four building blocks in mental models are facts, assumptions, experience and dialogue. Of necessity, mental models are incomplete representations of reality, and sometimes they are wrong. Policy analysts, managers and leaders usually have fairly well-developed mental models of the systems they manage. They use these models to run movies in their heads of how a given action could play out within the system so they can test ideas, develop strategies and make decisions. There are a number of reasons for working directly with people’s mental models, which are at the core of decision-making. Examining them helps us understand how people think the system works; identify, test and improve the underlying assumptions that shape decisions; and combine models from different people’s perspectives to get a more complete picture of the system. While most participants are unaware of this aspect of their mental lives, they are happy to work with it.
  • Use graphics to support visualization. Surfacing and describing mental models can be very challenging if it is done as an analytical process using words rather than graphics. Humans can only keep 5 to 7 things in working memory at a time, which makes dialogue and progress on complex topics difficult and frustrating. Good graphics can help the group manage complexity. For instance, complexity is reduced when participants can point to a drawing to talk about how and where a change driver impacts a system. The Horizons Foresight Method uses guided imaging—a visualization technique that helps participants surface and share their mental models of the parts of the system as they understand it. Over the whole process, a variety of visualization exercises and graphic tools are used to reveal participant information and insight.
  • Focus on the system. For many people, talking about the future can be like walking in the fog. Some kind of structure is helpful. In most cases, putting the system at the centre of the study will make it easier and maximize strategic insight. The Horizons Foresight Method surfaces participants’ mental models and then draws a simple system map with nodes and relationships. Each node is a window into some part of the system that is changing. The diagram helps focus attention and structures the dialogue at each step in the process, allowing participants to challenge and clarify facts and assumptions. The participants run mental simulations to visualize how the system could evolve under different conditions at each step. The focus on the system allows participants to see that future. Working with a clear model that is grounded in current reality but evolves under plausible conditions is a key to creating useful foresight.
  • Use a structured process to explore sources of uncertainty. The Horizons Foresight Method uses the knowledge and visualization capacity of participants to explore five sources of surprise that contribute to uncertainty in the future behaviour of a system:
    • Surprises coming from the places we are not looking—scanning can help.
    • The cascading (third-, fourth- and fifth-order) impacts of change as it rolls across the system—cascade diagrams provide the scaffolding to see how a change evolves.
    • Changes interacting with each other—cross-impact analysis can help.
    • Lack of awareness of the pathways through which change could flow—system mapping can help.
    • Lack of imagination as to how unexpected patterns of change could emerge—scenarios embodying different models of change can help.

    Looking at each of these sources of surprise in a systematic way provides useful information to reduce uncertainty and understand how the system could behave.

  • Work with assumptions. Assumptions (i.e. what we believe to be true) are a very strategic focus for foresight. They shape perception and decisions and are one of the building blocks in mental models. If you state several assumptions about a system, most people will use them to build a mental model instantly and then test it against their own mental model of the topic. A productive dialogue is possible when the mental models are clear. It turns out that assumptions are also a very concise way to communicate findings, especially to senior managers who don’t have time for a 50-page report. Surfacing and testing assumptions is one of the important functions of the Horizons Foresight Method.
  • Immerse participants in the future. Most people are focused on the expected future and are less aware of the weak signals or disruptive changes that could impact their policy domain, especially changes coming from beyond their silo or area of responsibility. In a foresight exercise, participants need to be familiar with all the significant (social, technological, economic, environmental and governance— domestic and international) changes that could disrupt the system. In the Horizons Foresight Method, this information is gathered through scanning and interviews and then presented to participants and users as insights about plausible disruptive changes—ideally with short videos that allow the user to see the evidence (in its current emergent state) for themselves.

3. The Steps in the Horizons Foresight Method

This process is fluid, dynamic and iterative. Each step builds a better understanding of the system, how it could evolve and what surprises could emerge. At each step, a large amount of information is gathered, considered, filtered and then edited to focus attention on the essential building blocks. Simple diagrams and other visual tools provide scaffolding to enable participants to share their models and facilitate dialogue at every step in the process. In Figure 1, the method is presented as a linear process, but in practice, it is common to move back and forth among the steps as understanding of the system grows.

Figure 1: The Horizons Foresight Method

The Horizons Foresight Method

Preliminary Step: Frame the problem. There is often pressure to frame the topic of a foresight study in very narrow terms. People think it will be easier to do a small, contained study. In most cases this will help you understand the expected future, but not identify the surprises that will disrupt the system. Generally speaking, you should include the pathways and systems that are the context for your topic. The framing of the problem may change as you learn more about the multiple pathways through which drivers could impact the system.

Step 1: Surface current assumptions. Before any foresight activities start, the Horizons Foresight Method identifies the current, commonly held assumptions about the issue or problem under study. These are the core assumptions that are shaping public policy and public dialogue on the issue. These assumptions are collected at the outset through interviews and research and then put aside, to be tested for robustness later in the process.

Step 2: Scan for weak signals. Scanning identifies changes in the domestic and international environments that could have significant implications for the issue and the system in which it is embedded. This can involve literature reviews and interviews, which try to surface and probe the mental models of people who have knowledge of the system. The focus is on finding weak signals that could indicate a significant change is possible or underway. Weak signals that appear to have a significant potential for disruption are further developed into insights. Insightful scanning is the foundation of effective foresight.

Step 3: Map the system. The study participants and invited experts each draw a picture of their mental model of the system. These maps can range from simple process diagrams to complex causal loop diagrams. An attempt is made to develop a group system map that includes the elements where participants think significant change is possible.

Step 4: Select change drivers. All the insights from the scanning phase are reviewed, and those that appear to have a significant, disruptive impact on at least one of the elements in the system map are chosen as change drivers for the scenario exercise. At this stage, cascade diagrams are used to explore the potential second, third, and fourth order impacts of the drivers, and cross-impact analysis is used to explore how the chosen drivers and insights could interact with each other to add new information about how the system could evolve.

