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Innovation in horizon scanning for the social sector: an introduction to the Searchlight function

Claudia Juech (Based at The Rockefeller Foundation, New York, New York, USA)
Evan S. Michelson (Based at The Rockefeller Foundation, New York, New York, USA)


ISSN: 1463-6689

Article publication date: 2 November 2012




The Rockefeller Foundation has developed the first‐of‐its‐kind trend monitoring effort in the philanthropic and broader social sector, conceptualizing and operationalizing an approach that surfaces cutting‐edge intelligence with a distinctly on‐the‐ground perspective from individuals and institutions living and working throughout the developing world, known as the Searchlight function. The Searchlight function consists of a network of forward‐looking, regionally focused horizon scanning and trend monitoring organizations that conduct regular, ongoing scanning for novel ideas, research results, and “clues” as to where the world is evolving. This article aims to focus on the Searchlight function and to introduce the Special Issue.


The article describes the goals and evolution of the Searchlight function, an important set of lessons learned, and an overview of the synthesis and visualization efforts that have been applied to the Searchlight outputs.


The insights demonstrate that multiple, complementary synthesis and visualization methods can be applied to pull together the findings from a diverse range of horizon scanning activities. These cover a broad spectrum of approaches, ranging from the qualitative to the quantitative, from automated to non‐automated, from local to global, and from top‐down to bottom‐up. They show how different audiences can be reached effectively, from engaging the interested lay public to producing materials for experts in the field.

Research limitations/implications

The articles outlined help to advance methodological thinking and provide benchmarks for horizon scanning, trend synthesis, and visualization that the foresight field can learn from and adopt over time.

Practical implications

Organizations across a range of sectors face the common challenge of how to monitor the current context in which they operate. While governments and businesses have developed novel ways of generating, processing, and acting on timely information that has long‐term relevance and significance, the development and philanthropic sectors have generally been slow to adopt these foresight practices. The Searchlight function is beginning to fill this gap in the social sector.

Social implications

The Searchlight function demonstrates how the practice of anticipating and tracking trends and envisioning different alternatives for how global issues might evolve can be harnessed to shape the future of human development and to improve the lives of poor and vulnerable populations. Creating such a global endeavor on this scale requires an iterative process linking together talented and committed individuals and institutions dedicated to a common goal.


The Searchlight function demonstrates one way that the philanthropic and broader social sector can take steps to think and act with the long‐term future more explicitly in mind by anticipating the most challenging problems and opportunities that might impact the lives of poor or vulnerable populations over the long‐term future. It shows how an organization can use trend monitoring and horizon scanning to better understand how the dynamic issues facing poor and vulnerable populations intertwine to create the complex realities of today and how they might fit together to illuminate the new realities of tomorrow.



Juech, C. and Michelson, E.S. (2012), "Innovation in horizon scanning for the social sector: an introduction to the Searchlight function", Foresight, Vol. 14 No. 6, pp. 439-449.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2012, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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