Scanning Patterns / by Scott Smith

Image: Flickr / Status Frustration

Image: Flickr / Status Frustration

A bit of personal process observation:

Environmental scanning—looking for data, indicators, signals and stories that provide insights into possible futures—has been a habit of mine since before I began working in foresight research. In fact, it was this habit, and the patterns that it drives me to observe, collect and consider, that got me into this line of work. 

Scanning itself needs patterns, both systematic and irregular, symmetric and asymmetric. To be a habit—a reflex—scanning needs some sort of structured approach, and also an openness to adaptation—to shift, adopt new tools, adjust signal-to-noise ratios. It also needs different modes: physical, digital and environmental (there are others, but that's a different post). It's the digital ones that make up the majority of my scanning, because of the frequency and number of inputs (the whole of the Internet) and the amount of time I spend near a digital device (too much, but what can you do?). I start and end the day with a time-appropriate beverage in one hand, and a device of some kind in the other, flipping, digging, scrolling and poking my way through thousands of posts, messages, and media. Some of what I find gets blurted right back out with a minimum of contextualization, some gets sorted, tagged and collected, and some rattles around in my head, occasionally making its way out in fragments of conversation and debate with friends and colleagues.

What I realized this morning was how layered or multimodal my approach has become over time. By this, I mean I use—almost ritually—a diverse array of inputs, organized in different ways, dictated in some fashion by innovations in communication:

  • Dashboard—I started organizing things by dashboard about seven or eight years ago, trying a number of tools, eventually settling on Netvibes. This is a flat approach to scanning, using a limited number of sources, organized by categories that I want a quick view of. Think of it as walking up to a traditional, well-stocked newsstand on the street and quickly eyeballing the headlines of the dailies and magazines. (Number of sources: c. 50)
  • Stream—The explosion of blogs happened about the same time, and I made good use of a number of RSS readers to collect and read about hundreds blogs, sites and other feeds that make XML data available. My weapon of choice has been Google Reader [scratch that going forward], and more recently Reeder. This linear flow of information allows me to push through hundreds of sources, dipping my face in the stream a few times a day to look for interesting material. (Number of sources: c. 350)
  • Network—The introduction of Twitter blew this approach out into a massively distributed network. Instead of waiting for a blogpost that may never come, suddenly there were thousands upon thousands of eyeballs on the world, in interlocking networks, talking about what is important, irritating, horrifying, revelatory, hilarious, curious and so on—an amazing live, global network that breathes insight. It also doubles as an open messaging platform, and a fantastic way to meet new minds. (Number of sources: c. 900)
  • Suggestion—The newest entry is the (squishy) area of machine-aided "serendipity." Here, I'm experimenting with relational tools such as Futureful to see what humans + algorithms can add to the mix. I suspect formulae will increasingly sneak their way into the scanning stream, both explicitly through tools that market themselves this way, and implicitly through the constant reengineering of the algorithms that underpin major "knowledge" tools (using that term very loosely) such as Google that feed us so much of what we "need to know." These tools make an interesting supplement to, but not substitution for, the relational skills of the brain—or, brains, if you get the harmonics right. (Number of sources: ??)

These tools are first and foremost there to shape the flow, but not to control it. Missing from this list is the inspiration/validation provided actual environmental scanning—done in the physical world outside, with the senses, through human intelligence. This real-world element, gained through keeping eyes open during daily walkabouts and interactions as well as through formal field observation, keeps things grounded. Otherwise, it's just a flood of semistructured data.