The 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath could have triggered the acceptance and the re-appearance of foresight in the EU’s policy toolbox. Thus, instruments are needed to detect early crisis phenomena and to identify sustainable ways to overcome these.

Over time in DG Research and Innovation, foresight has taken different forms in terms of approach, methodology and operation. Originally more of an academic activity, it has developed as an instrument for policy-making. However, foresight has been informative in nature, focusing on influencing policy thinking rather than policy making.Footnote 1 Today, foresight is accepted as a knowledge tool for decision-making on R&I priorities.

The article will explain firstly the approach of foresight in the context of good governance. Secondly it will outline the new institutional and administrative approach of foresight in the Commission. Thirdly it will look retrospectively at earlier approaches and phases of foresight in the European Commission. Then the article will describe the framework of the ‘grand societal challenges’ relevant for the operation of the foresight hub before eventually concluding its reasoning.

Foresight and good governance

As latterly understood, foresight feeds not only into thinking about and debating the future but also into shaping the future by means of a structured process. Historically, it has developed from pure technological and economic forecasting to a policy instrument involving stakeholder participation. The same has been observed outside the Commission. Foresight is an enlightened approach to policy-making.

In one sense, the Commission’s mainstreaming of foresight is a response to the challenge of improving its administration and governance,Footnote 2 as outlined in its White Paper on European Governance.Footnote 3 This paper sought to involve more people and organisations in policy-making and called for more openness, accountability and responsibility. In view of the diversity of national institutions, the Commission announced that it favoured policies based on framework directives and co-regulation in view of the diversity of national institutions. This was to ensure smoother implementation instead of insisting on more directives and other legislation. Consequently, the Commission moved to the ‘open method of coordination’, which is a ‘soft power’ approach to governance steered and coordinated by the Commission itself.

When it comes to new initiatives in the field of economic and social matters, the Commission seeks to lead the European policy agenda. This is achieved through documents setting out comparative information, results of Europe-wide consultations with stakeholders in the field, and options for action plans. The Member States then tend to reflect these policy agendas in their own national policies. The Commission has initiated Europe-wide debate on many policy issues.Footnote 4 This debate-based approach to policy leads to new forms of cooperation between Member States and the Commission rather than directives and executive decisions.

The Commission works on consensus-building in inter-institutional fora, as well as with Member State representatives in committees and through inter-governmental cooperation in order to implement policies. One example of this approach is the ‘open method of coordination’, rather than using legislative power for policy implementation. This is a specific form of cooperation between Member States and the Commission based on various types of benchmarking. Under the European Semester,Footnote 5 the Commission issues recommendations and carries out monitoring. Member States are required to report on progress and implement the guidelines at national level according to their particular circumstances. This open but informed method/process is essential where governance is seen as involving a broad range of stakeholders and experts in policy-making. This has become a feature of European politics and the EU’s approach to governance.

Foresight is able to significantly contribute to these peculiarly European methods of governance. Foresight procedures can help tackle innovation obstacles by mobilising a range of societal and economic stakeholders to overcome problems caused by the ‘grand societal challenges’. This is through the Innovation Union initiativeFootnote 6 and the development of technology platforms. In that spirit, foresight contributes to the ‘soft power’ approach to governance. Consequently, it can contribute to good governance practices, such as information, consultation, consensus-building and enlightening policy-making.

The new institutional and administrative approach of foresight

Since 2014, foresight activities have been integral to the Commission’s priority-setting in research and innovation (R&I) policy and action. They will shape the preparation of work programmes for upcoming R&I programmes under Horizon 2020.Footnote 7

As an integral part of the Commission’s administrative culture, foresight is expected to be used as follows:

  • to support the Horizon 2020 strategic programme;

  • to improve interaction with stakeholders by:

    • helping to develop a ‘foresight’ community in the EU;

    • linking foresight in Member States;

    • systematically integrating advisory structures into the Horizon 2020;

    • creating an internal community.

