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A toolbox for policy planners

The Handbook of Technology Foresight

Edited by:
  • Luke Georghiou,
  • Jennifer Cassingena Harper,
  • Michael Keenan,
  • Ian Miles &
  • Rafael Popper
Edward Elgar: 2008. 456 pp. £115, $220 9781845425869 | ISBN: 978-1-8454-2586-9
Foresight in hindsight. (From 101 Funny Things About Global Warming by Sidney Harris and Colleagues; Bloomsbury, 2008.)

During the past decade, many national governments have sponsored formal planning processes called technology foresight. Such exercises involve a wide range of stakeholders in anticipating long-term social, economic and technological developments, and then using the resulting vision to inform government policies. The growth of foresight activity, most prominently in Europe, reflects the desire of these governments to understand and influence today's rapid and profound social and economic changes, driven in large part by advances in technology and science.

The Handbook of Technology Foresight aims to shape this emerging field and to assist those planning foresight activities. Edited by five scholars active in foresight practice, the book opens with a critical review that defines and distinguishes foresight from other types of futures studies, alongside an excellent history of the field and a detailed summary of more than 30 methodologies. The second section surveys national foresight activities across Europe, Asia and the Americas, and the final section addresses common themes such as evaluation and policy transfer.

Initially a means of informing government investment priorities for research and development, the process of national technology foresight has expanded to address a full range of societal issues that affect and are affected by science and technology. The authors quote approvingly the definition of foresight given by the European Commission's FOREN project, which describes it as “a systematic, participatory, future-intelligence gathering and medium-to-long-term vision-building process aimed at present-day decisions and mobilizing joint actions”. They name three characteristics that distinguish technology foresight from other approaches to futures studies. It looks to the future; it uses information about the future to inform near-term decisions; and it includes a broad range of individuals in group exercises to develop forecasts and explore their policy implications.

The book's survey of national programmes demonstrates that foresight activities are shaped by the particular needs, culture and politics of a country. The United Kingdom's foresight programme was established in 1993 and has become an institutionalized policy instrument for many agencies and departments. It uses a wide variety of methods such as scenarios, simulations and gaming, workshops and the Delphi interactive expert-based survey for forecasting. By contrast, the Japanese government's technology foresight programme, which has been running since 1969, carries out a nationwide Delphi survey of thousands of experts every five years to map out future developments in science and technology. Central and Eastern European countries have used technology foresight only sporadically, often hindered by political mindsets and institutional structures that are more at ease with single rather than multiple views of the future, and with wholly separate government research endeavours rather than integrated national innovation systems.

Those considering a foresight exercise will find this book a valuable compendium that offers lessons to be learnt, and help in choosing goals, selecting methods and identifying successes and failures. Scholars will find a rich survey of current practice, methodological approaches and tensions in the field. But the book does not address the fundamental question of when national technology foresight can provide an appropriate means to achieve a society's goals.

Technology foresight aims to create a 'national public good'. At a time of fast-paced radical change, it seeks to offer a commonly shared vision of the future and to create new networks that enable a society to invest its science and technology resources more wisely, harness the beneficial effects of innovation, and ameliorate its risks. Yet foresight may provide only one way to create these benefits. As the book describes, the French government sponsors a small number of comprehensive foresight activities. By contrast, in the United States, many groups — from the independent but government-funded National Academy of Sciences to numerous non-profit organizations — offer visions of the future and build networks around them. Clearly, these approaches reflect different political and cultural contexts. But the different visions may provide different strengths and weaknesses, for instance, offering coherent actions versus resilience to surprise. The book helps frame questions about, for example, which approaches governments should choose, but it does not answer such questions.

To call this volume a handbook may be premature. The word connotes an easily consulted reference that provides quick answers to those engaged in an activity. As the editors note, technology foresight remains a diverse and experimental practice whose theoretical foundations are poorly understood and whose successes have not yet moved from the anecdotal to the empirically grounded. Much remains to be learned. Meanwhile, The Handbook of Technology Foresight provides an important survey of current knowledge that will help governments use foresight to navigate these tumultuous times.

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Lempert, R. A toolbox for policy planners. Nature 455, 169–170 (2008).

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