How Anticipatory Democracy Clears a Path Forward

On February 7, a massive wave of water, ice, and rock ripped through the small Himalayan village of Raini, India. The event wiped out bridges, roads, homes, and two hydropower dams, killing at least 36 people and leaving almost 200 missing. The cause of the devastation? A piece of a Himalayan glacier collapsed into the water, triggering an enormous flood.

This was not the first time disaster struck this area. In 2013, massive mudslides from an unusually heavy monsoon season killed 6,000 people. The tragic Himalayan tsunami was decades in the making. In 1973, a logging company came to Raini to cut ash trees for the manufacturing of sporting goods. Hearing the plans, now-celebrated activist Gaura Devi mobilized a group of women from nearby villages to confront the loggers. Literally putting themselves between the destroyers and the trees, these women became a rallying point for future non-violent environmental movements in India. The country passed a conservation law to regulate how and where deforestation could occur.

Over time, these noble sustainability efforts were overcome by the pressure of short-term focused commercial and political pursuits. Deforestation ultimately brought about the catastrophic flooding that happened in 2013 and again in 2021. The needs of today and tomorrow became out of balance.

Balancing the Urgent and Future-focused

The struggle to balance the needs of today with those of tomorrow can be seen in multiple examples around the world. Take Mauna Kea as an example. At its top, it is 13,796 feet above sea level and it extends almost 19,700 feet below the water's surface. With a total height of 33,500 feet, Mauna Kea is nearly a mile taller than Mount Everest. It offers a dry atmosphere, a high proportion of clear nights, and distance from city lights, making the inactive volcano ideal for space observation.

In the last half of 2019, plans were in place to add the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) to a dozen existing telescope research facilities on Mauna Kea. Hundreds of native Hawaiians protested the construction. Calling themselves kia‘I (protectors), the activists demanded the cancellation. For months, they blocked roads leading to the new construction site. They argued the development would further desecrate Mauna Kea, creating more destruction of the delicate native ecosystem. Their future-focused voices raised issues of indigenous rights, sovereignty, and environmental stewardship. They sought agency in the decision about the future of their community and its land.

On the other hand, developers of TMT argued that their plans for the structure considered and ultimately preserved both the landscape and the Hawaiian culture. They pointed to the 2000 Mauna Kea Science Reserve Master Plan, which states the chosen location for the TMT observatory will not have a significant archeological, cultural, or biological impact. Developers argued they actively listened to the Hawaiian community and believed most native Hawaiian registered voters supported the TMT. They had official approval from the Hawaiian state government to proceed.

The development of TMT on Mauna Kea remains at a stalemate. When we peer into the future, which side is correct?

Acceleration produces a faster turnover of goals, a greater transience of purpose. Diversity or fragmentation leads to a relentless multiplication of goals. Caught in this churning, goal-cluttered environment, we stagger, future shocked, from crisis to crisis, pursuing a welter of conflicting and self-canceling purposes.

- Alvin Toffler, Future Shock

Political Unrest and Obsoledge

According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the past several years have seen notable increases in the frequency, scope, and size of large-scale citizen protests against governments all over the world. In the past three years alone, more than 110 countries have experienced over 230 significant anti-government protests. The COVID-19 pandemic appears to have fueled the movements, particularly in authoritarian or authoritarian-leaning countries like Hong Kong, Chile, Egypt, Sudan, France, Poland, and Chile.

While each protest is unique in its motivation and purpose, most are in response to ineffective governance, corruption, human rights violations, and environmental concerns. Citizens are demanding fundamental changes in political structures, priorities, and decision-making. Moreover, the protests are evidence of growing obsoledge in long-held political systems. Beliefs and models that were designed and constructed to serve the Industrial Era have ceased to be relevant in our hyper-connected, global, civilization-driven world. As we sit at an inflection point between past and future, new systems are emerging. In the protests, we’re witnessing trial and error in real time.

Decades after the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the web is creating a parallel but arguably more effective universal set of expectations among citizens...even if social media does not become a platform for overtly political activity, it is already changing how citizens expect to be treated and so what they expect of the government.

- Charles Leadbeater, The Civic Long Tail

Much of the conflict and dissonance we are witnessing are responses to outdated, or even obsolete, governance models and structures. These current forms of governments were never designed to operate at the speed and level of complexity of today’s environment. Nor were they structured to operate in a hyperconnected, hyper-empowered global community.

Society is becoming more demassified and heterogeneous through our ever-increasing technological capacity to connect. As technology has blown open traditional relational boundaries, it’s also increased the capacity for all people — even those who historically have had little power — to become voices and forces of opportunity,  disruption, and even existential threats to organizations and systems. The significant rise in civil society activity is a result. Working together, citizens can hold corporate, community, and political leaders accountable. We are redefining the boundaries of civilization.

Forward-looking Governance Systems

As citizens become more connected and continue to demand fundamental changes, the process of governing must adapt and keep pace. They must find ways to make decisions that have far-reaching and sometimes unclear consequences in a way that leads to fewer conflicts, not more.

A political system is more than just a decision system, but if the decision system is malfunctioning, it becomes increasingly impossible to deal with intelligently with the crucial issues of the day. Unless we can design an appropriate process for making collective decisions, one that fits the requirements of the new reality, we will face continued conflict. A new decisional process, however, will not suddenly leap from the drawing board of social or political engineers. It will emerge, after repeated trial and error, from innovative experiments conducted by political activities.

- Alvin Toffler, Foreword of Anticipatory Democracy

In 1978, Alvin Toffler proposed the concept of anticipatory democracy, which blends democratic participation and future-focused consciousness. It builds “a constituency for the future” to solve humanity's most difficult problems. Despite being conceptualized over 40 years ago, the idea of anticipatory democracy provides a way for society to navigate the current state of political obsoledge.

To establish this system, we must lean into our increasing connectedness. Toffler explains that “the concept of anticipatory democracy . . . [reduces] the decision load by sharing it with more people, allowing more decisions to be made amongst citizens instead of centralizing them. Increasing channels for feedback, especially negative feedback, between citizens and government decision-makers decreases the risk of error. It also means that errors, once made, can be more quickly and cheaply corrected.”

Using Mauna Kea as an example, how might agency for a final determination on TMT be shared amongst the indigenous people, island communities, traditional state government and representatives of scientific interests? How can we use advanced technology and ubiquitous communication networks to understand perspectives and concerns across time horizons? How can we improve transparency in decision-making to build trust across the wider range of stakeholders?

Mere participation is not enough to influence productive decisions. There also is a time factor at work. For new governance structures such as anticipatory democracies to be effective, they must concern themselves increasingly not just with the needs of today, but also with decisions that influence the needs of tomorrow. As we have seen in places like the Himalayas and Hawaii, problems arise when we leave the long-range issues to others by default. The caveat, of course, is that, “Anticipatory democracy does not promise that decisions made by ordinary citizens will necessarily be correct.” But correctness may be less valuable long-term than connectedness.

Amplified Connectedness

Toffler went on to observe that what civic involvement in anticipatory democracy can do is, “build a constituency for the future, and nothing can be more important in today’s accelerating pace of change. There are many ways we can use technology to capture the best of both, representative and direct, to take advantage of both to solve humanities hardest problems.”

Public action has the power to change societies and the world because it is human-driven and amplified by connectedness. We are seeing examples of large and small instances across the world, created and energized by individuals of every walk of life. Whether by situation, ideology, or demographics, people are finding one another and banding together to achieve a shared objective.

As we learn and know better, we do better. Add the courage to take bold, exponential steps, and we begin to see real progress. There are more voices to be heard and more complexity to understand and address. We need anticipatory democracy, the blending of future consciousness and genuine public participation. We will need a repertoire of ideas and time (years, not months) of discussion and debate about alternative political structures that become possible in today's world, and transitional steps that might move us in the right directions.

Anticipatory democracy is a giant leap in the concept of governance. There is no single architect capable of its design nor one small group that knows the answers to how to do it. To make it work, we need to take advantage of millions of brains. We need the distributed intelligence in the human system for a new governance system to be created.