Dr Ken Henry’s recent interventions in the national Australian economic debate, in which he warned about future “day of reckoning” and made the case that an emerging budgetary crisis demands extensive tax reform, got me thinking again about the concept of anticipatory interventions.
I first came across this term in Haico te Kulve’s thesis which is titled Anticipatory Interventions and the Co-evolution of Nanotechnology and Society. He pointed out that “in contrast with earlier emerging technologies, in the case of nanotechnology there is a lot of anticipation surrounding how it might, or should, become embedded in society”. One of te Kulve’s studies, for example, pointed to the ‘anticipatory interventions’ conducted by institutional entrepreneurs. Another study involved Constructive Technology Assessment workshops supported by a set of scenarios.
I generally use the term “anticipatory intervention” to refer to the use futures thinking tools or forecasting techniques to attempt to “change the course of change” (in contrast to predictive practices which aim to anticipate the future course of change, and not to influence it). Additionally, interventions can be conducted in anticipation of particular negative changes or possible negative events (e.g. a future oil shock) which aim to better manage or adapt to such change (e.g. making changes to cities to make their inhabitants less dependent on automobiles). Both are anticipatory interventions.
- The Victorian Eco-Innovation Laboratory (VEIL), whom I’m collaborating with on a current project, conduct small targeted interventions in urban precincts which they term “eco-acupuncture”. The central question addressed by the VEIL eco-acupuncture program is: “how can we effectively initiate and support rapid structural and cultural change within existing urban environments and communities, to reconfigure urban form and life in anticipation of the projected impacts of climate change and peak oil?” (see Ryan, 2013; my emphasis added). A core part of the VEIL methodology is the use of visioning processes and visualisation techniques to create positive “glimpses” of business-as-unusual low carbon urban futures. This approaches aims to generate greater, more widely shared commitment to changing urban systems and lifestyles and thereby reduce inertia.
- The International Energy Agency regularly publishes forecasts which present a range of future projections (both a ‘business-as-usual’ future and other possibilities) in a regular effort to focus policy-makers minds on oil supply-related risks. In a sense, the core goal is to publish self-denying prophecies (whereby once the danger is perceived adequate remedial action is taken).
- Any use of scenario-based interventions to influence decision-making. For example, Ramirez and van der Heijden theorise “interactive” roles for scenarios in which a group of actors collectively rehearse ways to intervene in and thereby shape the business environment they operate in.
- Environmentalists creating or using model-based projections to warn about the consequences of inaction. Perhaps the best known example of this is the Limits to Growth study which described a range of projections from a modelling exercise. One of the members of the team, Jorgen Randers recently published a new book entitled 2052 that presents a negative long-term forecast.
- Researching practices in another field, national security, Andrew Lakoff points to the use of a particular technique, scenario-based exercises, to delimit what issues are salient for policymakers (e.g. the “Dark Winter” simulation of a possible bio-terrorist attack via a sophisticated role playing exercise). Lakoff argues that the “imaginative enactment” of a potential disaster creates a strong affective response and experiential knowledge of vulnerability. This contributed to a greater sense of urgency among senior US policy-makers and stronger perceived links between U.S. national security concerns and public health threats (e.g. catastrophic disease threats).
The term anticipatory interventions abstracts from such instances to describe a wider phenomenon.
When reading the futures literature I spot many practitioners whose core work involves conducting anticipatory interventions. A good example is Michael McAllum’s book Designing Better Futures. McAllum encourages a form of futures thinking which involves “standing outside the current paradigm, then using the disruption that this creates, to explore and see a new possibility” (p.43). For McAllum “foresight” is about giving “our brain permission to put the dominant logic in the corner for a moment” (p.49). Strategic foresight is about translating this into action: we “start to understand what might be, what we might want to avoid and where we need to put effort to create better futures for us all”.
In a paper titled ‘Acting on the Future’ British practitioner Andrew Curry grounds his practice in “the need for futures work to influence the present”. He notes Gaston Berger’s remark “that ‘looking at the future should disturb the present’.” Thus, the act of anticipation is approached, centrally, as an intervention in present-day reality. Curry argues that scenarios “can enable us to act on the future”.
