An announcement or decision that an organization is going to explore a futures topic or domain can infuse a team with new, creative energy. People often enjoy the exploratory phases of strategic foresight — the envisioning of new possibilities, and the unsettling mix of awe and terror that comes with learning about emerging technologies and behaviors. Launching a signals horizon scan customized to your futures topic is an excellent way to structure this imaginative work.

However, as exciting as the creative endeavor of scanning for signals is, your futures project needs the measured, evaluative study of long-term drivers in order to identify transformative and plausible possibilities for your stakeholders and organization. At IFTF, we think of drivers as broad, long-term forces that will shape the next decade or more.

The recommendation to include drivers in any exploration about the future may sound obvious to most, yet, in my almost two decades working in strategic foresight I have observed that people can be too quick to dive into signals scanning before developing a shared understanding of the broad drivers shaping the future landscape.

There are good reasons people overlook drivers. First, generative, unconstrained conversations about future states are energizing and often fun, so I understand why people are keen to discuss possible future implications of today’s mind-boggling signals. Plus, drivers, which sometimes are described as trends, can feel like things everyone already knows, and you run the real risk of torpedoing a futures initiative by inviting the group to focus too much attention on current trends that may not have a meaningful impact on the longer-term future. And, finally, the reality is that resources, from time and funding to mind share, are limited, so many groups prioritize the work of imagining the future with signals of change over evaluating the past and present through quantitative drivers.

Your futures project needs the measured, evaluative study of broad, long-term forces in order to identify transformative and plausible possibilities for your stakeholders and organization. (Image by Trent Kuhn, IFTF digital artist, in collaboration with Midjourney.)

A drivers horizon scan is an effective way to include an analysis of quantitative indicators in your foresight work. At IFTF, we often use a STEEP framework to conduct our scans. STEEP stands for social (or socio-cultural), technological, economic, environmental, and political. There are other tools with other categories, such as PESTLE where the ‘L’ stands for legal. Any can serve as a helpful gauge to ensure that you are considering a wide range of drivers shaping a topic or domain. In the many decades we have been launching futures investigations with drivers horizon scans, we have identified a number of best practices, including:

1. Populate the STEEP categories with quantitative data to help illustrate the growth (or decline), pace, or spread of the driver. Later, when your drivers horizon scan is combined with your signals horizon scan and other inputs such as narrative change that are harder to quantify, these measurable and comparable inputs will strengthen the possibilities you create for the future.

2. Drivers horizon scans should be completed before a strategic foresight workshop. You can either have everyone bring a completed scan to the meeting, or a few people can create one and others can review it and make additions. Sometimes, we ask workshop attendees to bring one driver to the meeting to share as part of their personal introduction. We then place their driver in one of the STEEP categories in real time during the meeting. Seeing how the drivers that people bring to a meeting cluster across the categories helps reveal where the group’s focus about the future lies. In fact, developing and visualizing a consensus view on the linear forces shaping the future may be the largest benefit of conducting a drivers horizon scan.

3. It is not always clear what category a driver falls into. Is the growing popularity of a new technology a tech driver or an economic or even social driver? If internet access is required to use the technology, maybe it’s an example of a larger policy driver? Like everything in foresight work, the labeling is less important than the breadth of content you are trying to capture. Agree on a category to place the driver in and move on to the next one.

4. And speaking of the breadth of content, there is an abundance of drivers shaping the next decade. Some, like aspects of climate change, are extremely slow-moving and have been progressing for centuries. Others, like an advancing technology, may move faster but their reach may not be as expansive. Limiting your conversation to a particular aspect of the future will help, but will likely not be sufficient to reduce the number of drivers to a manageable amount. Creating additional constraints, such as geographic or demographic, is a good idea, but the most critical constraint is time. If you are creating a ten-year forecast, focus your attention on drivers that are likely to have outsized impacts on shaping, or maybe even disrupting, the next decade. If people imagine that the impact of the driver may increase or accelerate but not dramatically alter the conditions of the future, then deprioritize that driver and focus on others that will change in scale or scope within the next ten years.

Strategic foresight is about imagination and being able to see transformative possibilities. Ensuring that projects or initiatives charged with examining a future topic or domain are grounded in the slower-moving, incremental drivers will improve your work. After all, it’ll take drivers intersecting and interacting with signals of change to transform the future.