Peer-Producing Alternative Futures

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* Article: Foresight in a network era: peer-producing alternative futures. By Jose Ramos, Tim Mansfield, and Gareth Priday. Journal of Futures Studies, September 2012, 17(1): 71-90.


Part of the special edition of the Journal of Futures Studies on the Communication of Foresight.


"The advent of the network form has ushered in new practices and possibilities for participation and collaboration based on emerging on-line technologies. It is no surprise that new approaches to futures / foresight research and engagement are being developed in the context of these technologies and emerging practices. In dwelling within this juxtaposition between participatory futures and the maturing network era, we ask what the implications are for foresight / futures studies, and how this can help us re-imagine Anticipatory Democracy in the 21st century. A developmental narrative for the emergence of the network form in futures studies provides context for our understanding of new pathways. Within this we identify key emerging issues with implications for Anticipatory Democracy: instantiation, replication, openness and control. Explicated, these emerging issues provide a rich picture of the challenges and possibilities for building Anticipatory Democracy in the network era."


Jose Ramos et al.:

Introduction and Methodology

"What is the future of public participation in the exploration and articulation of probable, possible, preferred and alternative futures? Can network-foresight strategies lead to real anticipatory democracy, policy development and social change? What are the dynamics and implications of the network form applied to anticipatory democracy? To answer these questions we begin by providing a theoretical framework for the emergence of the network form, which can inform a normative focus on building Anticipatory Democracy (AD). We then narrate the emergence of the network form within the futures studies field, drawing out some of the key lines of development that have particular relevance to Anticipatory Democracy. We then focus in on some of the key emerging network form dynamics at play in the futures studies field, offering some analysis. Finally we draw some insights from the analysis by exploring the latent potentials and pitfalls of online / participatory networked foresight approaches, and re-assess the prospects for anticipatory democracy in the 21st century.

This article discusses several contemporary efforts at conducting foresight projects in a networked, collaborative mode, a style of project which is currently attracting a lot of positive attention in the futures community. Is this simply a stylish fad driven by our enchantment with social media? We intend to argue rather that these projects prefigure a style of global, collaborative, post-statist policy development ideal for addressing wicked problems. Far from being a pointless fad, these efforts form the early stages of a kind of anticipatory, collective intelligence which can potentially motivate action from multiple stakeholders acting from multiple directions in coherent and powerful ways. We believe it is important to understand these early efforts, learn from their successes and failures and continue to innovate, as a community, new, even more effective approaches. This section briefly suggests why.

Rittel and Webber (1973) first named the class of “wicked problems”, problems which are each novel and unique, for which the problem is not understood until after the formulation of a solution, for which the solution is not right or wrong and so on. Most of the pressing threats to global civilization fall into this class of problems: climate change, terror networks and global crime, extreme poverty, child slavery are commonly cited examples. Roberts (2000) surveys some common approaches to wicked problems: authoritarian, competitive and collaborative, and concludes that collaborative approaches are significantly more effective at addressing wicked problems.

Anticipatory Democracy was coined by Alvin Toffler as his prescription for Future Shock in his book by that name (Toffler 1970). Clem Bezold, working with Toffler, then edited a book of examples (1976) as a vision for a state of affairs in which citizenry were engaged in considering, imagining and influencing society.

Toffler defined Anticipatory Democracy as: "The simplest definition of anticipatory democracy ... is that it is a process for combining citizen participation with future consciousness" (Bezold, 1978 in Bezold, 2010).

Functioning on a state government scale, AD makes a strong case that social policy to address wicked problems in a democratic society is perhaps best developed using large-scale futures methods which consult with a broad base of citizens to discover a shared vision for a preferred future. The experience of large-scale projects like “Alternatives For Washington” (reviewed in Bezold (2006)) demonstrate the strengths of the approach at this scale. Bezold’s approach with AD is to inform the policy of the state institution by drawing on the knowledge, ideas and passions of the populace and the approach has been successfully used at the local and state level in the USA. Could a similar approach work for global wicked problems?

In a theoretical project ranging over more than a decade, David Ronfeldt (1996, 2005, 2007) has argued that all societies are composed of admixtures of four, and only four, pure organizational forms: kinship tribes (T), hierarchical institutions (I), competitive markets (M) and collaborative networks (N). These four forms have emerged in human collectives sequentially through time and, as human societies have become more complex and successive communications technologies have emerged, each form has risen to its strength. Each form solves its own core problems, brings its own form of coordination and governance and promotes certain values, ways of belonging and so on.

As each form arises, the society must accommodate this new kind of complexity and the contradictions between new and old forms. Each new form subverts the older order, disrupting prior forms, then brings additive effects which lead to a new order in which the older forms are limited but strengthened. T societies become T+I societies, which become T+I+M societies – prior forms are not lost, but they are restructured, recontextualised and placed in new relationships to the whole of society.

In Ronfeldt’s TIMN work, the rise of global communication networks of increasing sophistication has led to the gradual emergence and strengthening of the network form. This emergence is widely narrated, but the strength of Ronfeldt’s analysis is that it provides a way of seeing how the network form disrupts, but does not replace prior forms. TIMN allows us to focus on the strengths of the network form without becoming ideologically intoxicated by it. What are those strengths?

In relation to the argument we are making, Ronfeldt’s network form is global, it is horizontal – rather than hierarchical, it cuts across markets, institutions and tribes connecting individuals regardless how they affiliate with prior forms (we note that this disruptive capacity resonates well with Deleuze and Guattari’s (1980) idea of the “rhizome”) and its form of coordination is collaborative. This is not a shatteringly original insight, but these are the characteristics we have foreshadowed above as necessary for solving global wicked problems. Ronfeldt (2006) notes, “... this form is suited to enabling people to address modern, complex policy issues that may require efforts from many directions at the same time...” (Ronfeldt, 2006, p22)

Anticipatory Democracy suggests the sustained transformational power that can be mustered by a motivated society – legislature, government apparatus and citizenry – engaged in a mutual vision of a desired, achievable future. We argue that the networked, participatory foresight which the projects in this paper exemplify are the initial stages of a global successor to AD, addressing wicked problems in a global, T+I+M+N society that encompasses the T+I+M societies that formed the original stage for AD. Far from being a stylish fad, these approaches and the Anticipatory Action Networks they prefigure offer a compelling, essential and hopeful way to address the most serious and threatening wicked problems our planet faces."

The transformation of participatory foresight

Current global processes, for example social stratification under capitalist globalization and the production of ecological risk within post-industrial development, create greater conditions for the politicization of foresight projects. New approaches to foresight which twine physical embodiment with virtual networks may augur new types of emergent foresight action networks. These action networks may emerge to contest short-term political decision-making, or be deliberative 'town halls on-the-move'. We may also imagine a ‘foresight swarm’, which would be a locally instantiated action-network which could emerge rapidly to promote, contest, or develop a future(s), consistent with Arguilla and Ronfeldt’s original conception of the network as a locale of netwar, which noted the ability of networks to act as a ‘swarm’ attacking a particular target from many angles and in many ways (Arquilla, 1999; Hardt, 2004). ‘Foresight swarms’ would be actors countering institutional or market short termism and extending social foresight aims.

As discussed earlier, localized replication can include the franchise or the rhizome–mode. Both offer great potential for foresight. A franchise can enable locales to draw on powerful foresight platforms, such as IFTF’s Foresight Engine. Alternatively, via mobile networking, publically open foresight approaches, which engage local populations in discrete events or on-going inquiry, could become rhizomatic. The potential for localization can be latent until particular strategies are adopted and conditions met. For examples an organizing template can help to spread the franchise, while a vision, target or telos can form the basis of rhizomatic expression. This points us towards adapting existing, and building new, methods which integrate the physical and virtual via foresight methodologies, while allowing localized permutations, diversity and openness.

The dynamic shift toward transparency / sousveillance may lead to opening foresight-informed policy development to the public. Government accountability to the public would thus extend to how it links futures thinking and research with policy. This type of ‘foresight in public’ or ‘naked foresight’, where the aim is not to involve the public in actively participating (as in the IFTF and other examples), but rather to allow the public to engage in the observation of public foresight projects, providing an educational role and the capacity for citizen oversight, where the public is able to see a project evolve and develop, which portends to be an ascendant feature of foresight projects. This may be considered a healthy expression of the conjunction of Institutional and Network forms of foresight.

