What is a Weak Signal?

Wednesday 4th of May 2011 by Rafael Popper

In recent years, Foresight has emerged as a key instrument for the development and implementation of forward-looking research and innovation policies. Some activities show an interesting mix of approaches combining three types of elements: prospective studies of long-term opportunities and alternatives, participatory networking, and policy orientation. However, far too little attention has been paid to the identification and analysis of Wildcards and Weak Signals (WI-WE).

Weak Signals are past or current developments/issues with ambiguous interpretations of their origin, meaning and/or implications. They are unclear observables warning us about the probability of future events. For example, changes in public attitudes to one thing or another, an emerging pattern of concern about emerging health problems. Finding “relevant” weak signals is one of the most challenging tasks in futures research and their analysis often leads to the identification of potential Wild Cards. Given that weak signals lie in the eye of the observer, practically anything could be a weak signal:

 1. Current Strengths & Weaknesses can be weak signals

                Growing failures of social care in educating young people

2. Current Drivers, Trends & Challenges can be weak signals

                Increasing Self-Medication

3. Current Strategies & Policies can be weak signals

                Growing privatisation of war 

                Cars Banned from City Centres

4. Emerging Issues can be weak signals           

                Care Communities

                Research on Aircrafts Propelled by Alternative Fuels

                University offers Lady Gaga sociology course

5. Future Drivers, Scenarios, Threats & Opportunities can be weak signals

                DNA Testing and Social Engineering on the rise

                Obama´s goal: One Million e-cars on the US streets by 2015

6. Shared Visions Megatrends & Grand Challenges can be weak signals

                Growing frequency of floods in Europe and the world

7. Hidden Issues (Secrets & Unknowns) can be weak signals           

                Several Arab leaders urged attack on Iran over nuclear issue

8. Past Wild Cards can be weak signals too!           

                9/11 is also seen as a signal that "terrorists" infiltrated US security circles