Step 5: Develop scenarios. For each scenario, an archetype and scenario logic are customized to explore strategically useful futures. The state of each driver and insight is deduced from the scenario logic. Then the state of each system element is deduced from all of the preceding steps. At this point the participants can see what the system could look like under the given conditions. These end-state scenarios offer a vivid snapshot of the key system elements for each future.

Step 6: Test assumptions and identify challenges. Guided visualization is used to immerse participants in each scenario. Participants are asked to identify challenges and opportunities for which current policies and institutions are not prepared. Finally the current assumptions (from step 1) are tested against each scenario for their robustness. Weak assumptions are revised to be more robust.

4. What are the results of the Horizons Foresight Method?

  1. Clarifies planning assumptions. Assumptions play a central role in planning, policy and decision-making. The Horizons Foresight Method is one of a handful of tools that is able to systematically test the assumptions that planners and decision-makers are using to shape our future.
  2. Identifies emerging policy challenges and opportunities. Looking 10 to 15 years down the road, the process identifies real issues that current policies and institutions are not ready to address and thus gives government time to prepare for disruptive changes and take advantage of opportunities.
  3. Develops more robust policy and strategy. Foresight provides a context for policy and planning that enables governments to ensure that proposed policies are robust across the range of plausible futures.
  4. Helps individuals and organizations prepare and rehearse for change. The process of sharing mental models, identifying a set of emerging issues and developing a set of robust policy assumptions about the future helps analysts and decision-makers imagine the future and rehearse for the challenges that lie ahead.

5. Who should be involved?

When Horizons uses this method to conduct a foresight study, there is a core team who act as caretakers of the process. They are aware of the tools, concepts and what can usefully be achieved in foresight. They do the study and systematically seek input from others. In a major study, hundreds of thoughtful people are interviewed during the scanning phase to surface their mental models of the system, in order to understand how different parts of it work and how it could evolve. For some problems, it is useful to have external participants and stakeholders do a short, customized version(s) (dry run) of the process to benefit from their knowledge and the collective interaction of their mental models as input to the study.

Given the pressures to digest a huge amount of information about the whole system and potential disruptive changes, the external participants can seldom commit the time needed for an entire study, so the core team does most of the work. The dry runs help the core team understand the system, fill in gaps and explore new ideas.

The knowledge and personal qualities of the team, interviewees and participants can make a huge difference in the success or failure of a foresight study. The following personal qualities can be used to screen potential participants and improve the chances of success:

  • Participants—including stakeholders—are knowledgeable about one or more parts of the system.
  • They have good group, interpersonal and communications skills.
  • They are curious and widely read. They may have lived in several different countries or had jobs in different domains or studied different disciplines. In some way, they have lived with the dilemmas and paradoxes of change in their lives.
  • They are creative and comfortable with thinking outside the box.
  • They have a high tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty, as it takes time for a group to bring the pieces of the puzzle together.

6. How long does it take to do a study?

Once the core team understands the Horizons Foresight Method, a foresight study on a complex public policy issue can take 2 to 12 months, where half of that time is spent scanning and conducting interviews to identify potential disruptive changes. In parallel, if a dry run is being done with external participants, it is possible to go through all of the steps with them in a few days, assuming the external group has internalized the insights from a great scan.

7. How do you get buy-in from those who are not involved?

In foresight projects, it is common for the people who are directly involved in the study to be fully committed, but non-participants can be resistant to the results. Horizons uses a number of ways to engage non-participants in the process. Interviewing senior people to collect their understanding of the system is a useful way to involve them. Often they will be interested in the report, because they want to see what you did with their insights. After the study is complete, Horizons designs exercises for groups to immerse them in the study and to surface and test their mental models. Generally, the best way to communicate the written report is to take the reader through the process in a way that allows them to construct their own mental model and see the future for themselves.

8. Conclusion

There are many useful approaches to foresight, several of which are tailored to business settings. The Horizons Foresight Method has been designed to address the kinds of uncertainty and complexity that arise in public policy settings. At each stage in a structured process, the Horizons Foresight Method provides scaffolding to help individuals surface and share their own mental models and to construct a collective model of the system and how it could evolve. What is unique about the Horizons Foresight Method is the emphasis on utilizing the amazing capacity of our minds to visualize and run simulations at every step in the foresight process. Most participants report they feel better prepared to deal with a rapidly changing policy environment.

The Horizons Foresight Method focuses on the essential steps to help individuals and groups do useful and strategic foresight. The main results (robust assumptions, plausible futures and emerging challenges and opportunities) have enormous value in forward-looking policy and planning processes.

For further information: At, overviews and PowerPoint presentations describe each step in general terms. In Fall 2016, the site will also include facilitator’s guides that describe group processes for each step in more detail. There are tip sheets and examples as well.


This Manual is based on the Method developed at Horizons with the guidance of Peter Padbury. A large number of people have influenced the development of the Manual, including: Katherine Antal, Imran Arshad, Marcus Ballinger, Teresa Bellefontaine, Duncan Cass-Beggs, Martin Berry, Peter Bishop, Stefanie Bowles, David Cavett-Goodwin, Don Charboneau, Steffen Christensen, Angelica Meira Costa, Colin De’Ath, Paul De Civita, Pierre-Olivier Desmarchais, Colin Dobson, Christine Donoghue, Alain Denhez, Pierre-Olivier DesMarchais, Grant Duckworth, George Francis, Nicola Gaye, Louis-Philippe Gascon, Peter Gibaut, John Giraldez, Marie-Pierre Hamel, Roxanne Hamel, Blaise Hébert, Deanna Jamieson, Robbie Keith, Jean Kunz, Kelly Ann Lambe, Eliza Lavoie, Sally Lerner, Andrew MacDonald, Oliver Markley, Samantha McDonald, Marissa Martin, Ron Memmel, Claudia Meneses, Isabelle Perrault, Isabelle Poirier, Rhiannen Putt, Salahuddin Rafiquddin, Peter Reinecke, Julie Saumure, Dione Scott, Sven Schirmer, Naomi Stack, Thomas Townsend, Olivia Tran, Tracey Wait, Cara Vanayan, Jean-Philippe Veilleux, Christopher Villegas-Cho, Judy Watling, Greg Wilburn, Nancy White, and Wendy Shultz.