Some discontents and their issues
Whilst anticipatory interventions are increasingly common, those conducting them are not without critics. Some of the key issues, regarding some forms of anticipatory intervention, are noted below:
1. The use and, perhaps, abuse of model-based forecasting and prediction
Angela Wilkinson, the new Strategic Foresight Counsellor at the OECD, argues that “we now rely too heavily on model-based forecasting and prediction to justify future-minded action”. She is also concerned that “when this is not forthcoming, the result is to deny the need for change”, pointing to a societal “addiction to prediction”. When I think about the Limits to Growth project, and folk who regularly invoke it, I’m inclined to agree with her. This is also clearly Dr Henry’s approach in using predictions to justify and advocate “future-minded action”. Wilkinson calls for a paradigmatic shift from seeking to “learn about the future” to “learning with multiple futures” using a non-predictive approach.
Perhaps more importantly if the danger never manifests this can lead to greater skepticism about the next round of forecasts – perhaps a real-life form of “the boy who cried wolf”.
Climate change expert Mike Hulme has raised related concerns about modelling, which he contends often slip into forms of environmental determinism and problematic reductionism. To Hulme, “climate determinism” has become the dominant mode of analysis of environmental change, especially via the rise of climate modelling and climate impact assessment (see my paper on these issues).
2. Issues associated with the “emergency” modality of interventions
These issues are driven by the challenge of short-termism when facing long-term problems. Collier and Lakoff observe that “emergencies galvanize public attention and resources in a way that long-term problems do not”, and add that “at least from the vantage of first-order actors measures focused on mitigating potential emergencies are easier to implement than longer-term structural interventions” (see their book). In environmental space activists similarly declare a “global sustainability emergency”.
Some critics raise issues regarding factors that can reduce the effectiveness of such approaches. One line of argument is termed the ‘Giddens Paradox’. It summarises many of the reasons it is argued to be impossible to mobilise adequate action (solely) on the basis of avoiding climate dangers:
No matter how much we are told about the threats, it is hard to face up to them, because they feel somehow unreal – and in the meantime there is a life to be lived, with all its pleasure and pressures. The politics of climate change has to cope with what I call Gidden’s Paradox… It states that, since the dangers posed by climate change aren’t tangible, immediate or visible in the course of day-to-day life, however awesome they appear, many will sit on their hands and do nothing of a concrete nature about them. Yet waiting until they become visible and acute before being stirred into serious action will, by definition, be too late. For we know of no way of getting the greenhouse gases out again once they are there and most will be in the atmosphere for centuries (Giddens, 2011, p.2).
Other critics raise issues regarding the morality of such practices. For example, some critics of the “Dark Winter” simulation exercise (noted above as an example anticipatory intervention) argued it was alarmist, relying on worst-case projections of the possibles deaths from such an attack and generating unjustifiable unease (and related emotional responses from the participants).
3. A rationalistic and positivist approach to futures analysis Versus more constructionist approaches
This issue points to underlying epistemological and ontological dimensions and conflicts. For example, scenarios are often develop in a reactive mode: i.e. first a set of scenarios are developed (independent of possible strategies or policies) and then, second, organisational adaptability to those potential futures is considered, which Ramirez and van der Heijden argue means scenario practices have been “lodged in a rationalistic, positivist corner”. In contrast, a more constructionist approach would consider organisational strategies and policies as part of the scenario-building process. This approach considers how different plausible futures could be enacted (as opposed to a preparedness orientation).
4. The complex challenge of taking responsible action in the face of uncertainty
Lakoff’s research on biothreats and biosecurity points to an underlying key issue: formulating and taking responsible action in the face of uncertainty. He notes that risk assessment and insurance “are examples of techniques that calculate the probability of future events in order to guide rational action in the present”, drawing on known historical patterns. However, Lakoff points to the issue of novel threats and uncertain future biothreat events for which the tools of quantitative risk assessment are unhelpful. For authorities in such situations, he writes, “the problem for making decisions in the present is not one of knowing what will unfold, but of taking responsible action in the face of uncertainty”.
Importantly, his research emphasises the use of scenario-based exercises as a technique for stimulating action in the face of uncertainty. However, he also contends that this privileged action on some types of uncertain future threat (e.g. potential outbreak of pandemics, etc) to the detriment of action on other present known issues that cause emerging infectious diseases (e.g. global poverty).
The above issues point to considerations for those seeking to conduct effective anticipatory interventions. For example, with respect to climate action, Giddens calls for greater recognition of “the limitations of the politics of fear and anxiety” and more emphasis on creating “a positive model of a low-carbon future” which “connects with ordinary, everyday life in the present”. It also points to underlying aspects of human behaviour that thwart future-minded action: “people find it hard to give the same level of reality to the future as they do to the present” (Giddens, 2011, p.3).