Anticipation shapes the future

I had the pleasure of meeting Riel Miller recently. Riel is specialised in planning for the future and has developed a very interesting methodology. We crossed paths in Dublin at Climate Finance Week. He wrote “Transforming the Future, Anticipation in the 21st Century”.

Predicting the future is hard

Because by definition, the future cannot exist in the present since if it did it would no longer be the future but the present. The future, therefore, exists in the present as anticipation and anticipation is generated through active systems and processes. How people try to understand the future depends on what kind of future they are trying to understand. And therein lies the trap

Anticipation is the key

The way we anticipate the future is the key. Riel Miller uses the classification of different forms of anticipation as a way to get people out of their current paradigm. You get what you anticipate. Which means you need to change that.

  • You need to decide why and how to use your imagination to introduce the non-existent future into the present.
  • You need to understand the difference between conscious and non-conscious anticipation. You need the tools to help you invent anticipatory assumptions that can shape a new paradigm or consciousness.
  • You need to understand the difference between anticipation for the future and the anticipation for emergence. That what is sensed and that what is made sense of.

Common ways with common outcomes

As you know, trends and forecasts are its most common methods for imagining and describing the future. The discovery of phenomena. Using risk calculation, actuarial tables, trends and mega-trends, fortune-telling and expert prognostication. All of which are part of imagining generalisable probabilistic or normative futures.

The future is unknowable

Imaginary futures are normally generated and assimilated based on existing fatalistic or deterministic stories, preordained outcomes or entrenched myths. However, there is no way of knowing future states. Foresight as a practice, when distinguished from forecasting, is formally premised on the unknowability of the future. All efforts to ‘know the future’ in the sense of thinking about and ‘using-the-future’ are forms of anticipation. They are a key element or contributor to the human activity of decision-making.

The future is complex

The problem with predicting tomorrow is that our universe is ‘creative’ in the sense that novelty happens, provided that there are suitable enabling pre-conditions. There are black swans everywhere. The future is also complex. Complex problems and systems result from networks of multiple interacting causes that cannot be individually distinguished and must be addressed as entire systems. That is, they cannot be addressed in a piecemeal way; they are such that small inputs may result in disproportionate effects. And the relevant systems cannot be controlled. The best one can do is to influence them, or learn to “dance with them”.

You cannot model the future

In general, modelling is a relation between a system that is modelled and it’s model. Biological, cognitive, social and economic systems are ‘impredicative’ and cannot be modelled as classical dynamical systems or as algorithmic computation. We still are in the deepest fog about how to build up anticipatory structures able to organically deal with complex problems. A better understanding of anticipatory assumptions, including those related to distinct anticipatory systems, empowers people to grasp why and how the imaginary future influences what they see and do in the present.

3 phases

He presents an approach in 3 phases.

Phase 1: Reveal – mapping expectations and hopes

In the aspirations round, participants know they can deploy their knowledge of the topic to generate imaginary futures while it dawns on them that these pictures depend on their analytical and narrative framing of assumptions. They are also asked to describe in detail relatively positive day-in-the-life snapshots deemed probable or desirable in a specific year in the future. Far enough into the future that people relax their desire and anxiety to engage in ‘accurate’ predictions. Being asked to think long-term is a way of ‘giving permission’, reducing the anxiety of being wrong about the future.

Phase 2: Reframing – playing with anticipation

Most people do not know how to imagine the future without using probabilistic framings, even for desirable/undesirable futures. Reframing calls for a dual movement that seems to go in two opposing directions, one towards abstraction and the other towards concretisation. Diversity and processes for negotiating shared sensemaking can spark the creativity needed to elaborate descriptions of daily life in a future imagined on the basis of unfamiliar frames. The process needs to invite and inspire participants to question the way they use the future; in other words, introduce alternative ways of thinking about emergent reality. By playing with unfamiliar futures in an unfamiliar way, participants confront the limits of using-the-future exclusively to prepare and plan.

Phase 3: New questions – next steps

Phase 3 has been constructed around a comparison and contrast exercise between Phases 1 and 2. Participants begin to understand how a particular image of the future, rooted in a specific set of anticipatory assumptions, brings them to focus too narrowly on those aspects of the present that seem important for planning to converge or catch-up with someone else’s past or present. In other words, efforts to sense and make sense of the complex emergent present need to be separated, at least in part, from efforts to act on bets or engage in specific imaginary futures.

Frames for the future

The last part of the book is full of case studies. Using the questions below as the frame for the case studies. And it always starts with somewhere in the faraway future.

  • Headlines – what do people talk about at the café?
  • Systems – what are the words for the economic or social system?
  • Point of view – how do different stakeholders describe the world around them?
  • Myth or metaphor – what is the overarching nature/purpose/character of the society?
  • What is the arc – the arc is the applicable time horizon and type of future.
  • What is the terrain – the terrain is the context for the object, either a physical location or a domain of human activity.
  • What is the object  –  the object is the category of hypothetical ‘future thing’ for which players will generate a description (not always a physical artefact).
  • What is the mood – the mood says how it feels to interact with that thing, lending an ‘interior’ inflexion to the other three more ‘external’ elements.

You have to do the future

I don’t think the book just justice to the system (this blog is a reflection of that). Stepping outside your biases, history, framing and creating a fresh future narrative, is hard. There is no doubt the tools work, as I have seen it in action. I guess you have to be there and emerge you in diversity and doing. You have to do the future.

sensemaking cover


Sense making; morality, humanity, leadership and slow flow. A book about the 14 books about the impact and implications of technology on business and humanity.

Ron Immink

I help companies by developing an inspiring and clear future perspective, which creates better business models, higher productivity, more profit and a higher valuation. Best-selling author, speaker, writer.

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