1 See the foresight diamond in Popper, R. (2008) Foresight Methodology, in Georghiou, L., Cassingena, J., Keenan, M., Miles, I. and Popper, R. (eds.), The Handbook of Technology Foresight, Edward Elgar, Cheltenham, pp. 44–88.

2 Popper, R. (2008) “How are foresight methods selected?” Foresight, Vol. 10 Iss: 6, pp.62–89.

3 Bishop, P. and Hines, A. (2015) Thinking about the Future: Guidelines for Strategic Foresight, Hinesight.

4 Pribram, C. (1971) Languages of the Brain, Brandon House.

5 Wack, P. (1985) “Scenarios: Uncharted Waters Ahead” Harvard Business Review, September.

6 Senge, P. (1999) The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. Random House.

7 For an introduction to mental models see or and for a more theoretical overview see


Module 1: Introduction to Foresight - Presentation

Alternate Version: PDF Version (19 pages, 1.3 MB) 2016-271-presentation-eng.pdf

Alternate Version: PDF Version with Speaking Notes (26 pages, 4.5MB) 2016-271-presentation-notes-eng.pdf

Horizons Foresight Method

module 1

Summary: Image description

This image is entitled “Module 1: Introduction to Foresight”.


Guide to Speaking Points:

The following presentation includes a set of speaking points that directly follow the text in the slide.

The deck and speaking points can be used in two ways.

  • As a learning tool to enhance the reader’s foresight literacy
  • As a presentation tool to accompany the facilitation of foresight sessions

The facilitator can be selective when choosing their slides and speaking points to deliver, depending on the needs of the audience.



  • What is Foresight?
  • What is Horizons’ Approach to Foresight?
  • How is Foresight Useful in Public Policy?


The purpose of this presentation is to:

  • Provide an understanding of foresight.
  • Provide an introduction to the Policy Horizons Canada (Horizons) approach to foresight.
  • Explain how foresight is useful in the public policy context.


What is Foresight?

  • Foresight is a skill we use every day that allows us to consider a problem, explore options, run mental movies and in so doing develop possible strategies and desired future outcomes.
  • Foresight as a sub-discipline of Future Studies uses a systematic approach to explore how complex issues could evolve.
  • Foresight tools help people share, explore and test their mental models about how the world is changing and what it could mean for their organization.
  • Foresight is beyond the normal 1-5 year planning horizon.


  • Foresight is a skill that we all use regularly.
  • Everyone builds mental models about the way the world works from the images, experience, knowledge and stories we carry in our minds. We use our mental models to run ‘movies’ in our mind so we can explore alternative paths that help us make the best decision. Some examples of how we use mental models every day:
    • Consider your thought process when planning the best route to a store across town. You might recall that one road is closed for construction, and anticipate that another road will be slow due to cars parked along the side today. You think of a third route with light traffic, a pleasant view and a potential stop at your favourite coffee shop along the way.
    • Or, TRY THIS: Close your eyes for a moment to picture yourself in your kitchen with someone you know. Think of a question you want to ask them. Ask the question and see what happens. (Pause) Now open your eyes. Did your intuition suggest how they might respond to your question? We use such mental models every day to guide our actions.
    • In Horizons’ work, we use guided imaging exercises and other foresight tools to surface participants’ mental models about the world.
  • There are many interpretations of foresight. Horizons’ particular view of foresight places an emphasis on systems, surfacing mental models and testing assumptions.
  • Horizons communicates the following points:
    • Future studies is a discipline that includes the sub-discipline of Foresight. It has been around for about 60 years (see Annex 2), graduate degrees are awarded, and there is a large, robust global community of foresight practitioners. It has been and is being used quite extensively in the private sector (Shell, etc.) and more recently in the public sector (see Annex 3).
    • Foresight uses inputs generated from scanning in a systematic process that seeks signs of change, explores how these changes can interact and examines how these interactions could lead to surprises that may disrupt the expected future in the next 10 to 15 years.
    • Horizons takes a systems approach, recognizing the importance of complexity and how one particular element could interact with another and cause significant disruptions to the system as a whole.
    • Foresight allows us to surface the assumptions underlying current policy, question their validity and maybe even replace some of them with more robust ones.

Additional points, as necessary:

  • Foresight is a human trait that allows us to consider a problem, explore options, weigh pros and cons and in so doing develop possible strategies and work towards desired outcomes. The Horizons Foresight Method builds on this capacity, especially our ability to visualize systems undergoing change.
  • Foresight tools help people share, explore and test their mental models about how the world is changing and what it means for their organization.


plausible futures

Summary: Image description

This figure is entitled “exploring a range of plausible futures”.

Exploring a Range of Plausible Futures

Foresight is not about trying to predict the future. It helps us understand a range of plausible futures that may lie ahead.


What is Foresight?

  • The objective of foresight is not to predict the future, but to explore a range of plausible futures that could emerge.
  • This includes both the future that people are expecting and plausible alternatives.
  • This process can inform the development of strategies that are robust across that range of futures and that deliver desired outcomes.
  • Forecasting is the use of historical data to estimate a future condition. An example of forecasting would be extrapolation of population or GDP growth based on past data.
  • Foresight is understanding a range of plausible alternatives of the future – it uses forecasting as one of many tools to help inform possible outcomes. See Annex 4 for more information on the difference between forecasting and foresight.


Why Foresight?

Rapid change and system complexity are driving a need to complement current processes.

  • Look beyond the ‘rearview mirror’.
    • Generally, policy is developed based on an extrapolation of past data and experiences.
  • Anticipate surprise events.
  • Build early warning systems:
    • Identify signposts of potential futures
  • Support resilient strategies, policies and programs.
    • Informed risk management


Why Foresight?

