Anticipatory Governance

The point of departure for this sub-task force is a need for critical social science scrutiny of ex-ante or anticipatory governance of environmental and societal risks and harms associated with ongoing earth system transformations.  By anticipatory governance, we mean governance in the face of extreme normative and scientific uncertainty and conflict over the very existence, nature and distributive implications of future risks and harms. What does and should ex-ante, anticipatory governance consist of? Who decides and how? What normative underpinnings are discernible in anticipatory governance arrangements? And how are processes of anticipation themselves being governed and to what end?

Governance has always, to some extent, been anticipatory, particularly in policy domains such as military planning or budgeting. Our concern here is to critically scrutinize the particular challenges of anticipatory governance in the environmental and sustainability realm (with its long-standing tendency towards reactive or retrospective governance), in a period of accelerating earth system transformations and their potentially disruptive societal and distributional consequences. Scrutinizing anticipatory governance also includes contemplating novel governance challenges associated with potentially transformative and powerful emerging technologies characterized by strong claims of global benefit but also extreme uncertainties and contested risk, such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, geoengineering or synthetic biology.

Numerous academic communities have long addressed various dimensions of anticipatory environmental and technological governance, including scholars of transition studies, risk, science and technology studies, and responsible research and innovation. Yet the notion is understood and deployed within these communities in very different ways, with diverse normative starting points and research agendas. Similarly, elements such as forecasting, scenario-building, long-term strategizing, real-time technology assessment, information disclosure, and citizen deliberation, are assumed to be more or less important to processes and institutional arrangements for anticipatory governance, yet how these function in contested geopolitical contexts of uneven earth system transformations remains under-analyzed. Critical social science perspectives on such processes of anticipation are thus urgently needed.

Particularly interesting and less examined questions in our view include: how are crucial aspects of governing environmental harm, such as securing accountability, ascribing responsibility, determining liability, or ensuring compensation, recast in the face of uncertain and unknowable (future) risk? How are these components being addressed in (emerging/contested) institutional arrangements for anticipatory governance in diverse issue-areas to date, and what lessons have been learned?

Equally timely is analysis of how processes of anticipation (i.e. planning and research processes aimed at exploring alternative futures) relating to environmental transformations are themselves being governed, i.e. who is steering them, to what end, and through what deliberative or representative processes? Anticipation processes increasingly entail imagining and ‘pre-experiencing’ pluralistic, challenging futures, in order to question limiting assumptions about what futures may be possible, and experiment with strategies aimed at transformational change. This has led to a proliferation of anticipation in sustainability-related research and planning contexts. There has nonetheless been very little critical social science scrutiny of the multiple global, regional and national anticipation processes now underway. There is a need for meta-analyses of anticipation processes through a critical governance lens, by asking first-order questions of who governs, for whom, and why, and examining how the content of anticipation processes is created in ways that shape and limit what futures can be imagined.

This sub-task force thus has two interlinked foci:  anticipatory governance and governing anticipation

Our sub-task force aims to:

  • Explore the historical antecedents and understandings of anticipatory governance within the social science and global change research communities, in order to ascertain whether and how the notion is being deployed, and with what political implications and/or uptake.
  • Draw on this state-of-the art review to further elaborate our own understanding of anticipatory governance, and assess the current state of play with regard to institutional arrangements and normative presumptions in diverse areas of sustainability governance
  • Comparatively assess the institutional and normative elements discernible in emerging anticipatory governance of novel technological risk and harm, including in areas such as geoengineering, nanotechnology, synthetic biology and modern biotechnology
  • Bring critical social science perspectives to bear on processes of anticipation, the futures they generate, and the ways in which they are integrated into governance processes

The aim is to elaborate a future research agenda with key questions, the execution of which can shed further light on the theoretical and empirical purchase that the notion of anticipatory governance provides in addressing (and redressing) the transformative sustainability challenges of our times.

