Anticipatory Governance and the City as a Commons

Anticipatory Governance denotes large scale participatory processes and systems for exploring, envisioning, direction setting and developing a strategy for a region. Anticipatory Governance builds on experiments in Anticipatory Democracy popularized by Alvin Toffler and Clem Bezold,[1] combined with new developments in network based foresight.[2] Anticipatory Governance allows a city to harness the intelligence and wisdom of its citizens in charting intelligent directions for their cities.

In today’s world change is rapid and unpredictable and there is a need for a city to prepare for the horizons of change which bring both threats and opportunities. Tapping into citizen knowledge can create the requisite awareness of change that provides agility and new pathways for city policy making and change efforts. Without anticipation a city’s policies are likely to be reactive at best and misguided at worst. Anticipation allows a city’s policies to be adaptive while driving toward preferred futures, policies that intelligently surf the tsunamis of change.[3]

It is also important that the direction or vision for a city or municipal region reflect the common good for all of its people. One potential pitfall in envisioning the future of a city 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 economic interests, a particular lobby group or other.[4]  We can see the ‘Smart City’ discourse as one such ‘used future’. It is fashionable and employed by some very large corporations to paint a picture of a high tech, automated, internet-of-everything city, however it has strong technocratic tendencies that exclude real inclusion in city governance and participation.

Democratizing the future means that the future is not just framed based on narrow commercial interest, a policy clique, lobby groups or other special interests, but rather that a city’s vision and purpose is driven through the multifaceted and dynamic knowledges and wisdom of its many citizens. Ultimately a city’s direction and vision, and the policies that stem from them, should ensure a mutuality of benefits that support the urban commons. The very process of foresight exploration and action should be seen within a commons governance framework. Critically, this democratization of foresight based exploration and response-ability can specifically focus on threats to and opportunities for the protection and extension of the urban commons. Framed in such a way, Anticipatory Governance is a key ally in supporting positive urban commoning outcomes.

Strategies For Anticipatory Governance

While there are many ways to establish an Anticipatory Governance process, here are some basic building blocks:

First, it is important that it is an ongoing process, not just a once-off exercise. The world is not going to stop changing, so formulating and developing a continuous process is key.

Next, a city government in partnership with citizens should establish well resourced systems and structures that allow for continuous citizen involvement, townhall style conversations, as well as crowdsourcing of futures-relevant knowledge. Task forces need to be created which promote and develop engagement approaches and strategies across various sectors, citizen groups, government, businesses and among other specialist groups. These task forces, based on specialist and embodied knowledges, can be data to knowledge to wisdom engines of futures-relevant knowledge.

Large scale citizen-city partnerships can utilize knowledge management systems that help analysts to organize data, from workshop data to big digital data, and across various input sources. This is ongoingly presented and used in live participatory workshops and other engagement modes to develop collective intelligence and deeper wisdom of futures relevance. Collaborative teams emerge from these sessions to carry out policy development, social innovations, projects and other actions, based on this clarified awareness of threats and opportunities. Citizens and other groups are not just providers of knowledge, but also potential sources of social innovation, policy ideation and other change factors.

Supported by government but co-run by citizens, Anticipatory Governance fits within the Partner State model as advocated by Bauwens,[5] in so far as dedicated public resources are required to establish and support a platform for citizen involvement, but citizens are critical to the energy needed, data requirements, creative responses and the governance of the process. As such an Anticipatory Governance system should not be solely controlled by a municipality, but rather exist within a commons management framework. While obviously it is not a standard “common resource pool” as articulated by Elinor Ostrom, it is nonetheless a shared group of elements that requires a participatory governance framework. These elements include:

  • The vision(s) for a city, the image of its future and associated ideas,
  • The processes undertaken to explore the future and develop creative responses,
  • The systems and structures (e.g. knowledge management systems) that allow sharing, data gathering and rich analysis,
  • The outputs of the process, knowledge, projects, social innovations, etc.


Policy Recommendations for Cities

  • Create a multi-year commitment toward implementing an anticipatory governance approach, not just a one off.
  • Pilot crowd sourcing and knowledge management platforms based on citizen / user experience along with functionality and data, and scale a working model across sectors.
  • Twine online data gathering with live intelligence building workshops that allow citizen foresight potential to develop and build.
  • Make citizens and government true partners in the management and development of the system.
  • Make sure that end goals for the system are made explicit and served: nimble future-informed policy making, ‘smarter’ citizens, robust future visions, social innovation, inter-organizational knowledge sharing etc.
  • Leverage the process to support citizen learning, deeper citizen connections and synergies, and critical social capital across all sectors, in particular the marginalized.

[1] Bezold, C. (1978). Anticipatory Democracy: People in the Politics of the Future. NY: Random House.


[3] Adage by Jim Dator

[4] Inayatullah, S. (2008). Six pillars: futures thinking for transforming. Foresight, 10(1).