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News article19 January 2024Joint Research Centre3 min read

Peering into the Future: How Horizon Scanning can help shape EU Policy

Have you ever wondered how a budding space factory startup manufacturing goods in orbit or climate lawsuits pushing companies to accelerate their decarbonisation efforts shape EU policymaking? These are just some of the signals of change identified in the EU's Horizon Scanning project - an early detection system in our Foresight toolbox helping policymakers stay ahead of the curve.

The journey so far

The European Strategy and Policy Analysis System (ESPAS) is driving foresight and anticipatory governance across nine EU institutions and bodies. The ESPAS horizon scanning project aims to enhance existing early warning mechanisms and foster a community of experts who can identify and communicate emerging signals of change. Since its 9-month pilot in 2022, the project has proven its effectiveness, evolving into a regular activity supported by the EU Policy Lab thanks to their foresight and policy design activities.

The horizon scanning project is a key element of the ESPAS initiative, engaging colleagues in continuous, cross-cutting reflection around emerging and potential future trends. By building a community of 'future scanners', it equips EU practitioners and experts with the tools to anticipate and tackle the ever-evolving challenges and opportunities Europe faces.

How do we do it?

Horizon scanning is about staying aware of what is new or changing. The goal is to identify not just risks, but also opportunities these signal of change can generate. It allows early reflection on these developments' intended and unintended effects - the so-called "game changers" that could make a significant societal and policy impact. It aids in assessing and prioritising early signals for decision-making or further examination and analysis, relying on a diverse network of EU policy experts and some outside contributors.

Our process is threefold. We start by collecting ‘signs of new’ from scanners across the European Institutions and bodies, as well as international organisations. Next, sense-making workshops are held to identify potential emerging trends, and finally, meaning-making sessions are conducted to understand the possible consequences and policy implications. These sessions result in lists of identified emerging developments and thematic reports.

Here is a closer look: 

 1) Scanning

Scanners are always on the hunt for ‘signs of new’: factual information about new developments indicating something different, potentially significant. These signs are shared on the Futurium platform for discussion.

  2) Sense-making

Monthly sense-making workshops are held to examine collected ‘signs of new’, find links and interconnections among them across policies and sectors, and envisage potential impactful future developments, or ‘signals of change’.

3) Future impact

Future impact workshops are exploratory and prioritisation sessions, held after some sense-making workshops. They aim to decipher the three potentially most impactful ‘signals of change’ from about 20 weak signals. 

This careful process results in Horizon Scanning newsletters providing a broader perspective on policy making.

We also host quarterly Futures Insights sessions for EU Commission staff discussing the signals of change identified in the workshops and introducing the ESPAS Horizon Scanning process.

In essence, we are building a community of future scanners, searching for ‘signs of new’ that are discussed in participatory sense-making sessions followed by collaborative meaning-making sessions to put these signals of change in context for the European Commission policymakers. These initiatives are all part of building more futures-literate European institutions.  

description of the Horizon Scanning process


What’s on the Horizon?

The outcomes of Horizon Scanning play an important role in shaping forward-looking EU policies and policymaking, boosting preparedness and resilience across the Union and its Member States. It helps to untangle the complex interplay between global, national, and local forces, trends, and processes, while anticipating the impact of technological and scientific advancements. These results are particularly vital for various parts of the policy and planning cycle, especially in forward planning, agenda setting, and broader foresight work.  

With nearly 200 scanners in our network and over 1000 signals of new identified, we have published four reports containing around 100 signals of change, marking a continuous effort to enhance our process and grow and engage our scanners community.  

Embracing an anticipatory mindset is crucial for innovative policymaking, aligning it with the European Commission's competence framework for 'innovative policymaking' - as it emphasizes the importance of scanning, understanding, and influencing change. This approach is beneficial to both individuals and institutions, enabling them to gain insights into emerging areas that require further attention and follow-up.

Read our latest Horizon Scanning issue and follow the project:

Horizon Scanning bulletins

ESPAS Horizon Scanning bulletin 05:

  • New ‘OPECS’ for minerals and other resources
  • The dark biosphere
  • Artificial moral agents


Publication date
19 January 2024
Joint Research Centre
EU Policy Lab tags

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