  • In a government context, foresight is growing in use:
    • The military has long used foresight to strategize potential courses of action.
    • Singapore is a notable leader in the incorporation of foresight into policy and planning.
  • Rapid change and system complexity are driving the need to complement current processes.
  • Foresight widens the scope of policy development by looking beyond the extrapolation of past data and experiences.
  • Foresight allows us to anticipate surprise events
  • Foresight helps us build an early warning system by identifying signposts of potential futures
  • Foresight helps support resilient strategies, policies and programs and contributes to informed risk management.


The Cone of Plausibility

cone of plausibility

  • Organizations need to prepare for the expected future. But many futures are plausible.
  • Scanning for weak signals identifies low probability, high impact events that are often ignored. Foresight explores how they may interact to help us anticipate surprises.

Summary: Image description

This figure is entitled “the cone of plausibility”. See full description of the image below.


The cone of plausibility is a useful concept that illustrates several important ideas in scanning and foresight.

  • Looking at the diagram … the present is in the middle. On the left is the past. The future is on the right.
  • First, let's look at the past. This is the realm of data and evidence. It is important to note that all data reside in the past. There are no data on the future. Data help us understand the present.
  • Notice the line called the "expected future." The expected future is the future that many people consciously or unconsciously expect to happen.
  • It consists of people’s interpretations of facts, beliefs, assumptions, trends and ideas that are thought to be important to the topic under discussion.
  • Often, these perceptions are part of, and shaped by, everyday conversation. They shape our thinking and analysis but may not have been critically examined.
  • Generally, our perceptions of the expected future assume the future will be familiar. It will be like the recent past or an extrapolation of the recent past.
  • One approach to thinking about the future is to take data and our understanding of the past and project it into the future (i.e. forecasting) using a range of tools from simple extrapolation to complex simulations and even informed expert judgments.
  • Some aspects of the expected future do occur. At its best, the expected future correctly identifies the high probability, high impact developments that are coming at us. We need to think about them and be prepared for them. We look fairly silly if we don't prepare for the obvious.
  • However, more often, the expected future does not occur exactly as anticipated. We are caught off guard by some unexpected development. Usually, it is something we were not paying attention to, or have not thought through, that causes the surprise.
  • At a time of dramatic social, economic and technological change, forecasting tools don't take into account that many dimensions of underlying systems are changing.
  • Drawing conclusions based on extrapolation of data may give us an incomplete picture of the future.
  • Looking at the diagram … on the right are a range of plausible futures, including the expected future. We could find ourselves living in any one or combination of potential futures going forward.
  • The edges of the cone delimit the zone of plausibility. Plausibility is determined by data, evidence, logic and judgement. This may bring in personal biases, but the foresight process aims to examine these biases to assess plausibility.
  • Remember, we don’t have data from the future, and extrapolation models are incomplete in helping us understand plausible futures – so what do we look for? We scan for weak signals.
  • A weak signal is a sign that change may be underway. Something different is starting to happen and could have a disruptive impact on the system.
  • For example, consider an expected future based on the extrapolation of past population data: it excludes the potential impacts of future medical technologies. The 3D printing of organs (a weak signal) could potentially extend life and disrupt our current expectations of how the system would evolve.
  • One test of whether or not something is a weak signal is when people say things like, “if that happens again, we will be out of business” or “we will have to change our plan.”
  • The interesting question is why are we surprised? Why did we not see a disruptive change coming? Because we are not challenging our perceptions of what is important to pay attention to.
  • It’s not hard to imagine slight changes from the expected future (e.g. the decline in fertility rates), where we have a good sense of how the change could directly impact the system (we know enough about the system to see connections and how it might behave).
  • However, as we move closer to the edge of plausibility, we are moving into the unknown. We may not understand the weak signal and how it could disrupt the system. There are levels of unknown: unknown to us, unknown to experts in our domain, unknown to everyone. We tend to ignore or discount weak signals (at our peril) because we don’t see the pathway by which they will impact the system.
  • Good scanning looks for possible disruption across the zone of plausibility. We do this by scanning broadly.

One final note: in organizations the priority is on high probability, high impact developments.

  • People who do the important scanning at the edge of plausibility are often thought to be crazy or wasting their time. They often perform this function without recognition or support.
  • Learning to do scanning and foresight in an organization often requires cultural change to embrace disruptive ideas.


The Role of Scanning

  • Insightful scanning is the foundation of foresight.
  • Scanning identifies changes in the domestic and international environments that could have a significant impact on the issue or system under study. It focuses on weak signals, indicators of possible change. It explores low probability, high impact events that few people talk about or consider.
  • Foresight explores how these changes may evolve and interact to create a range of futures as well as new policy challenges and opportunities.


Scanning, the foundation for great foresight

Our foresight method is dependent on good scanning.

  • Scanning identifies changes in the domestic and international environments that could have significant implications for government policy and programs and challenge our current understanding.
    • Focus on weak signals, which are signs that a significant change is starting or that it could be underway in a particular system.
  • We then use foresight tools to explore how these changes may evolve and interact in a particular system to create new policy challenges and opportunities.
    • Not about trying to predict the future, but exploring a range of plausible futures as a way of supporting policy readiness.
  • Needless to say, insightful scanning is the foundation for great foresight, so we spend a considerable amount of time scanning for weak signals in order to uncover deviations from the expected future.


The Horizons Foresight Method

The Horizons Foresight Method is a rigorous and systematic approach that allows us to test assumptions against a range of plausible futures and identify policy challenges and opportunities.

 The Horizons Foresight Method

Summary: Image description

This figure is entitled “the Horizons Foresight Method”. See full description of the image below.


