One of the first techniques we learned during Canada Beyond 150 was scanning for ’weak signals’: taking in diverse sources on a contemporary issue, and identifying information that suggests potential disruptive changes to a system in the next ten to fifteen years. It goes beyond the expected future to consider the range of plausible outcomes.
Each Canada Beyond 150 team did several weeks of scanning for weak signals in their respective focus area. I was a member of the team looking at the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. In looking for weak signals, the team covered a diverse range of topics including impact bonds, microgrids, additive manufacturing, alternative modes of transportation, food sharing, and the psychology of being in nature. Our report traces our journey from this diverse range of topics to our policy intervention focused on creating an automated sustainability grading systems using new technologies such as blockchains.
I really appreciated learning about scanning for weak signals, because it is both easy to learn and a powerful technique for building a broader awareness of the current realities surrounding an issue, and how it may be changing.
I decided to start a scanning club in my policy team at the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency. I asked everyone to think about the weak signal prompts as they read about Northern issues and events, and to bring their ideas to a short ‘scanning club’ meeting. We kept the tone fun and informal, and it became a team-building session. I was especially happy that it provided the students on the team with an opportunity to share their thinking and participate in policy discussions.
As other colleagues heard about it, they were also interested in participating. We opened up the scanning club to the other employees in the agency, including people in very different roles. Our shared discussions helped us create closer working relationships between the policy team and other parts of the agency. They also helped us develop a shared understanding of the challenges and opportunities associated with our mandate of strengthening Northern economies.
More information on scanning for weak signals and how it supports foresight analysis
Laura Way is a Senior Policy Analyst with the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency. Read more »