After a long process of learning from various foresight activities,Footnote 8 the recent foresight developments have been reintroduced to DG RTD. This time, it comes in the form of administrative mainstreaming, whereby a systematic foresight procedure will influence decision-making on the Horizon 2020 work programme.

The European Forum on Forward Looking Activities (EFFLA), which consisted of high level expert group of 15 dedicated Members,Footnote 9 was set up to ensure genuinely evidence-based and forward-looking policy-making. EFFLA drew up a specially tailored process for the Commission. This was due to enter into force in 2014.

Diagram: Suggested modus operandi of the envisaged Foresight Hub. This Modus Operandi has been inspired by a system used by Tekes, Finland.

figure a

This foresight process is made up of four parts: Part I – Strategic intelligence, Part II – Sense-making, Part III – Selecting priorities, and Part IV – Implementation (see diagram).

Parts I and II introduce a challenge to the Commission, as they take on board input from a wide range of sources, including Member States. In addition it takes account of any influences to be as inclusive and open as possible.

‘Strategic intelligence’ in a broad and comprehensive manner has until now been missing from the process of the Commission’s activities and hence requires more attention. This step involves a systemic process of collecting, analysing and making sense of all strategic intelligence to gather evidence, future perspectives and options needed to make enlightened decisions on priorities and implementation.

The phase of ‘sense-making’ intends to reveal gaps in the input collected of the strategic intelligence. It challenges the results of intelligence reports by exploring alternatives. ‘Sense-making’ was part of the Commission’s process before EFFLA made its recommendation, but it was a relatively weak and isolated activity. This is still the case in some Member States. The revised Sense-making is more robust and inclusive and considers in particular:

  • analysing drivers;

  • ensuring vision-building;

  • creating alternative scenarios.

‘Selecting priorities’ and ‘implementation’ are the last two steps of the foresight process, and are closely linked. They are already well-established at EU and Member State levels. They can be significantly enriched through reinforced strategic intelligence and sense-making processes. These will provide much stronger, genuinely evidence-based analyses of issues and options, and assessments of expected impacts.

It is important to make a clear distinction between formal and informal steps. ‘Strategic intelligence’ and ‘sense-making’ are predominantly informal processes of research. However ‘selecting priorities’ and ‘implementation’ are formal processes inside the institutions whereby ‘intelligent’ stakeholders can lend support although formal stakeholders remain in charge.Footnote 10

Institutionalising foresight in the Commission requires the creation of a foresight ‘hub’ through which officials co-ordinate their foresight efforts, including cooperation with the Member States. Important steps have already been taken to set up this ‘hub’ and it is likely to be operational in the near future. This hub will help advisory groups in their discussions on priorities and directions based on foresight evidence.

Ensuring the quality and integration of ‘strategic intelligence’ and ‘sense-making’ will make for better decision-making and more appropriate implementation and monitoring.Footnote 11

The rocky way of foresight in the Commission

After having outlined the current initiative we will describe in more detail the long-lasting history of foresight inside the European Commission which serves as a background for the current initiative. In the following chapter we will outline the application of foresight within the Commission over time. Its progression to being used as an administrative instrument is characterised by a series of overlapping phases of different forms of application. We may assign these phases to time periods, although these periods only can indicate the most relevant developments.

Over time, foresight has been supported or applied by the Commission in different ways. The Commission has used foresight as an internal advisory capacity by establishing dedicated intelligence units in the institution as the strongest form of foresight application in support of policy decision making. Another approach was funding independent foresight by research grants. In addition, exploratory studies and reports have been commissioned in order to exploit particular results in the interest of the Commission. Another approach was supporting the foresight community in the Member States, co-operating with external institutions and co-ordinating issues in common interest. The phases of interest and of activities undertaken by the European Commission can thus be described as a rise and fall and a rise again of Commission owned foresight.

Exploratory studies and reports (1979–94)

Commissioner Ralf Dahrendorf made what was probably the first attempt at foresight in the Commission in the late 1970s by ordering an internal report, Europe plus 30 (1978). In the end, he did not use the study, as he left the Commission early to teach at the London School of Economics where he eventually became dean.