The Horizons Foresight Method

  • Horizons uses a rigorous and systematic approach to foresight that allows us to test assumptions against a range of plausible futures and identify policy challenges and opportunities.
  • This slide represents the method that Horizons has developed to do foresight and train public servants with whom we often co-create.
  • Ideally, a foresight study would include all of these steps; this can take weeks to months.
  • Each step includes a number of different tools.
  • The process requires us to:
    • Frame the system under study by determining the focal question and developing a domain map in order to identify key elements in a system and the relationships between them.
    • Identify current, commonly held assumptions about the system under study. These are collected at the outset and then put aside until the end.
    • Initiate a comprehensive scanning process where we assess relevant trends and identify weak signals and insights that are pointing to change within a particular system. Scanning continues throughout the entire process.
    • Explore major change drivers impacting the system under study and their interactions through the use of various tools, such as cascade diagrams (or futures wheels) and cross-impact matrices.
    • Develop scenarios to explore a broad range of distinct, plausible and strategically-useful futures.
    • Identify potential policy challenges and opportunities.
    • Test the original list of assumptions against the scenarios to identify areas of vulnerability. If vulnerable, develop a more credible assumption.
    • This is a very fluid, dynamic and iterative process, which allows us to build upon each step as we gain a better understanding of the system under study.


Features of the Horizons Foresight Method

  • Systems thinking is the foundation.
  • Engages knowledgeable people to share their mental models of the system and how it may evolve.
  • Uses our amazing capacity to visualize the future through our mental models and movies.
  • Visual tools provide scaffolding at every step of the method to help participants share their models and facilitate dialogue.
  • Uses various forms of reasoning to better understand the system under study.
  • Focuses on policy.


Features of the Horizons Foresight Method

  • Systems thinking is the foundation.
  • Engages knowledgeable people to share their mental models of the system and how it may evolve.
    • Taking advantage of and getting a better understanding of various perspectives in order to get a better understanding of how changes may shape a particular system.
  • Uses our capacity to visualize the future through our mental models and movies.
    • We all have the intuitive capacity to visualize the future in virtually every thing we do – at Horizons we rely on this basic skill to get a better understanding of changes shaping particular systems.
    • We use a range of techniques to surface mental models, including guided imaging techniques.
  • Visual tools provide scaffolding at every step of the process to help participants share their models and facilitate dialogue.
    • It is difficult to push out and explore further into the future in the absence of scaffolding or a process.
    • Process locks issues down in a manageable framework, one step at a time, that allows participants to develop a fairly complex understanding of the system.
  • Uses various forms of reasoning (deductive, inductive, abductive) to surface patterns and make some sense of an uncertain environment.


foresight timeline

Summary: Image description

This figure is entitled “foresight can provide a context to improve near- and medium-term thinking”. See full description of the image below.


How Can Foresight Help Build More Robust Policy?

  • Foresight can provide a context to improve short- and medium-term thinking.
  • Foresight explores plausible futures and identifies potential challenges and opportunities that current policy and institutions are not prepared to address.
  • Medium-term planning can reduce risks and take advantage of emerging opportunities by starting to lay the groundwork to assess and prepare for these emerging challenges.
  • Foresight lays the foundation to develop robust strategies to cope with an increasingly complex world.


Potential Contributions of Foresight to the Policy Process

policy process

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This figure is entitled “potential contributions of foresight to the policy process”. See full description of the image below.


Potential Contributions of Foresight to the Policy Process

Generally, the policy process prepares for and addresses high probability, high impact events.

Potential and practical contributions of foresight in different phases of the policy development process include:

  • Helps in the agenda-setting phase by identifying emerging issues and policy challenges and opportunities.
  • Helps shed light on potential challenges and opportunities through the identification of weak signals of change.
  • Helps significantly in the analysis phase of policy development by questioning assumptions embedded in policy and exploring changes impacting the policy domain and how it could evolve across different scenarios.


Summary - Value of Foresight

  • Clarify and challenge assumptions.
  • Identify emerging issues and potential discontinuities.
  • Recognize opportunities and deal with surprises across a range of plausible futures, not only the expected future.
  • Develop an improved early warning system.
  • Rehearse for change by testing readiness across a range of future scenarios.
  • Improve an organization’s resilience in a rapidly changing, complex environment.
  • Help focus current planning and research on strategic issues.


Summary – Value of Foresight

The most valuable contributions of foresight to policy are:

  • It helps clarify and challenge planning assumptions.
  • It identifies new and emerging challenges and opportunities and potential discontinuities.
  • It helps organizations recognize opportunities and deal with surprises by considering a range of plausible futures, not simply the expected future.
  • It develops an improved early warning system to help manage risk.
  • It helps rehearse for change by testing readiness across a range of future scenarios.
  • Foresight capacity can improve an organization’s resilience in a rapidly changing, complex environment.
  • It helps focus current planning and research on strategic issues.

The next module will describe the next step of the Horizons Foresight Method, which is about Assumptions.




  • Bishop, Peter and Andy Hines. How to think about the future: a guide to strategic foresight. 2007.
  • Peter Schwartz. The Art of the Long View. 1992, 2012.
  • Leon Fuerth. Anticipatory Governance: Practical Upgrades. Epub. 2012.

Web sites:



  • This slide highlights some books that may be useful in better understanding foresight as a discipline.
  • Also included are websites of organizations that use foresight, including Horizons and…
    • UK Foresight – UK government-based organization housed in the Government Office for Science.
    • Shaping Tomorrow – scanning site that includes a network of experts that contributes to an extensive database of weak signals.



Policy Horizons Canada
Horizons de politiques Canada


Annex 1: Questions to Make Policy Analysis More Forward-Looking

The following are some questions that policy analysts and decision makers can ask themselves when developing policy:

  • What are the current assumptions about the issue?
  • Are there weak signals that change is occurring?
  • What are the elements in the system?
  • How are they evolving and interacting?
  • What external drivers are shaping the system?
  • What alternative futures are possible?
  • What policy challenges and opportunities could emerge?
  • Do these challenges and opportunities create unexpected surprises for government or others?
  • What policy options are more robust across the range of plausible futures?
  • What are the robust assumptions to shape future policy and planning?


Annex 2: Academic Futures Programs

foresight programs

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This figure is entitled “Annex 2: Academic Futures Programs”. See description of the image below.


Annex 2: Academic Futures Programs

  • This slide highlights some of the academic futures programs offered throughout the world.
  • Canada offers a program on Strategic Foresight and Innovation at the Ontario College of Art and Design.


Annex 3: Foresight Capacity in Governments

foresight capacity in government

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This figure is entitled “Annex 3: Foresight Capacity in Governments”. See description of the image below.


