How might we prioritize those social issues best primed for action and investment?

Developing and Guiding a Horizon Scanning Strategy for the Rockefeller Foundation


When it comes to saving lives, the environment, and critical resources, timing matters.  Consider the recent Ebola and Zika outbreaks. Once these epidemics break, philanthropists and donors wrestle with the question of what they missed.  What signs of weakness within health systems, disease surveillance capability, etc. could have been examined so as to prevent these dreadful problems from spiraling out of control?  Hungry for transformative and systemic impact, social sector organizations yearn to identify emerging problems and innovative solutions as soon as possible. Yet, too often these same organizations realize they missed the signs of problems and opportunity earlier on.


Horizon Scanning is a method used to make sense of emerging trends so that people can identify signals of large-scale change. Horizon Scanning can help inform the decision maker of when and where to invest on a problem or solution. The essential value of Horizon Scanning is its capacity to reveal potential investments that don’t just “do good,” but are close to a “tipping point,” offering a high potential to catalyze systemic change.

The Rockefeller Foundation launched its Horizon Scanning efforts in 2009 to monitor trends and anticipate change, and chose the Global Knowledge Initiative as a partner in this effort.  GKI designed a Horizon Scanning process that combined literature reviews, desk research, expert interviews, insight-sourcing workshops, and pattern analysis. GKI used Mappr, a data visualization platform to illustrate important clusters emerging within discrete, unrelated information. This blended approach to sourcing insights from multiple sources emphasizes the value of the human perspective in identifying unusual and unexpected insights on complex development challenges. GKI then leveraged its expertise in innovation design and applied sensemaking techniques to reveal patterns and trends to highlight those challenges exhibiting a readiness for intervention by The Rockefeller Foundation.

Results / Outcomes

  • Credited with identifying 30% of the potential investment areas that The Rockefeller Foundation explored in early 2016
  • Developed a process for eliciting insights from multiple sources and assessing emerging trends on more than 16 global challenges, including mental health, affordable housing, systems, waste in protein value chains, and exclusion of women from the workforce
  • Designed and hosted customized trend-sourcing workshops globally, convening more than 200 diverse experts to identify emerging opportunities for actions
  • Helped test a pilot Horizon Scanning process with potential Rockefeller Foundation partners, aimed at integrating the process into the Foundation’s decision-making process
  • Designed and disseminated Trend Reports identifying more than 200 opportunities for more in-depth exploration by the Foundation