The Horizon Scanning and Futures Unit
is a small and very busy team with responsibility for all of Defra’s modelling of likely futures. They play an important role in setting the context for policy but like most futurists their work is widely misunderstood.
I was retained in 2006 to help the Unit in its transition from experimental curiosity to essential policy tool. They needed to present a coherent offering to the rest of the Department, and they knew there was no way to provide thinking service to such a large and diverse group. We had to teach people to incorporate futures studies and horizon-scanning data into their own work with the right mixture of imagination and rigour, and to help them make use of the peculiarly fractional insights it generates.
We used a long series of workshops and interviews to distil the Unit’s experience of futures work into a practical handbook that was equal parts support, reassurance and provocation. It was delivered wrapped in a wallchart that passed on pithy advice from other Defra people concerning every stage of a futures project, and which subsequently turned up on office walls as far away as the Government of New Zealand.
The handbook was a great success and we spent a large part of the next two years building a
that would help Defra people to learn futures techniques, pool their findings and work within a shared set of scenarios and likelihoods. The wiki was popular and getting quite busy, and we were preparing to roll it out across Government, when it was buried by a series of spending freezes and budget cuts. It remains in suspended animation and we still hope to reawaken it.