Annex 3: Foresight Capacity in Governments

A number of governments have, or are building, foresight units close to the centre of decision making. For instance, multiple foresight units in Singapore have been using foresight as a formal policy tool to support strategic planning since the 1980s.

Most of the government foresight units indicated on this map are part of an emerging network of governmental foresight units that Horizons has been helping to create. The Global Foresight Network has held 6 meetings since 2009. The UK and France hosted the first two meetings in 2009 and 2010, respectively. Horizons hosted the third meeting in September 2011. The European Commission, South Korea and India hosted the latest meetings in 2013, 2014 and 2015, respectively.


Annex 4: Approaches to Long-Term Thinking

Approach Tools Implicit Assumptions Product
Focus on forecasting
  • Scanning for trends
  • Data analysis
  • Trend extrapolation
  • Trend impact assessment
The future is an extension of the present. Surprises come from changes in the value of known variables. An understanding of the expected future.
Focus on foresight
  • Scanning for weak signals of change
  • Driver analysis
  • Cascade diagrams
  • Cross-impact analysis
  • System analysis
  • Scenarios
  • Assumption testing
The underlying system is evolving. Surprises come from changes that disrupt the system. An understanding of the range of plausible futures.


Annex 4: Approaches to Long-term Thinking

  • Foresight can make a useful contribution to longer-term policy development.
  • We are all becoming familiar with the value of foresight, but there are some things we need to watch out for.
  • The expected future is a key concept in foresight.
    • This is the future we think will occur.
    • It usually consists of high probability, high impact developments that we must pay attention to.
    • If we don’t, we will be unprepared.
    • Most policy analysis focuses on the expected future.
    • Trend analysis is the conscious or unconscious tool often used to elaborate the expected future.
    • However, it cannot help if the underlying system that we are studying is going through a period of significant change.
  • Foresight builds on, and goes beyond, the expected future.
    • It uses a broader tool kit to explore how the underlying social and economic systems could evolve.
    • The product is a more robust understanding of a range of plausible alternative futures and different challenges that could emerge.
  • While the two approaches are complementary, both are needed to get a full picture of the challenges we confront in a period of significant change.

Tip Sheet: Introducing Participants to Guided Imaging

Alternate Version: PDF version (3 pages, 398 KB) 2016-271-tip_sheet_imaging-eng.pdf

The Introduction to Foresight presentation raises the point that foresight draws on our mental movies. For participants new to foresight, a general guided imaging exercise can demonstrate our capacity to envision the future through our mental models. As participants tap into their intuition and imagination to explore plausible future outcomes, they realize in a tangible way that foresight is not about forecasting trends. (For information on how guided imaging is used in foresight studies, see the Guided Imaging Facilitator’s Guide (forthcoming).)


If you would like to provide a simple demonstration of a guided imaging exercise, this may prove useful:

  • Ask participants to shut their eyes and observe how the mind answers certain general questions. Keep the questions simple, such as:
    • “How many doors are in your home? How many windows are in your kitchen?”
    • Ask participants to observe what happened. We are not looking for the specific number of windows or doors here, only a demonstration that they use visualization in every aspect of their lives and that it is a natural and common tendency, even if we are not aware that we are doing it.
  • Another simple question is:
    • “Picture someone is in the kitchen with you. Ask them a question about something you would like to know.”
    • Notice that we often use such mental movies to inform our actions. Before an important conversation, we can anticipate likely responses and then decide how we want to approach the subject.


This longer guided imaging exercise allows participants to experience how completely they can create a world in their mind starting from just a few suggestions from the facilitator. It is helpful to take a minute or so to ensure participants are sufficiently relaxed before reading the visualization script. This helps participants to shut off the critical mind so that the imagination can run more freely.

  • Relaxation: Use sensory images to get people to relax. Ask participants to do the following:
    • “Close your eyes and think of a place that makes you calm.”
    • “Relax in your chair, feel your back against the chair, feel your feet against the floor, and your arms at your sides.”
    • “Relax your forehead. Relax your jaw. Relax your shoulders and neck. Relax your hips.” (These are the places that hold the most tension for people.)
    • “Concentrate on your breath. Take a deep breath in. And take a deep breath out.” (Repeat deep breathing—in and out—three times.)
    • “Try to imagine that your stresses, your anxieties, your deadlines, are rolling off your head, down your shoulders, down your arms, and falling away to the floor.”
    • “Acknowledge your thoughts as they flow by, but turn your attention back to your breath.”
    • “Keep your eyes closed.”
  • Visualization: Lead participants through a general guided imaging exercise by slowly and
    calmly reading a script such as the one below. Read with a long pause after each question
    so participants can fill in their own details. It may help to practice the pacing by recording
    yourself and playing it back to try the guided imaging exercise yourself; it is very easy to
    read too fast. Below is an example of a general script that can be used for this purpose (it
    is adapted from a group visioning exercise by Wendy Shultz).

Imagine that you are outside, sitting in thick grass. The sky is blue and sunny. Feel the blades of grass in your fingers. You look around and notice you are sitting on a high hill. Around the top of the hill is a neatly trimmed hedge. You smell the grass, the wildflowers, the fresh breeze. Birds sing. Standing, you walk over to the hedge, where you have noticed a white gate. Putting your hand on the latch, you lift it, and pause—anything could be on the other side. You swing the gate open, and walk into a morning in the year 2030. You begin walking down the path, each step taking you deeper into this new world in the future. You look down the hill, and realize that the best and highest hopes that you had for the future have ALL been realized. 2030 is so different from the current year. What do you see? Hear?Smell? You walk down the hill, further into this changed world. What does a day in 2030 look like?

