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Anticipation, Agency and Complexity

6-8 April 2017, Trento (Italy)

Call for Papers

Anticipation is a widespread phenomenon present in and characterizing all types of systems, forcing a re-evaluation of the very idea of science. The present interplay between science and institutions is becoming a major impediment to a further development of science. The traditional, bureaucratic structure adopted by organizations and institutions (e.g. governments) derives from an understanding of systems that precedes the discovery of both complexity and anticipation. These structures work as if problems could be addressed individually and in a piecemeal way, with outputs systematically proportionate to relevant inputs, and without any thorough exploration of possible futures. Agency and power are central to how we construct choices and take decisions in complex, anticipatory systems.

The First International Conference on Anticipation co-organized by University of Trento, UNESCO, WAAS-World Academy of Art and Science, WUC-World University Consortium and the Advanced Design Network at Trento in November 2016 succeeded beyond expectations. The second international conference will take place in London in 2017.  As a specific follow up to the first, WAAS and WUC ae now pleased to collaborate with the Department of Sociology and Social Research of the University of Trento, and the UNESCO Chairs in Anticipatory Systems to organize this workshop.

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First International Conference on ANTICIPATION: Registration is open


Registration to the First International Conference on

ANTICIPATION - 5-7 November 2015, Trento (Italy)

is open: https://webapps.unitn.it/Apply/en/Web/Home/convegni

Key-note speakers: Arjun Appadurai, Jens Beckert, Julian Bleecker, Riel Miller, Martin Seligman, and Erik Olin Wright.


To contribute please specify a suitable session and send a one-page abstract to anticipation.trento2015(at)gmail.com before June 15, 2015.

Further information will be available from Project Anticipation, the website of the UNESCO Chair in Anticipatory Systems.

Conference fee:

  • Early registration (before 1 September 2015): € 150
  • Late registration (from 1 September 2015): € 200

Important dates

  • Abstract submission: 15 June 2015
  • Final program: 30 June 2015
  • Early registration: Before 1 September 2015
  • Deadline registration: 20 October 2015




Report: The Conference on the future of the Alpine commons

Representatives from different communities that have been successful in managing local commons for centuries (such as Regole di Spinale e Manez, Magnifica Communità di Fiemme, Regole d’Ampezzo ) have actively contributed to the conference on the future of the Alpine commons held in Trento, May 30-31, 2014, and discussed with the conference’s speakers  the most important issues for the future of the Alpine commons. The participants’ main effort was to identify the most ‘powerful’ questions, those capable of causing reflections, inspiring to new hypotheses, and suggesting proposals heading towards desirable futures.

Nathan Deutsch (Fondazione Giovanni Angelini) opened the conference providing a common vocabulary for addressing the issue of the commons; Catie Burlando (Special Advisor to IUCN - CEESP), relying on her international experience at CEESP, raised the question of the interaction between social and ecological components. By realizing that breeding is a style of life and not only an activity Martina Tarantola and Beatrice Marelli (University of Turin) proposed to include animal well-being among the commons. Since the relationship between the breeder and the animal may affects the quality of products, it can represent a real added value. Federica Corrado (Polytechnic of Turin) dealt with the new inhabitants of the Italian Alpine mountains in which, while some places are going to be abandoned, others are hosting new citizens, "highlanders by choice". The latter are often innovators, as documented by the Video "Montanari 3.0" prepared by the association Dislivelli (Turin). Rocco Scolozzi (University of Minho, Portugal) discussed the problem of how to assess the economic value of landscape and ecosystem services; Paola Gatto (University of Padua) analyzed the different attitudes toward forest management exhibited by collective and private owners.

The second day was more explicitly dedicated to the future. Roberto Poli (UNESCO Chair on Anticipatory Systems, University of Trento) introduced the issue of Anticipation. Andrea Omizzolo (EURAC) presented a collective future exercise developed in some mountain communities. Caroline Pecher and Felipe Munoz (EURAC) presented WIKIAlps, an online encyclopedia providing operative information ready-to-use for spatial policy design. Finally, Marcella Morandini (Foundation Dolomites) discussed some of the problems that must be addressed in order to positively manage a World Heritage site divided into four different administrative regions inhabited by people speaking four different languages.

The afternoon was organized into World Café sessions and their outcomes will be used for subsequent moments of reflection.

The conference was part of the Project “Regole di Spinale e Manez: tra memoria e futuro. Memorie di comunità: dalla gestione collettiva ultracentenaria agli insegnamenti per il futuro”, co-funded by Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Trento e Rovereto. The wider context of the Forum Alpinum (September 17th-19th, 2014) will provide another occasion for continuing the discussion on the Alps and their commons.