Nonetheless, Europe plus 30 gave birth to the FAST programme,Footnote 12 run by the Commission’s research department at the time, DG XXII. Set up to provide DG XXII with policy advice, FAST was headed from 1979 to 1994 by R. Petrella, during which time it was extended twice.Footnote 13 FAST’s mandate and projects had more the flavour of a foresight programme than a science and technology assessment activity. It sought to explore new avenues for research policy and had a strong public profile due to a broad range of publications distributed worldwide.

In the early days of European foresight, there was a request from several parliamentary institutions in the Member States for technology assessment approaches. Consequently, the European Parliament also came up with an initiative in 1987. This was called the Science and Technology Options Assessment (STOA) programme, and was started up by Rolf Linkohr MEP. Under his guidance, STOA grew from a two-year pilot project to an integral part of the European Parliament secretariat’s work. In the latest legislature, the chair of STOA was António Correia de Campos, the two vice-chairs were Paul Rübig and Malcolm Harbour; the vice-president of the European Parliament responsible for STOA was Oldřich Vlasák.

The role of STOA is to provide an individual MEP and/or group of MEPs with expert independent assessments of the impact of technology options in the policy sectors that concern the Parliament. These, in particular regard cross-disciplinary and strategic issues.

In 1989, the Commission established a Forward Studies Unit, a small ‘think tank’ staffed with EU officials and reporting directly to the President, Jacques Delors. This was run along traditional French lines as a cellule de prospective. It was attached to the President’s private office and produced a series of forward-looking reflections on policies of a general nature. They are not restricted to science and technology developments and included for example scenarios for Russia or East Asia. Delors’ successor, Romano Prodi, converted the cellule into a ‘policy advisory group’ without foresight activities.

Outsourcing foresight to specific institutions (1993–2003)

When the FAST programme came to an end, the gap was filled by several activities at European level:

  • The Institute for Prospective Technological Studies (IPTS) was established in Seville (Spain) in the mid-90s as a part of the Joint Research Centre (JRC).Footnote 14 Its first head was the former director of the Commission’s MONITOR research programme, Herbert Allgeier.Footnote 15 IPTS remit was to inform the Commission on new science and technology developments and to carry out its own research.Footnote 16 It ran several successful foresight projects, e.g. on ‘futures’ and ‘ambient intelligence’.Footnote 17

  • The European Technology Assessment Network (ETAN) was a pilot action for policy-related research. ETAN came from the Targeted Socio-Economic Research (TSER) programme developed under the Fourth Framework Programme for research and technological development.

  • The Science and Technology Policy Options (STRATA) programme was continued in the Fifth Framework Programme. Activities involved analysis and synthesis on specific issues related to science and technology policies. The programme funded external research rather than supporting a specific analytical unit within the Commission. This was intended to support strategic thinking at academic and national level which would also be of benefit to the Commission to the extent that it could communicate with outside experts.

Return to DG RTD and cooperation with national foresight institutions (2001–2006)

At their March 2000 meeting in Lisbon, the EU’s Heads of State and Government agreed on a vision for economic and social development in Europe as a new policy approach. The intention was for the EU to become ‘the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world, capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion’ by 2010.

The Lisbon StrategyFootnote 18 produced a benchmark for innovation and research in the EU. Europe was perceived as lagging behind its competitors in various areas of science and technology and R&I policy was seen as a key instrument for remedying this fact. Two years later in Barcelona, the European Council called for increased investment in research to close the gap with Europe’s main competitors. Investment was to rise from 1.9 to 3 % of GDP in the EU by 2010, and the proportion funded by business was to rise to two-thirds of the total. Since then, relevant stakeholders have agreed to act on the lines suggested.Footnote 19

Previously and in the same context in the year 2000, the Commission had suggested the development of a European Research Area (ERA).Footnote 20 This was to be a key area for action, identify excellence, strengthen Europe-wide collaboration and establish clearer, more consistent priorities for public research. This would also give European excellence a higher profile in science and research among researchers in other parts of the world.