You are approaching a community. What does it look like? What are people doing—the children, the elderly, the middle-aged, the men, the women? What are they wearing? What kinds of occupations do you see people in? What do you hear— voices? animals? running water? engines? Can you tell how community decisions are made, how people travel, make connections across distances? Can you smell gardens? Cooking? What else do you hear? What else can you smell? What are the textures you see? You may be curious how technology has shaped the way these people live. What are people eating? What does health care look like? What sources of energy keep this community going? Choose an issue that interests you and go investigate. You can explore this community to learn from its inhabitants. Who can you talk to? Find a news source; what do the headlines say? Take a few minutes to tour this community. Perhaps there is one more place you’d like to go before you return to the present. Make that visit. When you are ready, open your eyes. Draw, diagram or verbally summarize your vision of the future on the paper provided.

At the end of the long guided imaging exercise, allow participants to share a few highlights of what they experienced. Since the aim of this activity is simply to provide new participants with an experience of guided imaging, it is not necessary to collect all points or to record them for future use.

The general guided imaging script can be tailored slightly to stimulate early thinking around the project topic. For example, if the foresight study will explore the future of artificial intelligence, some of the questions could include: how is the use of artificial intelligence shaping the workplace? How does artificial intelligence affect consumer behaviour? How are interpersonal relationships affected by artificial intelligence? This can help participants anticipate some of the kinds of questions they might research once the scanning phase begins.

Tip Sheet: Complementary Practices that Support the Horizons Foresight Activities

Lessons, Tips and Tricks

Alternate Version: PDF version (8 pages, 1.17 MB)2016-271-tip_sheet_complementary-eng.pdf

The Horizons Foresight Method is supported by a number of complementary values, tools and techniques learned and honed over the years through experience. These include the principles of a learning organization and design thinking, practices in facilitation design and delivery, the use of visual recording, and web 2.0 tools for online engagement.Others can better explain those practices in detail (see resources at the end), but we would like to briefly draw attention to some useful practices explored at Horizons. Some are subtle general points to remember when designing a workshop, and others are specifics the reader may notice repeated throughout the facilitator guides (such as the use of visual agendas, sticky notes, etc.). Horizons does not use all the following practices every time, but they have become part of Horizons’ toolkit. As such, these are ideas worth looking into further for the facilitator using this training manual to deliver a great foresight workshop.


  1. Use the wisdom of the crowd. This is essential to foresight research because no one knows the future (and no dataset captures it), but everyone witnesses glimpses of it in their observations of changes occurring. Horizons’ publications are the result of many ideas gathered through expert interviews and the group facilitation exercises described in this training manual. Some examples of our crowdsourcing include a scanning community sharing their scanning hits and comments; a group voting on the most surprising or significant outcomes of a discussion; and brainstorming on the question “what if” through a cascade diagram, cross-impact exercise or scenario exercise. Drawing upon a diverse range of perspectives helps to address the biases we all hold in thinking about the future. (For this reason it is important to allow everyone in the group to have a say and to not have one person dominate the discussion.).
  2. Choose meeting/project participants carefully. The ideal group for a foresight conversation is knowledgeable about a wide range of subjects, possesses some subject matter expertise and holds diverse perspectives (e.g. as a variety of different stakeholders would, from different branches of government, different levels, etc.). Participants should be comfortable working with ideas, including the exploration of unproven possibilities and unconventional perspectives. Participants will need the intellectual flexibility to use the analytical brain (e.g. to prioritize, to validate, to challenge) and the creative brain (to imagine, to infer, to brainstorm with others) at different times. We recommend including participants with previous foresight experience as role models for participants new to foresight, as well as a mix of subject matter experts and non-experts. Typically it is easier for people to think creatively and challenge assumptions in areas they are not deeply familiar with. However, it is also important to have knowledgeable experts to help differentiate between the expected and unexpected future, to ground the discussion, and to keep it focussed on the plausible.
  3. Consider how many participants will be needed. In our experience, most activities in this guide work well with about 25 people in plenary or 5–9 people in breakout groups when heavier brainstorming is involved. Too many participants can limit how much each person can contribute, while too few participants means the wisdom of the crowd isn’t being leveraged. If a scanning and/or foresight project extends over several meetings, we strongly recommend using the same participants (and facilitation team) rather than involving new substitutes. Foresight conversations are layered over time, culminating in a complex synthesis of ideas at the point of the final scenario exercises. To be discussed, these ideas must be understood. Participant attrition can be a problem for longer projects (e.g. months), so consider what will motivate people to join and remain with the project. Careful planning can help ensure participants aren’t meeting more often or longer than necessary (see #7 under specific tips).
  4. Use the right tool for the activity. Traditional meetings often suffer from the familiar format of a general conversation around a table, guided by a chair, with goals that may or may not be clear and a process that is even less so. The frequent result is unequal participant engagement and time spent on a process that may not satisfy the goal. A learning organization seeks to meets its goals through the appropriate use of structured processes that suit each objective and support the full engagement of participants. Whether the objective is to build trust, invite feedback, brainstorm new ideas, evaluate options, make decisions, seek agreement, etc., there are many effective facilitation processes available. Horizons frequently uses facilitation tools such as ice breakers, affinity mapping, interview matrices and feedback tools.

    Communication team

  5. Consider what activities can be done without a meeting. While some goals are best addressed face-to-face, others are better accomplished outside the meeting, as homework. Horizons has experimented with social media tools such as Jive, Shaping Tomorrow, Mind42 and Pearltrees to crowdsource weak signals from our participants, comment and build on others’ findings, and vote on importance. While online activities create continuity between meetings, they are not a substitute for face-to-face events: it takes the maintenance of offline relationships to sustain online activity. This is what Horizons refers to as the heartbeat model.
  6. Attend to different learning and participation preferences. Traditional meetings work well for participants whose lead learning mode is listening (hearing a presentation or discussing ideas). Yet most people (an estimated 65%) are primarily visual learners. To better engage these learners, try including visual agendas, posters, visual recording of conversations, highly visual presentations, maps, cascade diagrams, and a guided imaging exercise. For kinesthetic learners, activities that involve writing, getting up to review or add to results on a wall, or voting on key points can help. Horizons is experimenting with experiential futures and game development to open up more varied ways to facilitate participant interaction with content. A good engagement strategy also considers how both extroverted and introverted participants prefer to contribute, allowing time for both discussion and reflection (more on this below).
  7. Expect facilitation design to take time and improve with practice. A general rule is that it takes about 3–4 hours of planning and preparation for every hour of facilitation in the room. This guide is intended to help manage that time, but there is always a degree of customization required to facilitate a group. Furthermore, Horizons is constantly innovating to improve upon the process and learn from past experiments. Design thinking suggests that the steps in a good innovation process are to design, practice, evaluate and improve upon an initiative. The facilitation team can consider regular after-action reviews as part of the facilitation design process.


