Bezold on the History and Future of Anticipatory Democracy and Foresight

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.

On the Rise of Equity and Maturing of Humanity

IAF’s approach to foresight is influenced by our commitment to equity.

Most foresight is done by and for governments and organizations with a unitary focus. The disaggregated impact on different populations are seldom assessed. Ignoring such disparities perpetuates inequities.

Yet we have witnessed in our work and beyond a growing awareness of and support for equity (and sustainability) in many forms. With this sensitivity to disparities among affected populations, there is increasing awareness of the need for appropriate tools that consider disparities and equity in policy — and recognition that foresight should contribute to that. 

As futurists, we see the indicators of a significant long-term shift in re-defining and supporting equity. This shift at times gets overrun by counter trends and events, like the Trump election and the killing by police of unarmed black men. But “equity rising” is a fundamental trend that is occurring—a growing awakening to fairness or equity, including health equity. Differences among races, income classes, or other groupings that are avoidable and unfair are getting more and more attention.

As it did with slavery, humanity is changing its mind about fairness. In the 1840s, many people in the United States would say that slavery is just the way it is. By the 1860s, the movements and counter movements had grown, led to the Secession of the South, the Civil War, and the Emancipation Proclamation. Society changed its mind about slavery, albeit, the hard way.

Now society is changing its mind about equity or fairness more broadly. In the twentieth century, the Civil Rights Movement had to overcome the segregation and discrimination that followed the ending of slavery. Likewise, women’s rights—voting, education, employment, and pay were put in place. More recently lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) rights, particularly gay marriage, have been put in place. In all of these cases, the unfairness did not totally disappear. But it was no longer legally acceptable.

There are indicators of this trend toward equity in official definitions and goals. On the global stage, these include the World Health Organization’s “Health for All” vision in the 1990s, declaring that achieving true health for a community or a nation required meeting certain values: equity, solidarity, sustainability, ethics, and gender rights. (I had the honor of working with WHO in Europe, North America, and South America on this Health for All revisioning process). Similarly, the Millennium Development Goals and the successor Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include health equity among the globally accepted audacious goals.

In the United States, the nation’s “Healthy People” objectives evolved since the late 1990s to “eliminate health disparities” (for Healthy People 2010), “achieve health equity, eliminate disparities, and improve the health of all groups” (for Healthy People 2020), and more recently “eliminate health disparities, achieve health equity, and attain health literacy to improve the health and well-being of all” (proposed for Healthy People 2030).

This rise of equity is also visible in the directions and funding support from the RWJF, The Kresge Foundation, the Kellogg Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation among others. These and other indicators of this trend of rising support for equity reinforce Martin Luther King’s comment that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Aligned with this trend, IAF projects consistently explore pathways to increasing equity and sustainability. For example, the Disparity Reducing Advances Project sought to identify the most promising advances for bringing health gains to low-income and underserved communities and to accelerate the development and deployment of these advances to reduce disparities. Another example is the Health Equity and Prosperity—An American Freedom and Justice Project that was led by Jonathan Peck. It brought together multiple partner organizations and convened hundreds of people to stimulate leadership in health equity. 

On Future Tasks for Foresight and Anticipatory Democracy

Societies and nations need foresight processes. Some of the national foresight efforts mentioned in Part 1 are ongoing, as are some global foresight efforts to identify challenges and opportunities and develop shared visions and goals. However, there are some trends in particular that foresight and anticipatory democracy must consider and contribute to:

  • Work and the Economy Are Being Transformed – Job loss to automation is estimated to range from 14.5 to 47 percent of U.S. jobs by 2030. There will be new jobs created in the process, but probably far fewer than those lost. Furthermore, distributed manufacturing or 3D printing will change many sectors, leading to a “zero marginal cost economy” where the marginal cost of producing something is nearly zero, and it sells at that price. AI will similarly lead many services to be made available at very low cost. This is expected to reduce the income and profit that can be generated in many sectors, and therefore drive high structural unemployment and increase the demands on safety net programs. Simultaneously, it will become more important that all, young and old, develop their own sense of personal meaning and that they are “contributing” throughout their life, whether through paid work, raising families, caring for older persons, or other volunteering.
  • “Abundance Advances” Need to Be Made a Reality – That is, the range of technologies for low-cost in-home and in-community energy production and storage; local manufacturing (3D printing) of home goods, home building components or whole homes; in-home and in-community food production (from community gardening to urban/vertical agriculture; from conventional growing to aeroponics, cultured meat, 3D printed food). These need to be developed and deployed in sustainable and equitable ways.

The intersection of job loss to automation, tax and finance reform, income and safety net systems, including housing, and optimizing abundance advances—all require significant foresight.

What about the role and future of anticipatory democracy (A/D) itself?

A/D is foresight with active citizen participation. One central part of A/D are community future efforts. In the 1978 Anticipatory Democracy book, we documented those, primarily in the United States. These community goals and futures efforts have continued under various names, and their frequency has ebbed and flowed around the world. The Unites States, Canada, Latin America, Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand all have had significant examples of thoughtful community futuring activities and goal setting. Some of these have focused on the future of their community overall, others focused on specific topics, such as health and wellness, or the environment. In the last two decades, equity and sustainability have been growing themes in the analysis and goal setting of these efforts, reflecting the “equity rising” trend.

We continue to observe the power of vision and shared goals in many community efforts, most recently in our Human Progress and Human Services 2035 project. Two of our local partners, for example, had developed widely shared community visions and goals—San Antonio and San Diego. They have real advantages over other communities in improving their residents’ well-being and accelerating positive change.

Going forward as a nation, we will need to have widespread participation in developing shared vision and effective designs to deal with the key challenges we are facing. This is important for giving each of us, as citizens and voters, thoughtful, meaningful choices to reflect on, including how the transformations we face—social, economic, and technological—will be rolled out.

A/D needs to help ensure that economic and social transformations work for all. This includes having the opportunity, for all, to make meaningful contributions. That is a significant task going forward, particularly in the face of huge unemployment, and the establishment of a guaranteed basic income. How might each of us pursue opportunities and make our contributions?

In conclusion, I believe that humanity is maturing. Foresight and A/D can help us individually and collectively understand what might happen, explore and invent positive options, clarify our values, and develop shared visions and goals. That is for me where A/D and foresight should be and are headed. It has been an honor, great fun, and very fulfilling to have traveled on these paths over our forty years at IAF.