These political developments formed the basis of the decision to create an in-house foresight unit in the Directorate-General for Research. The idea was to strengthen the foundations of the ERA and ensure consistency in R&I policies. Work to develop a strong, integrated R&I area in Europe needed to be guided by a vision on potential growth areas and future perspectives. Forecasting, technology assessment, future studies and other forms of foresight were carried out to identify long term trends and guide decision-making. Foresight was recognised as having the potential to improve R&I policies and to strengthen the strategic dimension of the ERA.

Over time, many initiatives, activities and institutions had been implemented in the Member States. The Commission preferred to build a platform for exchange to encourage networking and cooperation at European level.

A range of national foresight activities were being conducted across Europe in this periodFootnote 21:

  • The UK had the first comprehensive national programme. The first round of this programme took place between 1994 and 1999, covered 15 industry-sector expert panels. The second round ran from 1999 to 2002 and the third round ran from 2002 to 2005Footnote 22;

  • In France, a wide-ranging exercise for the Ministry of Industry focused on ‘key technologies’. In 2003, the National Association for Technical Research (ANRT) launched and coordinated the FUTURIS project, which aimed to stimulate a broad dialogue across society;

  • In Germany, the Ministry of Education and Research ran the FUTUR programme. This was an exercise based on new stakeholder participation and aimed at identifying new priorities for science and technology.

The foresight activities provided information through its monitoring and mapping around the world. Results were made available to European foresight actors,Footnote 23 supporting methodological developments, and mutual learning was supported in the FOR-Learn project.

New institutional preparation (2007–2013)

Foresight activities had no place inside the Commission after 2005. However, support for foresight as an external academic or research activity got funding through the new FP7 programme. This was to build up foresight research capacity in Europe. Despite the above developments, foresight was not taken on board again in the EU until the deep financial crisis that unfolded from 2008.

On 3 March 2010, the Commission proposed a new 10-year strategy, Europe 2020,Footnote 24 to follow on from the Lisbon Strategy agreed in the year 2000. Seeking to boost the EU economy, the new Europe 2020 strategy aimed at ‘smart, sustainable, inclusive growth’, with more ‘joined-up’ national and European policies. Of the Europe 2020 strategy's seven flagship initiatives, it is the Innovation Union initiativeFootnote 25 that mostly concerns research and innovation, and which aims to strengthen innovation throughout the Union.

Of the commitments on which the Innovation Union is based, the eighth commitment is most relevant to the area of foresight. It stipulated the creation of a European Forum on Forward-Looking Activities (EFFLA) to bring together existing studies and data. It was to involve public and private stakeholders so as to enhance collective intelligence and help develop better long-term European policies.

EFFLA was set up in 2011 and charged with:

  • aggregating the results of outstanding forward-looking activities supported by European or other programmes;

  • offering advice on how to use these results for the early identification/understanding of existing/emerging ‘grand societal challenges’ that could have a significant impact in Europe;

  • providing advice and evidence on how these trends could affect European R&I systems and linking the changes to political processes.

EFFLA’s achievements were to ‘institutionalise’ foresight by mainstreaming it in strategic programming. As a result, foresight is now an integral part of the R&I policy-making mechanism as described in chapter 3.

Having successfully fulfilled its remit, EFFLA ceased to exist by April 2014. It was fused with the “Innovation for Growth – i4g” economic expert group and the “European Research and Innovation Area Board (ERIAB)” into a new group, the “Research, Innovation, and Science Policy Expert (RISE)”Footnote 26 high-level expert group. This new expert group would advise the Commissioner and DG RTD in cooperation with the foresight hub on new priorities of science, research and innovation policy in view of the grand societal challenges.

The grand societal challenges are challenges for foresight

The European research, technology and innovation programme Horizon 2020 put much explicit focus on resolving prospective global and societal problems. There are three funding areas: academic, industrial, and societal. The area of grand societal challenges received the greatest share of the funds. In the early definition of Horizon 2020 by the Member States, the Swedish Presidency in its Lund Declaration 2009 launched the idea to put central focus on prospective societal problems instead of on industrial lead technology programmes.Footnote 27

The idea was that a challenge-based approach would bring together resources and knowledge across different fields, technologies and disciplines, including social sciences and the humanities. In fact, research activities in Horizon 2020 now bridge research to market with innovation-related activities, such as piloting.

