Bezold on the History and Future of Anticipatory Democracy and Foresight – Part 1

At the IAF 40th Anniversary and in a recent article published in the World Futures Review, Clem Bezold described the history and the future of anticipatory democracy and foresight. Below we share some highlights from these. For the full article, please click here.


I started IAF in 1977 together with Jim Dator and Alvin Toffler to promote and pursue anticipatory democracy and foresight. We were inspired by Toffler’s 1970 best-selling book, Future Shock, and our collaborations through the Committee for Anticipatory Democracy and Toffler’s getting me to edit the book, Anticipatory Democracy: People in the Politics of the Future. Ever since its founding, IAF has facilitated many futures efforts in cities and states, for all branches of government, non-profit organizations, and corporations. In the process, we developed our Aspirational Futures approach to foresight.

Over the course of four decades, foresight in government has been a major focus of IAF’s work. Foresight is important for all three branches—judicial, executive, and legislative—though there are differences in how each does their foresight and in IAF’s work with them.

In the judicial branch, because of Toffler and Dator’s work on law, justice and courts, IAF’s first conference in 1977 was on the futures of the legal system. IAF, with Dator’s University of Hawaii Futures Center and the National Center for State Courts, developed a training guide to futures for state courts. Subsequently more than 30 state court systems have held futures efforts with most using that training material.

In the executive branch, Herbert Hoover created the Committee on Social Trends, which produced Recent Social Trends in the United States in 1933. Franklin Roosevelt’s administration had the National Resources Committee (NRC) and the National Resources Planning Board (NRPB) provide studies and ideas for many New Deal programs. The NRPB’s activity in fact became so significant that it upset Congress, which closed it down in 1943.

Examples of executive branch foresight from around the world include Policy Horizons Canada, the leading national foresight office, which had their staff trained in IAF’s Aspirational Futures approach. Finland has also integrated its executive and legislative foresight activity, and Singapore has a major national foresight operation integrated throughout their agencies, particularly national defense agencies. In the U.S., many federal agencies undertake various forms of foresight and are now in their third wave of significant foresight activities. There is enough activity that those working in foresight have created a Federal Foresight Community of Interest (FFCOI) that meets quarterly with dozens of federal agencies taking part.

In the legislative branch, on the one hand there has been historic hostility toward foresight on the part of many in the U.S. Congress—especially if it is foresight by the other party. On the other hand, Congress has indeed created a number of mechanisms, often through its support organizations, to provide foresight. These include opening the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in the 1970s (closed in 1994), the Congressional Research Service (CRS), Government Accountability Office (GAO), and the “scoring” by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to assess the impacts of legislation. Furthermore, House and Senate Committees do have hearings that include questions about the future, though often not systematic, nor dealing with alternative forecasts. The House Rules do call on House Committees to do future research and forecasting – though again, it is not done systematically. There are proposals to reopen OTA, and GAO does major trend reports and some technology assessments.

Foresight is also alive and well around the globe via several broader networks:

  • IAF has supported the Public Sector Foresight Network.
  • The Millennium Project also maintains a network of national and regional nodes that do foresight.
  • The European Union supports a significant foresight network and developed the most extensive database of foresight activities, the European Foresight Monitoring Network, with cases from around the world.
  • In Latin America, RIBER, the Iberoamerican Network for Prospective of the Millennium Project (Red IBERoamericana de Prospectiva), has annual regional meetings and has produced a major book identifying foresight activities in the region.

In the process of IAF’s foresight work, we developed a unique Aspirational Futures approach that combines thinking about plausible and preferable futures. Vision, a shared commitment to creating the future we prefer, is important for individuals, organizations and communities. Scenarios should therefore consider not only what is most likely (the expectable future) and what could go wrong (the challenging future), but also what is visionary or surprisingly successful (one or more visionary futures). Developing the scenarios requires clarifying assumptions, defining relevant systems and key forces, and developing alternative forecasts for those key forces (expectable, challenging, and visionary).

Historically, IAF learned scenarios from Jim Dator, including Jim’s classic four future archetypes. These set us on the path that became our Aspirational Futures approach. Jim noted that narratives on social change issues can be classified into four recurring groups of images, stories, or policies with respect to the effects of that change:

  • Continuation—business as usual, more of the status quo growth;
  • Limits and Discipline—behaviors to adapt to growing internal or environ- mental limits;
  • Decline and Collapse—system degradation or failure modes as crisis emerges; and
  • Transformation—new technology, business, or social factors that change the game.

With additional contributions from several colleagues on understanding and using vision, we evolved these four archetypes into the three futures zones that IAF uses today:

  • Continuation/Business as Usual became “Expectable”—the most likely future based on current trends. This future may be a continuation of existing trends as well as undergo expectable transformations (e.g., the Internet transformed our economics, learning, entertainment, and social interactions over the last two to three decades).
  • Jim’s second scenario, Limits and Discipline, and his third, Decline and Collapse, were merged to become “Challenging” in our scenarios – exploring what “could go wrong” forces groups to consider major challenges they might confront. In our challenging scenario, this can lead to dire circumstances but seldom collapse. Jim argues that most systems do face the real prospect of collapse and one of the scenarios should explore that.
  • Transformation evolved to become “Visionary”—with visionary as defined by the community or organization developing the scenarios. In the early days of using Jim’s categories, we differentiated between “high tech” transformations as described by Al Toffler, and “high spirit” transformations as described by Willis Harman. As we became more aware of the power of vision and incorporated that into our foresight practice, it made sense to use the power of scenarios to explore what visionary futures would be and describe the paths to those futures. After all, our job as humans, organizations, and communities is to imagine the future we prefer, to define those preferred futures, commit to them, and create them.

We’ve used and refined our Aspirational Futures approach in our work on six continents for a wide range of large corporations, government agencies, communities and non-profits. For example, in his introduction to the IAF 40th Anniversary Symposium Jim Marks described how the use of IAF’s scenarios led the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to its new vision of building a national “Culture of Health.” We have had many experiences like that over the years. It turns out that in the hands of effective leaders, the use of scenarios and vision becomes an effective aid to change management. This earned IAF recognition as one of a dozen small consulting firms that provides successful change management consulting for multinational companies. Our scenario and vision work were the drivers for successful change in several of our clients.

EDIT, January 24, 2019: Click here for Part 2 from our newsletter.