Scanning is one of the fundamentals of futures practice. Futurists regularly scan the news, magazines, scientific literature, and other materials for new emerging trends, to detect the appearance of potential futures, or to find interesting anomalies or weak signals that herald disruptions or paradigm shifts. Scanning is common but it is not competitive: we don't do it for money, but to enable us to make money. However, we tend to scan alone: even though we all draw on some of the same sources, scanning is ubiquitous but solitary. Put another way, scanning is immensely inefficient.
For many years, this inefficiency was a necessary evil. Most of our sources were printed, and it was impossible to share our reading in an easy and timely way. Scanning is supposed to be rapid and a bit impressionistic: it's more like note-taking that scholarly writing, and should both generate information and stimulate creative thinking about the future. Scanning, like any exploratory or speculative activity, has a high failure rate: most of what we look at turns out to be of little value.
This can now change. The rise of Web 2. 0 systems that make it easy to share links to interesting articles, bibliographic citations, or news stories; the rapid advance of technologies for aggregating and analyzing large bodies of content; the growth of tools and cultural practices that reward information sharing; and experience with a first generation online tools for supporting science and technology forecasting, all make it possible to develop a new approach to scanning.
I call this approach "social scanning," for a couple reasons. It would work by drawing on content futurists and other subject experts are already creating. It would take content that is private but not proprietary and make it shareable and valuable. It would create goods that are useful to the community as a whole and to individual practitioners. Finally, it would serve as a foundation for collaborative research in a community of practice that is highly distributed.
In the next post, I'll talk about my own experience developing online tools at the Institute for the Future to scan for weak signals of disruptive changes, analyze emerging trends in science and technology, and publish forecasts-- experience that influences my thinking about how a basic social scanning platform might work, what functionalities it would need, and what value it would generate for professional futurists and our clients.
[This is extracted from a longer essay on social scanning. A PDF of the entire piece is available.]