Harnessing IT to enhance foresight activities

Research plays an essential role in addressing the complex socio-economic challenges facing Europe today. But it also performs a forward-looking role, helping us anticipate (and perhaps avoid) problems that could occur in the future. The EU-sponsored research project iKNOW (Interconnecting Knowledge) has been exploring the potential of networked information technologies to support this foresight activity. The results suggest that exploitation of internet-based information platforms can substantially enhance the efficiency of forward-looking activities in general.

Even the most sophisticated extrapolation models cannot prepare us for unforeseen reconfigurations of socio-economic variables - much less offer guidance on how to cope with them. Yet policy makers need to be prepared for all eventualities, including those that may seem far-fetched. That is why the European Commission and other institutions allocate resources enabling experts from a broad range of fields to engage in policy-relevant foresight activities.

These experts assiduously scan the horizon for subtle signs of change (‘weak signals’) and contemplate a range of possible (if unlikely) ‘wildcard’ scenarios. Wildcards are defined as “situations/events with perceived low probability of occurrence but potentially high impact if they were to occur”. Weak signals, meanwhile, are described as “unclear observables warning us about the probability of future events (including wildcards)”.

The international team working on the iKNOW project are demonstrating how publically accessible IT networks can support such foresight activities. At the launch of the project in late 2008, iKNOW set out to “advance knowledge and tools related to events and trends potentially shaping - and shaking - the future of science, technology and innovation (STI)”. The EU-relevant themes represented in the iKNOW platform include: health, agriculture, information communication technology (ICT), nano-science, energy, the environment, transport, social sciences, space and security.

The team of eight partners, coordinated by the Manchester Institute of Innovation Research, created a powerful interactive internet-based platform (http://wiwe.iKNOWfutures.eu/). A multifaceted web portal, the site has not only become a dynamic depository for foresight-related knowledge, it has also succeeded in stimulating dialogue among researchers and policy makers on a broad range of European themes.

According to the iKNOW website, the wildcards and weak signals (referred to jointly as WI-WE) "implore us to consider alternative interpretations of an issue's evolution to gauge its potential impact". The iKNOW project exploits web-based technologies to identify WI-WE phenomena (using deep search techniques); invites users to reflect on their meaning; captures user input and offers expert interpretation.

Conceived as a contribution to European Commission efforts to build an ‘early warning system’ regarding future challenges and opportunities, the iKNOW platform seeks to provide policy makers with sound and strategic information and generate timely debate. The ‘Library’ section of the project’s website allows visitors to access hundreds of internal and external documents dealing with the themes outlined above and many more besides, reflecting the broad scope of the project’s WI-WE tracking component.

Among the more thought-provoking documents in the library are the ten iKNOW Policy Alerts dedicated to different wildcards. No more than four pages in length and following a standard format, the iKNOW Policy Alerts take us through the implications of various scenarios, rating the wildcard’s potential impact on Europe in eight broad policy categories (from the environment and ecosystems to infrastructures) on a five-point severity scale. Most of the wildcard scenarios were inspired by group discussions and brainstorming sessions during iKNOW workshops.

Among the iKNOW Policy Alerts, one can find for example the "Scientists up for murder as ethical issues are abolished", the "Universal electronic systems breakdown", the "Outburst of the black economy" and the “Abrupt disintegration of the Euro Zone”. As with all documents in the series, the latter provides an overview of potential impacts (e.g. a rise of nationalism), suggests possible policy actions (e.g. regulate financial markets) and concludes by offering recommendations for further research.

iKNOW – Interconnecting Knowledge (duration: 11/1/2008 – 30/04/2011). FP7 Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities, Activity 7 “Foresight Activities”, Research area 7.4 “Blue sky research on emerging issues affecting European S&T”. Collaborative project (small and medium scale focused research project).

See: http://wiwe.iknowfutures.eu

Contact: Dr. Rafael Popper, rafael.popper@manchester.ac.uk