The horizon scanning zoo

What better place to go and see the future than the horizon scanning zoo! Here you can see all the magnificent beasts, which tell their story of the futures. Just follow this field guide and enjoy the (fore)sights!

Black swans

Near the entrance, in the most popular spot, are the black swans, swimming unexpectedly in the pond of future events. Based on the work by Graham Molitor, these birds were popularized by Nassim Taleb. They represent unexpected events that were thought to be impossible, until one day they happened; or alternatively things that were once thought to be non-existent until they were discovered. Not only are they unexpected, they also have a huge impact on the current way of doing things. They are the heart of the analysis of weak signals, and everyone wants to capture them first – to gain a competitive advantage or enhance resilience in general. But the horizon scanning zoo is rather noisy and the swans can be hard to notice. Therefore it is useful to know what other animals can be found here.


In a central but somewhat ignored place in the zoo are the elephants – sometimes referred to as black elephants. These are things that are well known and have a profound impact, but for some reason are not taken into account when imagining alternative futures. Examples could include aging, climate change, urbanization etc. These elephants like to dwell right in the middle of the room and pretend to be invisible. And frankly the temptation to play along is rather strong, given how cumbersome an elephant in a room is.

Jellyfishes and butterflies

Black swans as well as the elephants are things or events that will have an immediate and large impact. There are also more cunning creatures in the zoo, such as jellyfishes and butterflies. A jellyfish is an event that starts rather innocently, but has a terrible long tail and a nasty sting in the end. It represents an event or issue with a positive feedback loop, turning a small event into a huge catastrophe. Similarly, the butterflies in the chaos gardens like to cause hurricanes by flapping their wings. However, the impacts of their behaviour are far more unpredictable than that of the jellyfish – that is, you never quite now where the hurricane will be. Identifying either of these sneaky animals requires the understanding of the systems that make up our world and the interconnectedness of the challenges and opportunities we face.

Peacocks and red herrings

A lot of the visitors to the horizon scanning zoo are of course there to see the animals, some of which are elusive and easy to miss in the noisy environment. Some animals, however, want to be noticed. Take the peacock for example. It lives to be talked about and hyped. It enjoys showing its colourful and mesmerizing plumage. However, it doesn’t have much impact on anything. Similarly the red herring is something that is there to misguide and to distract from the other things in the zoo. Perhaps it is necessary to say at this point that the horizon scanning zoo is not that well-kept – some of the zookeepers like to place animals such as red herrings in order to serve their purposes.


In the finance island of the zoo a new animal has received quite a lot of attention lately, namely the unicorn. Unicorns usually refer to start-ups with high valuation, but here in the zoo they can be any event or thing that has gathered impressive backing or drive in a short time. Unicorns are the black swans of a networked age – they feed on the interactions to gain their impact, instead of just crashing the party. But because the rate of change can sometimes be surprisingly rapid, it is easy to mix these two animals. So here is another rule of thumb: if it is bad, it is more likely to be a black swan. Unicorns are mythical, magical and majestic, at least according to their owners.

Dinosaurs and cash cows

Extending the analogy of the unicorns, there are also dinosaurs and cash cows in the finance island of the zoo. Dinosaurs refer to incumbents, but also to known trends that might be fading. While no a very sexy topic in foresight – dinosaurs are ancient history – they have their place in the horizon scanning zoo. There is value in knowing what is going away, not just in knowing what is coming.

Also on the finance island are cash cows. These are trends and issues that make the horizon scanners rich. They are things that are known to be happening, but still need a bit of interpretation. For some reason they seem to be mainly technological disruptions, such as robotization.  This does not of course mean that they would be unreasonably hyped or exaggerated, just that they are the business as usual in the horizon scanning zoo.


The last animal described in this field guide is the dodo. These are things that were once highly relevant, but have now gone extinct, either because something else altogether happened, or they themselves happened and faded already. While not very useful for the needs of the present situation, they do remind us that the fauna of the zoo is not static, but in constant flux. The black swans of today will become the dodos of tomorrow. They tell us of the values and beliefs we once had and whisper: “those who forget the past future are doomed to repeat it”.