Scanning the innovation horizon

AuthorNikos Kastrinos and Ewelina Pysklo, Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, European Commission
1. Introduction
The European Union makes substantial
investments in research, science, technology
and innovation, aiming at lowering technical and
commercial risks associated with innovation
to make its economy more competitive and
to enable its society to achieve goals such
as prosperity, sustainability and quality of
life. European strength in science, technology
and industry is necessary to ensure that
Europe is able to achieve its objectives. To be
competitive, Europe needs to maximise the
value and productivity of its investments in
R&I, and this requires appropriate intelligence
and coordination between relevant policies
and strategies at EU, national and regional
levels. These investments may follow Europe’s
strengths or weaknesses and concentrate
on areas where the greatest impacts can be
expected and where the most benef‌its would
lie. A good understanding of capacities and
aspirations for future innovations is an invaluable
basis for ref‌lection and debate on potential
impacts of dif‌ferent investment decisions, and
on the normative and strategic considerations
that should guide those investment decisions.
This paper presents a brief overview of how
horizon scanning took hold in EU ef‌forts to im-
prove priority-setting in science and technology.
It begins with the history of the development of
priority setting in R&I policy and the analytical
methodologies used to support it, showing the
hand-in-hand evolution of political and analytical
developments. Despite being practised for many
years, especially in Japan, horizon scanning in
science and technology (S&T) really took of‌f with
the publication of the Chinese Roadmaps for
2050. The close coupling between understand-
ing the horizon, the policy goals and the com-
mitment to achieving them that seemed to drive
the modernisation of China incentivised other
governments to undertake R&I horizon scanning,
and to use it in priority setting. The paper reviews
some key national projects before describing the
European Commission’s experience with horizon
scanning. Its conclusions simply appraise this
experience and point at questions and possible
improvements that could determine whether
horizon scanning becomes a regular part of the
EU policymaking toolbox or remains an experi-
ment from which lessons are applied elsewhere.
This chapter is dedicated to ef‌forts gathering
wide-ranging intelligence to identify new signs
of emerging issues, trends and challenges for
the future. It describes in detail the practice
of horizon scanning, which can be seen as the
basic groundwork of foresight projects, or as
an important strategic function in its own right.
It presents the European Commission’s latest
research and innovation (R&I) foresight
exercises which are essential in the context
of the increasing emphasis being placed by
the EU’s R&I policy on directionality, in par-
ticular towards sustainable development.
The need for informed policy priorities re-
sults in demand for more systematic, con-
tinuous and comprehensive scans to feed
into decision-making processes.
2. Horizon scanning in R&I policy
1 In 2018, the JRC developed an online megatrends hub: and a set
of methodologies for using it as the context for decision-making games.
A great deal of modern S&T has its roots
in the ef‌forts to sustain the technological
leadership of the US military and the com-
mercial advantages these generated for US
f‌irms (Bush, 1945; McDougall, 1985; Gholz,
2011; Mazzucato, 2011). The EU’s R&I ef‌forts
originated in an ef‌fort to catch up with the USA
in certain f‌ields of S&T (EC 1970, 1985; Patel
and Pavitt, 1987; Sharp, 1989). The EU was not
alone in this ef‌fort. Japan, the Soviet Union and,
increasingly, other parts of the world began to
invest heavily in R&D and to seek to compete
with the USA in S&T. During the 1980s, it
became clear that no country could af‌ford to
be the world leader in all f‌ields of S&T and
strategic R&I programming became prominent.
Japan led the way with the launch of the Very
large-scale integration (VLSI) programme in
1976. The ALVEY Programme in the UK and the
ESPRIT programme in the European Community
were reactions to Japan’s VLSI. More and more
countries set of‌f to develop capacities in key
technologies (Rothwel and Zegveld, 1985),
which ‘when ef‌fectively controlled, of‌fer keys
to economic success’ (Revermann and Sonntag,
1989, p. 1). The ef‌fort to devise priorities led
to the development of disciplines such as
scientometrics (De Sola Price, 1978), techno-
metrics (Sahal, 1985) and to the application
of foresight in S&T (Martin and Irvine, 1984,
1989; Urashima, Yokoo and Nagano, 2012). The
foundations of these disciplines lie in the belief
that priority-setting in S&T can benef‌it from on
an informed understanding of capabilities and
aspirations, which can be revealed by the study
of expert communities and their communication.
The practice of horizon scanning evolved in this
context and can be seen either as the basic
groundwork of foresight projects, or as an import-
ant strategic function in its own right. It signif‌ies
an ef‌fort to gather wide-ranging intelligence that
goes beyond the normal intelligence practice, to
identify new signals of emerging issues, trends
and challenges that could help preparedness for
the future (Cuhls, van der Giessen and Toivanen,
2015). In S&T, horizon scanning provides intel-
ligence about capacities and aspirations which
could push forward the frontiers of knowledge and
innovation. For contemporary R&I policymaking,
this intelligence is an essential part of the stra-
tegic context of policy decisions. It allows informed
evaluations of expected costs, benef‌its, challenges
and opportunities associated with particular R&I
policy options and directions (ibid.). Again, Japan
led the way. Regular foresight studies in science
and technology, with a broad horizon scan, began
in the 1970s, and since 1996 they have been inte-
grated into the revision of the Basic Plan, the basis
of Japanese S&T policy that is reviewed every f‌ive
years (Urashima, Yokoo and Nagano, 2012).
The need for a more strategic approach to R&I
policy underpins the European Commission’s
recent ef‌forts to develop a more systematic
understanding of the innovation horizon. These
ef‌forts build on two foundations: the f‌irst is the
development of strategic foresight in the EU’s
R&I policy during Horizon 2020 (EFFLA 2013;
Burgelman et al., 2014; Kastrinos, 2018). In the
practice of strategic foresight, some of the most
powerful context is provided by megatrends1
(Gore, 2013; EEA 2010, 2015; OECD 2016;
ESPAS 2015, 2019), described as inescapably
powerful forces). However, in their content
megatrends invariably resemble signif‌icant
debates about the future rather than determined
historical destinies. The interplay between
determinism and strategies to change the future
requires foresight to decompose megatrends,
to juxtapose established trends with emerging

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