  1. The relationship with participants begins before the meeting. Facilitators can begin to build rapport with participants and create interest in the meeting by engaging through email. That email can give participants an idea of what to expect and pose a pre-meeting question to consider. As mentioned previously, the facilitator can also use social media to follow up after a meeting.
  2. Design the space to suit the objectives. Theatre-style seating directs participants’ attention to a speaker in front of the room, while participants seated in a circle emphasizes the conversation they are having with each other. If it isn’t essential for all to hear the sameconversation, small groups working simultaneously can generate content much faster than a single large group conversation. Opportunities for discussion in pairs or small groups can also change the pace of an activity and draw out quieter participants.
  3. Use a visual agenda in the room to set the tone that this meeting will be different. Visuals made specifically for the meeting invite participant appreciation of the time and effort the facilitation team spent planning. An agenda with a little colour and whimsy can also put participants in a headspace suitable for creative brainstorming when it is needed. It also reminds participants when the breaks are, so they don’t feel the need to leave the meeting for a bathroom break.

    Visual map

  4. Use an ice breaker to help warm up the room. It doesn’t need to be silly; some can be very topical, and get the content of a meeting started in a light way. For our Future of Asia project, we asked participants to introduce themselves to the group by selecting one image (from a collection on the floor) that represented a vision of the future of Asia that they were expecting and using it in a sentence.
  5. Determine rules of engagement to create a space for good discussion. This is another way to build rapport among group members, particularly if they will be meeting recurrently. It reminds participants that all our time is valuable and helps the group come to an agreement on what respect for others looks like. It also reminds us that we are all responsible for a good discussion. While some rules may seem obvious, it is important that participants agree to them. Some rules generated in the group may be less obvious (e.g. Are smart phones allowed in the room? What are our expectations if participants leave early?). A draft set of rules can be presented to participants, to seek additions and agreement, or it can be generated by the group as a facilitated exercise. 


  6. Note that a facilitator is different than a chair. The facilitator establishes the goals and process for a conversation, but is neutral to the content generated. In contrast, the chair of a meeting has a stake in the conversation and may offer opinions or make content decisions on behalf of the group. If the facilitator has an opinion, one way to share it without abusing power is to symbolically demonstrate that they are removing their facilitation hat, e.g. by saying so, or by literally capping the marker that was recording the conversation. If a conversation is getting off track, the facilitator can also invite facts, other opinions and methodologies to address an issue and get back on track.
  7. On the other hand, consider what content roles a core team of facilitators could have. Here Horizons deviates from standard facilitation practice. For an ongoing foresight project with key milestones, it may not always be practical to have a group of participants deeply involved in every decision. It may be possible for a core team of facilitators to make some judgments on behalf of the larger group. If so, it is important to explain what work was done and give participants an opportunity to revise those decisions. For example, in setting up a scenario exercise, a small team of Horizons facilitators will often frame the scenario logic before participants enter the room. Placing some boundaries on the scenarios supports a good discussion that doesn’t swing too wildly in conflicting directions. At other times, a core team might do some initial filtering or synthesis of previous content to ensure a productive conversation at a follow-up meeting, or complete an exercise that participants could not complete within the meeting time.
  8. Allow for moments of reflection. Horizons facilitators will often use sticky notes in brainstorming activities; this invites participants to quietly reflect and write down ideas before sharing them with the group. Not only is this step appreciated by introverts, it is also productive to have all heads thinking quietly at once. 


  9. Change the pace of activities. If participants have been sitting for a long time, let them stand and move around. If they have been receiving information through a presentation, switch to a discussion. If one activity involves sticky notes for brainstorming, avoid sticky notes for the next activity.
  10. Include time for breaks in the agenda. Participants will generate better content if they have time to take a break now and then. A good general rule is to allow a 10-minute break for every hour in session. These not only give participants a rest, but can be timed to allow facilitators to reflect on whether the meeting is on track or set up the next activity. Planning for a long break in the agenda also creates a buffer that can be shortened if need be.
  11. Know what degree of agreement is needed for an activity. Sometimes it’s okay to agree to disagree. Divergent views might even be a desired outcome, for example when we invite competing future possibilities in a cascade diagram exercise or seek alternative assumptions. Even when some agreement is necessary to proceed with a step, there are different levels of agreement possible. Consensus is a strong requirement for agreement, while other times a majority vote or simply the most popular option is sufficient. We use voting in workshops to get participants to evaluate the content they are generating (e.g. What were the most important assumptions generated? What was the most surprising outcome in a cascade diagram discussion?).
  12. Use visual recording techniques to build a shared memory of a conversation and allow meta-thinking. When people see their words, they feel heard. A visual recording also keeps the discussion on track. Horizons uses writeable walls, flipcharts, large poster paper, computer projection screens and smartboards to track participant conversations. Where possible, we use clear lettering and zebra striping, map relationships and processes, and draw simple icons and occasionally a visual template. After a conversation is recorded, we sometimes refer back to the product, inviting participants to step back and review it to ensure accuracy, vote on important points, or otherwise assess their findings.
  13. Learn from participants through timely feedback at the end of a meeting. For regular Horizons events, we have an evaluation form for accountability and to track our progress against a standard set of outcomes. There are also simple ways to capture feedback very quickly. For one-off events, we often simply ask participants for a plus-delta: on their way out the room, they post one sticky note for what worked in the session and another for what they would change. It’s quick and often very instructive.


Wisdom of the Crowd:

Social bookmarking tool:


Design Thinking:

Learning Organization Community of Practice:

Visual Recording: