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Can Vet J. 2010 April; 51(4): 372–374.
PMCID: PMC2839822

Foresight: An innovative approach for animal health emergency preparedness

The ability to conceptualize time travel is unique to humans (1). It enables foresight, which in the purest form is simply “the action of looking forward” (2). Foresight also describes a set of tools that allows diverse groups of participants to think systematically about the future, without attempting to predict it, in order to inform decision-making in the present (3). “Foresight allows preparation for diverse future challenges with adequate lead time... it anticipates and creates multiple, plausible futures... These futures may be positive or negative, but in their diversity they bring into view issues and perspectives that may not have been initially considered.” (4).

Foresight tools have been used extensively by businesses and governments worldwide for many years. Arie de Geus, past corporate planning director for Shell and author of The Living Company, explains that “Ultimately the important discussion is not whether something will happen but what would we do if it did happen.” Sir David King, former Chief Scientific Adviser to Her Majesty’s Government and Head of the United Kingdom’s (UK) Office of Science and Innovation, stated that “[A foresight program] has demonstrated that when scientists speak clearly to a receptive political audience, the result can be highly effective.” (5).

The Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges undertook a foresight project in 2006 addressing the future direction of academic veterinary medical education in North America (4). The results were made available to all the veterinary colleges and implemented, either partially or fully, by many universities. Australia and the UK have both embraced foresight to assist government strategies and planning — in the UK, the Office of Foresight was developed in 2001 as a result of a major foot-and-mouth disease outbreak (5).

In Canada, in light of global political changes since 2001, the Centre for Security Science of National Defense allocated funds to strengthen national security and preparedness through the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and Explosives (CBRNE) Research and Technology Initiative (CRTI). In 2008, CRTI approved and funded a 3-year foresight project focusing on the Animal Health Emergency Management (AHEM) system in Canada, titled Foresight for Canadian Animal Health (Fore-CAN) (6). Recent costly animal health events, caused by infectious diseases such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, highly pathogenic avian influenza in domestic poultry, and H1N1 in multiple species, are indicators of likely future challenges — highlighting the importance of ensuring that the AHEM system has capabilities to maintain the security, health, and well-being of Canadians.

The AHEM system in Canada draws on the expertise of members from diverse groups and interests, including participants from producer groups, animal health, public health, academia, federal departments and agencies, provincial governments, and international experts and organizations. The Fore-CAN project is led by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) in partnership with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), the provinces of Ontario and Alberta, Canada’s veterinary colleges, and the Dairy Farmers of Canada — all key stakeholders in the AHEM system.

Like other foresight initiatives, the Fore-CAN project employs various systematic techniques and exercises (Figure 1) (7). The first Fore-CAN workshop, examining ‘Issues and Driving Forces’ (6), involved approximately 80 participants and employed brainstorming exercises to determine uncertain, yet highly influential factors that are expected to challenge the AHEM system beyond 2020. Examples included climate change, globalization, and urbanization. Two factors were recognized as the most uncertain and influential: Societal Values and the Nature of Infectious Disease. In the second workshop, ‘Scenario Development’, participants developed 4 unique and plausible future scenarios shaped by the extremes from these 2 factors. The spectrum for Societal Values ranged from human-centered to a holistic perspective, and for the Nature of Infectious Disease, from low virulence, familiar pathogens, to high virulence, emerging, drug-resistant superbugs. These scenarios provided a framework for discussion about the challenges and requirements for the future animal health system.

Figure 1
Exercises and techniques employed as part of the Fore-CAN project for the Animal Health Emergency Management system.

In the third workshop, ‘Systems Mapping’ (8), methods were used to describe elements and relationships in the 4 sub-systems of AHEM — Prevention, Preparedness, Response, and Recovery. These sub-systems represented the chronological stages of emergency management. The following workshop, ‘Integration,’ requested participants to use their understanding of the current system to provide ideas for a new design that would meet the challenges identified in future scenarios.

Four domains, or themes, necessary for a future system for which action planning was considered essential included: Communication & Collaboration, Education & Training, Research & Development and Technologies, and Regulatory System & Tools. During an ‘Output Synthesis’ workshop, participants outlined the critical capacities necessary to deal with future scenarios within each of these 4 domains. A stepwise back-casting technique was used to explore potential actions necessary to develop these required capabilities between now and 2020.

Exercises scheduled for 2010 include ‘Roadmap Development’, and ‘Consultation & Validation’. Fore-CAN will host a Spring 2010 Symposium to review the project’s accomplishments and explore future critical steps for integration of outputs from the foresight project into strategic planning within and across organizations.

The overall process Fore-CAN follows is logical, transparent, and allows full participation from everyone involved in each exercise. Documentation is thorough and includes recording presentations from speakers, transcribing oral debates, and collecting raw ideas and insights that emerge during foresight activities. All information is digitized and made available online.

The Fore-CAN project is bringing together AHEM participants from a variety of disciplines and jurisdictions, providing an innovative way for them to develop new approaches for the management of animal health emergencies in Canada. The insights and suggestions that emerge from Fore-CAN are intended to help prepare Canada to better manage future animal health emergencies. Initial project feedback demonstrates that these exercises are having a positive impact on participants and stakeholders, allowing for innovative methods for thinking about future challenges. Implementing the insights from Fore-CAN and taking action will require the willingness and leadership of government, academia, industry, and the general public.

For more information on the Fore-CAN project go to:


Use of this article is limited to a single copy for personal study. Anyone interested in obtaining reprints should contact the CVMA office ( gro.vmca-amvc@nothguorbh) for additional copies or permission to use this material elsewhere.


1. Suddendorf T, Corballis MC. Mental time travel and the evolution of the human mind. Genet Soc Gen Psychol Monogr. 1997;123:133–67. [PubMed]
2. “foresight” The Oxford English Dictionary. OED Online. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press; 1989. [Last accessed February 16, 2010]. Available from:
3. Conway M. Environmental scanning: What is it, how to do it. Thinking Futures. Apr, 2009. [Last accessed February 16, 2010]. Available from:
4. Willis N, Monroe F, Potworowski A, et al. Envisioning the future of veterinary medical education: The association of American veterinary medical colleges foresight project, final report. J Vet Med Educ. 2007;34:1–41.
5. King D, Thomas S. Taking science out of the box — foresight recast. Science. 2007;316:1701–1702. [PubMed]
6. Renwick S. CFIA workshop. Can Vet J. 2009;50:362–363.
7. Smith J, Saritas O. Science and technology foresight baker’s dozen: A pocket primer of comparative and combined foresight methods. Federal Foresight & Innovation Strategy, Defense Research and Development Canada. 2009:1–25.
8. Forrester JW. Principles of Systems. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Wright-Allen press; 1969.

Articles from The Canadian Veterinary Journal are provided here courtesy of Canadian Veterinary Medical Association