In the network era ownership and control of knowledge has become a central issue and point of contestation. From the hyper-commercialization of personal online data via Facebook, to the commons-based orientation of Wikipedia, the network era augurs a new frontier in the control of intellectual property. This applies to efforts at crowd sourcing and peer producing foresight / futures. In the examples in this paper, we see hybrid, commons-based and proprietary strategies. Increasingly, however, we expect two factors to contribute to a push for a foresight commons: the increasing scale of global risk which requires greater sharing / participation and coordination, and the emerging popular desire for public contributions to be established as public domain. This idea has high profile advocates: Carol Dumain argues for the construction of a “global foresight commons”, which would pool resources into a global sharing platform (Dumain, 2010). As the value of peer produced collective intelligence efforts emerges, harnessing the deep well of potential, indeed the inspiration, within the global population, will require ways of valuing these exchanges – in particular personal to structural enfranchisement in the ownership of networked foresight efforts.


We began this article as an inquiry into the participation by publics in the exploration and articulation of probable, possible, preferred and alternative futures. We asked whether network-foresight strategies lead to real anticipatory democracy, policy development and social change and what the dynamics and implications of the network form applied to anticipatory democracy might be.

Set against the backdrop of: an increasingly complex world beset by wicked problems, the emergence of the Network organizational form and emerging from a long history of global, participatory projects in the field of Future Studies, we have described a set of five key network-based, participatory foresight efforts amongst an emerging field of related endeavours. We analysed a number of these efforts.

We have argued that, far from being a social media fad, these efforts prefigure a style of global, collaborative, post-statist policy development ideal for addressing wicked problems – in effect a network-centric, peer-to-peer Anticipatory Democracy.

This movement is post-statist, not in the sense that it replaces or removes the need to affect government policy, but in the sense that, in the style of Ronfeldt’s Network form, it interpenetrates and recontextualises communities, governments and corporations.

We believe the projects and systems we have discussed prefigure this development and the eight dynamics describe a design space which can guide further efforts, but this work is far from complete. In closing, we are left with further questions.

Democratizing futures means that many people, diverse people, have a say in defining the terms by which future(s) are understood, studied and communicated. In this regard the participatory turn, enabled by ICT, can and should be harnessed to 1) make futures / anticipatory thinking a popular process, and 2) allow futures / anticipatory thinking to reflect the needs of the vast majority of people, rather than the interests of the few.

In 1999, Sardar proclaimed that “the future has been colonized” (Sardar, 1999, p.9). He argued that special interests had already defined the socially preferred, acceptable future, and the terms by which we conceive of what is possible. Yet, after a decade of worsening ecological indicators, crisis-capitalism, and social stratification, and with the recent “hashtag uprisings”, this façade may be lifting. Can network-foresight strategies be used to de-colonize futures, and provide an ascendant civic sphere a new capacity to explore and articulate alternative visions?

And can network-foresight strategies facilitate a global scales process of building common ground toward shared visions of sustainable futures?

As Bezold writes:

“The evolution of anticipatory democracy, and the advances and setbacks it has faced over three decades, reinforces the importance of developing shared vision. The more effectively efforts have developed shared vision, particularly across diverse communities, the more successful these efforts have been.” (Bezold, 2010, p.167)

This begs an important question: what new social foresight technologies and strategies are needed for collaboration and coherence building with the scale-complexity shift inherent in the network era? Addressing the 21st century’s wicked challenges will require us to invent new socio-technical platforms, fully reinventing Anticipatory Democracy for a network era."

More Information

  • Open Foresight: A New Model for Public Futurism. By Venessa Miemis, John Smart, Alvis Brigis. Journal of Futures Studies, September 2012
  • Evolutionary Guidance Media: an integral framework for foresight communication. By Dana Klisanin. Journal of Futures Studies, September 2012
  • The Singularity is Boring: An Open, Collaborative 'Mock-up'. By Justin Pickard, Noah Raford, Wendy Schultz, Jake Dunagan, Scott Smith, and uncounted others. Journal of Futures Studies, September 2012