Horizon 2020 will focus funding on the following societal challenges:

  • Health, demographic change and wellbeing;

  • Food security, sustainable agriculture and forestry, marine and maritime and inland water research, and the bio-economy;

  • Secure, clean and efficient energy;

  • Smart, green and integrated transport;

  • Climate, environment, resource efficiency and raw materials;

  • Europe in a changing world – inclusive, innovative and reflective societies;

  • Secure societies – protecting freedom and security of Europe and its citizens.

These challenges mean the following:

  • “Health, demographic change and wellbeing”. Europe already spends nearly 10 % of GDP in this field. The aim is to personalise health and care given the ageing of the European population. The objective is to save the sustainability and equity of the European health and care system which is under increasing threats.

  • Food security, sustainable agriculture and forestry, marine, maritime and inland water and the bio-economy”. This challenge focuses on making the best of our biological resources in a sustainable way. The objective is to contribute to securing sufficient supplies of safe, healthy and high quality food and other bio-based products. This is to be achieved by developing productive, sustainable and resource-efficient primary production systems, fostering related ecosystem services.

  • “Secure, clean and efficient energy”. The EU has agreed on ambitious Energy and Climate targets for 2020 and beyond to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is to increase the share of renewable energies and to improve energy efficiency. New technologies and solutions need to compete on cost and reliability with well-established energy systems technologies. Research and innovation are critical to make these new, cleaner, low-carbon, efficient energy sources commercially attractive on the scale needed. They need to be combined with measures facilitating the market uptake of these energy technologies and services.

  • “Smart, green and integrated transport”. The objective of this societal challenge is to achieve a European transport system that is resource-efficient, climate- and environmentally-friendly, safe and seamless. Activities need to aim at resource efficient transport that respects the environment including noise and air pollution. Socio-economic and behavioural research and forward looking activities for policy making need to support improved policy making.

  • “Climate, environment, resource efficiency and raw materials”. The aim of this societal challenge is to achieve a resource efficient and resilient economy, the protection and sustainable management of natural resources and ecosystems. This is in order to meet the needs of a growing global population within the sustainable limits of the planet’s natural resources and eco-systems.

  • “Europe in a changing world – inclusive, innovative and reflective societies”. The aim is to gain a greater understanding of the societal changes in Europe and their impact on social cohesion. The development of innovative societies and policies in Europe need to be fostered through the engagement of citizens, civil society organisations, enterprises and users in research and innovation. Another objective is to contribute to an understanding of Europe’s intellectual basis, its history and influences.

  • “Secure societies – protecting freedom and security of Europe and its citizens”. This societal challenge aims to protect European citizens, society and economy as well as European assets, infrastructures and services, prosperity, political stability and well-being. It aims to eliminate any malfunction or disruption, either intentional or accidental, that can have detrimental impact with high economic or societal costs. The respect of privacy and civil liberties is the underlying principle.

These seven grand societal challenges are about the future. The challenges will require high solution potential provided by technical and socio-economic research, enriched by foresight activities. The application of solutions is however a political one and less a research or foresight issue. The foresight hub will deal with the assessment of solution potentials and support institutional and administrative decision making in DG RTD. These will influence the decisions for funding allocations and the work programmes for the societal challenges in Horizon 2020.


The mainstreaming of foresight in DG RTD’s policy making mechanism signals that foresight has reached some maturity as a decision support tool for research and innovation policy. It now has to prove that it can be instrumental with decision making on practical R&I issues. The proof will be in how far the next research and innovation work programme has a greater impact on responding better to society’s needs, and in how far it can leave some traces in safeguarding European welfare by research and innovation activities.

Therefore, as foresight research has limits in the real world of policy decision making and policy development, it is to be seen if it can keep its position.