Reflections on the First International Conference on Anticipation, Trento, 2015

Keri Facer, 18 November 2015

What happens when you try to invent a new discipline? Or, perhaps more accurately, what happens when you try to reflect back to myriad existing disciplines that they have a shared interest and that it might be worth them talking with each other? This was, in effect, the question that we were exploring with the First International Conference on Anticipation held from the 5th-7th November, 2015, in Trento, Italy. In designing the conference, Roberto Poli, Conference Chair, and those of us he invited to join his committee, aimed to make visible the highly diverse ways in which different disciplines are working on a similar issue, namely – how do we understand the way that ‘the future’ works on and in the present.

The event brought together over 300 participants from disciplines as diverse as biology, sociology, design, education, philosophy, anthropology and computer science. The keynotes over the three days reflected the different ways in which the relationship between ideas of the future and action in the present are conceptualised in these different disciplines – from the Utopian traditions emerging from sociology and literary studies, to the systems analysis emerging from cognitive science, engineering and life sciences, to the focus on innovation and novelty emerging from management, futures studies and computer studies (see also GESF’s postings on the keynotes each day – here, here and here).

These keynotes began to surface the critical tensions in the field – to what extent is ‘anticipation’ simply a characteristic of life (as some in the systems/biological sciences field might have it) or is it necessarily a conscious, intentional process which is culturally and historically shaped (as the more critical social science contributions would contend). To what extent is the technical definition of anticipation presented by Poli – ‘a model of the future that is used to stimulate action in the present’ – helpful as a means of analysing both individual and collective behaviours? To what extent is the always present anxiety about uncertainty that drives many of these discussions about anticipation simply a product of the crisis of modernist, masculinist, western thinking; in other words, is it a product in itself of a failed and naïve planning orientation to the future

The conference was an energising, sometimes chaotic mix of different perspectives on anticipation – from discussions of invisible tigers to critiques of international derivatives markets, to the story of a mythical narwhal sending messages from the future north. We did not quite succeed in creating the new language and concepts that allow for translation between different fields, but we have succeeded in at least making all who participated aware of the limits and the boundaries of their own field and that there are others out there working on related questions that may be of interest.

Understanding how we use the future to effect action in the present, understanding how to live with the creative possibilities of not knowing the future, understanding how to contest the narratives and systems that would seek to colonise and constrain our futures – all these are critical challenges today. And there are clearly hundreds of people beginning to come together across different fields and interests to explore how to address these questions collectively. This is a good start, and sufficient to prepare the ground for the next conference which we hope to host in Bristol in 2017.

For more information about individual papers and a collection of related discussions on social media. please visit Storify

Editor’s Note: Keri Facer is Professor of Educational and Social Futures in the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol. Keri was on the organising committee of the Anticipation Conference hosted by Roberto Poli in Trento. She is a leading scholar on rethinking the relationship between formal educational institutions and wider society and is particularly concerned with the sorts of knowledge that may be needed to address contemporary environmental, economic, social and technological changes.