Emerging Technologies Scanning (ETS) emerges as a practice within Futures & Foresight (Futures Thinking & Strategic Foresight)

The introduction of a new technology is never an isolated event and never concerns only one market or one domain. There are invariably socio-cultural, political, economic, and environmental implications, as well as impacts, influences, “cross-pollination”, and correlations among different technologies.

The very broad definition of technology itself betrays its intrinsic complexity: a vast field of research involving various technical and scientific disciplines, which examines the application and use of everything that can serve to solve problems. The term “technology” also refers to the aggregate of knowledge, skills, and tools used to design, create, and utilise objects, processes, systems, or services to meet human needs.

An emerging technology, in particular, is one that is radically new and relatively fast-growing technology [it is not necessarily exponential, as the common dialectics of recent years have conditioned us to expect, yet this has little to do with the mathematical concepts of exponentiality; rapid growth does not imply exponentiality]. It is characterised by a certain degree of coherence (or consistency) that persists over time and has the potential to have a substantial impact on the socio-economic-political domains (understood as the players, institutions, and models of interactions between them, as well as all the processes of knowledge production associated with these domains).

Its most significant impact lies in the future and thus in the emergency phase: an emerging technology is still quite uncertain and ambiguous. For this reason, it would be prudent to analyse its potential impacts in a timely manner, to avoid getting trapped in Amara’s Law.

The Law of Amara

We tend to overestimate the effects of a technology in the short term and underestimate its impacts in the long term“.

Roy Amara, an American researcher who contributed to the reflections on technological changes and their impacts on society, is often quoted today for his “law” which aims to emphasize how we tend to overestimate the immediate impacts of new technologies and underestimate their long-term consequences.

What we often witness, indeed, is an initial reaction of heightened optimism, in some cases even excessive euphoria, when a new technology enters the market, leading to an overestimation of its potential positive effects/impacts. This optimism, however, tends to wane rather quickly (making way for the excitement about the next technology), subsequently giving rise to a kind of disillusionment: as the technology matures, the enthusiasm diminishes, and we end up no longer clearly seeing its impacts (which does not mean at all that it does not have any; on the contrary, it is almost always in the long term that the most significant impacts occur, even in that climate of general underestimation).

Emerging Technologies Scanning, its relevance in Futures&Foresight

The most significant impacts of an emerging technology lie in the future. According to Amara’s Law, we risk missing these effects, thereby losing opportunities or failing to recognize potential risks that need to be mitigated.

Emerging Technologies Scanning (ETS) emerges as a core practice within Futures & Foresight (Futures Thinking & Strategic Foresight) and represents a process through which to identify, assess, and monitor emerging technologies that could have a significant impact on society, the economy, politics, the environment, and beyond.

ETS is a proactive methodology that that focuses on detecting and analysing technology trends that are at an early stage of development but have the potential to become significant in the medium to long term. The object of continuous analysis is not the technology itself, but its possible long-term effects/impacts. The objective is to anticipate and understand how these technologies may have an influence (even a transformative one) on the future (starting from the analysis of their possible impacts on alternative futures).

From a methodological perspective, Emerging Technologies Scanning (ETS) is essentially a specialised application of horizon scanning, which is an analytical and monitoring process aimed at identifying emerging trends, their potential impacts, and the significant changes they could engender across various sectors. It is an approach that is particularly valuable in areas such as technology, innovation, the environment, politics, and economics, where rapid and unpredictable changes can have significant effects.

Fun Fact: One of the earliest uses of the term horizon scanning in relation to future studies appeared in 1995 in a document discussing information technology trends and making predictions for the year 2005 [Gates, William H. (1 January 1995) – “Horizon Scanning: Opportunities Technology Will Bring by 2005” – Journal of Business Strategy].

Within the scope of Futures Studies, Horizon Scanning can be defined as a method used to explore and identify potential issues and future developments that might significantly impact society or a particular sector. This process is especially pertinent in future studies because it employs various methodologies to foresee and influence future changes.

Specifically, Emerging Technologies Scanning (ETS) allows for the early identification of trends, threats, and opportunities, with a special focus on emerging technologies. The effectiveness of this approach lies in the ability to prepare for and adapt to potential future scenarios, which are often highly unpredictable due to the rapid pace at which technological waves arrive, as well as their convergence and “cross-pollination” [however, it is important to note that ETS alone does not enable the design of possible futures nor the modelling of anticipatory strategies; ETS is used for mapping and visioning, and additional frameworks are required to explore scenarios, and set and perform strategic foresight].

Written by:

Nicoletta Boldrini

Futures & Foresight Director | Direttrice Responsabile Tech4Future Read articles Look at the Linkedin profile