Anticipatory Governance — A Primer

by Jose Ramos (Action Foresight), Ida Uusikyla and Nguyen Tuan Luong (UNDP Viet Nam)

February 18, 2020



Over the past several decades we have seen an increased complexity of change: in speed, interconnectedness and uncertainty. This new socio-ecological context brings with it new strategic risks and “wicked” systemic challenges — challenges that are like “knots” and difficult to address. These can include disruptive emerging issues such as climate change, automation, artificial intelligence, emerging diseases, social pathologies and a range of new technologies. Government has traditionally been good a dealing with social issues and problems which are static and in “silos”. But the type of change we see today is overwhelming traditional planning approaches.

Many of these changes can also be seen as opportunities, if we are able to identify them early and find ways of anticipating and acting on them — indeed use them to our advantage. But without anticipation and action small problems lead to big wicked messes. New approaches to governance are needed which can help institutions express the triple A’s: Anticipatory, Agile and Adaptive governance.

The UNDP is leading an effort to reimagine governance in this context. To better address and respond to such challenges and help countries find faster, more durable solutions to achieve their Sustainable Development Goals, the UNDP established 60 Accelerator Labs around the world. “Anticipatory Governance and Experimentation” form a core capability needed in this context. The UNDP #NextGenGov initiative, which was introduced at the Istanbul Innovation Days 2018, aims to bring together partners to create the space for a new range of deliberate experiments and learning trajectories to accelerate the next generation of governance mechanisms.



Anticipatory Governance

Anticipatory Governance denotes collaborative and participatory processes and systems for exploring, envisioning, direction setting, developing strategy and experimentation for a region. Anticipatory Governance allows a region, whether city or state, to harness the collective intelligence and wisdom of collaborating organizations and citizens, to deal with strategic risks and leverage emerging opportunities for meeting development goals. It is an approach for “social navigation” — the ability for a society to navigate the complex terrain of social change.

Throughout history and even pre-history, we have seen the rise and fall of civilizations and cultures. The Mon of Southeast Asia, The Hohokam of Arizona, the Maya of Central America, and Easter Island — changed, declined or vanished. Others: Chinese, Indic, European, Bantu, and many that have become the nations of today, have changed and evolved to the present. At the most fundamental level Anticipatory Governance is about the capacity to adapt to change, preserve what is most dear, and thrive and prosper into the future.

To do this a number of new capabilities are required.

  • First, the ability to identify the landscape of change (foresight) and use this in organisationally useful ways;
  • Secondly, systemic thinking and inter-organisational cooperation are needed so that whole ecosystems can be mobilised to address wicked and complex interdependencies in the development challenges faced;
  • Thirdy, a cultural and institutional shift that supports experimentation and which can use experiments to drive learning and which can be scaled for impact.



There are many approaches to Anticipatory Governance, with different outcomes attached to them. These include:

  • Identify weak signals and disruptors before they become problems / reduce surprise (Seeing the horizons)
  • Cross departmental / agency learning and collaboration (Left and right hand talking)
  • Avenues for citizen engagement in exploring and shaping the future (Partnership with people)
  • Develop innovations that have a “strategic fit” with a changing and future environment (Future relevant innovation)
  • Prioritise investment areas in research, education, industry development, markets, science and tech changes (Strategic investments)
  • Build systemic understandings around wicked problems that lead to more nuance “pressure point” interventions (Know the acupuncture points)
  • Capacity to adapt quickly to changing conditions, by using experiments that can scale for impact (Adapt through experiments that can scale for impact)
  • Mobilise an ecosystem to tackle systemic level challenges (Collaborative Action)
  • Bringing together resources that enhance all when shared (Mutualising commons)

There are different types of Anticipatory Governance. As well, Anticipatory Governance approaches have been applied in different ways across a variety of contexts:

Three Resources for Anticipatory Governance

Three resources for Anticipatory Governance are key: institutional futures, participatory futures , and adaptive organizational capacity.

Resource 1 — Inter-organizational Futures

Institutional knowledge exists in various organizations in government and in NGOs / CSOs. Many organizations already do and have research and knowledge about the future for specific areas. However, it is too common for these organizations to NOT share what they know about the future with each other. So one of the first “low hanging fruit” to pick is to bring organizations together that have a stake in an issue, and which have some tacit or explicit knowledge of the futures of that issues. Creating an inter-organizational system for sharing knowledge on a topic of shared concern leverages existing strengths and can produce quick wins. This can be done with a variety of strategies: web platforms, workshops, webinars, etc.

Resource 2 — Participatory Futures

Citizens hold a wide variety of knowledge and some are “future-sensing” types while others are “future-making” types. Tapping into citizen knowledge can create the requisite awareness of change that provides agility and new pathways for regional policy, strategy and change efforts.

One potential pitfall in envisioning the future of a region is when a future vision or direction for a city is framed by narrow interests or a ‘used futures’ — images created somewhere else but super-imposed uncritically or serving special or hidden economic interests. Getting past the “used future” and having an authentic goal or vision that is particular to a region’s needs and aspirations is essential. We need to include the people in a region that have a stake in that future — not just a future framed based on narrow commercial interest, a policy clique or lobby group.

Participatory futures leverages citizens’ strengths and collective intelligence and can help with mapping horizons (identifying weak signals), creating vision and purpose, charting strategic pathways, testing ideas and mobilizing change. This report by Nesta provides a useful overview.

Resource 3 — Organizational Capacity to Adapt

The organizational capacity to adapt is also needed. We must create a bridge between anticipation/collective intelligence and action/experimentation/ innovation. This is a big challenge, especially in government where experiments can be seen as unacceptable risks. Even with government support and well resourced CityLabs, working across the messy spaces of society to generate change is challenging. There are a whole number of good strategies and frameworks for doing this, and people should just do what works. The framework I have developed to make sense of this I call the Anticipatory Experimentation Method.

Practically the method entails five stages:

  1. Challenging the used future

2. Developing a preferred future and open ended narrative

3. Ideating a number of prototype ideas from the vision or narrative

4. Choosing which prototype ideas to experiment with and running real-world experiments

5. Scaling and investing in the experiments with the best promise



Whatever approach we use, the main takeaway is that societal navigation and adaptive capacity is possible and desirable. As seen from many examples around the world we can and we are building Anticipatory, Agile and Adaptive (Triple A) governance. How we each do this for ourselves, in our own regional contexts, and together, is the next big question.