Signals of Change
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Signals of Change

Your signal spotter starter kit

Hello! So you’ve heard about signals of change and you want to hone your senses to spot them in the wild. You’re in the right place! Here’s a starter kit that will take you through everything from what a signal is to how to pick them out from the clutter. You’ll be a whizz in no time.

Let’s begin!

What is a signal of change?

A signal of change is like a seed of a possible future. It can be any development, idea or innovation that points to a future possibility different to today’s norms. Not all signals come to fruition, because the future is inherently uncertain, but they help us consider future trajectories.

Click on one of these eight categories to explore how a myriad of signals can be spotted in any one field:

Which category did you pick? Did any of the signals surprise you?

Starter kit essentials

Here’s what you will need to embark on your signal spotting journey.

Pick up each of these attributes by inhaling them one deep breath at a time.

  • Curiosity
  • Hawk eyes
  • Interest in the future
  • Questioning mind

Great! Now that you’re all geared up, let’s dive right into our exercises.

Exercise 1

Now that you know what a signal of change is, click on these two signals to learn more about each of them.

Can you identify what two things they have in common, that is different from any other news story?

What did you come up with?

Let’s take a closer look at each signal to see what makes them tick.

  • US Government Electric Vehicle: First time the US government will have an all-electric vehicle fleet. Although this is a long-term project, the announcement signals to automakers that the future is electric.
  • Netherlands UV Light Farming: First time the project, GROW, is trialling its vertical light recipe. This could increase crop-yield and reduce reliance on antibiotics, paving the way for a future that achieves food security.

(*What is good / bad for sustainability is often not binary — read the full signals to weigh more implications)

So what do these signals have in common? That’s right,

1) They are all things that we’re seeing for the first time, or we’re seeing a big step up in significance.

2) Each has the potential to change the future in its own unique way, with implications for sustainability.

Great work, we are now ready to move on to the next exercise.

Exercise 2

Look through these three media sources. How many of them are signals of change? *Hint you might have to scan the whole article to get the full picture.

  1. Boeing 777s grounded after Denver engine failure
  2. The world’s first 3D-printed school is taking shape in Madagascar
  3. Climate change has ‘worsened’ North America’s pollen season

How many of those do you think are signals?

We saw one, and here’s how we got there:

  1. This is not a signal of change because it reports a concerning event in the aviation industry, which is useful to know, but it is not an idea or innovation that can shape a sustainable future.
  2. This is a signal of change because it is the first time a project of its nature is being developed and it has implications for the future. The schools can be built in under a week and with less environmental impact than conventional methods. This may address a shortage in infrastructure and allow more children to receive an education in the future.
  3. This is not a signal of change as it is a summary of a long term trend: worsening pollen seasons. It is not a new trend and has evolved over time rather than a signal indicating a different future.

Did you pick out the same signals that we did? Are there any you disagree with?

We love to be challenged; let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

Join the signal spotting community

Now that you’ve got the hang of identifying signals, why not use the Futures Centre as your space to keep track of changes you spot? We are a dynamic community tracking what’s new to find opportunities for a sustainable future.

What signals of change have you seen recently? We’d like you to have a go at submitting one!

Try and keep it short: a 50 word description of the signal; and a 50–100 word explanation of the future implications for sustainability. Make sure to include a title, the location, relevant tags and the source URL for where you found the signal.

If you don’t feel ready to submit a signal, and would like some feedback first, you can skip this step and submit a signal on the link below — we’ll get back to you with some advice!

If you are ready, watch this video and have a go! What is the first signal that you will share with the world?

Congratulations! You are now a bonafide signal spotter.

*To submit a signal you should first be registered on the site and logged in.

Ask for feedback

If you have identified a signal, but you’re not 100% clear on if what you’ve written is in line with our guidelines, do not fret! Have a go at submitting a draft signal on this form — designed to be similar to the real thing — and we’ll let you know if there’s room for improvement.

Happy signal spotting!

This article was first published on the Futures Centre on 24 Feb 2017 and revised on 4 March 2021.



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