What about the future of Commons in the Alps?

The management of natural resources is a pressing need for human survival. As far as the Alps are concerned, commons have been managed for centuries in sustainable ways.
Traditional communal institutions responsible for management of common resources have been successful because they are based on systems of control and sanctions accepted by the community, and developed from a process of adaptation to both the environmental and the social context. The capacity to balance communal and individual interests can be easily lost, however, especially in times of accelerating economic and environmental change.
Considering "new" values  such as biodiversity and tourism, Alpine communities have to develop a robust understanding of the complex processes of today. Alternatively, they may succumb to the pressure for unlimited economic growth (tourism) or become nothing more than an underpopulated periphery.
There issues will be discussed in Trento (Italy), May 30-31 2014. The conference’ scope is to arrive at a shared common understanding of the present state and the future of the commons in the Alps. The conference will adopt an agile and participatory format, with discussion arranged in small groups, according to the World Café method.

The following three macro themes will be discussed: RESOURCES, ADAPTATION AND RESILIENCE, and ANTICIPATION.

The main talks will be given by:

Alessandro Gretter (University of Innsbruck Leopold- Franzes)

Catie Burlando (Special Advisor to IUCN - CEESP Steering Committee on Youth Engagement and Intergenerational Partnership)

Federica Corrado (Polytechnic of Turin and CIPRA)

Marcela Olmedo (University of Kent)

Roberto Poli (University of Trento and UNESCO Chair in Anticipatory Systems)

Patronages: IUCN - Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy, Swiss- Austrian Alliance CH -AT, CIPRA, Fondazione Giovanni Angelini, Dislivelli, Academy of the Mountains of Trentino.
The conference is sponsored by: Regole Spinal e Manez, Fondazione Museo Storico del Trentino, Fondazione Dolomiti UNESCO.

Details of the program are at the site memoriadelleregole

The initiative is part of the Project " Progetto "Regole di Spinale e Manez: tra memoria e futuro. Memorie di comunità: dalla gestione collettiva ultracentenaria agli insegnamenti per il futuro", co- funded by the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Trento and Bolzano.


Colloquium explores the role of anticipation as an alternative way to engage with the future and complex problems

(compiled by Rika Preiser, April 9, 2014)

Current economic and political crises are characterized by unsolvable, complex problems. In the effort to try and come up with workable solutions to these crises, the notion of anticipation is increasingly at the heart of urgent contemporary debates.  At the recent Anticipation: Complexity And The Future colloquium jointly organised by the Centre for Studies in Complexity (CSC) and the Association of Professional Futurists (APF), in Stellenbosch, South Africa, presenters explored how the notion of anticipation is coming to the foreground as an emerging field of study. From the variety of presenters at the colloquium, it became clear that an in-depth understanding of how the future can be anticipated to be part of the present, is influencing a diversity of disciplines as societies become less confident that traditional methods will provide effective models by which to understand and engage with complexity.  

In his presentation on the notion of anticipation, the opening speaker, Prof Roberto Poli from Trento University, and UNESCO Chair in Anticipatory Systems (http://www.projectanticipation.org/), emphasised that by acknowledging how the future plays an active way in how we think and act in the present, the traditional understanding, that past events are the primary drivers that influence how we understand the present, is undermined. He argued convincingly, that both the past and the future are forces that simultaneously and actively influence the present. By interpreting the present as the time where the forces of the past and future meet, our understanding of the present changes from a “thin” (the present as a boundary without any extension between past and future) to a “thick present” (the present as the collection of contemporaneous events). Moreover, by giving the future scientific legitimacy, a novel vision of science arises where a fully scientific (i.e., not allusive, metaphorical or mystical) treatment of ‘final’ causation (= anticipation) is included and not rejected as is the case in the traditional scientific paradigm.  

Following Poli, Prof Jan-Hendrik Hofmeyr, biochemist and Director of the Centre for Studies in Complexity (www.sun.ac.za/complexity) at Stellenbosch University, explained how an in-depth understanding of the work of theoretical biologist, Robert Rosen (1934–1998), holds important  insights for how anticipatory systems can be modelled. Hofmeyr elucidated how Rosen’s insight that “science is the art of establishing modelling relations between the natural world and the world of our formalisms” challenges traditional modelling strategies that mainly form simulations of  reality, but do not explain causal relations. According to Rosen, the modelling relation (or the main task of ‘theoretical science’) consisted of  establishing congruences between ‘causal relations in the external world, and implicative relations between propositions describing that world’. Essentially the mapping relation points to the process we carry out when we ‘do science’ and exposes this process as one in which there can be no biggest model of the world, but only snap-shots thereof.