For more information, please contact the co-conveners of this sub-task force:

Dr. Aarti Gupta, Associate Professor of Global Environmental Governance, Environmental Policy Group, Wageningen University. Lead Faculty, Earth System Governance Project and Coordinating Lead Author, Earth System Governance New Directions Team (email:

Dr. Joost Vervoort, Assistant Professor of Foresight for Environmental Governance, Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University; and Senior Researcher, Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford. Lead Author, Earth System Governance New Directions Team (email:


Links to projects

Anticipatory Governance of Climate Engineering: whether, what, how and why? (A project undertaken in the context of the Academic Working Group on Climate Engineering):

Scenario-guided policy formulation – the CGIAR program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS)

FP7 TRANSMANGO scenarios and transition pathways

H2020 SUSFANS scenarios and stakeholder engagement

Bright Spots: Seeds of a Good Anthropocene


Readings: Diverse perspectives on anticipatory governance

Boyd, Emily, Björn Nykvist, Sara Borgström, and Izabela A. Stacewicz. 2015. Anticipatory Governance for Socio-ecological Resilience. Ambio 44 (Suppl. 1): S149-S161.

De Wilde, Rein. The Digirati: a Critique of the Futures Industry (published in Dutch as: De Voorspellers, Een kritiek op de toekomstindustrie (De Balie, 2000). Chapters 1 and 6, English translation available.

Elliot, Anthony. 2002. Beck’s Sociology of Risk: A Critical Assessment. Sociology 36, 2: 293-315.

Fuerth, Leon. 2011. Operationalizing Anticipatory Governance. Prism 2, 4: 31-46.

Guston, David H. 2014. Understanding Anticipatory Governance, Social Studies of Science, 42:2, 218-242.

Guston, David H.  2010. The Anticipatory Governance of Emerging Technologies, Journal of the Korean Vacuum Society, 19, 6: 432 – 441.

Guston, David H. 2012. The Pumpkin or the Tiger: Michael Polanyi, Frederick Soddy and Anticipating Emerging Technologies. Minerva, 50, 3: 363-379.

Gupta, Aarti. 2011. An evolving science-society contract in India: the search for legitimacy in anticipatory risk governance. Food Policy, 36, 6: 736-741.

Hulme, Mike. 2010. Cosmopolitan Climates: Hybridity, Foresight and Meaning, Theory, Culture and Society, 27, 2-3: 267-276.

Jansen, Kees, and Aarti Gupta. 2009. Anticipating the Future: ‘Biotechnology for the Poor’ as Unrealized Promise? Futures, 41, 7: 436-445.

Macnaghten, Phil et. al. Responsible innovation across borders: tensions, paradoxes and possibilities. Journal of Responsible Innovation, 1, 2: 191-199.

Pellizzoni, Luigi. 2010. Risk and Responsibility in a Manufactured World, Science, Eng Ethics, 16: 463-478.

Quay, Ray, 2010. Anticipatory Governance: a tool for climate change adaptation, in Journal of American Planning Association, 76, 4: 496-511.

Stilgoe, Jack, Richard Owen and Phil Macnaghten, 2013. Developing a Framework for Responsible Innovation. Research Policy 42: 1568-1580.


Readings: Diverse perspectives on governing anticipation

Garb, Y., S. Pulver, and S. Vandeveer. 2008. Scenarios in society, society in scenarios: Toward a social scientific analysis of storyline-driven environmental modeling. Environmental Research Letters 3.

Pulver, S., and S. D. VanDeveer. 2009. “Thinking about tomorrows”: Scenarios, global environmental politics, and social science scholarship. Global Environmental Politics 9:1-13.

Kok, K., R. Biggs, and M. Zurek. 2007. Methods for Developing Multiscale Participatory Scenarios: Insights from Southern Africa and Europe. Ecology and Society 13:8.

Ramírez, R., and C. Selin. 2014. Plausibility and probability in scenario planning. Foresight 16:54-74.

Vervoort, J. M., R. Bendor, A. Kelliher, O. Strik, and A. E. R. Helfgott. 2015. Scenarios and the art of worldmaking. Futures 74:62-70.

Vervoort, J. M., P. K. Thornton, P. Kristjanson, W. Förch, P. J. Ericksen, K. Kok, J. S. I. Ingram, M. Herrero, A. Palazzo, A. E. S. Helfgott, A. Wilkinson, P. Havlík, D. Mason-D’Croz, and C. Jost. 2014. Challenges to scenario-guided adaptive action on food security under climate change. Global Environmental Change.

Volkery, A., T. Ribeiro, T. Henrichs, and Y. Hoogeveen. 2008. Your vision or my model? Lessons from participatory land use scenario development on a European scale. Systemic Practice and Action Research 21:459-477.

Wilkinson, A., and E. Eidinow. 2008. Evolving practices in environmental scenarios: a new scenario typology. Environmental Research Letters 3:045017.