8 Technology foresight

Many governments have introduced long range ‘technology foresight’ capacity, looking ahead perhaps 20 years. In the past there had been some enthusiasm for ‘technological forecasting’, but this technique, which often relied on extrapolating trends into the future, was increasingly seen as too mechanistic and unreliable, given the ever more complex pattern of technological, economic and political developments. The technology foresight approach, by contrast, attempts to gather views from a wide range of experts and practitioners on likely patterns of technical and market developments and refine them, interactively, to produce a consensus on the prospects for specific new technologies or lines of scientific development. It has become more process oriented and less prescriptive. It is not just technical possibilities that are considered: patterns of social and economic change may also be considered, e.g. via long range scenarios, so that potential future market demands can be identified.

But how can investors ‘pick winners’ from the wide range of new ideas that continually emerge? And how can governments identify and plan for appropriate patterns of technological development? One approach that has become popular in recent years is Technology Foresight. To explore the potential significance of emerging technologies foresight studies make use of specific techniques such as the iterative Delphi opinion refining technique. For this technique, a wide range of experts are asked their opinion about when some particular technological development may mature and are then asked to revise their views in response to the views of the others. This can lead to a more robust consensus view. In addition, use is often made of scenarios of plausible patterns of socio-economic development to provide a context for an exploration of possible technological lines of development. These are sometimes quantitative, and sometimes based on simple extrapolation of existing trends. They can also be ‘normative’ – attempting to capture social and cultural values in qualitative narratives of hopefully internally consistent patterns of development.

Technology foresight can bring together the technology policy and technology shaping approaches to the study of science, technology and innovation.

7 Scenario methodology