In her short presentation on how the study of complexity and anticipation can be linked to the modelling relation, Dr Rika Preiser, researcher at the Centre for Studies in Complexity, argued that the acknowledgement of complexity lays bare the dilemma that there remains a gap between our models and the reality they intend to describe. An irreducible difference exists between the nature of complex reality and our descriptions thereof. By acknowledging that all knowledge of complex, anticipatory systems will always prove to be partial knowledge, one is confronted with the unavoidability of the limitations of human understanding. Preiser argued that this recognition opens up a space where the conceptual implications of complexity surpasses epistemological concerns and exposes the normativity that lies in all our modelling strategies. This ethical imperative challenges scholars to engage  with the question of re-thinking what it means to be human and calls upon us to proceed differently in this world.

 Ms Tanja Hichert, an experienced scenario planning practitioner and futurist and board member of the  Association of Professional Futurists (http://www.profuturists.org), provided a practitioners perspective to how anticipation can be used to proceed differently in the process of ‘working’ with the future when corporate businesses or governments have to come to terms with complexity, risk and uncertainty. She explained how scenario planning and horizon scanning offer the best futures studies tools for making sense of how one could anticipate the future and make better decisions. Because we cannot have a biggest or best model of the future, it means that futurists cannot predict the future. Instead, their task is to rather help find ways to understand the critical driving forces and uncertainties in the (business) environment and to use this almost ‘bottom-up’ information to make strategic decisions. Her well researched and  finely picked examples of ‘weak signals’ that could act as driving forces in the African continent and beyond stimulated a vibrant discussion from the participants.

Prof Mark Swilling from the School of Public Leadership at Stellenbosch University (www.sopmp.sun.ac.za) and Academic Director of the Sustainability Institute (www.sustainabilityinstitute.net), engaged with the argument of  whether current scholars who draw on the apparent success of  Kontratieff long-wave theory to make sense of the economic crisis, can be implemented as useful strategy for anticipating sustainable futures. Swilling pointed out that although there has been some convincing evidence for the usefulness of the long-wave theory, the obvious danger in implementing it blindly over all scales and time frames, is that they are prone to produce a kind of determinism that links technological innovations to socio- political development. By recognizing the radical contingency of open and embedded complex systems (such as the  economic system and governance systems) one sees that long-wave theory is limited by the fact that it creates by implication, stories of the future based on perceived patterns from the past. Swilling demonstrated very articulately that it is unlikely that long-wave theory can be useful    2  when mindful of its limitations, and argued that what we can learn, is that; patterns of the future will break fundamentally from past patterns and as long as patterns of the future are imprisoned by the past, life as we know it will end. Hence, the usefulness of long-wave theory lies in the fact that it can suggest (a) what needs to change, (b) what may already be changing and (c) who may be giving meaning now to emerging futures.  He concluded that the accelerated implementation of renewable energy resources by financial institutions has the potential to be a realistic response to the deepening ecological crises that the planet is facing.    

Dr Reinette (Oonsie) Biggs, from the Stockholm Resilience Centre (www.stockholmresilience.org)  and Research Associate at the Centre for Studies in Complexity (Stellenbosch University), concluded the colloquium with a presentation on how scenario planning can be used as a tool for exploring sustainability transitions. Her presentation was framed by the fact that we are now living in the Anthropocene – a new geological era where human activity is a dominant force in shaping ecosystems at global scales. From this perspective, the challenge to ensure sustainable transitions relies on forging dynamic partnerships between science, business, government and citizens in order to expand their reach and influence by imagining a future world that is radically different from  the present. Through anticipatory scenario planning strategies, a more positive vision of what the Anthropocene could look like, can be developed. Biggs argued that possible change should be scoped out so as to be better prepared to respond to change and surprise and to help influence and drive change along more desirable trajectories, as well as avoid undesirable trajectories. She also argued that the new Sustainable Development Goals as supported by the Future Earth research platform (www.futureearth.info) provides appropriate and effective goals to strive toward a world where human actions have transformed to the extent so as to achieve sustainable stewardship of social-ecological systems. 

During the last session of the colloquium, the floor was opened to allow a general discussion and interactive participation from the audience with the presenters. The session was very vibrant and members of the audience asked critical and challenging questions. From the level of participation and interaction, it became clear to the organisers, that there is a serious and huge interest in the topics of anticipation and complexity and how these concepts can be translated into practical strategies to engage with the future from a novel perspective.

This piece relates to the Anticipation: Complexity and the Future Colloquium on March 18 th Institute for Advanced Studies (STIAS), Stellenbosch, South Africa. Podcasts and photos from the meeting can be found on the following link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RWQH7Tsy12E&feature=em-share_video_user



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