Transforming the Future: Anticipation in the 20th Century

This week I’m reviewing Transforming the Future: Anticipation in the 20th Century, edited by Riel Miller, who was appointed as the Head of Foresight to UNESCO in 2012, and over 30 other contributors. I came across this book in the OECD Observatory of Public Sector Innovation’s Anticipatory Innovation Governance Working Paper (which is an excellent primer on anticipation in the public sector), and have subsequently seen it in multiple publications on anticipation and futures studies. The first chapters provide a definition of “futures literacy,” a foundational chapter for a discipline of Anticipation, and a theoretical framework for collective intelligence and knowledge creation processes (CIKC). The second half of the book consists of case studies from the UNESCO Futures Literacy Labs conducted around the world and examples the application of futures literacy to various topical domains. 

Why does anticipation matter for complexity-informed conflict resolution? 

In my latest post that outlined my Vision for Complexity-Informed Conflict Resolution, I focused on how the Carter School Peace Engineering Lab is planning to explore SenseMaker as a Peace Engineering approach. Re-reading the post, I’m realizing that there are many aspects of complexity-informed conflict resolution that still need to be fleshed out as a general mapping of where practice can go. 

Anticipation fits into the overall vision for two reasons: 

1. The future is becoming more and more uncertain as grand challenges like climate change, crises of democracy, and the global pandemic de-stabilize systems, and 

2. Historically, the peace studies field has developed in reaction to major conflicts and wars after they occur rather than proactively identifying future challenges for prevention. 

Because I’m interested in understanding how conflict resolution practice can scale, these macro dynamics are just as important as localized conflict dynamics. We are clearly about to encounter “known unknowns” that might entirely re-align the field around new domains of conflict. Increased uncertainty also calls for increased methodological flexibility that can rapidly mobilize large numbers of people to address large-scale problems. In general, peace scholarship should look forward, as many approaches to analysis might be too slow to cope with rapidly changing conflict formations. We are in a moment when peace studies can proactively embrace anticipatory thinking and prepare scalable conflict resolution mechanisms that contribute to human adaptability in this uncertain world. 

Futures Literacy and Anticipation 

Futures literacy is defined as: 

“The capacity to decipher and categorize as well as produce (design, conduct and interpret) explicit (volitional and intentional) processes of anticipatory knowledge creation, as a necessary and ordinary skill.”[1]

In designing a community sensemaking approach with SenseMaker, improving futures literacy could be an element of the outcomes for community participation- especially in the community sensemaking, data return, and intervention phases (of the overall participatory narrative inquiry approach). In a successfully institutionalized continuous capture story collection system, there would be opportunities to develop futures literacy for decision-makers in the public sector as well as in communities themselves. By adding this to the approach, it increases the options available for peacebuilders to play a role in the constructivist aspect of peace work- imagining how things should be and then figuring out steps that can be taken immediately. 

The book focuses on processes and systems to support anticipation because “anticipation is the only way that the future is actually expressed in the present.”[2] The book lays the framework of “using-the-future” by identifying anticipatory assumptions, reframing those assumptions, and then developing new questions and action steps based on a changed understanding of possible futures. These are the three phases of the UNESCO Futures Literacy Labs.[3] The first chapter of the book introduces a “Futures Literacy Framework” that grounds research in the Discipline of Anticipation established by the book. The framework is below: 

Futures Literacy Framework [4]

There is a dichotomy between “anticipation-for-the-future” (AfF) and “anticipation-for-emergence” (AfE)[5] that is essentially an ordered vs. complex approach in systems terms. AfE is similar to the SenseMaker approach, because the goal is ‘Using-the-future’ to understand the present on the basis of non-deterministic anticipatory systems.”[6] The authors strongly critique the probabilistic and normative anticipation-for-the-future approach, claiming that “AfF is the frame that legitimises and incentivises the grandiose claims being made by leaders worldwide that they can impose their will on tomorrow. In a nutshell, the imperative is to colonise tomorrow with today’s idea of tomorrow.”[7] The use of ‘colonization’ to describe future planning efforts is an interesting narrative intervention that positions anticipatory work for emergence as a decolonial process. Decolonizing the future, in this sense, means working with people to reflect on their own situation, imagine alternative futures, and work with anticipatory tools to shape it themselves. The anticipation-for-emergence approaches are ways to explore the “evolutionary potential of the present” (to use Dave Snowden’s language) by focusing on mapping the environment in a way that people can better come to grips with their own situation and contribute to a ‘solution’ through action. 

Developing knowledge creation processes for conscious anticipation requires identifying and changing anticipatory assumptions (the right-hand side of the Futures Literacy Framework). Below is a picture of the glossary where these assumptions are defined: 

Anticipatory Assumptions Glossary[8]

You’ll notice that the anticipatory assumptions under AfE include strategic thinking for general-scalable repetition and wisdom-Tao-being. Essentially, anticipating for emergence requires wide adoption of general frameworks that can accommodate a wide variety of futures. The tie to Eastern Philosophy reminds me of Galtung’s Daoist Social Science Epistemology that I studied at the Galtung-Institut. In that line of thinking, Galtung derived rules for a Daoist epistemology that would counter Cartesian epistemology. It’s interesting how often complexity thinking and Eastern philosophy intersect. 

Overall, I look forward to returning to the citations in this book for my dissertation chapter on anticipation. One element that I chose not to focus on for this blog is the theoretical framework of Memory Evolutive Systems (in Ch. 3) that could give insight into tracking a vector theory of change with SenseMaker data. This theory connects to category theory in mathematics and can provide a “‘hybrid’ representation [that includes]: the relational and organized aspects of the system are captured in the structure of the successive configuration categories which give a snapshot of the state of the system at a given time, and the internal dynamics are captured by the ‘transitions’ between configurations which measure both the dynamic changes of states and the struc­tural changes (such as loss, or addition of components).”[9] As I continue to get deeper into the peace engineering community, I’m looking to make these mathematical connections that will inform the development of analytical capability for SenseMaker data at scale. A concept that provides good-enough representations of a system and accommodates multiple inputs is always welcome!

Event Plug

If you are interested in learning more about how futures literacy and anticipation can be utilized for peacebuilding and conflict resolution, you should register for the Carter School Peace Engineering Lab event on March 16: Peace Engineering through Anticipatory Innovation Governance. I will be hosting the conversation with Piret Toñurist and Angela Hanson from OPSI and we will be looking at practical ways to integrate anticipatory thinking into programming and policy design. You can register on the Carter School’s Eventbrite page here:

Note on the Works Cited: currently all of these are referenced to the book as a whole. Several authors contributed chapters, and so if properly cited these would likely be done by chapter.

[1] Riel Miller, ed., Transforming the Future: Anticipation in the 21st Century, 1st edition (Routledge, 2018). 58. 

[2] Miller. 19. 

[3] Miller. 104.

[4] Miller. 24.

[5] Miller. 20.

[6] Miller. This is the full set of terms in the glossary. 268. 

[7] Miller. 21. 

[8] Miller. This is the full set of terms in the glossary. 268. 

[9] Miller. 78.